Tensions, tariff threats follow president to G7
BIARRITZ, France – Fears of a global recession and a mélange of other troubling issues awaited President Donald Trump and other leaders of the world’s most industrialized economies as they arrived on Saturday at a seaside resort village in southwest France for their annual G-7 summit.
Economists are warning that the world’s biggest economies, including the U.S., Britain and Germany, are in danger of falling into recession. Tensions are high in the Middle East amid Iran’s seizure of foreign ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz. Disputes over trade and climate change continue to test the G-7 leaders’ desire for unity.
And then there’s Trump, who has stoked divisions within the group.
Just last month, Trump touched off a transcontinental contretemps with French President Emmanuel Macron over France’s new digital services tax that has angered American tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Trump threatened to retaliate by – mon dieu! – slapping tariffs on imported French wines. He repeated the threat Friday night before departing the White House for France.
“G-7 member countries and attendees are understandably heading into this weekend’s summit with some trepidation,” said Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University.
In these kinds of settings, Wright said, many dynamics and personalities come into play, with each leader concerned about challenges at home in addition to the broader issues that require everyone’s attention and cooperation.
Trump arrived Saturday afternoon for the three-day summit in the scenic Basque countryside at the foot of the Pyrenees, near France’s border with Spain. He and first lady Melania Trump, wearing a canary yellow dress, waved as they exited Air Force One.
About an hour later, Trump and Macron sat down for a private luncheon outside the Hotel du Palais before the formal start of the summit. On a patio beneath a clear-blue sky, the two leaders sat across from each other at a table covered with a white tablecloth. Macron said that while they have their differences, “We will be allies, friends.”
Trump said he and his French counterpart “actually have a lot in common” and have been friends for “a long time.”
“Once in a while, we go at it just a little bit, not very much,” he said.
This is Trump’s third G-7 summit. Leaders of the six other member nations – Canada, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Japan – thought they had finally figured out how to deal with the unpredictable American president during last year’s gathering in Charlevoix, Canada, said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But Trump lived up to his reputation for irascibility. He refused to sign a joint communique with the other leaders, bolted from the summit early and then launched a Twitter attack against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over trade.
A photo that quickly went viral seemed to capture the tension. The image shows Macron and other G-7 leaders standing solemnly around a table, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaning over, her hands firmly on the table as she appears to glare at Trump, who is seated with his arms folded and his lips pulled tightly together.
To avoid the possibility of another embarrassing display of division, the group will not even attempt to sign a communique this year – the first time in its 44-year history that it has ended its summit without a joint agreement.
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Though Trump has developed a cordial relationship with Japan’s Shinzo Abe, analysts say his “America first” approach to foreign policy has left him – and the U.S. – so isolated that the G-7 essentially has become the G-6-plus-1: The rest of the group on one side, Trump on the other.
Given those dynamics, members are unlikely to accomplish anything of substance during this year’s gathering, said Garret Martin, an expert on transatlantic relations at American University’s School of International Service.
“One should have low expectations for the summit because the other leaders of the G-7 will be naturally wary of Donald Trump,” Martin said. “And one can expect that Donald Trump will not be in any great mood to compromise either, with an eye to next year’s presidential elections.”
Another flamboyant figure – the new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, sometimes called Britain’s Trump – will be making his debut on the world stage, injecting the possibility of more drama and unpredictability into the sessions.
Theatrics aside, the summit will have a crowded agenda, with Macron pushing for measures to reduce inequality worldwide.
But tensions over other issues will be an obstacle to any major agreements, Martin said.
Europe, Japan and Canada remain worried by the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. The Trump administration’s threat to place tariffs on auto imports is a grave concern for Germany. Trump’s decision to pull out of an international accord on climate change and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the U.S. and other world powers continues to raise alarms for other leaders.
There’s also the question of whether Russia should be invited back into the G-7. The group’s members kicked Russia out of the elite club — which was then called the G-8 — in 2014 after it invaded and then annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula.
Trump said earlier this week that Russia should be readmitted to the group. Some news reports suggested Macron agreed, but the French president said Wednesday that allowing Russia back into the group would be a “strategic error” and that it should not be readmitted until the Crimean crisis is resolved.
Trump head to G7: Calls for Russia to be invited back to elite G7 club of industrialized countries
G-7 leaders will do their utmost to avoid public disputes, Martin said, “but that will mean resorting to the lowest common denominator as opposed to striving for major agreements.”
For the group’s other members, the summit also will present an opportunity to sort out how to move forward on issues such as climate change and trade in a world where they can no longer count on the U.S. assuming its traditional leadership role.
Merkel, who has announced she won’t run again when her term ends in 2021, warned in a speech last year that Europe can no longer count on the U.S. to serve as its protector and urged the continent “take destiny into its own hands.”
With Merkel’s term as chancellor winding down, France will try to fill the leadership gap, Alterman said.
But, “the whole idea of world order is something these other countries think a lot about and are preoccupied with,” he said. “And they are worried about to sustain it without American leadership for world order.”
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