Donald Trump began this past weekend’s G-7 summit by suggesting that Russia be readmitted to the group of leading industrialized, democratic countries, which it was suspended from in 2014. The idea was quickly shot down by other G-7 leaders. By the end of the weekend, it became clear that the better question is whether the United States still belongs in the group.
Despite describing his relationship with the allied governments in the group as “a 10,” Trump demonstrated his contempt for the G-7 throughout the weekend. He and his entourage showed up late and left early. Their belated arrival to a session on women’s empowerment distracted attendees in the room from the woman who was speaking. (At least he didn’t send his daughter Ivanka in his place, as he did to a similar meeting at the G-20 last year.) According to the New York Times, at one meeting on Friday, he “went around the room, citing ways each of the other nations represented there had mistreated the United States in some fashion or another.” And all that was simply build-up for his parting shot on Saturday, when Trump tweeted from the plane that, having been angered by some mildly spicy statements from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he had instructed U.S. representatives not to sign on to the summit’s joint communiqué, as he had previously agreed to do. One German newspaper has described Trump’s tweet as the “moment the West fell apart.”
A summit that was intended to repair ties between the United States and its allies that had been frayed by months of conflict over trade, the environment, the Iran deal, and other issues, became instead yet another low point in those relations. As we saw happen with last year’s “G-19” statement on climate change, with the new incarnation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and with what remains of the Iran nuclear deal, the “G-6” countries that Trump left behind in Canada will be forced to simply get on with the business of global governance, minus the world’s wealthiest and most powerful country. A photo of Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Theresa May and Japan’s Shinzo Abe looking exasperated across the table from Trump, sitting petulantly with his arms crossed flanked by national security adviser John Bolton, is an already iconic visual representation of this dynamic.
Trump’s motives for sticking up for Russia may be murky, but he’s not wrong that the G-7 in its current incarnation sometimes appears anachronistic. The grouping, an informal institution rather than a chartered multilateral organization like NATO or the United Nations, was founded in the mid-1970s to coordinate responses to economic problems like the oil shock and inflation, but its remit eventually grew to encompass political and security issues. Today, a club that includes Italy and Canada but not China, India, or Brazil can hardly be said to represent the world’s leading economies.
But to the extent it still has a purpose, it’s as a forum for the leading “western” countries (in the political rather than geographic or cultural sense—Japan is a member), meaning they share a common commitment to democracy, free markets, and what’s become known as the “rules-based international order.” Membership was extended to Russia in 1998, creating the G-8, in hopes that it would encourage Russia’s integration into the west (and assuage Russian concerns about the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe). Vladimir Putin’s increasing authoritarianism made it clear those hopes were misplaced, and Russia was finally suspended after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. Now, Putin’s public appeal is largely based on his willingness to stand up to what he portrays as western pressure and bullying.
You can hear echoes of Putin’s posturing in Trump’s repeated insistence that U.S. trading partners have been ripping us off for years and that we see no tangible benefits from security alliances. While Trump often warns of the threats to “the West” and “our civilization” from immigration and terrorism, it’s been clear for a while now that he doesn’t really see himself as a “western” leader in the G-7 sense. Trump shows more affinity with—and has much nicer things to say about—leaders like Xi Jinping and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi than Trudeau or Merkel. (Then, of course, there’s Putin, whom Trump seems incapable of criticizing. Most recently, on Saturday, Trump essentially put sole blame for the annexation of Crimea on Barack Obama rather than the leader who actually ordered it.) Trump sees the Philippines’s extrajudicial killings as a model for drug enforcement and Saudi Arabia, notorious for its human rights abuses as well as abetting extremism, for fighting terrorism. At a time of growing consensus among leading industrialized countries about the urgency of fighting climate change, he’s working to pull the United States out of that fight entirely—he skipped meetings at the summit devoted to the topic on Saturday. His policies on trade are near-mercantilist and bafflingly inconsistent: He gives China credit for its trade policies, even those that have hurt the U.S. economy, but Canada apparently gets no such leeway. On immigration, his views are in line with Europe’s populist far-right, a stance made explicit by his ambassador to Germany last week. As for the “rules-based international order,” the American delegation reportedly objected to even including the phrase in the communiqué that Trump signed on to, then unsigned.
If the G-7 is going to continue to exist as a forum based not on GDP numbers, geographical location, or military might, but on commitment to certain core principles, it’s not clear the United States—under this president at least—belongs in it at all.
Correction, June 12, 2018: Due to a photo provider error, the caption originally misstated where the summit took place. It was in La Malbaie, Quebec, not Quebec City.