Significant splits in G7 could surface at Canada summit

Significant splits in G7 could surface at Canada summit

The G7 presidents and prime ministers meet in Canada on Friday and Saturday for what is likely to be one of the group’s most challenging summits in many years. On a range of issues, from trade to climate change and Iran, the United States appears to be diverging from its key Western partners at a time of significant geopolitical and international economic turbulence, giving rise to talk of a “G6 plus one.”

While the fissures within the G7 did not begin with US President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, they have been exacerbated by it. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there have been a series of intra-Western disagreements over issues ranging from the Middle East, including the Iraq War of 2003 that was opposed by France and Germany, through to the rise of China, with some European members and the US having disagreements over the best way to engage the rising superpower. 

Yet, despite occasional discord, the key Western nations generally continued to agree on a broad range of issues, such as international trade; backing for a Middle Eastern peace process between Israel and the Palestinians along Oslo principles; and strong support for the international rules-based system and the supranational organizations that make this work. Yet today, more of these key principles are being disrupted if not outright undermined by the US approach.

Far from serving as the latest annual affirmation that the biggest Western powers are largely aligned, this year’s G7 could therefore see significant splits. So much so that the Canadian hosts are reportedly considering whether the traditional end-of-summit communique will even be issued.

Take the example of international trade, which will see the US isolated in Canada following the imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports against all its G7 partners. At last weekend’s G7 finance minister meeting, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was warned of the possibility of a pending trade war and received the “unanimous concern and disappointment” of Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany and Italy. The tensions over trade are especially pressing for G7 hosts Canada, given that Trump again warned last Friday that he is considering scrapping the North American Free Trade Agreement.

In this contentious context, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will push an agenda that includes trade and the macroeconomy, tackling income and gender inequality, female empowerment, climate change, and peace and security. With the tensions over trade and climate change, much of this could be stymied, as proved the case last year at the Italy-hosted event.

It is therefore reported that significant emphasis will be put on finding greater G7 consensus on a range of security and geopolitical issues. Potential examples here could include the June 12 summit between Trump and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, plus the continuing clampdown against Daesh in Syria and Iraq.

While the fissures within the G7 did not begin with US President’s election in 2016, they have been exacerbated by it

Andrew Hammond

It is also possible, despite potential US reservations, that there will be a statement on Russia following the expulsions earlier this year from the G7 and other allied countries of many of Moscow’s diplomats. There is little sign that Russia, which joined the then-G8 summits from 1997 to 2014, will be invited back to the club soon. Moscow has been told it can only rejoin if “it changes course and an environment is once again created in which it is possible for the G8 to hold reasonable discussions.”

There is also a strong possibility of a further G7 statement on its concerns over the process leading to the reelection of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Western leaders remain worried about the destabilizing political effects of the Caracas crisis for the wider region, including the bordering states of Brazil and Colombia, and the fact that Venezuela is the third largest oil exporter to the US and has the world’s largest proven oil reserves. 

Should the G7 emphasize such issues, it would underline, yet again, the group’s often under-appreciated importance as an international security lynchpin — despite the fact that it was originally conceived in the 1970s to monitor developments in the world economy and assess macroeconomic policies. Last year’s Italy summit, for instance, was dominated by the aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attack and development of a new G7 terrorism action plan, plus the then-brewing nuclear tensions on the Korean Peninsula. In Italy, the Trump team also pushed other G7 members for NATO to become a full member of the global coalition against Daesh.

The G7’s involvement in this multitude of geopolitical dialogues is not without controversy, given its original macroeconomic mandate. For instance, China strongly objected to discussion of maritime security in Asia at the 2016 Japan-hosted summit.

It is sometimes asserted, especially by developing countries, that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the UN to engage in these international security issues, or it is a historical artefact given the rise of new powers, including China and India. However, it is not the case that the international security role of the G7 is new.

An early example of the lynchpin function the body has played was in the 1970s and 1980s, when it helped coordinate Western strategy toward the then-Soviet Union. Moreover, following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the then-G8 assumed a key role in the US-led “War on Terror.”

Taken overall, this year’s G7 could see significant splits, especially on trade. While some of these fissures pre-date the Trump presidency, his agenda has grown these gaps into what could become unprecedented strains in the Western alliance.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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