President Trump on Friday heads to a country that doesn’t like him, for meetings he doesn’t want to have, with allied leaders who don’t support his policies. It makes him one unhappy summiteer even before he arrives at the Canadian mountain resort of Charlevoix for the annual gathering of the heads of the major industrialized democracies that make up the G7. Before he leaves on Saturday for Singapore and the summit he does want to attend, White House aides are bracing for a painful display of the raw divisions among the allies.
The president has made little effort to hide his disdain for the G7 meetings, fearing, according to aides, that he will be lectured by the other leaders who are horrified at his protectionist policies and decision to slap tariffs on their products. The Washington Post reported that he even considered snubbing the summit by sending Vice President Mike Pence in his place, allowing him to spend his time focusing instead on next week’s Singapore talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Even before leaving, Trump has had what were described as uncomfortable and “very disagreeable” phone conversations with British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In Canada, Trudeau promised “some very, very frank conversations” when Trump arrives. German Chancellor Angela Merkel predicted “difficult discussions.” The White House acknowledges the unhappiness over Trump’s tariffs but is striking a more hopeful tone. “I regard this as much like a family quarrel,” said Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser.
The White House hopes the current divisions can be healed just as past allied squabbles have been. And it is undeniable that there have been disagreements at many of these summits since they began in 1975. The European leaders complained about America inflation and budget deficits in the 1970s, about American missile deployments in the 1980s, and about the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s. “Look,” Kudlow told reporters, “there’s always tension about something.”
This, though, feels different. Each dispute in the past was over “an issue,” said Heather Conley, who was deputy secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs in President George W. Bush’s first term and is now director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It was not the fundamental underpinnings of the international system that the U.S. created in the post-World War II environment. That is now what feels at stake. And that’s what is different.”
Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said this is what has the allied leaders so concerned. “While there have been differences in the past over specific economic policies and specific issues, there’s never really been a fundamental question about commitment to the postwar international order.” He added, “We do seem to be at a little bit of a Rubicon moment in terms of whether or not the United States is going to fundamentally turn its back on the economic order.”
The White House response is not reassuring. “Trump is trying to fix this broken system,” Kudlow said. More bluntly, he added, “International organizations are not going to determine American policy. I think the president has made that very clear.”
Since it was the United States that played the key role in creating all the postwar international organizations, it is unclear to the other leaders how to react to a president who shuns multilateralism. That uncertainty also will be on display in Charlevoix as the leaders reassess how they have dealt with Trump since he took office.
“For the first 500 days of the Trump administration, these countries generally bent over backwards not to criticize President Trump,” Wright said. “They tried to have close relations with him. They all tried to hug him close, as we used to say about Blair and Bush.” Now, he added, “there is a feeling over the last few months that that approach has not borne fruit and that they haven’t really gotten anything for that friendly approach.”
That realization is most painful for Macron and Trudeau, the two leaders who were the most successful at building personal rapport with the mercurial U.S. president. For all the backslapping, neither was able to keep Trump from pulling out of the Paris climate accord, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, breaking the Iran nuclear accord, or implementing tariffs. Particularly since Trump is deeply unpopular in their countries, they have paid a price for not standing up to the president. They have learned, said Stephanie Segal, former codirector of the East Asia office at the Treasury Department, that “a policy of appeasement is not one that’s proving to be particularly effective.”
“Leaders have tried; leaders have failed,” Conley said. “And now they’re going to try something else. And the ‘try something else’ may be much more confrontational.”
This new, potentially more confrontational approach is also a result of frustration in the wake of futile efforts to educate Trump on basic facts about trade deficits and NATO funding and alliance operations.
“It’s hard to have a rational, fact-based conversation with someone who persists in not understanding economic fundamentals and basic facts,” said William Reinsch, the former longtime president of the National Foreign Trade Council in Washington, now at CSIS. “They’ve been somewhere between bemused and frustrated for a long time. I think now you’re seeing frustration win out and you’re probably going to see more pushback going forward.”