With France taking its turn this year as head of the Group of Seven most-advanced industrialized countries, President Emmanuel Macron is identifying climate change and cooperative efforts to soften the economic downsides of globalization as his priorities.
But actually his most urgent task might be to make sure that the elite global club known as the G7 doesn’t turn into the G6.
In other words, how does a group of the world’s most powerful and influential Western nations keep the most powerful and influential among them – President Trump’s United States – as part of the fold, even as it pursues progress on issues that have already raised the hackles of the anti-multilateralist president?
For France the answer seems to be, at least in part, to meet Mr. Trump halfway. That means that between now and late August, when Mr. Macron hosts the G7 leaders in the southwestern French seaside city of Biarritz, the French will endeavor to mollify Trump’s hostilities toward multilateral organizations and gatherings by taking up a few of the issues of importance to him, possibly both Iran and trade.
This they’ll do even as they pursue those – like climate change – that matter most to Macron.
French officials acknowledge that one of their challenges will be keeping the US and, above all, the “America First” president as working partners in the G7.
But more broadly, Macron’s job is to keep the bloc of Western free-market democracies – and the US-led multilateralism that has motivated the group since its founding in the early 1970s – a relevant and influential player in global affairs at a moment of unprecedented nationalist and unilateralist headwinds.
“The bigger purpose of the G7 has always been to build on this notion of the West as a coherent coalition under US leadership that has broadly similar values motivating its actions,” says Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington. “Macron has said his goal is to revitalize multilateralism, but his dilemma is that he doesn’t have a partner in the United States, and certainly the other Western powers lack the heft to take on the American role.”
In addition to the US and France, the G7 comprises Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Japan.
For others, it’s not just that Macron faces a hostile US – but that he’s battling an international tide that includes but is far from limited to Trump’s America.
“What a consequential year for the French to take the presidency of the G7. It’s really going to be the year of the internationalists versus the nativists,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“We’re going to see which of these two forces – the internationalists, which Macron believes he represents, and the nationalists and sovereigntists embodied by President Trump – will carry the day,” she adds, “but were heading into a difficult time when the nationalists may continue to be ascendant.”
WORKING WITH TRUMP’S TEAM
Still, to keep the US from sitting outside the tent altogether, the French intend to work with Trump and in particular with his national security and international economics teams on issues of importance to them – for example, Iran and what the White House calls its “malign activities.” Another area of potential common ground, Mr. Patrick has heard from French officials, is an updating of World Trade Organization rules, something Trump has said is necessary.
Will it work? The French need only ask Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the G7’s president last year, to know that in any case it’s unlikely to be easy.
Last June Trump left the G7 summit in Quebec in a huff after refusing to sign the group’s final communique – over the document’s warnings of spreading protectionist trade policies and what Director of the White House National Trade Council Peter Navarro described as “socialist” leanings.
Trump then tweeted about his anger at the summit’s host, Mr. Trudeau, whom he blasted as “dishonest and very weak” – not the normal manner in which the elite club’s members treat each other. His national security adviser, John Bolton, piled it on, dismissing the summit on Twitter as “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank.”
But at a deeper level, the French, like other US allies, have firsthand knowledge of Trump’s disdain for multilateral organizations and alliances like NATO, and his suspicions over America’s leadership role in them. As he has said (and tweeted) repeatedly in his two years in office, Trump views the US-led multilateral system as largely an excuse for others to prosper in security at America’s expense.
LACK OF CONSULTATION ON SYRIA
Most recently the French – who have an undisclosed number of troops in Syria as part of the US-led coalition to defeat Islamic State (ISIS) there – have learned that Trump’s dismissive approach to allies can extend to being left out in the cold on key US decisions affecting America’s partners.
Macron was dumbstruck when Trump announced in a December tweet that the US would quickly pull its troops out of Syria. Senior French officials including the defense minister quickly contradicted Trump’s assertion that ISIS was “defeated,” allowing US troops to come home.
Indeed ISIS itself appeared to send a signal Wednesday that it is not defeated when it claimed a large blast in the northern Syrian city of Manbij that killed four Americans – two US soldiers, a civilian Pentagon employee, and a private contractor – and wounded several others. ISIS said the attack was carried out by a fighter wearing a suicide vest.
But what seemed to floor the French more than the decision to withdraw troops was the total lack of consultation before the decision was announced. A number of senior French officials have echoed Macron’s response to Trump’s decision: that France understands that the US president wants to keep his promise to withdraw US troops from Syria, but that at the same time ISIS has not been defeated – and the coalition countries don’t want to be taken by surprise.
Clearly the French, as well as their more internationalist G7 partners, want to avoid a repeat of last year’s divisive summit. Patrick of CFR says one idea Macron may try to advance is having certain countries that want to advance on key issues – what the French call “vanguard countries” – move forward together on, say, climate change or global health initiatives.
But Patrick says that whether or not Trump would go along with such an idea “is anybody’s guess.”
Indeed for Ms. Conley of CSIS, a key question this year will be whether Trump simply sits out international initiatives – as he did by pulling the US out of the Paris climate accord – or goes further and moves to take down the international order the US has led since World War II.
“There’s a big difference between having the US set itself apart from the system, and taking the steps aimed at tearing it down,” she says. Recalling Trump’s threats to pull the US out of the WTO, she adds, “We could get some clarity this year on which of those two it’s going to be.”
Of course another obstacle in Macron’s path to his “revitalization” of multilateralism is the domestic environment he faces. The unpredictable “gilet jaune” (yellow vest) movement roiling France in recent weeks has many of the same tensions – nativist versus internationalist, rural versus urban, working class versus elites – seizing other Western countries. It will continue to present a home-grown challenge to Macron’s internationalist ambitions.
Conley says the French have to be concerned that the yellow vest movement could carry on into August, putting on full display the nativist-internationalist divide affecting the G7 host country. But she says it may be Trump’s unpredictability and his gut ambition of disrupting the traditional American-led international system that may do the most to upend Macron’s multilateralist plans.
“What we’ve learned over recent months, and most recently with the [US government] shutdown and then the Syria decision, is that there is no one but the president who dictates what will happen,” Conley says. “We saw it at the G7, then at last year’s NATO summit, that you can’t anticipate or shape this president’s actions in any meaningful way.”
Macron is following the “normal” approach that international leaders have traditionally taken when leading a group like the G7, announcing priorities and then working with partners over ensuing months toward concrete decisions – or what the internationalist community calls “deliverables.”
But Conley says things now are different. “What we’re seeing is that there are no longer any guarantees of all that hard work leading to any meaningful outcome,” she says, “and I think the French will have a full appreciation of that in August.”
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