As the G7 meets in Canada, it’s more clear than ever that the club’s ability to lead is diminished. Tristen Naylor looks at how the group is threatened and what could save it.
In the days after last year’s G7 summit in Italy, which saw the introduction of US President Donald Trump to the group, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her thoughts on the prospects for international cooperation clear: “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over”. As the G7 meets for this year’s summit in Canada, Merkel’s assessment is all the more incisive. The gulf between the US and its closest allies, particularly those in Europe, is wider than ever and America’s revisionist, divergent approach is threatening the club’s consensus-based governance. On trade, the environment, and global security, the US has prevented the G7 from taking strong positions. Whether Europe is willing to steer the group will determine its future.
The Trump Administration has imposed steel and aluminium tariffs on the US’s fellow G7 members, including the European states and Canada, which were exempted for a time . Not only is this a major point of contestation, but it runs counter to a founding, central principle of the club to resist and fight trade protectionism in all its forms. Among the most contentious points of negotiation at last year’s G7 summit was over whether the group would annually reaffirm its commitment to trade liberalism. Faced with Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, the best the club could muster was watered-down language that left the door open to the trade barriers the US is now erecting.
While Brexit puts a strain on the UK’s relationship with its European partners, they nonetheless remain broadly aligned and committed to free trade, as they have been since the G7’s founding in 1975. But the US’ leverage over the British government as it seeks a post-Brexit preferential trade agreement with the US could complicate these commitments. While unlikely to be enough to break the UK away from its European partners and its long-standing policy, it may be enough to get May onside in keeping watered-down language on trade in this year’s G7 communiqué. The US could play the same card with the Canadians, given that they are in the midst of being forced to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement by Trump’s threat to withdraw.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement soon after the 2017 Taormina G7 summit likewise hobbles the group. The second dimension of unprecedented contention last year saw the club fail to make  a unanimous declaration on climate change. While the six affirmed their commitment to the accord, America went its own way. Protection of the climate has been set as a G7 priority by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as this year’s summit host, and will remain so as French President Emmanuel Macron takes over the presidency of the group in 2019. So long as America remains outside the Paris accord, though, the group will be unable to encourage substantive progress on climate change. While this could mean greater emphasis on environmental protection and renewable energy, on these fronts, too, the Trump Administration is actively moving away from the rest of the club (and, indeed, the world). For the duration of Trump’s time in office, the best the G7 is likely to achieve is vague commitments on relatively small initiatives.
On security, Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear agreement likewise puts the US at odds with the European members of the G7, all of whom are signatories to the plan. Furthermore, the mishandling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ICBM programmes compounds the division with the rest of the group, particularly Japan, which is most immediately threatened by advances in Kim Jong-un’s weapons programmes. While the G7 remains broadly aligned in responding to terrorism, this divergence eliminates the G7’s ability to speak with an authoritative and unanimous voice on the geostrategic issues that most threaten international peace and security.
All together, this leaves the G7 relatively impotent with respect to the most pressing international issues—on which the club was previously effective. This is particularly problematic given that the G7, originally envisaged as the top table of global economic governance, has been replaced by the G20 in the wake of the global financial crisis. The G7 thus finds itself in a moment of crisis: without its economic remit and without the ability to steer policy on the international community’s most pressing issues, the value of the club is brought sharply into question. If Trumpism is a temporary aberration, the club could limp along until a new American administration takes office. If, however, America’s lurch to populist isolationism is the new normal, the rest of the club will need to find a new way to protect and advance its liberal, multilateral agenda. While the days of the G7 as an effective governance group might be numbered, its European members, as the core of the group, are provided with an opportunity to assume leadership of the international order.
Dr Tristen Naylor is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Photo by European Council President (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 )