Disruptor at G7 table

HillTimes Oped. May 24th 2017

Trudeau and the Disruptor at the G7 Table

If Canada’s PM finds the right G7 allies, he could emerge in a room of wary leaders as the timely conciliator between Trump and the others.

John Sinclair

The G7 struggles to retain influence given the ascendency of the G20. Its traditional plus has been its solidarity and collegiality. However, in Taormina, Italy this weekend, there will be a disruptor at the G7 table. This summit has the potential for high drama and controversy, even if the final outcome disappoints.

The last year or two has seen the G7 focused on an agenda of rebuilding dynamism and sustainability across the global economy, whether in Europe or the Global South. However, today’s core G7 concern, not formally on the agenda but filling the corridors, will be uncertainties in global power politics. New actors mean many opportunities for conflict and flux. Italy as the weak host faces an almost impossible task in herding the cats.

United States President Donald Trump, superstar and disruptor, will be in unknown territory, somewhat alone with his bag of old tweets. Much is uncertain, even if he has dropped any idea of Russian President Vladimir Putin rejoining the G7. He will be wary, unsure who around the table is a true ally. None are natural soulmates, even if he seems to have found new Arab friends. The other G7 participants will be just as wary, worrying which tweet will be his opening card, and which of them will draw the short straw and have to shoot his ideas down, pleading for predictability and consistency in his policy messaging. However, to isolate him would be a political disaster.

Several G7 heavyweights face fragile politics back home. Happiest will be France’s shiny new president, Emmanuel Macron, but even he faces an immediate struggle to win a majority in legislative elections. British Prime Minister Theresa May will be the most likely to cozy up to Trump. Even if she is looking forward to a big majority in her June 8 election, Brexit is losing her many traditional friends. Japan will be extra silent, worrying about North Korean missiles and now a new peacenik president in South Korea.

The G7’s grand dame is Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel. However, the vibes at her first meeting with Trump were not good, with Germany’s much-praised economic successes bluntly called unfair trading and euro-currency manipulation. She faces her own elections in September but her prospects here now look good. She also chairs the upcoming (July 7-8) G20 summit, a very different, more inclusive meeting with all the major emerging economies assertively at the table—notably China, the absent elephant at the G7.

Far from last, there will be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who will also be being wary. He is already feeling Trump’s menace, including a potentially massive rewrite of NAFTA. However, if the going gets rough he could end up with a key role as bridge-maker, along with Angela Merkel. Intriguingly, he might find a potential new longer-term ally in France’s also youthful new leader, whose just-appointed first cabinet is also half-female.

Of course, while the high drama continues around the G7 table, the hard-working sherpas, high-level public servants, will be searching draft proposals, many pre-negotiated a month or so ago, for some reportable successes. The main points in a somewhat thinner than usual communiqué will likely be well-worn, but unresolved calls to fight inequality, and promote inclusive growth and loophole-free global tax rules. As is increasingly the norm, the tougher topics will be passed to the G20 summit in July.

Tellingly, facing an unyielding Trump, this G7 will have no formal pledge to avoid protectionism, or joint commitment on climate change. On the latter, Trump’s best offer is that he will wait until he gets home to announce whether he plans to quit the Paris global climate agreement.

The North Korea situation will be another cloud over the G7, but serious debate needs China and South Korea at the table.

And Monday night’s attack in Britain at a pop concert will put a new focus on fighting terrorism, a topic where perhaps it will be easier to find common ground, but maybe not viable solutions. Italy’s prime minister has said work is underway so that the summit can produce a stronger anti-terrorism commitment.

Hotter than usual will be cyber security. How can the G7 respond to this threat, implemented by unknown cyber-bandits holding us all, including our hospitals, to ransom?

For Trudeau, there is a bright side. If he finds the right G7 allies, he could emerge in a room of wary leaders, as the timely conciliator, a semi-hero, including by helping ease Merkel’s path to a more productive G20 meeting in July.

John Sinclair is a Cambridge-educated economist, formerly with the Canadian International Development Agency and the World Bank. As a senior fellow at the University of Ottawa and a McLeod Group member he teaches and comments on global issues and international development.