The gathering of the Group of Seven members in Quebec this weekend reveals how much damage President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel faces double-edged sword with Alex Jones, Roger Stone Trump goes after Woodward, Costa over China Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE has done to the formerly united West. It is not unusual for G-7 leaders to deviate from the formal summit agenda, or for global crises to render prepared talking points irrelevant. What is unheard of is for the United States, which has steered the G-7 for decades, to play the skunk at the garden party.
But that is precisely the role Trump has chosen, to the consternation of alienated U.S. allies. The president’s unilateral security decisions, protectionist policies, and climate denial have done the seemingly impossible task of pitting the United States against the rest of the West.
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Recent months have widened the chasm between Trump and his G-7 counterparts. The president has alienated Europeans by renouncing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear program. He has unleashed the first salvos of an all out trade war by slapping heavy tariffs on steel imports from Europe and Canada, while bringing NAFTA negotiations to a grinding halt through absurd and destructive demands. Given Trump’s attitudes, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation predicts the G-7 may not even reach consensus on a joint communique.
It is hard to believe that just four years ago, commentators were lauding the G-7 as a rejuvenated pillar of Western solidarity, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and ejection from the G-8. The G-7 suddenly seemed relevant again, a worthy rival to the more encompassing G-20 that had emerged during the global financial crisis. The new conflict with Russia reaffirmed the G-7’s symbolic and substantive importance as a coalition of nations united in support of political and economic openness and the international rule of law. Such likemindedness proved fleeting.
At Trump’s first G-7 summit, last year in Sicily, the president repudiated longstanding U.S. support for trade liberalization and hinted he would leave the Paris climate agreement, which he did the following month. Since then, he has taken a wrecking ball to Western solidarity, going his own way on Iran and trade despite urgent pleas from fellow G-7 leaders Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, and Trudeau. Adding insult to injury, he has justified protectionist measures against erstwhile NATO allies by invoking “national security” considerations. The response from U.S. partners has been uniformly withering.
It will take years to assess fully the damage Trump has wrought. His preference for bilateral bullying over multilateral coalition-building has destroyed any pretense of U.S. global leadership. His narrow transactional approach to U.S. national interests and his disregard for human rights have squandered America’s intangible but invaluable “soft power.” The president’s discriminatory trade actions risk a retaliatory spiral of tit-for-tat protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbor monetary policies of the sort that exacerbated the Great Depression decades ago.
But the biggest self-inflicted wound is geopolitical. By dividing the West, Trump has fulfilled Vladimir Putin’s wildest fantasies, increasing the likelihood that Russia will escape Western sanctions. China has begun to fill the global power vacuum created by Trump’s abdication, while U.S. protectionism allows Xi Jinping to deflect justified criticisms of Beijing’s own mercantilism. Finally, Trump has emboldened populist nationalists abroad, including new far-right Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who will be one of Trump’s few friends in Quebec.
Contemplating the West’s potential demise, the historically inclined might take comfort in another summit held in difficult times, some 77 years ago, not in Quebec but in Newfoundland. In August 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt met British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard the USS Augusta and HMS Prince of Wales. Their handiwork was the Atlantic Charter. Intended, in FDR’s words, to “hold out some hope to enslaved peoples,” it was essentially a vision statement, outlining core principles intended to govern an open postwar world order.
These principles included the rejection of any territorial conquests, the right of all peoples to self-determination and self-government, equal treatment in trade and access to raw materials, complete freedom of movement on the high seas, and eventually, “the establishment of a wider and permanent system of general security.” The Atlantic Charter principles endured. While not always honored consistently, they informed the internationalist policies of 13 successive U.S. presidents, Democratic and Republican, from Roosevelt to Obama. It is this vision of an open, rule-bound world that Trump is repudiating today.
Trump’s abdication of American leadership has rendered the G-7’s formal summit agenda irrelevant. It also places a heavy burden on the other G-7 members. Atlas has shrugged. Responsibility now falls to the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, and the European Union to defend the principles of an open world until Washington — and the American electorate — return to their senses.
Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.” He is on Twitter @StewartMPatrick.