No G-7 communique underscores loss of US diplomacy
Of all the oddities at the Group of 7 (G-7) Summit last week, and not just President Trump’s last-day news conference, perhaps the most noticeable was the absence of any discernible American diplomacy. The desultory affair no doubt is a sign that those who argue American diplomacy is dead, or at least dying, are not too far off the mark.
In the past — and to be optimistic, surely in the future — the G-7 has been a meeting of like-minded democratic success stories. It is an opportunity for the United States to shine and to show its leadership of this exclusive club. Over the years, the U.S. has done so through hard work and intense preparation — lots of homework — with an extraordinary capacity to field diplomats who have more knowledge about world problems than anyone else.
Not unlike their counterparts in the military, U.S. diplomats seldom engage without superior numbers. The G-7 event, like many international conferences, is won or lost by weeks or months of preparatory meetings. This behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity is aimed at reaching consensus and reducing disagreements so that, in the end, discord among the leaders — who, by the time they gather, know each other’s positions — often comes down to tactical issues of timing and nuance, rather than fundamental differences.
It is during these weeks of preparatory meetings that U.S. diplomats ensure our nation is an organic part of the whole, so that what U.S. leaders have been saying in the lead-up is reflected in the documentation of the main event.
It’s not easy. Multilateral drafting sessions offer no respite for those in need of instant gratification. They often last into the wee hours, sometimes becoming a contest among delegations of ad hoc alliances, encircling and wearing down conflicting views, and sometimes having to accept much weaker formulations. “Can we live with this?” a negotiator might call a regional assistant secretary in Washington to ask about suggested language for a report. “Can’t you make it any stronger than that?” might come the response, as if the negotiator has been sitting around doing nothing. And so it goes, for hours on end.
Such difficult exercises produce agreed-upon documents, typically including a summit communique. This document might create processes intended to strengthen what next year’s summit will attempt on a subject. (Kicking the can down the road is a time-honored diplomatic process.) It also might be an important marker to remind leaders they can expect to be called upon to contribute peacekeeping troops or otherwise gird for action in a longstanding regional conflict.
And sometimes, of course, the communique represents just words that are shelved and quickly forgotten. No question, there is room for cynicism about what a G-7 can and cannot accomplish.
Meetings such as this summit give leaders an opportunity to get to know one another and, in the context of strained informality, to have sidebar conversations about bilateral issues or share common approaches to international issues. This is why the host country pays great attention to event atmospherics.
In the case of this past weekend’s Biarritz summit, concern about the atmospherics took on such proportions that French President Emmanuel Macron made the unprecedented decision to scuttle the communique entirely. No doubt he was deeply concerned about what President Trump might do if something offended him or did not meet his expectations. Macron and his team surely had in mind the 2018 summit in Quebec, when the American president withdrew his signature from the communique. In the past, reaching agreement on a communique was important to the United States, often because the communiques reflected so much of what U.S. administrations and interagency teams had pressed for. Under Trump, however, the administration essentially is an administration of one.
Critics often describe the president’s “America first” strategy as “America alone.” The defiance of the slogan, however, is belied by an inability to shape international events and an apparent reticence to even attempt to do so. The North Korean leadership may celebrate its isolation, but the U.S. should not — and yet, at the summit in Biarritz, the U.S. once again appeared to be odd man out.
In the end, as they prepared to travel home after the three-day meeting, the other participants likely whispered the seasoned diplomatic expression: “It could have been worse.”
Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2004-05. He also served as the State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.
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