Montreal, Canada – This week’s G7 summit may be more about damage control than anything else.
A week after the United States imposed trade tariffs on some of its closest allies, including Canada and the European Union, the heads of the world’s leading industrial nations are meeting amid a feeling of growing frustration.
And most of that instability, analysts say, is tied to US President Donald Trump – his erratic and unpredictable behaviour and his administration’s increasingly protectionist policies.
“I do not think it has been a great time for many of America’s traditional allies. They have become increasingly frustrated and disillusioned,” said Donald Abelson, a professor and chair of political science at the University of Western Ontario.
The G7 meetings – to be held in Canada’s Charlevoix region, near Quebec City, on Friday and Saturday – will bring together the leaders of Canada, the US, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
On the agenda?
Abelson said he expects the leaders to attempt to present a united front and seek to figure out how best to deal with the US president.
“They have to figure out how they’re going to tip-toe their way around an increasingly fickle administration in Washington,” he said.
“It’s a chess game, but the problem is that the stakes are incredibly high.”
I do not think it has been a great time for many of America's traditional allies
As is typical of the annual G7 meeting, the leaders will discuss key policy points, including international trade, economic policy, security and climate change.
Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, said North Korea’s nuclear programme would also be on the agenda.
That’s especially important for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was at the White House on Thursday before flying to Canada for the G7.
The US president intends to hold a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore on June 12, and Abe is concerned “the president will not take into account Japan’s interests” in those talks, Wright said.
“That’s at the top of his agenda” at the G7, Wright told reporters on a conference call earlier this week.
Climate change and a pipeline
Canada, meanwhile, will hope to address the fight against climate change, as well as a commitment to gender equality in whatever policy statements come out of the summit.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has been under fire for his government’s support for – and recent purchase of – the 1,100-km Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which many say puts Canada at odds with its commitments to fight climate change.
Presenting a strong statement on the climate file will, therefore, be especially important for Canada, Abelson said.
Both Macron and Trudeau will have bilateral meetings with Trump at the G7, said Larry Kudlow, the president’s assistant for economic policy, on Wednesday.
Kudlow said despite recent tension, he had “no doubt that the United States and Canada will remain firm friends and allies, whatever short-term disagreements may occur”.
“There may be disagreements. I regard this as much like a family quarrel. I’m always the optimist. I believe it can be worked out,” he told reporters, according to a read-out published by the White House press office.
But despite these reassurances from the US, its recent trade measures “are sure to loom large” at the summit, said Krzysztof Pelc, an associate professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal.
On May 31, the Trump administration confirmed it would apply additional tariffs on the import of steel and aluminium – an increase of 26 and 10 percent, respectively – on Canada, Mexico, and EU countries, ending a two-month exemption period.
In response, Canada said it would apply surtaxes or other countermeasures on up to $12.9bn worth of imports from the US, its largest trading partner. Those changes would take effect on July 1, the Canadian ministry of finance said.
The European Commission responded in a similar fashion, saying it would consider its own countermeasures.
US tariffs weigh heavily
Both Canada and the EU also filed legal proceedings against the US at the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing the Trump administration violated WTO trade rules in applying the tariffs.
“The EU believes these unilateral US tariffs are unjustified and at odds with World Trade Organisation rules. This is protectionism, pure and simple,” said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, who will also attend the G7.
For his part, Trudeau was particularly incensed by the US’ justification for imposing the tariffs – national security – which the Canadian prime minister called “frankly insulting and unacceptable”.
On Thursday, he called Trump’s security reasoning for tariffs “laughable”.
National security is an accepted reason in international trade law, and the WTO agreements to unilaterally suspend trade agreements, explained Charles Hankla, associate professor of political science at Georgia State University.
Hankla, an expert on US trade policy, told Al Jazeera there had been a “tacit norm” not to use the national security justification, however, since it could undermine the system of global trade.
“The national security justification is, I think, a useful one for President Trump because it allows him to act unilaterally domestically and gives him an excuse for doing so internationally,” he said.
“I don’t actually believe that there are real national security concerns here. I think it’s more a useful instrument.”
Whatever the reasoning, the decision highlights a rise in protectionism under Trump, who campaigned on the slogan America First.
Under his direction, the US pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal and had threatened to pull out of the long-standing North America Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico.
The tariffs “not only represent a rise in protectionism among states that have vowed in the past to avoid it; they are also a sharp break in practice, and a betrayal of fundamental norms of global, post-war cooperation”, Pelc said.
While the G7 is not typically the place to deal with complex trade relations, it presents “a small chance” for the US to backtrack on its tariffs, he added.
However, the other countries may have to offer up a concession, such as renegotiating an aspect of the WTO agreements “for Trump to claim enough of a win to justify halting his protectionist measures”, Pelc said.
Hankla agreed, saying Trump has backtracked on trade decisions in the past, but that it likely wouldn’t happen at a public and heavily scrutinised forum such as the G7.
“Could he conceivably, when he’s a little bit more out of the spotlight, change his policy? Absolutely. He’s done it a number of times before,” Hankla said.
‘G6 plus one’?
Still, of primary concern to the six other world leaders this week remains how to deal with Trump – and whether they should switch strategies, and if so, to what alternative?
“For the first 500 days of the Trump administration, these countries generally were bent over backwards not to criticise President Trump… There is a feeling I think over the last few months that that approach has not borne fruit,” Wright said.
That was echoed by Abelson, who said Trump’s behaviour – from his tweets to his seemingly snap decisions on key pillars of US policy – has put others on edge.
Whether the leaders all sign on to a customary, joint statement at the end of the summit is also very much up in the air.
Earlier this week, German news agency DPA reported that disagreements with Trump had left the statement “hanging in the balance”. It would be the first time all G7 countries do not sign a final statement.
“Many journalists are referring to this summit as the G6 plus one,” Abelson said.
“You’re dealing with someone who doesn’t necessarily hold all the cards, but someone who can cause a lot of disruption. And I think that’s what they’re ultimately concerned about, just controlling the potential damage.”