The G7 used to be a very exclusive club. To join, you had to be asked, and to be asked you had to preside over one of the richest industrial nations in the world. But that wasn’t enough. Your government had to be a democracy fundamentally committed to human rights, free speech, the rule of law, and—it went without saying—a belief in the importance of objective facts.
The one exception was made in 1997 when Russia was invited to join, even though it wasn’t rich enough by any measure and its democratic record was thin. The other members hoped that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation, diminished but full of potential, would find its place among the world's liberal democracies. Membership in the re-branded G8 was supposed to affirm that commitment.
Then former KGB operative Vladimir Putin was elected Russia’s president in 2000 and proved quickly to be a ruthless, even murderous, authoritarian. When he annexed Crimea and launched a covert war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, it was long past time to drop the pretenses. He was expelled from a group where he never belonged in the first place.
And, in fact, Putin knows this, which is why he’s much more interested in the G20, where money is the only criterion and Russia’s rank, around 12th place, qualifies him to sit comfortably among such murderous autocrats as China’s Xi Jinping and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.
No, the real problem for the club known as the G7 is not Putin, but the man who keeps saying Putin’s membership should be restored: Donald Trump. And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, because while the United States certainly belongs, its president does not. Throughout his time in office, Trump has chafed at the norms of the democratic process while exhibiting an advanced case of dictator envy.
In his rambling discourse about Putin at one point he could have been talking about himself: “Would I invite him? I would certainly invite him. Whether or not he could come, psychologically, I think that’s a tough thing for him to do” as “a proud person,” unless he is embraced by other world leaders.
In any other exclusive club, Trump would have been blackballed years ago. That’s not possible with the president of the richest country in the G7, but his truculence at the first two summits he attended, in Italy and Canada, betrayed the insecurity of a bully who knows he’s out of place.
So in France this weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron decided he would do his damnedest to make Trump feel at home and give him a platform to act however he wants. If Trump had been wandering Lear-like in rags by the tempest-tossed Atlantic, Macron would have complimented him on his fitness and sagacity.
The result seen on Monday was a collection of statements meant to bolster Trump’s self-esteem and suggest major diplomatic accomplishments at a meeting where Trump could claim there was great “unity” behind him.
Unfortunately the big news that came out of the confab was mostly fake news. Macron, familiar with the practice of diplomatic ambiguity, probably hoped that headlines could drive negotiations on critical issues like Trump’s trade war with China and his showdown with Iran. In any case the message was that major progress with both countries might be just around the corner when, no, it’s not.
The U.S. president started the ball rolling with his remarks in the middle of a morning photo op to the effect that senior Chinese officials had been phoning to say they want to renew trade talks.
No doubt Trump’s objective was to get word out before the U.S. stock market opened. Last Friday, his erratic declarations about raising tariffs on Chinese products in the tit-for-tat trade war had sent the Dow plummeting more than 600 points, but on Monday, sure enough, after he made it seem China is desperate to get back to the negotiating table, the index bounced up almost 270 points.
The Dow might have done even better if China had confirmed Trump’s claims that top officials were calling like crazy to get talks started again. But no. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he was “not aware” of any such calls and reiterated Beijing’s stand that Trump’s tariff policy “tramples on multilateral trading rules, harms both countries’ interests, threatens the security of the global industrial and supply chain, and drags down global trade and world economic growth.”
The other big revelation on Monday came after Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid a very quick visit to Biarritz on Sunday. Although Trump’s staff had been telling reporters they were shocked and surprised, Trump confirmed that he had been forewarned and signed off on the visit, even though he did not meet with Zarif.
That set the stage for both Macron and Trump to tell a joint press conference Macron is trying to arrange a meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, possibly within “the next few weeks.” Trump even suggested he might allow some short-term loans to give Iran a little sanctions relief if talks started.
But in Tehran, Rouhani found himself struggling to defend even Javad Zarif’s hit-and-split visit to Biarritz, and on Tuesday the Iranian president said flatly sanctions would have to be lifted before talks could begin. “If someone intends to make it as just a photo op with Rouhani, that is not possible,” he said. Iranian hardliners—very likely including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—are hostile to a dialogue that many among them would see as surrender.
In fact, that is basically what Trump wants: not only a permanent freeze of Iran’s nuclear program (which it insists is peaceful in any case), but the elimination of its missile development, and an end to its support of militias throughout the region, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.
What Macron wants, by contrast, is a return to the Obama-era nuclear agreement with Iran that severely limits its production of nuclear fuel and imposes an extensive inspection regime. Since Trump ditched that agreement last year, the other signatories—France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and China—have tried to find ways to keep it from falling apart altogether. But they haven’t been able to bypass Trump’s sanctions effectively, and Iran, increasingly impatient, has started dialing back its cooperation with the agreement. An incipient “tanker war” has broken out as well, threatening to slide toward a much hotter conflict.
The Europeans, as was the case with Barack Obama, believe the primary objective must be to contain Iran’s ability to make nuclear weapons (which it insists it does not want to do), and the issues about missile development and support for proxy militias in the region could be dealt with separately.
As a result, even if a Trump meeting with Rouhani does take place, it most likely would develop along the same lines as Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea: lots of atmospherics, almost no substantive gains.
On other issues that Trump doesn’t care about, or tries to wish away, like climate change, he was given a pass. He didn’t even show up for the climate meeting, and rambled on incoherently at a subsequent press conference claiming he’s a great environmentalist.
Trump also launched into an improbable infomercial for the faltering Trump golf resort in Miami, where he thinks the next G7 should be held.
As long as he is setting the standards, however, neither the venue, nor the Group of Seven, seems to make much sense anymore.