On May 29 Germany’s Angela Merkel vetoed President Trump’s plan to host this year’s Group of Seven summit in Washington at the end of June. Chancellor Merkel said the still active corona virus made it impossible for her to travel to the US. Merkel’s public declaration did not sit well with the president who envisaged a face to face gathering of global leaders as an electoral plus and signal of normalization after months of pandemic-induced lockdown.
Trump’s rejoinder arrived two days later on May 31. The meeting, for which the US is the rotating host, he said, would be delayed until fall and he is inviting Russia, Australia, South Korea and India to become members. He called the existing membership –the US, Canada, Japan and four European countries– “a very outdated group of countries” that didn’t reflect what’s going on in the world.
At core, the Group of Seven is a club created 45 years ago by the leaders of France and West Germany as a forum to discuss global economics. The first meeting was at a chateau near Paris in November 1975. President Gerald Ford, his eye on a November election, hosted a second summit (in Puerto Rico) the next year and brought in Canada to offset the preponderance of Europeans.
The economic focus of the G7 shifted in 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev loosened Moscow’s grip over its east European satellites. The stirrings of freedom in the Soviet sphere electrified that summer’s summit in Paris and at a final press conference President George HW Bush was asked if Gorbachev might be invited to future meetings. Initially the idea was dismissed as absurd but a year later the Soviet leader was an add-on guest at the G7 in London. In 1997 Russia became the 8th member of the club and remained so until it was unceremoniously ejected in 2014 after annexing Crimea and sending troops into Ukraine.
A second significant shift came in 2008 when a broader Group of 20 nations—accounting for 85% of world output — was hastily created to coordinate recovery from the global financial crisis.
It was assumed then that the more representative G20—that included China, India, Brazil and South Africa– would make the G7 obsolete but that was not to be. The Group of Seven lived on, its annual extravagances becoming progressively grander. It was not usual for 4,000 delegates and 4,000 journalists to converge for the three-day events that were often attended by up to 20 other invited leaders.
Can President Trump unilaterally change the composition of the G7? No, is the answer from the Germans and Canadians who say unanimity is required for structural change. Add on guests, on the other hand, is a standing practice over which the host nation has sole determination.
In early June the Australians, South Koreans and Indians accepted Trump’s invitation, but the Russians hesitated, apparently fearful of offending China. A Kremlin spokeswoman said that while expansion of the G7 was a step in the right direction it would not be significant unless China was also included.
Planning for the 2020 G7 has been a challenge for the Trump administration. In October the president declared the summit would be held at his Doral Resort in Florida. But following complaints that this was an inappropriate mixing of private and public pursuits the president changed course, selecting the presidential retreat at Camp David as the venue. Then with the global pandemic it appeared the summit would be virtual only, until in late May the president altered course again.
These annual G7 and G20 summits are useful. They allow leaders to build personal relationships and minimize the surprises that can jeopardize peace and stability. Global cooperation is promoted by leaders setting agendas on climate change, terrorism, trade, economic policy, finance, etc.
This upcoming G7 remains a work in progress and is bound to be interesting. It’s no secret that some of President Trump’s fellow leaders have cool relations with him and will not be disappointed if he is defeated in November’s presidential election.
Will Donald Trump get his way in having the G7 recast as a G10 or G11 that could isolate or confront China? The answer is almost certainly, no.#
Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. Read more of his work at econbarry.com.