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Trump at G7: Is discord over declining US-led system just a family quarrel?

a shift in thought

With Trump focusing on his high stakes meeting with Kim Jong-un, the Group of Seven summit in Canada may feel more like a distraction. But the dispute over trade is a reminder that not all is well with the traditional US base.

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Spectators wait behind a police officer in riot gear ahead of a planned protest near the Group of Seven venue in Quebec, June 7.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/AP

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Just about everyone agrees that the post-World-War-II order of institutions and alliances that the United States built and guided over seven decades is under siege and threatened.

It’s a system of economic and security ties that expanded global prosperity and spread Western values of democratic governance and human rights around the world.

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But this weekend in Canada, at the annual summit of the Group of Seven advanced economies – part of the constellation of organizations making up the US-led order – there is less unity over who and what forces are responsible for the weakening of that system.

Recommended:Trump tightens screws on trade, raising risks for economy – and himself

For President Trump – who just last week slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports on five of the other six countries whose leaders he’ll be sitting down with in Quebec (the US already hit the sixth, Japan, with tariffs earlier this year) – the fault lies largely with the allies and partners who have profited from the economic and security order at America’s expense.

To this way of thinking, American taxpayers have paid for European and Asian allies’ security, while American workers have paid dearly for the world’s economic prosperity through their exported jobs.

But for America’s closest partners, and for many analysts who specialize in the challenges facing the US-led order, the responsible party is Mr. Trump himself – and more broadly a retreat of American leadership into nationalist economics and protectionism, and away from the international leadership role the US has played for 70 years.

Even before boarding his early morning flight to Canada, Trump, via remarks to reporters, fired off a proposal sure to further antagonize American allies: his recommendation that Russia, ousted from what was then the G8 four years ago over its annexation of the Crimea, should be readmitted.

Trump's off-the-cuff proposal may especially rile Europeans – perhaps its purpose – who have stuck with costly sanctions on Russia largely at America's behest. More broadly, Trump's call to re-admit Vladimir Putin's Russia to the Western leaders' club will raise doubts about Trump's understanding of the role the G7 has played and about US leadership of the international system.

The leaders Trump will meet in Quebec were already dismayed by his withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Accords and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known better as the Iran nuclear deal, and by his threats to weaken US participation in NATO and Asian security alliances.

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President Trump salutes as he arrives for the G7 Summit June 8, 2018, at Canadian Forces Base, Bagotville, Canada.
Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press/AP

But it was the Trump administration’s imposing of tariffs against European countries, Canada, and Mexico, last week on national security grounds that most sharply stung some allied leaders.

Trump’s decision represented a shift away from the more traditional postwar interpretation of allies like NATO partners as “reliable” sources of essential materials like steel for defense industries, to more of a go-it-alone reliance on domestic producers.

That action also raised the specter not just of a trade war among friends but of a waning Western order weakened from within – and more immediately of what some are fearing will unfold as the “G6 + 1” summit, with Trump’s America the odd man out.

“I do think we have reached a little bit of a Rubicon moment over whether the United States is going to turn its back on this economic order,” says Thomas Wright, director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe in Washington.

Issues ‘can be worked out’

At the same time, no one expects the G7 summit ending Saturday to mark a watershed moment for the Western alliance – with either a resolution of the trade frictions or with a full-blown falling-out between the US and its allies.

Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic adviser, told reporters this week that the discord the president is likely to encounter among G7 leaders would be akin to a “family quarrel” over issues that “can be worked out.”

For one thing, Trump is likely to be preoccupied with his historic summit just days away with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, some experts say. Trump has reportedly told aides that he feels the G7 meeting will be a distraction before the Singapore summit with Kim.

Moreover, the G7 host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, can be expected to try to downplay the elite club’s rifts and focus on common interests, analysts add. As Canada’s leader, Mr. Trudeau has been blunt in his criticism of Trump’s “national security” tariffs. But some see him redirecting to messages of unity as he greets his guests.

“Justin Trudeau would clearly like to avoid a G6 + 1,” says Samantha Gross, a fellow in climate and energy policy at Brookings. Still, she worries that the deep divisions, including over tariffs and broader trade policy, could sideline the more unifying topics Trudeau might wish to highlight.

The falling out between the US and its allies ratcheted up a few notches Thursday, when French President Emmanuel Macron – received at the White House in late April as Trump’s BFF – threatened to isolate Trump at the G7 by pushing for a rebuke of the US over the tariffs.

Trump’s response? Bring it on. Hurling back accusations that Mr. Macron and Trudeau are “charging the US massive tariffs” and “keeping our farmers out,” Trump tweeted, “Look forward to seeing them tomorrow.”

What’s good for America

Administration officials say that, even if the president and his national security advisers seem focused on North Korea’s denuclearization right now, the challenges facing the West and the US-led global order have been at the top of the Trump administration’s agenda from Day 1.

They point to documents like Trump’s first National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, which zero in on the aggressive challenges that non-Western “big powers” – namely Russia and China – are ramping up to undermine and supplant the US-led order of private-enterprise-based economies and liberal democracies.

But the US cannot continue to lead this international order if its outcome is greater global prosperity at America’s expense, these officials add – thus the Trump argument that Western allies and partners who have benefited from the postwar system need to step up and pay more as America refortifies itself at home.

“A strong America is good for Americans, but it is also good for our allies and for the world,” the State Department’s top Europe diplomat, Wess Mitchell, said in a speech at Washington’s Heritage Foundation this week.

“American strength is the foundation upon which the world as we know it rests,” Secretary Mitchell said, “and if that foundation is vulnerable, all we believe in, all that we ground our strength upon – democracy, markets, deterrence – all of that is vulnerable as well.”

Moreover, Mitchell suggested that the actions Trump has taken that have separated the US from its chief allies – whether exiting the Iran deal or imposing steel tariffs – are aimed at strengthening America so it can better defend the West against common enemies.

“In taking strong positions, we are not targeting our allies,” he said, underscoring “not.” Calling out Russia, China, and Iran, as the real threats “putting our collective security at risk,” he added, “We urge our allies to take these and other threats to Western security more seriously than they have in the past.”

Allies vs. adversaries

One problem some see with the Trump approach to rescuing (and leading) the West and the postwar order is that it mixes tough measures toward allies with outreach to adversaries like North Korea and Russia, Trump’s pre-flight comments Friday being a case in point.

“It’s this split-screen image where it’s growing tensions with our closest partners and allies and then … juxtapose that … with the White House seeking a summit with President Putin and looking to the good meeting with Kim Jong-un,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It feels like we are treating our allies with contempt, while we are feting our adversaries.”

To be sure, there have been “family quarrels” before, as Mr. Kudlow, the economic adviser, suggests – within the G7 over US monetary policy, among NATO allies over the installation of US nuclear weapons in Europe, and more recently the Iraq war.

But those were disagreements over issues, Ms. Conley says, whereas now she says it’s the basis of the international order – American leadership of a community of like-minded nations – that is in question.

At each instance of squabbling until now “it was [over] an issue. It was not the fundamental underpinnings of the international system that the US created in the post-World War II environment. That is now what feels at stake,” she says, “and that’s what is different.”