Elephants in the Room

By Bungling G-7, Trump Sabotaged Singapore

The United States needs its allies if it wants to make a deal with North Korea.

U.S. President Donald Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, right, at the G-7 summit in Quebec, Canada, on June 9. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, right, at the G-7 summit in Quebec, Canada, on June 9. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As U.S. President Donald Trump departed the acrimonious G-7 gathering in Quebec over the weekend for his summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, set for June 12, he no doubt hoped to leave his Canadian travails behind.

Unfortunately for Trump, his petulance in Quebec undermined his hand in Singapore. By antagonizing the United States’ most important allies, Trump weakened himself and the country’s posture going into the Kim summit. Simply put, the United States with allies is stronger than the United States alone. The country’s bilateral alliances are particularly important in Asia, which otherwise lacks regional security institutions such as NATO. For this reason, when Trump sits across the table from Kim, the North Korean leader should see a formidable array of allies — including Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Japan, and South Korea — seated figuratively right behind Trump and thus right behind the United States. Yet at the G-7, not only did Trump reject those allies, but he also revealed just how easily manipulated he is. Taunts and trivial affronts to Trump’s vanity provoke him to make foolish mistakes.

White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow tried to spin Trump’s defiance of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as an avoidance of appearing weak. In Kudlow’s words, “He [Trump] is not going to permit any show of weakness on the trip to negotiate with North Korea.” But the reality is just the opposite. If you keep bleating that you are afraid to show weakness, you instead look and sound weak.

The damage from the G-7 debacle goes beyond America’s diminished hand in Singapore. While it is true that squabbles with allies are regular recurrences across administrations, never before in the more than 40-year history of the G-7 has the United States been so completely at odds with every other G-7 nation. Even during the bitterest trans-Atlantic divisions over the Iraq War, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi still stood with U.S. President George W. Bush. Even during the heated protests in 1983 against the U.S. deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone still stood with U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Not since the 1930s — the most recent era of high tariffs, trade wars, and “America First,” as well as the final decade before the creation of the U.S. alliance system — has the United States so completely cut itself off from its international partners.

To be fair, some of the complaints by Trump and his acolytes about the G-7 have a grain of truth to them. At its worst, the summit can be a gaseous gathering characterized by hand-wringing, inane platitudes, and no results. Some of the G-7 nations do maintain unreasonable trade barriers to some U.S. exports. But strong and smart U.S. presidents figure out a way to make the G-7 work for U.S. interests — whereas weak and foolish presidents turn in performances like Trump’s in Quebec.

Ironically, Trump inherited a fairly strong G-7 hand in that most of the other members — such as Britain, France, Germany, and Japan — are led by broadly centrist or center-right governments and in normal times would be amenable to the policies of a Republican administration. This makes Trump’s missed opportunities all the more unfortunate. The contrast with the Reagan administration is telling. In 1983, Reagan hosted the G-7 summit in Williamsburg, Virginia, and led his counterparts in issuing the conference’s remarkable Declaration on Economic Recovery. It included a robust affirmation of free markets, a commitment to disciplined monetary policy, and, perhaps most remarkably, the assertion: “We commit ourselves to halt protectionism, and as recovery proceeds to reverse it by dismantling trade barriers.” At the Williamsburg summit, Reagan also persuaded all of the other leaders to support America’s controversial deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles to counter the threat from Moscow.

The contrast between Reagan’s statecraft and Trump’s charade is stark. Instead of working to counter Russia’s menace to the West, Trump tried to invite Russia back into the G-7 (which would then be the G-8). Instead of opposing protectionism, Trump led the country toward a trade war. Instead of strengthening the G-7 and making it work, Trump undermined it.

It is impossible to predict what the medium- and long-term consequences of this might be. One of the consolations of history is to serve as a reminder that U.S. alliances have weathered many crises and challenges before. The other G-7 leaders are pragmatic and understand their responsibilities to their allies, as well as the self-defeating costs of a protracted spat with the United States. However, there are practical limits to just how much forbearance they might show, especially since they have their own political constituencies to bear in mind. Even if they set aside their personal pique toward Trump, their respective publics will not. As my former boss on the White House National Security Council staff, Stephen Hadley, points out, when public opinion in allied nations turns strongly against the United States, it constrains the political ability of their leaders to work with the United States. That might be the most immediate cost of Trump’s lost weekend in Quebec.

Will Inboden is the executive director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and as a distinguished scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

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