• Politics

The Empty Chair: Why Trump Leaves Behind More Than an Open Seat at the G-7

6 minute read

President Trump was the sole leader absent from a meeting on climate change during the closing hours of the G-7 Summit in Biarritz, France, but his unoccupied seat at the table didn’t just signal Washington’s absence from the effort against global warming. It was a metaphor for America’s diminished leadership of the world’s most powerful economies.

For decades, the United States was at the center of the annual G-7 gathering, using its financial might and convening power to address global problems, from the oil crisis and inflation in the 1970s to threats of recession in recent years. But since he took office in 2017, Trump has separated America from its traditional allies and the institutions they established to advance their collective interests, ratcheting up trade tensions with Europe and east Asia and abandoning international agreements on environmental degradation and nuclear proliferation in Iran.

There is no shortage of crises to address. Past presidents might have spent the weekend getting other countries to coalesce around a concrete plan to oppose China’s predatory trade practices and Iran’s threats. Or they might have signaled unity on Beijing’s handling of protests in Hong Kong, the impact on the global climate from fires burning in the Amazon, or rising tensions between Pakistan and India over the disputed province of Kashmir.

Instead, Trump unsettled U.S. relations with Japan by pressing its President, Shinzo Abe, over American tariffs on aluminum and steel. And he rattled allies and markets with confusing messages about his trade war with China. On Friday, Trump tweeted that he “ordered” American companies to exit China’s market, said he would increase U.S. tariffs and referred to China’s President Jinping Xi is an “enemy.” By Sunday, Trump said he was having “second thoughts” on the trade war escalation, but aides said his comments had been misinterpreted and Trump’s regret was that he hadn’t slapped higher tariffs on Chinese imports sooner.

The one concrete action that emerged from the weekend only underscored how little the group is able to accomplish without the U.S. at its core. France rallied countries to sign on to a modest $20 million fund for putting out fires in the Amazon and starting a long-term effort to protect rainforest.

Trump had left Washington last week in “a foul mood,” a White House official said, upset at the U.S. employment numbers being revised downward, his federal reserve chairman refusing to lower interest rates, instability on Wall Street and continuing press reports about a recession.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron spent much of the weekend trying to corral Trump into productive discussions on Iran and trade. Macron said that there is a desire to revamp global trade rules so no country is treated unfairly, but little was accomplished toward that goal. Trump’s administration has refused to seat new judges at the World Trade Organization, a move that will prevent the WTO from taking any new complaints after two of the existing judges rotate off in December. No progress was made to fix that or U.S. concerns with the existing way the world’s trade is policed.

Trying to shake loose some progress on Iran, Macron orchestrated a diplomatic stunt to get Trump’s attention by flying Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Zarif into Biarritz for meetings with his French counterparts. Trump said Monday he would meet with Iran’s leadership, if the “circumstances were correct,” and said he wasn’t demanding Iran change its leadership. He insisted the country should not have nuclear weapons and should be prevented from further testing ballistic missiles.

“There was a lot of nervousness at the outset, a lot of expectations, a lot of tensions,” Macron said as he spoke to reporters during the closing press conference of the summit Monday. Macron said he is trying to broker a meeting in “coming weeks” between Trump and Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani released a statement on Monday indicating he was open to a meeting with Trump.

Trump’s go-it-alone approach on Iran applies more broadly to foreign and trade policy generally in his presidency. And overall, Trump’s friction with America’s traditional friends left even administration officials flummoxed. “Why fight a one-front war when you can fight your adversary and your allies at the same time,” a U.S. official said sarcastically to TIME.

Aides working for Trump in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, the State Department and the National Security Council routinely expect Trump to torpedo internal ideas to muster a multilateral response to China’s trade tactics and the global economic slowdown. Trump prefers the U.S. act alone, an approach backed in internal administration disputes by National Security Advisor John Bolton, White House Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro, and United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. “I’m sorry. It’s the way I negotiate,” Trump told reporters Monday, about his head spinning approach to trade relations with China.

To be sure, even Trump’s critics give him credit for taking on China’s long-running violations of international trade rules. Despite joining the WTO in December 2001, China “has not instituted deep, systemic reforms and its mixed compliance with WTO dispute rulings has at times challenged the WTO’s underlying norms,” according to a report from the ChinaPower Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The U.S. is by far China’s largest trading partner with some $480 billion and almost 20 percent of China’s exports, the next eight (excluding Hong Kong, which is number two), imported a total of $675 billion of Chinese goods in 2018, according to a report compiled by WTEx.com from IMF figures.

Which is why Trump’s go-it-alone approach to China has been counterproductive, says a former senior Republican trade official. Many U.S. allies, like Japan, South Korea, Germany, France and the U.K., share many of Trump’s complaints about theft of intellectual property, propping up domestic companies and discriminating against foreign ones. But as Trump has launched a trade and currency war against China, he’s chosen to alienate rather than enlist China’s other major trading partners in the effort.

Backers of coordination among the economic powers have little reason to hope things will improve. Macron’s attempts to bookend Trump had “little effect,” says Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The G-7 is looking more like the six-plus-one, Conley says.

The U.S. will host next year’s meeting, and when asked about his plans to lead the group, Trump spent most of his time talking about how he wants it to be hosted at his golf resort outside of Miami and that he believes Russia should be invited.

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