It was supposed to be the summit where gender became a permanent issue on world leaders’ agenda, the way that climate change did at the 1988 Toronto G7. That was the personal goal of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as the World Bank reported that 130 million girls worldwide never get the opportunity to go to school. And while gender did get both attention and money at last week’s G7 meeting in Charlevoix, Quebec, it was mostly obscured by Donald Trump and growing concerns about a global trade war.
The G7 met amidst what the IMF assesses to be continuing strong economic performance in the Euro area and in Japan, China, the United States, and Canada, all of which grew beyond expectations last year. Still, there are plenty of challenges. G7 countries face aging populations, falling rates of labor force participation, and low productivity growth. They’re unlikely to regain the per capita growth rates that they enjoyed before the global financial crisis of 2008. All of that underscores the importance of the G7 as an institution. Now in its 44th year, the organization—consisting of America, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom—functions as a management board for the big liberal democracies.
Finance ministers before the summit were already expressing “concerns…that the tariffs imposed by the United States on its friends and allies, on the grounds of national security, undermine open trade and confidence in the global economy” and warning that G7 “collaboration and cooperation has been put at risk by trade actions against other members.”
That was in anticipation of Donald Trump, who managed to deliver on expectations. Arriving late and leaving early, he effectively set the real agenda of the Charlevoix summit through a series of tweets, pre-and post-summit, about “unfair Trade Deals with the G-7 countries.”
That led Trudeau to remark at the conclusion of the G7 that “Canadians did not take it lightly that the United States has moved forward with significant tariffs on our steel and aluminum industry…. For Canadians who…stood shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers in far-off lands and conflicts from the First World War onward…it’s kind of insulting.” Canada, Trudeau said, would “move forward with retaliatory measures on July 1, applying equivalent tariffs to the ones that Americans have unjustly applied to us.” He also observed that “if the expectation was that a weekend in beautiful Charlevoix…was going to transform the president’s outlook on trade and the world, then we didn’t quite reach that bar.”
All of this annoyed Trump who had left to fly to his Singapore session with Kim Jong-un. In a fit of pique, he characterized Trudeau on Twitter as “meek and mild…dishonest & weak” and rescinded America’s signature to the traditional communique that ends the conference.
Senior advisors Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro then doubled down on the president’s remarks. Kudlow told CNN that Trudeau “really kind of stabbed us in the back,” while Navarro, who later sort of apologized, told “Fox News Sunday” that “there’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump.”
For Canadians, President Trump’s “blame Canada” campaign is curious.
According to the president’s annual Economic Report from 2018, the United States enjoys an $8.4 billion surplus with Canada. Canadians buy more American agricultural exports ($24 billion) than any other nation. Our steel trade—we are each others’ biggest customers—is in virtual balance ($7 billion both ways). Canada supports its dairy farmers through supply management that restricts the milk supply but neither gives direct subsidies nor competes with the United States. In fact, Canada is one the few countries where America runs a substantial manufacturing surplus, with the U.S. importing energy—less than the global benchmark price—and other Canadian resources.
Trump also created G7 controversy with his comment that Russia, booted out of the group after its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, should be reinstated: “They should let Russia come back in,” he said, “because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.”
European Union Council President Donald Tusk spoke for the other leaders when he rejected the readmission of Russia because it would upset the “rules-based international order.” British Prime Minister Theresa May underlined the “unified” G7 response, pointing to the new “rapid response unit” that will counter hostile activity by states such as Russia that are aimed at the democratic process.
But it was Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland who issued the most concise and clarion call for the United States not to abandon the rules-based international order for a “might makes right” approach. Accepting the Foreign Policy Forum’s “Diplomat of the Year” award, she said: “You may feel today that your size allows you to go mano-a-mano with your traditional adversaries and be guaranteed to win. But if history tells us one thing, it is that no one nation’s pre-eminence is eternal…the far wiser path—and the more enduring one—is to strengthen our existing alliance of liberal democracies.” As the West’s relative might inevitably declines, Freeland said that “now is the time for us to plant our flag on the rule of law—so that the rising powers are induced to play by these rules, too.”
The G7 is admittedly Eurocentric. It probably needs to be enlarged to include other democracies—India, Indonesia, Korea, Australia, and Mexico would be obvious candidates and their inclusion would give more weight to the Indo-Pacific. But for over 40 years, its summits have been a rare forum for frank discussions and informal diplomacy. Its members sustain the rules-based system and its multilateral institutions.
As the top table of the leading democracies, the G7 visibly demonstrates that talk on the big issues—protectionism, populism, extremism, climate, and gender—continues to be essential. Winston Churchill popularized the word “summitry.” He also reflected that “jaw-jaw” among leaders is better than “war-war.” Churchill had learned well what happens when major world powers don’t sit down with each other and engage in dialogue.
Summits usually culminate in a consensus communique. Weeks in preparation—it probably has more drafters than readers—it is part record of decisions and part declaration of intent.
The Charlevoix communique, one of the more concise at slightly over 4,000 words, still covered the urgent and the important: artificial intelligence, global trade, middle-class growth, innovation, girls’ education, and defending democracies from foreign intrusions. But it was impossible to miss that the leaders also underlined the “crucial role of a rules-based international trading system” and their pledge to “continue to fight protectionism.” That this was a rare shot at a fellow G7 member should need no explaining.
Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and vice president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.