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Withdrawer-in-chief Trump strikes again

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Michael Knigge
June 10, 2018

Just when it seemed that the G7 leaders had eked out a joint communique and avoided an open rift, Donald Trump, in a stunning Twitter turnaround, retracted his endorsement. It's probably better that way.

Kanada G7 Gipfel Abreise Donald Trump
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

Sometimes it is good to rip off the band-aid. And by backing out of an apparently agreed upon joint G7 communique at the last minute via Twitter and on a plane en route to Singapore, President Trump has done just that.

In his tweet he accused Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of making false statements at his press conference and said he had "instructed our US Reps not to endorse the Communique."

Read more: G7 summit fails to calm trade tensions as Trump refuses to endorse joint statement

If he really does pull out of the agreement, it would not be his first withdrawal. In fact, Trump is a master withdrawer. He pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership and UNESCO, to name just a few.

And compared to something like the Iran accord, the direct consequences of his exit would be small because the document is non-binding and broad. But the symbolic damage would be tremendous: It would mark the first time that the G7 countries could not agree on a joint communique.

Disrupt and undermine

But it is probably better that way than trying to paper over a fundamental rift that really can't be papered over.

President Trump's appearance here in Quebec made clear one more time how he feels about America's closest allies and the post-war international order that Washington was instrumental in building: He could not care less. More than that, he is actively trying to disrupt and undermine it.

A joint statement would have only softened that blow because the published communique asserts that all signatories share a belief in "free, fair, and mutually beneficial trade” and vow to combat protectionism. This is simply not true.

And the avid protectionist Donald Trump made abundantly clear in the short time he attended the summit that whatever the final document says or doesn't say, he has no intention of backing away from his purely transactional and zero-sum "America First" policy that has deeply divided the US from its allies.

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DW's Michael Knigge

Wishful thinking

That the US did not sign on to the climate change and plastic-reduction segments of the agreement is evidence of the continued rift between the US and its allies. And whatever weak compromise was reached at the meeting would have had little practical value for a president like Donald Trump.

To expect anything else from this meeting and Trump was wishful thinking.

Trump's disdain for the G7 was palpable throughout. He seemed to view it as a brief interlude with pesky partners before his more important peace mission in Singapore. The hubris that his appearance in Quebec oozed is hard to overstate.

By suggesting that Russia, which had been excluded from the group after the illegal annexation of Crimea, should be reinvited, Trump had already disrupted the meeting before it really began. And when he finally arrived he came late and left early.

But not before launching ― in an impromptu press conference ― one of his typical rants that included media bashing, threatening allies with a cessation of trade if they don't back down over the tariff feud, praising himself for the strong US economy and slamming his predecessor Barack Obama.

And for good measure, Trump even reiterated his view that Russia should participate in the meeting again ― an open slight of the other leaders, who, with the exception of Italy, had already publicly rejected the proposal earlier.

Surprise bomb

Finally, Trump, a man whose only deep-rooted political convictions are a crude protectionism and a rabid anti-immigration stance, before leaving dropped a typical Trump surprise bomb at the G7 when he suggested that the group could become a tariff-free zone.

This left his partners scrambling and trying to decipher what he could have meant and whether to take it seriously. If history is a guide, it probably means little.

Trump's tough-guy rhetoric was underscored by several telling pictures. One showed him sitting, arms crossed, looking with a slight smile straight at German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who stood behind a table and appeared to plead with him. Another image showed him dropping in late to the leaders' breakfast focused on gender equality with, again, Merkel and IMF head Christine Lagarde looking on disapprovingly.

G7 Gipfel Kanada Merkel vs Trump
Trump said he wouldn't endorse a joint communique shortly after leaving the summitImage: Reuters/Bundesregierung/J. Denzel

But it is important to note that all of it ― Trump's words and his shenanigans — are nothing new. It was simply another typical performance by the bully who occupies the White House ― just this time not in the US, but in neighboring Canada.

This is not to downplay Trump's display here, but to say that it is high time to get used to the fact that relations between Trump and his allies are not getting better. Trump really believes that, as he said again in Quebec, the US "has been taken advantage of for decades and decades and we can't do that anymore." By pulling out of the agreement Trump made this clearer.

'So-called allies'

That this president truly does not grasp the importance of the trans-Atlantic relationship and the traditional order was highlighted by reports that his team balked at including the boilerplate phrase "rules-based international order” in the joint G7 communique and that Trump repeatedly calls America's partner's "so-called allies”.

While the other six countries, as expected, could ultimately not sway Trump's protectionist impulses and get him to scrap the tariffs, it was important and right that they stood their ground. This does not solve the underlying issues, but caving in to Trump would only egg him on to demand more. Additionally, it is important that the Europeans at least try to take up the mantle of the defender of the rules-based international order until Washington, hopefully, comes to its senses again.

This might take a while, but it does not have to. A reckoning for Trump could come this fall when Americans vote in the midterm elections. Should Republicans lose their Congressional majority in one or even both houses, a newly elected Congress could at least hamper Trump's dangerous protectionist trade policies.

That's because Congress, which in the American political system is in charge of trade, has ceded its right in large part to the president. But since it ceded this right, it can also take it back. And it's only fitting that relief from Trump's vulgar protectionism could come from voting Americans. After all, they created this mess by electing him in the first place.