Trump’s Weird Whoppers at the G-7 Summit
As the world’s seven largest economic powers met in glamorous Biarritz, the lungs of the planet, in the Amazon rain forest, were ablaze. “I’m an environmentalist,” President Trump insisted, at a press conference on Monday, claiming that he knows more about the subject than most people. Yet hours earlier he had skipped the session on climate change, biodiversity, and oceans; the white high-backed chair reserved for him had been conspicuously empty. The White House insisted that he had “scheduled meetings” with the leaders of Germany and India, even though both were plainly in view at the climate session. (Never mind, as well, that the Trump Administration has rolled back at least eighty-three environmental regulations in less than three years.)
Trump also claimed that China had called his top trade negotiators “numerous” times during the two-day summit to signal China’s interest in getting “back to the table” to work on a deal to end the escalating trade war. On Friday, Beijing had announced retaliatory tariffs on seventy-five billion dollars of American imports—leading Trump to label China the “enemy” and the Dow to tumble more than six hundred points. On Monday, the President announced a surprise breakthrough. “You can say we’re having very meaningful talks, much more meaningful than I would say at any time, frankly,” he bragged. The Dow shot up almost three hundred points. Then, somewhat baffled, China’s Foreign Ministry denied any such recent calls—or any such progress.
Few expected the G-7 summit—which was founded in 1975, to foster collaboration on global issues—to produce much this year. Trump has proved irascibly intransigent on the world stage, even (or especially) with allies. The French hosts abandoned the usual formal communique signed by the seven leaders—from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States—pledging future courses of action. But, at a time of wide-ranging and often existential challenges for the world, the G-7 this year was arguably the least productive summit since the group was founded. It ended with Trump pontificating on his version of events—for more than an hour—spouting views that were often unworldly, occasionally unwise, and sometimes just plain wacky. It was a sorry ending.
At the final press conference, Trump called for Russia’s reëntry into the group of the world’s most advanced economies. (The G-7 expanded into the G-8, in 1997, to include Russia after the Cold War ended. But it expelled Russia in 2014, after President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion and annexation of Crimea, then deployed men and matériel to aid separatists in eastern Ukraine.) Trump, who is due to host the rotating summit next year, said he would “certainly” like to invite Putin to attend. “I really think it’s good for the security of the world,” he said. Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, has only increased since 2014. Russia is still a pariah state globally. Last year, Washington sanctioned Moscow and expelled dozens of Russian diplomats because of Russia’s use of military-grade chemical weapons against dissidents living in Britain. And then there’s that pesky, largely unaddressed issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
The wackiest comment was Trump’s claim that the First Family has cultivated “excellent” relations with the North Korean dictator since diplomacy began—in three meetings—more than fourteen months ago. “The First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un, and I think she’d agree with me—he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump told reporters. But Melania Trump has never met Kim. The White House later issued, by e-mail, a “clarification.” The Administration’s new press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, noted that the President “confides in his wife on many issues including the detailed elements of his strong relationship with Chairman Kim—and while the First Lady hasn’t met him, the President feels like she’s gotten to know him too.” (Another doozy.)
Trump makes no secret of his distaste for global summitry. His antics sabotaged the G-7 last year, in Quebec. He fumed over the agenda. He left a day early. He backed out of his pledge to sign the joint communique. And, as his plane flew off, he tweeted that the Canadian host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was “very dishonest & weak.” This year, he reportedly complained to advisers about having to attend at all.
For all the talking, the only notable pledge by the G-7 in Biarritz was twenty million dollars (a pitifully small amount) to help Brazil fight forest fires that have unleashed hundreds of megatons of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide into the atmosphere, spewed sooty smoke two thousand miles across Latin America, altered global weather patterns, and threaten the survival of thousands of species—including humans. In contrast, Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation pledged five million dollars.
With flattery and French politesse, President Emmanuel Macron delicately maneuvered around Trump, partly by playing to the President’s ego. “There was a lot of nervousness at the outset, a lot of expectations, a lot of tension,” he admitted, at a final joint news conference, on Monday. (After two questions, Macron left Trump to respond to reporters on his own.)
Macron managed to pull off the one surprise at the G-7 with the most diplomatic potential. Amid tight security that cordoned off the summit venue, the delegations, and the local airport, he invited the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to fly to Biarritz on Sunday. Macron has quietly led a European effort—backed by Britain and Germany—to salvage the nuclear deal brokered by the world’s six major powers in 2015. Trump unilaterally abandoned it, in May of last year, then re-imposed U.S. economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic, in November. Macron had hosted Zarif on Friday, in Paris, for preliminary talks to jump-start diplomacy with the United States and to prevent the recent tensions over sabotaged oil tankers and shot-down drones from turning into a war. Macron reviewed the state of play with Trump, over lunch on Saturday. He then summoned Zarif back from Tehran for talks with French, British, and German officials on the sidelines of the G-7.
The tentative outcome: standing next to Trump on Monday, Macron announced the possibility of direct talks between the American and Iranian Presidents “in the coming weeks.” It would be the first since Iran’s 1979 Revolution, during the Carter Administration. Both Trump and Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian President, are scheduled to attend the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, in four weeks. Macron said that he had also spoken, by telephone, with Rouhani, who pledged his willingness to meet “any political leader” who would help resolve Iran’s problem. Macron told reporters that his behind-the-scenes diplomacy had reached the point at which “an agreement can be met. We know the terms, we know the objectives, but we have to just now sit around the table and make that happen.”
Trump seemed amenable. He predicted a “really good chance” that he would meet Rouhani. “If the circumstances were correct, I certainly would agree to that,” he said. Trump has long said he wants a meeting. Acting as an intermediary, Senator Rand Paul invited Zarif to visit the White House last month. Trump said he had “very good feelings“ about the French initiative. “I think that we’re going to do something. It may not be immediately, but I think, ultimately, we’re going to do something.”
In a puzzling comment based on “watching” from afar and “on gut,” Trump called Rouhani a “great negotiator.” In fact, Zarif was the lead negotiator during two years of often tortuous talks, which began in 2013, three weeks after Rouhani’s election. Rouhani also does not have the final word on any deal. In Iran’s unique power structure, its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can approve, abstain from, or reject any formula proposed by the government. He also would weigh in on any Rouhani meeting with Trump, and he has repeatedly spurned American diplomacy as duplicitous.
“I think Iran wants to get this situation straightened out,” Trump told reporters. “Now, is that based on fact or based on gut? That’s based on gut.” Sanctions have badly hurt Iran’s economy, he said. U.S. terms are “no nuclear weapons, no ballistic missiles, and a longer period of time” on so-called sunset clauses on Iran’s nuclear program. “Very simple. We can have it done in a very short period of time,” he said.
Or maybe not. On Tuesday, Rouhani appeared to impose a tough precondition on new diplomacy. “First, the U.S. should act by lifting all illegal, unjust, and unfair sanctions imposed on Iran,” he said, in a televised address. “Washington has the key for positive change. . . . So take the first step. Without this step, this lock will not be unlocked.” He added, “If someone intends to make it as just a photo op with Rouhani, that is not possible.” Iran and the United States are back to the chicken-and-egg demands that have troubled diplomacy between the two nations for forty years. And yet that was the one thing the G-7 had to show for itself this year.
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