The Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Taormina, Italy on May 26-27 will be the next best chance to figure out the Trump administration’s direction on global economic matters. Will President Trump approach the summit confrontationally, dividing the industrial democracies and harming the international liberal order in the process, as some observers worry? Or, will he, as others suggest, retreat to a predictably Republican strategy of combining targeted criticism of globalization with practical support for the liberal international economic system?
G-7 summits are highly orchestrated affairs that send powerful signals around the world about the cohesiveness of the world’s largest industrial democracies and the state of global commerce. They bring together the chiefs of government from the seven largest industrial democracies, which together are responsible for a third of global trade.
Formed during the 1970s’ cascading crises in the international monetary, trade, and energy areas, G-7 became a means for managing complex economic and political issues that confronted the industrial democracies. The leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and Canada established the forum to better understand each other’s priorities and policies and to coordinate responses to common global challenges. Since their first summit in 1975, leaders have used the annual meetings to reaffirm their commitments to economic openness and to fighting trade protectionism.
Here are three things to watch from this week’s summit.
1. Will the Trump administration criticize the G-7?
If the Trump administration were intent on taking the U.S. in a protectionist, isolationist and even authoritarian direction, there might be no quicker or more effective way than to withdraw U.S. participation from the G-7. But a decision was made early on that Trump would travel to Europe for the summit.
But attendance alone isn’t enough to let us judge the new administration’s long-term ambitions. Were Trump intent on fundamentally rewriting global trade rules, he could undermine the credibility and importance of the G-7 through rhetorical swipes and by questioning the principles for which it stands, much as the administration has done with respect to the WTO or United Nations. We haven’t seen that yet. To date, the administration hasn’t made any major announcement that questions the G-7’s legitimacy or value.
2. Will there be a statement on protectionism?
The G-7 has been credited for saving free trade in the 1970s when nations were tempted to pass protectionist laws and regulations. Since the first summit in 1975, the gathering has annually pledged in favor of free trade and explicitly condemned protectionism.
The Trump administration has left observers wondering whether the U.S. will support such an endorsement at this meeting. In March, observers were startled when Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused to endorse anti-protectionism at a Group of 20 meeting of finance ministers and central bankers representing roughly 80 percent of the global economy. Similarly, at the May 11-13 meeting in Bari, Italy, G-7 finance ministers and central bankers did not issue the customary statement about resisting protectionism.
So what will happen in Taormina? If the group issues a communique that hedges about conditions under which protectionism is permitted, that would be a major shift in G-7 practice — and would show that the Trump administration can bend the will of others.
But that’s not likely to happen. In Bari, though there was no full-hearted support of free trade and only a vague commitment to “strengthen the contribution of trade to our economies,” government officials included no language endorsing even vaguely any protectionist policies.
The Trump administration is limited in political terms at home in what it can agree to in Taormina. Political scientists may recognize the G-7 as Robert Putnam’s original case study of how domestic commercial considerations affect international negotiations.
If Trump were to join a strong anti-protectionism pledge, rejecting tariffs or other measures that would guard U.S. manufacturing, it would undermine his appeal to Rust Belt voters. At the same time, it would be very difficult to negotiate language that supports protectionist measures to be included in the final communique. Not only would that be unprecedented, but the other G-7 countries would be strenuously opposed, as would U.S. export-oriented industry and services sectors. The Bari statement makes clear that the most likely result is a Taormina communique that neither condemns protectionism, nor strongly embraces free trade.
Practically, that would mean a status quo future, despite any rhetoric to the contrary.
3. Will President Trump stand for the G-7 ‘family photo’?
Taormina will be a success if the meeting isn’t much different from the ones that have gone before — which is to say, a quick celebration of unity among industrialized states. The summit will have happened under summer skies, the news media will run stories of largely content government leaders, the group will have issued a joint communique, and there will be many pictures of the G-7 leaders.
Those photos matter. They are supposed to convey a team spirit in which leaders are intensely at work with much camaraderie, as a united front. That’s especially true for the so-called family photo in which leaders stand next to one another.
If the world sees a family photo with Trump standing next to the leaders of the six largest industrialized democracies, other countries will conclude that his administration supports continuity in global economic relations, and isn’t really focused — despite the rhetoric — on radically upending the G-7’s long-standing order. That will be especially true if stories emerge of a confident Trump attempting to charm others, much as George W. Bush tried in the midst of the Iraq War crisis.
What would be the signs of difficulties?
So what would do the opposite? Any of these: Before the summit, news would leak of Trump and his advisers questioning the legitimacy of the G-7. The press would report that the U.S. tried to scuttle a joint communique, or that Trump appears unengaged or hostile toward his G-7 counterparts. Or Trump would neglect to stand for the family photo.
Any of those would signal — loudly — that the U.S. is on a collision course with the strongest supporters of the international liberal order.
Orfeo Fioretos is associate professor of political science at Temple University, Philadelphia, who most recently edited International Politics and Institutions in Time (Oxford University Press, 2017). Follow him @OFioretos.
You might also be interested in: