The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Russia’s relationship with the G-7 collapsed

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.

President Trump flies to France this weekend to attend the Group of Seven summit. But rather than planning for his meetings with world leaders in Biarritz, the U.S. leader is instead fixating on one country that won’t be in attendance. “I think it’s much more appropriate to have Russia in,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

Russia’s participation in the annual meetings of some of the world’s largest advanced economies was suspended after it annexed Crimea in 2014 — turning what had been a summit of eight nations back into a Group of Seven, with Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan the remaining non-U.S. members.

Now, Trump thinks the country should rejoin. “As you know, for most of the time, it was the G-8,” Trump said at the White House. “It included Russia. And President Obama didn’t want Russia in because he got outsmarted. Well, that’s not the way it really should work.”

This isn’t the first time that Trump has made this suggestion. Last year, ahead of his trip to the summit in Quebec, Trump said he thought Russia should be allowed back in the club. “It may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run,” he told reporters.

The president has a long history of using friendly language to talk about Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as his administration remains at odds with the Kremlin. But as nonsensical as it is, the idea of a return to the G-8 may now be gaining traction: It would be too late for Russia to be invited to this year’s event, but next year’s summit is due to be held in the United States, giving Trump considerable say over how the event will proceed.

Citing a senior administration official, CNN reported this week that Trump had suggested that Russia be reinvited to the gathering next year during a phone call with Emmanuel Macron and that the French president agreed.

Trump’s hope for having Russia rejoin the G-7 is based on both a misunderstanding of the nature of the club and also that of modern Russia. But if it were to go ahead, it would be another blow for what was designed to offer a unified front to some of the world’s biggest problems.

The United States led the creation of what is now the G-7 during the height of the Cold War. George Shultz, then-President Richard Nixon’s treasury secretary, convened a meeting between the finance ministers of Britain, France and West Germany in the White House library in 1973. It became known as the “Group of Five” when Japan joined and would soon expand further.

In theory, the club’s membership was limited to the largest “advanced economies” in the world, as designated by the International Monetary Fund. But it was an informal membership in practice, based more around shared ideals of capitalism and democracy than hard numbers.

With that in mind, President Bill Clinton argued in 1997 that Russia should be invited into the club. They were the following year. The argument wasn’t because of the size of Russia’s economy, still at that point devastated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but that Russia was no longer a Cold War enemy and allowing it in the group could ease Moscow’s tensions with it’s neighbors.

“We get ’em into the G-7 and they get out of the Baltics. If they’re part of the big boys’ club, they’ve got less reason to beat up on the little guys,” was the reasoning Clinton used, former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott wrote in his memoir.

It was a similar logic to that of the 2001 decision to allow China to join the World Trade Organization — with similarly dismal results. While this bargain initially worked well while Boris Yeltsin was Russian president, under his successor Vladimir Putin it crumbled. Russia’s membership of the G-8 was suspended in 2014 after Russia annexed the peninsula of Crimea from its neighbor Ukraine and supported an anti-state insurgency in east Ukraine.

Russia hasn’t changed its behavior for the better since. After its expulsion, it intervened in the Syrian war to keep dictator Bashar al-Assad in power and it interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. It has done nothing to repair its relations with the G-7 members, let alone relinquish Crimea or repair relations with Ukraine.

But in hindsight, Russia’s membership of the G-8 never made any sense. Even now, the country’s gross domestic product lies behind other nonmember democracies such as India and Brazil and barely ahead of South Korea and Australia. In its annual report, Freedom House lists it as “not free,” just as it does another country with a far larger economy that isn’t a member of the G-7: China.

Meanwhile, the rise of the G-20, a broader grouping of the world’s largest economies that includes countries such as China, India and Brazil, has overshadowed its relevance of the G-7. At its peak in the 1980s, the aggregate GDP of the group was almost 70 percent of the global economy, but it has dropped to below 50 percent in recent years.

Under Trump, the body’s political relevance has been severely diminished. With its informal decision-making process, the group is only strong when its members were aligned — such as when the other seven members of G-8 suspended Russian membership in 2014.

But that sort of unity is nowhere to be seen now. At last year’s G-7 meeting in Quebec, Trump openly feuded with his host Justin Trudeau after the Canadian prime minister criticized U.S. trade policy. The president left Canada early, skipping a discussion about global climate change, and later withdrew American support for a joint statement with other member nations he had backed just hours earlier.

Trump left Canada early to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in Singapore. This pattern of favoring adversaries over allies continues: On the same day that Trump called for Russia to be reinstated to the G-7, he canceled a planned visit to Denmark because Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the president’s idea of an American purchase of Greenland was “absurd.”

Despite Trump’s wishes and Macron’s apparent approval, Russia may not end up back in a G-8. Last year, Russian leaders laughed off Trump’s suggestion. “The G-8 needs Russia much more than Russia needs the G-8,” said lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign relations committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament.

But keeping Putin out wouldn’t be much of a respite for the club — these days, the biggest threat to the G-7 lives not in Moscow, but Washington.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday, along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions? Sign up for the Today’s WorldView newsletter.