The G7 summit, which Donald Trump just ditched, isn’t exactly the pinnacle of great-power politics. Like the World Economic Forum in Davos, it is just a nice place to be. Nothing is ever decided in either locale. The speeches are canned, the talking points carefully vetted. The key phrases of the G7 communique are hashed out ahead of the confab—globalist pap, as The Donald might bloviate.
Being there is the name of the game. It certifies lofty status for nations ranked among the top seven world economies, a wondrous photo op in front of a myriad of cameras. The G7 also offers moments of no-attention for leaders floating trial balloons offstage. Conversely, it is no honor to be disinvited, as was Vladimir Putin after he grabbed Crimea in 2014. To crib once again from Bill Clinton’s adviser, James Carville: “It’s the symbolism, stupid!” Though No. 45 is no Talleyrand, Trump does grasp the subtleties of signaling, especially when he is the butt of barely concealed ridicule as in the latest G7 iteration.
Ordinarily, the routine is lots of show and little substance. This year, it was high drama. With Trump gearing up to host the end-of-June reunion at the White House, the messaging of the rest was as understated as the rattling of a jackhammer. It started out with German chancellor Angela Merkel begging off. Normally, a good excuse is only a putsch or a deadly no-confidence vote at home. This time, Merkel’s spokesman woodenly announced that she could not attend “due to the overall pandemic situation.”
Maybe, Merkel had seen too much footage showing Trump bouncing around the West Wing without a mask on. But it was clearly a snub, which no German chancellor would have sprung on an American president in the past. So, in a fit of pique, Trump decided to call the whole thing off until September—Trump-style. You kick me, and I’ll hit back big time. For the fall meeting, he will invite not only blackballed Russia, but also South Korea, Australia, and India. No more exclusive G7, but G11, which will downgrade those contemptuous Euros, especially Mrs. Merkel, known as “Mutti”—“Mom”—in her country.
This spitting match would be eminently forgettable if it did not reveal a much larger truth. Call it “ganging up” on America, which students of international politics have been conjuring up ever since No. 45 began to demolish the global edifice (aka “world order”) the United States had built and maintained in the glory day of its diplomacy since the founding of the UN in 1944.
Thrashing Trump is not “hard balancing,” the real thing, as in centuries past, when great powers regularly combined to chasten or vanquish the tyrant du jour by formal alliance or all-out war. Nor is Donald Trump a Napoleon, Wilhelm II, Hitler, or Stalin—would-be conquerors reaching for hegemony. Call Trump Rumpelstiltskin, a spiteful little fellow out of a Grimm Brothers classic. With his uncontrolled temper, he used his magic powers to cow and extort—never mind good manners or respect for others.
In the fairy tale, Rumpelstiltskin meets his just deserts, and the normal order is restored. In real life, Germany and France, Russia and China will not join hands to rebuild what Trump has been tearing down ever since he captured the White House in 2016. His latest assault was targeted at the World Health Organization: Either my way, or you can go beg for money in Beijing. Who cares if China will dominate the WHO?
Not Donald Trump and his base back home. In one respect, “what, me worry?” is not as daft as it may sound in the words of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman. Trump is no Bismarck, who always obsessed about hostile coalitions encircling the mighty Reich. No historian either, Trump might rely on two big things. One: The vital interests of Europe, Russia, and China don’t match; hence, forget about a long-term, let alone effective ganging-up on the United States.
Two: Why fret about countervailing alliances when they cannot muster superior weight? The EU and Russia cannot compete in an Olympics-type decathlon where athletes must excel along the entire range of skills from shotput to long-distance running. An economic giant, the EU, now minus Britain, is a strategic dwarf. Putin’s Russia brilliantly exploits its military muscle where opportunities beckon and risks are low. It is still an economic waif whose fate is chained to the price of oil and gas.
China is the only worthy competitor, matching global ambition with diplomatic savvy and economic clout. It keeps multiplying its projection forces. Yet it lacks what made America great in the past: a liberal polity that identified its own interests with a benign global order. Mr. Xi is looking for satrapies, not stakeholders. And who wants to ditch American-accented English in favor of Chinese?
So, no “hard balancing,” by no means. Not even Merkel’s Berlin will want to dispense with America’s strategic umbrella to face Moscow on its own. Nor will China and Russia, natural rivals sharing a 2600-mile border, go beyond opportunistic, make-believe fraternization.
The upshot: no existential threat from any of them, singly or in combination. No rival, not even Beijing, can hope to best the United States in the hard-power, that is, military, arena. Trump’s real problem is “soft balancing.” Not to worry if the strategic line-up soundly favors the United States. Alas, even informal ganging up exacts a steep price.
The high fee of MAGA is political, and it is measured in the coinage of consent, trust, and legitimacy. These assets used to make and keep America great—even when it plunged into foolish forays like Vietnam and Iraq. War is the ultimate currency, but soft power is the low-cost capital that finances day-to-day transactions, also known as bargaining, suasion, and win-win. Donald (“I win if you lose”) has been squandering these advantages in the manner of Rumpelstiltskin from day one. So, in Forrest Gump’s immortal words as uttered by Tom Hanks: “Stupid is as stupid does.”
As petty and negligible as the G7 spat might have been in normal times, it is the proverbial flash of lightning that suddenly illuminates the harsh contours of the grand-strategic landscape. Mrs. Merkel’s refusal—and the telling silence of the rest—signals: “You have lost our trust, Mr. President,” a precious asset that pays off even in hardball realpolitik. Nations do not want to commit to a consistently erratic leader who honors only his whims, equates compulsive tweeting with diplomacy and confuses his own conceits with reason of state.
What are these folks supposed to think when Trump wants to re-invite Putin? As the new Tsar is straining to raise Russia from defeat in the Cold War, he has enacted a revisionist, nay, revanchist game against the West. He is pressing down on NATO. He is conducting cyber-war in Western domestic politics. He is abetting mass murder and depopulation in Syria and expanding across the Middle East. And now, Mr. Trump wants to pin the G7 merit badge on Putin just to spite the Europeans?
Alas, this ploy fits into a now three-year old pattern either baffling or vindictive. Why would old friends want to treat with an American president who tears up trade treaties left and right? Who alternately coddles and slams North Korea’s nuke-rattling dictator Kim Jong Un. Who praises Xi Jinping one day and sticks him with the “Chinese virus” on the next. Who speculates that injecting household disinfectants might cure COVID-19. Who is about to pull out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—from the region that has been a mainstay of U.S. grand strategy since the 1950s. Europe next?
Now, past U.S. presidents have regularly betrayed allies and clients ever since Eisenhower forced Britain and France out of the Middle East during the Suez War of 1956. Jimmy Carter first pressed Western Europe to accept U.S. neutron bombs, then he abruptly reversed himself, leaving those governments high and dry that had gone to bat for him against their electorates. This is what great powers do, sure, but none of Trump’s predecessors has put the axe to the pillars of the global order Made in U.S.A.
Forrest Gump, that daft ingenue, would know better than Donald Trump. He would point to China and Russia where they are silently cheering America’s abdication—thank you, Mr. President, for opening up so many lucrative global opportunities for us. The U.S. won’t bless Italy with medical supplies, but China did. Then, Forrest would ask: How will abandonment serve American interests in the Middle East? Next, he would turn to Europe, where major players have shifted from bewilderment to resentment and surly detachment.
Finally, Gump would move in for the punch: Mr. President, you are routinely treating foes better than friends, nations that share our values and many of our interests. Meanwhile, the United States is losing ground to China and Russia. Globalism, as you like to sneer, is in retreat while the planet is beset by snowballing turmoil; need I mention COVID and the collapsing world economy? America now needs friends more than ever to heal the world and hold the revisionists in Moscow and Beijing at bay. Why clobber and alienate them? There is no splendor in isolation, not even for the mightiest power on earth.
Gump’s counsel is not rocket science; it is Diplomacy 101. Trump, though, will stick to Deconstruction 101. This is not great for America, nor good for the rest of the world that used to look to the United States and surely would like to do so again.