President Trump could lead the G7, but may leave empty-handed.
On Friday, President Trump flies off on his first international trip since taking office. It’s unusual for a President to wait this long to travel, but nothing is normal these days.
The anchor for the trip is the G7 meeting in Italy. The G7 is a rotating annual summit of world leaders – of the 7 leading “western democracies.” These summits can be important events and they reflect a kind of faith in the power of personal relations and interaction to deliver results. It’s the kind of event designed for a deal-maker and schmoozer to use their skills. The G7 heads of state meet in person after months of discussion by their staffs working to identify important actions they can take together. Occasionally, these actions are significant.
For international development, the G7 summits have been critical inflections points. For example, the 1998 G8 summit in Birmingham, England (Russia participated back then) was a key moment in the “drop the debt” campaign to relieve poor countries of onerous and unethical debt.
In 2009, President Obama came to Italy with an agenda for the G8. The world was facing a dramatic food crisis, with food prices spiking over the course of a few months in 2007 and 2008. Experts estimated the food crisis had sent 50 million people into poverty and created food insecurity for 150 million people. President Obama saw an opportunity and cajoled a deal from the G8 to commit increased funding and support for farmers in developing countries to improve global food security. The deal was known as the L’Aquila Initiative and jointly committed countries to $23 billion in aid. It drew support not just from the G7 leaders, but also from more than a dozen additional countries and major international institutions, like the UN and the World Bank. It was, arguably, the first significant international accomplishment of the new President Obama.
President Trump, like President Obama, is heading to Italy for his first G7. Like in 2009, the world is facing an unprecedented food crisis; this time more than 20 million people in poor countries are facing a looming famine. But unlike President Obama, President Trump doesn’t seem to have an agenda or any ambition to address it. His White House is famously chaotic and under-staffed. He has been openly hostile to international institutions like the G7 (and NATO and the UN). He has been hostile to members of the G7 -Angela Merkel in particular – and obliquely to France’s newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron. He has lobbed aggressive comments at Canada about trade issues, and Japan about cost-sharing for security.
Ironically, Congress has given President Trump an important gift to bring to Italy: nearly a $1 billion in famine aid. While much more funding is needed from other donors, the US has made a large new commitment and President Trump is in a position to brag and to scold other leaders to do more – even though the additional funds were not something he pushed for. And if he chose to do that, he would have the support from Italy which, as the President of the G7, has pressed other leaders to provide not just short-term humanitarian assistance, but also long-term development aid for agriculture, food security and nutrition.
There’s no sign that President Trump will use his leverage, his leadership, or his much-advertised deal-making skills to accomplish anything at the G7. Which is sad, because another leader could do a lot in the same situation. President Obama showed what was possible, President Trump should take note.