The G7 leaders plan to confront Trump on trade. So who goes first?

U.S. President Donald Trump will make the trip to Charlevoix, Que. for the opening of the G7 leaders summit today after all. The other leaders have made it clear he needs to be confronted on trade. What isn't clear is who's going to do the confronting.

The other six G7 members are not as united as they might like

U.S. President Donald Trump's imposition of tariffs on steel and aluminum against some of his country's closest allies has set the stage for a potentially combative G7 leaders summit this weekend. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)

By all accounts, he'd really rather be somewhere else — preferably at home in his own bed, with his own remote control — and not in Canada being criticized by his annoyingly earnest counterparts in the G7.

But U.S. President Donald Trump will make the trip to Charlevoix, Que. today after all.

That may be a small victory for Canada as the host country. It also will give world leaders a chance for face time with the president, to express their frustration over a long list of issues with his administration.

That will make for some difficult conversations. Trump's chief economic adviser Larry Kudlow predicts he will "talk tough" and will be "sticking to his guns" on the tariff dispute that has riven the first-world leaders' club.

That's been happening already. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Emmanuel Macron of France both had unpleasant conversations with the volatile U.S. president when they called him to remonstrate over the tariffs. Trudeau's exchange with Trump famously included the president pointing out that "you guys burned the White House" (or words to that effect).

The personal dynamics

It's no secret that Trump likes to be the centre of attention. He will certainly get his wish in Quebec.

But he does not like multilateral arrangements, such as summits, and has said so. He skipped the Summit of the Americas in Peru in April, sending Vice-President Mike Pence in his stead.

There's no getting around the fact that Trump's personality can make him difficult to handle.

He doesn't like criticism, as several former cabinet members and staffers can confirm. Indeed, if his televised cabinet meetings are any guide, Trump's idea of a meeting is to go round the table and have others compete in lavishing him with praise.

All of that raises the question of which G7 leader will take the lead in confronting him.

The cost of confrontation

In an old fable, the mice all assemble in a summit to address the question plaguing their community: the cat keeps on surprising them, pouncing and picking them off one by one. What to do?

Then one mouse has a brilliant idea: tie a bell around the cat's neck so he can't sneak up on anybody anymore. 

"Brilliant!" say the other mice. Then one mouse raises an awkward question — who bells the cat?

Certainly, most of the other six leaders present this weekend want Trump to hear the message that his actions are endangering old alliances, as well as the rules-based system of international trade.

But who among them wants to take the lead and risk his ire?

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte seems particularly ill-suited to take up the banner of free trade. He's been in office all of a week, represents a Trump-like populist coalition held together mainly by mutual hostility toward foreigners, and used his maiden speech to call for closer ties with Russia.

Trudeau might shoulder the responsibility as host of the summit. But he also leads the nation that has most to lose from a trade war with the U.S.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and French President Emmanuel Macron struck a united front on U.S. tariffs at a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa ahead of the G7 leaders summit. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

Macron has been cast as a Trump whisperer, after flattering the U.S. president's ego by hosting him at a Bastille Day military parade in Paris. But as he reportedly found out during a recent phone call to the Oval Office, that doesn't give him license to criticize.

Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel is the senior statesperson of the group, and is famous for her ability to be both frank and diplomatic at the same time. But Trump dislikes her and hasn't bothered to hide it.

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May, like other U.K. leaders before her, is keen to preserve the mythical "special relationship" with the U.S. — so much so that she seems wary of actually using it. If she tried to, it might well turn out to be less special than the British like to think.

Japan brings its own issues

Like Macron and Trudeau, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe worked to establish a personal rapport with the U.S. president, and appears to have been successful. Abe is of Trump's generation, unlike the youthful Frenchman and Canadian, and is a fellow conservative.

But the other leaders, watching Abe fly to Washington for private talks just a day before the G7 opened, surely will have concluded that he can't be counted on to be part of a unified front. And Abe's joint news conference with Trump made it clear that he won't be the one to challenge the tariffs.

The subject of North Korea and next week's summit with the U.S. dominated Thursday's White House press conference with U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Like Trump, Abe almost certainly considers the pending summit with North Korea's Kim Jong-Un to be more important than this one. Japan is within easy range of even the older North Korean missiles and has no deterrent of its own. And unlike the western G7 members, Japan is not a member of NATO's mutual defence pact; its security is wholly dependent on its 1960 defence pact with the U.S.

Moreover, the Japanese are less affected by the tariffs than some of the other members. Eighty per cent of its steel is sold within Asia, only 5 per cent to the U.S.

And the Japanese sell specialty steels into the U.S. market that will be difficult for U.S. buyers to source domestically. When that happens, U.S. buyers are allowed to seek a tariff exemption for that specific product. Japan is counting on those exemption requests to further reduce the harm to their producers.

And so, Japan may give Trump a chance to change the subject from trade to security.

The trouble with 'facts'

Whoever attempts to bell the cat might want to avoid some of the errors the media have made in trying to understand Trump. 

The trade experts journalists ask to explain Trump's trade actions are well-qualified to describe their likely effects. But to understand the motivations behind them, we might be better off speaking to a psychologist.

It's not that Trump hasn't heard the facts. He surely heard them from his former economic adviser Gary Cohn, a strong advocate of free trade. He has heard them from Larry Kudlow, the free-trader who replaced Cohn.

Having foreign leaders repeat the same lines he has heard from his own people is unlikely to produce a breakthrough. 

And if Donald Trump believes America has been pushed around in "terrible" trade deals, and wants to show his base that he is now standing up for the country, will he allow himself to be publicly turned from his course by a group of pushy foreign leaders ganging up on him?


Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 25 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.


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