Will the G7 summit end in another Trumpian train wreck?

There was a time, not so very long ago, when international summits such as this weekend’s G7 were forums where the politically battered were able to bind their wounds and bask in the glow of international leadership. But that was before Trump.

These summits used to offer refuge to political leaders in trouble at home. No longer.

U.S. President Donald Trump approaches Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as he arrives at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Quebec, Canada, June 8, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

There was a time, not so very long ago, when international summits such as this weekend's G7 in Biarritz, France were forums where the politically battered were able to bind their wounds and bask in the glow of international leadership.

It is a tried — but perhaps no longer necessarily true — political formula, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will put it to the test this weekend.

The summit in the seaside resort town, a destination for French royalty and the global glitterati for centuries, is the last major event before the anticipated federal election call.

Trudeau heads there in the wake of an ethics commissioner report that found he violated the Conflict of Interest Act in the SNC-Lavalin affair.

The summit represents an opportunity for him to turn the page and talk about things he's more comfortable discussing.

It's also a forum for burnishing his leadership credentials, according to a political expert.

"I think for Justin Trudeau, it's really to showcase himself as a strong leader, an internationally recognized leader, someone who has a vision for his foreign policy," said Patrick Leblond of the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

"Domestically for Mr. Trudeau at the G7, it's really trying to show the Canadian population that he is the best leader for Canada internationally when it comes to moving certain files forward, when it comes to being recognized, when it comes to being taken seriously."

Trump the unpredictable

In bygone days, that might have been an easy lap around the stage for Trudeau.

That was before U.S. President Donald Trump — who last year blew up the ending of the G7 in Charlevoix, Quebec, with a bitter, personal attack on Trudeau via social media after he'd left the summit. Trump also withdrew U.S. support for the summit's closing communique.

"I think we've come to the point in the G7 where you have to expect the unexpected," said Sen. Peter Boehm, who did Canada's G7 prep work last year.

Watching from the inside, he said, it's impressive how much candid dialogue takes place at the G7 forum, making it unique among multilateral bodies such as the G20 and even NATO.

"The leaders do have a lot of cut-and-thrust in terms of what they're discussing. They can interrupt each other. This does not happen anywhere else," he said.

'Expect the worst'

Much of that, however, takes place behind closed doors. In the past, what the public saw of the G7 were carefully polished, predictable photo-ops and press conferences.

That was before Trump, said Leblond.

"With Mr. Trump, we never know," he said. "All we can do is to expect the worst. We saw it last year."

Might that capricious atmosphere rebound on Trudeau domestically this time? No one knows.

Officials in the Prime Minister's Office are downplaying any prospect of friction, noting that Trudeau and Trump have spoken on the phone several times since last year's G7 and they maintain a constructive relationship.

Although Canadian officials would not confirm it, the Americans announced Thursday that the two leaders will hold a bilateral meeting on the margins of the summit.

No communique this time

The French appear to have learned from the Canadian experience and don't plan to issue a final communique from the leaders. Instead, they appear content to focus on individual accomplishments when they're able to obtain consensus.

No communique "solves one of the problems," said Leblond.

"I think everything has been to ensure Mr. Trump has little, or minimal, [disruptive] impact."

There's an effort among some G7 participants to see two major commitments move forward: to gender equality and to fighting biodiversity loss.

Both were initiatives advanced by Canada at last year's summit in Charlevoix, Quebec.

France has agreed with Canada's push to make gender equality, violence against women and the economic empowerment of women a summit focus.

G7 environment ministers have agreed on a communique over biodiversity, but the United States has been dragged along reluctantly, according to officials from three different countries.

On Thursday, French President Emanuel Macron flagged the wildfires in Brazil as an urgent matter for discussion among the leaders.

The simmering dispute over democratic rights in Hong Kong is another issue that's expected to force its way into the discussions.

Canadian officials, speaking on background ahead of the summit, said reinforcing support among G7 partners for the release of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Chinese custody will be a priority in the coming days.

Russia is also a major focus for the French hosts, according to officials in the diplomatic community. As he did last year, Trump has agitated for the return of Russia to the G7 table.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, following her meeting Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, said Russia was originally welcomed because it was on the path toward democracy and a free market economy, but that ended with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. The door would be open to Moscow if it returned Crimea to Ukraine and ended its proxy war in the region, she added.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now