Economic Storm Clouds Hover Over Trump at G7 Summit

Trump and his counterparts at summit face mounting anxiety over the state of the world economy and new tension on trade, Iran and Russia

Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron at the Biarritz lighthouse, France, Aug. 24, 2019.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Under the threatening clouds of a global economic slowdown, President Donald Trump is confronting the consequences of his preference to go it alone, with low expectations that the leaders of the richest democracies can make substantive progress on an array of issues at their summit in France.

The meeting of the Group of Seven nations — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S. — in the beach resort town of Biarritz comes at one of the most unpredictable moments in Trump’s presidency, when his public comments and decision-making increasingly have seemed erratic and acerbic of late.

Trump, who arrived Saturday, and his counterparts are facing mounting anxiety over the state of the world economy and new tension on trade, Iran and Russia. Trump, growing more isolated in Washington, might find a tepid reception at the summit as calls increase for cooperation and a collective response to address the financial downturn. White House aides claimed he engineered a late change to the summit agenda, requesting a working session on economic issues.

The economic warning signs, along with China’s aggressive use of tariffs on U.S. goods, are raising the pressure on Trump and his reelection effort. He intends to push allies at the summit to act to promote growth.

But Trump’s credibility as a cheerleader for multilateralism is in doubt, given that he has spent the first 2½ years in office promoting an “America First” foreign policy that relies on protectionist measures. Traditional American allies have come to expect the unexpected from this White House; increasingly they are looking elsewhere for leadership.

Only hours before his arrival in Biarritz, Trump had threatened anew to place tariffs on French wine imports to the U.S. in a spat over France’s digital services tax; the European Union promised to retaliate. That was the backdrop for a late addition to his summit schedule — a two-hour lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron outside the opulent Hotel du Palais.

The summit host said the two men were discussing “a lot of crisis” around the world, including Libya, Iran and Russia, as well as trade policy and climate change. But he also echoed Trump’s calls for Europe to do more to address the global slowdown, including by cutting taxes. “When I look at Europe, especially, we need some new tools to relaunch our economy,” Macron said.

Trump insisted that despite tensions, he and Macron “actually have a lot in common” and a “special relationship.” In a later tweet, he said: “Big weekend with other world leaders!

Macron outlined details of a French plan to ease tensions with Iran by allowing Iran to export oil for a limited amount of time, said a French diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with the presidency’s customary practices. In exchange, Iran would need to fully put in place the 2015 nuclear deal, reduce tensions in the Persian Gulf and open talks. The plan was met with a skeptical reception by Trump, and the White House paid only a cursory mention of the Gulf in its official readout of the lunch meeting.

Trade was clearly on Trump’s mind when he left for France. Trump declared that U.S. businesses with dealings in China are “hereby ordered” to begin moving home. It was a threat to use the emergency authority granted by a powerful, but obscure federal law intended to target rogue governments in times of declared national emergencies.

It was not immediately clear how Trump could use the act to force American businesses to move their manufacturing out of China and to the U.S, and Trump’s threat appeared premature.