Trump sours agreement at G7 on climate change, refugee crisis

The G7 ended in Sicily on Saturday after one of its most challenging summits in many years. Although a communiqué was issued that reflects the shared horror at the Manchester attacks and a commitment to fighting protectionism, the meeting was a disappointment, failing to achieve numerous of the objectives, including agreeing to a strong statement on tackling climate change.

United States President Donald Trump, who was at the top table of global diplomacy for the first time, ensured low expectations for the summit were borne out. This reflects not just disagreements between him and other G7 leaders on issues like global warming.

Italy’s preparation for the big event was hampered by the slow nature of the Trump administration’s transition in Washington since January. For instance, many key US State Department and ambassadorial roles have yet to be filled and this limited US engagement with Italy over the summit agenda.

The Italian hosts were particularly disappointed not to secure a stronger statement of support and a comprehensive action plan for greater international action to tackle the migration crisis, the worst since World War II, especially given that more half a million migrants have reached Italy by boat since 2014. Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni had wanted to make a particular push to foster stability in Libya, which split into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms after the Gaddafi regime’s collapse.

The summit was deliberately held in Sicily, about 225km from the African continent, to highlight these pressing problems. There was no strong consensus among the G7 leaders. Trump sought to water down Italian proposals for resettling migrants, preferring  instead to stop people crossing borders – in line with his stance to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US.

Another letdown was failure to get a strong supportive statement for the Paris climate change treaty, despite other G7 leaders lobbying Trump. This was blocked by the US president who decided to defer, until after the summit, a decision on whether the US will continue to support the global warming accord.

Although the summit had a broad agenda, including international economics, the Manchester attacks and the brewing nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula – which could yet becomes Trump’s first major foreign policy crisis – ensured that geopolitical and security issues dominated. The centrepiece was a new action plan which, in Gentiloni’s words, sends “the strongest possible message of a common, extraordinary commitment against terrorism”.

What the summit underlined, yet again, is the G7’s often under-appreciated importance as an international security lynchpin. The group was originally conceived in the 1970s to monitor developments in the world economy and assess macroeconomic policies.

The new terror plan continues much of the work of the past including, those taken after the September 2001 attacks, when the group (then including Russia) assumed a key role in the US-led “campaign against terrorism”. Yet, its involvement in security issues is not limited to counter-terrorism.

Ukraine was also a topic of discussion, given that the G7 has helped co-ordinate the Western response to the crisis there. The Japanese, US, Canadian, German, French, United Kingdom and Italian leaders renewed their support for Kiev and there is little sign that Moscow will be invited back any time soon. Russia has been told it can only rejoin if “it changes course and an environment is once again created in which it is possible for the G8 to hold reasonable discussions”.

The G7’s involvement in this multitude of geopolitical and security dialogues is not without controversy, given its original macroeconomic mandate. For instance, China strongly objected to discussion of maritime security in Asia at last year’s Japan-hosted summit.

It is also sometimes asserted, especially by developing countries, that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the UN to engage in these international security issues. But it is not the case that the international security role of the G7 is new. An early example of this role was in the 1970s and 1980s, when the body helped co-ordinate Western strategy towards the then-Soviet Union.

The Manchester attacks – which the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for – not only shaped the G7, but also the Nato summit on Thursday. Even before the atrocity, the Trump team had been planning to push other Nato members hard for the military organisation to assume a stronger status in tackling the Islamic State in the Middle East.

Trump won a limited victory on this point, with Nato leaders agreeing that the organisation will become a full member of the global coalition against the Islamic State. Trump was supported in his ambition by multiple southern European countries, including Spain, Italy and Portugal, which assert the military alliance lacks a coherent strategy for tackling the root causes of the migrant and refugee crisis in Europe which emanates, in part, from the network’s activities.

Specific practical support that NATO will provide includes AWACS surveillance planes to help improve airspace management. A terrorism intelligence cell will also be created to improve sharing information about foreign fighters.

Although Trump will toast his success, France and Germany pushed back hard against Nato assuming a combat role against the Islamic State. Paris and Berlin blocked this not just because of Russian concerns about an expanding global footprint for Nato. They are acutely aware of the mixed record of the alliance in Afghanistan, which was its longest ever military campaign.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond works from Oxford/Istanbul. PhD researcher: Islamic history and thought Turkey, Egypt, Gulf. Mideast politics. @StAntsCollege, Oxford. Previous @PembrokeOxford, BBC Arabic, @ECFR, Reuters Andrew Hammond has over 6420 followers on Twitter.

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