Biarritz on the Atlantic Ocean coast in southwestern France is known as the surfing capital of Europe. Every year it hosts the world championship in which top-notch surfers are required to ride the highest and most dangerous ocean waves and emerge unscathed. They do that by simulation, appearing to touch the summit of the wave but actually staying just above it.
Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron used the same technique to host the 45th G7 summit bringing together the leaders of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan for two days of discussions and brain-storming on a number of major global issues. Compared to last year’s summit in Canada that ended in disarray and recriminations, the Biarritz event seems to have gone smoothly. Some analysts even see it as a diplomatic success for France’s young president.
If that is the case, then what is the secret behind such a success?
The main reason is that Macron organized the whole shindig in a way that allowed the participants to surf over the issues without really touching them. And when a clash seemed possible, as over the thorny issue of climate change, he made attendance optional, allowing US President Donald Trump, a climate-change-denier of long-standing, to stay away. Acknowledging the fact that G7 lacks any mechanism for the implementation of its decisions, Macron also decided that this year there would be no final communique to enumerate resolutions made by the leaders. This was in contrast with previous summits that came out with communiques as thick as Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” and then did nothing to carry them out.
Macron also ditched the tradition of group press conferences designed as a photo-op to claim harmony.
The press conference he organized had dramatis personae of just two: himself and Trump. More importantly, perhaps, the questions were tailor-made to make dodging them easy.
Macron also invited a number of “developing nation” leaders to add color to the otherwise bland event. As a sideshow he also called in Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif for an orange juice and espresso.
The Biarritz summit may have revealed what some analysts had suspected for a long time: the end of a tradition, started shortly after the Second World War, according to which Western democracies, plus Japan, always observed a measure of harmony in dealing with major global issues. That harmony had its ideological moorings in broadly liberal values regarded as sacrosanct in the context of a common struggle against Communism, in its various versions, as a challenger if not an enemy.
Biarritz, however, showed that the six-decade long harmony generated by common values and more or less similar approaches to politics is no longer unchallenged within the Western camp. While Germany’s Angela Merkel and to some extent Macron himself represented the old liberal values and modes of doing things, Trump, along with the Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte, who liked the label “anti-elite”, and Britain’s Boris Johnson, were defending the colors of a “neo-populist” movement that has also won power in India, Brazil, Hungary and Poland.
The summit was also hampered by another factor: the fading of the European Union as a leading player. Britain is in a state of non-violent war over Brexit and, regardless of which side ends up winning, is unlikely to resume the same status within or alongside the EU. Germany is heading for a period of uncertainty with Merkel’s retirement, the rise of ultra-fight groups and an economic slowdown. Italy, never truly governable at the best of times, has been plunged into a political hiatus by Mateo Salvini’s unbridled ambitions.
On the surface, Macron may appear as the only solid European leader still in power and thus duty-bound to claim the leadership of the EU as a whole. However, Macron’s electoral base is also shaky while neo-populism of both right and left continues to gain ground in France.
At the other end of the spectrum, Trump and Johnson may also appear vulnerable though for different reasons. Despite the fact that the US Democratic Party is in disarray because of a power struggle against old-style new-dealers and neo-populists of the left, it is not at all certain that Trump would be able to win a second term. A major economic downturn could deprive Trump of his key winning card. As for Johnson, he may lose a no-confidence vote in parliament as early as next month, becoming the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British history. Even if he survives the next election, Canada’s gaffe-prone Trudeau lacks the wherewithal to claim a global leadership position. That leaves Japan’s Shinzo Abe as the only G 7 leader solidly established for the next few years. Japan, however, lacks the experience, and maybe even the ambition, to seek world leadership based on its economic power.
Initially, the G7 powers resembled rivulets flowing into a major common river known as the world order. Biarritz showed they are now flowing away from that.
Nevertheless, Biarritz leaders did go through the motions in reviewing a number of issues. They agreed to do something about “on-line” global empires, perhaps by regulating and taxing them more. How this would be done is anyone’s guess, as each participant will have to sell the scheme to his own government and legislature.
The session on the environment, not attended by Trump, reiterated the desiderata already enshrined in the Paris Accords, but not endorsed through nation-by-nation legislation. The hope that a change of opinion in the United States, including in the Republican Party, may force Trump or another US administration to adopt the Paris Accords is just that- a hope.
The summit’s attempt to do “something” about fires ravaging the Amazon forests could be described as pitiful gesticulation. Brazilian President Jairo Bolsonaro expressed his people’s anger by rejecting the $10 million that the summit offered as Brazil’s share in a $22 million aid package for Amazon nations.
Over 100 million people living in and around the Amazon forests see a better, and necessarily environmentally risky, development of their resources as the only way out of abject poverty. Bolsonaro speaks for them when he accuses the rich nations of producing the bulk of the carbon in the world while asking the South Americans to remain poor in order to protect what Europeans call “the world’s breathing lungs” in the Amazon.
The summit's dealing with what the leaders label the “Russian problem” could be regarded as superficial at best. There was no analytical consensus on Vladimir Putin’s actual strategy.
Some European analysts claim Putin strives to help break up the European Union and then proceed to help dismantle the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, the EU is in a rough patch not because of anything Putin has done but because of Brexit, the rise of neo-populism and the arrogant lethargy of Brussels’ bureaucracy.
Trump, clearly does not share the European view on Putin and still thinks a deal with the Russian leader as a possibility. Bogged down in Syria with the Russian economy in a crisis, Putin may be peaking out as an opportunist player pursuing an expansionist policy. Letting Syria drain Russia’s resources is a tempting prospect. The question that Biarritz did not tackle was whether to let Putin reach his inevitable sell-by date or help give him a second life by bringing him back into the “big league” if such a thing still exists.
The summit’s half-hearted attempt at dealing with the perennial “Iran problem” turned into something of a farce.
According to French sources, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his Foreign Minister Zarif told a senior French diplomat on a visit to Tehran last month that they were prepared for a dialogue with the Trump administration provided they receive special credit facilities to cover their “basic expenses.”
These basic expenses are set at $60 billion a year needed to pay salaries of government employees, including the military and security personnel, in Iran plus stipends for Bashar al-Assad’s group in Syria, the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and various militia groups in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
A quarter of that sum could come from European Union oil imports from Iran, something what required an extension of the six months’ waiver on sanctions ordered by Trump. Another quarter would come from sale of some oil to China, India and Turkey among other nations, while Russia would cover another quarter through an oil-swap scheme. The final quarter would come from a series of sanction-busting networks Iran has set up for years often with help from Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Italy and Austria.
In exchange, Rouhani’s team would enter into negotiations about a new accord to replace the Obama “nuke deal” which Trump insists must be buried. The new accord would cover all of Trump’s 12 demands. It is almost certain that Macron initially kept those tractions secret from Trump until the US president tweeted that no one had an authority to talk on his behalf on anything regarding Iran. After that, Macron kept Trump informed but apparently prettified the whole thing by claiming that Iran had already agreed to talks that could happen “within weeks” and would accept a new treaty covering its missile projects as well. France’s prettification gained some credibility when Rouhani appeared on TV in Tehran to denounce “mere resistance” and declaring readiness to talk to anyone to secure “national interests.”
Trump sang from the Macron hymn-sheet by saying that he may obtain his photo-op with Rouhani “very soon”. Some analysts even cited New York as the venue for the putative photo-op on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly next month.
The episode inspired some jubilation in pro-Khomeinist lobbies in the West but ended within six hours as “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei ordered Rouhani to retract his earlier statement and declare that there would and could be no negotiations with Trump or any future US President.
The French scenario for bringing Iran into international fold by boosting Rouhani his team’s position inside Iran with an economic upturn and prospects of global acceptance fizzled out as quickly as it had started.
In Biarritz China, though absent, was the elephant in the room. It was, perhaps, to calm European fears of a global tariff’s war that Trump hinted at a softening of his duel with the People’s Republic over trade deficits, currency devaluation and outright dumping tactics. Trump is not going to throw in the towel yet but will re-gauge his strategy for a multi-round fight with China rather than a single round attempt at a knockout.
There is no doubt that both the US and China badly need each other. The question is who needs whom more. That uncertainty is likely to prevent both sides from pushing the conflict beyond certain limits. And that went a long way to reassure other G7 participants.