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How Trump's G-7 agenda was derailed by a smooth-talking Emmanuel Macron

Unlike last year, the American president failed to stir chaos at this month's summit in France, in large part because of the French president’s diplomatic efforts.
Image: France's President Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump during a joint-press conference at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France
French President Emmanuel Macron and President Donald Trump at a joint news conference at the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, on Monday, Aug. 26, 2019.Ludovic Marin / AFP - Getty Images

More than two months before the D-Day invasion of France, dozens of B-24 American bombers devastated the elegant but Nazi-occupied seaside resort of Biarritz, all but obliterating vast stretches of the town. This past weekend, the leaders of the nations that make up the G-7 — President Donald Trump, French President Emanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Japan, Italy and Canada — gathered at the same seaside village. Several days later, this group of leading industrial nations seems to have left their alliance in better shape than the Allied bombers left Biarritz 75 years ago, despite, at times, the best efforts of Trump.

In the end, Trump was mostly unable to use the meeting to successfully push his agenda or play to the interests of his political base.

In the end, Trump was mostly unable to use the meeting to successfully push his agenda or play to the interests of his political base. He also failed to blow up the conference as he did after last year’s session in Charlevoix, Canada, in large part because of Macron’s intense and adroit diplomatic efforts.

At the same time, it’s not impossible that Trump may have recognized that he had somewhat overplayed his hand in past years, winning little for his efforts. As the incoming leader of the global body, he has more to gain by accommodation — of sorts — than open conflict. But with a succession of comments, innuendos and reversals by Trump, it was still hard to emerge from this weekend without at least a little bit of whiplash.

In public, it was certainly all friendship and bonhomie. And while Trump still sought from the beginning to bend this conference to his will, host Macron mostly prevailed. “The summit, which promised to be difficult amidst rivalries between leaders weakened or focused on their domestic policy issues, has so far been a success for the French president,” the leading French daily Le Monde observed on Monday. Another center-right daily, Le Figaro, in an online poll showed 72 percent of respondents saw Macron’s efforts as a success.

As Air Force One was touching down at Bordeaux, Macron was already going on French television to set the tone and the agenda. He stressed the importance of working to mitigate climate change (and Trump’s reluctance to do so) while also finding some common ground with Iran and keeping Russia at bay. Macron then promptly ambushed Trump, waiting at the opulent Hôtel du Palais for him to arrive and shanghaiing the president into a 90-minute, unanticipated lunch.

On Iran, among the more contentious issues this weekend, Trump was said to have been surprised by the arrival of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday afternoon in Biarritz. This followed a long and reportedly contentious session over dinner on Saturday night that ended with leaders agreeing Iran should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons or destabilize the Middle East — effectively moving closer to the American position.

At a farewell news conference, Macron noted he had even managed to finesse “conditions for a meeting” between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, apparently without many of the conditions Americans have insisted on in the past two years.

Macron also worked hard behind the scenes to control the narrative surrounding Trump and Johnson, who became Britain's prime minister last month. Macron held a get-together before the official start of the summit at the Elysée Palace in Paris with Johnson, a self-proclaimed U.S. ally who no doubt appreciates Trump’s support for his strong pro-Brexit plan. Macron warned that Johnson could become little more than a “vassal” if he became “a junior partner of the United States."

Indeed, despite his burgeoning friendship with Trump, Johnson told reporters he was not all on board with America’s ongoing trade war with China. “Just to register a faint, sheep-like note of our view on the trade war — we are in favor of trade peace on the whole," Johnson said.

And speaking of trade, Trump claimed that high-level talks will be resuming with China. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he had heard of no new contacts, however.

And speaking of trade, Trump claimed that high-level talks will be resuming with China. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he had heard of no new contacts, however.

At least one concrete agreement was hammered out outside the framework of the full G-7. On Sunday afternoon, the press pool was summoned into a meeting room with Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe where both announced a joint trade deal. Later, however, it emerged that the entire agreement was still a barebones framework. This makes some sense given that past trade pacts with Japan have often dragged on well past initial announcements. Work on the Japan-E.U. trade agreement which came into force last February began in 2013.

(Still, amidst what appeared to be moves toward a cordial détente on trade, the two appeared to be barely on the same page regarding North Korea. Trump observed he was “not happy” with recent North Korean missile tests, prompting a sharp response from Abe who emphasized North Korea’s threat to Japan.)

At Saturday’s dinner, Trump provoked what he described as a “lively discussion,” when he sought Russia’s re-entry to the group. Let's be clear: Russia will likely not be re-admitted. As host of next year’s G-7, Trump could invite Putin to attend as an observer. But since the gathering will be taking place in the final months of his re-election campaign, it’s hard to see how pushing for Putin would help Trump.

The most critical question to emerge from this G-7 was just how much permanent damage has been done to the world order. Indeed, as Trump prepares to step into the critical role of G-7 president, can the United States be truly counted on?

But Macron, for one, appeared confident that all was not lost. Sunday afternoon, television cameras caught Johnson congratulating the French leader on his deft handling of Trump and the Saturday night dinner. “You did very well last night. My God, that was a difficult one,” Johnson said.

In fact, Macron — the leader of the G-7 until the end of the year — may just be getting started.