The most striking photograph to emerge from the G7 summit meeting in Biarritz, France, is one of an empty chair.
It’s the seat that President Donald Trump was supposed to occupy during a meeting today where world leaders talked about climate trends that could render parts of the planet uninhabitable if left unchecked.
Trump skipped it.
The White House put out a statement that Trump was busy talking to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and couldn’t make it—though both of those leaders found time to show up for the session. No one waited for Trump; the leaders of the world’s most economically advanced democratic nations went ahead despite his absence.
Which is becoming the norm.
With Trump at odds with much of the free world, the free world seems to be moving on without him. At the G7, leaders seemed to have given up on the prospect of forging a consensus with him on trade, climate, and even whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is friend or foe. The summit appeared to be organized in ways that diminished the likelihood of a Trumpian tantrum.
Leaders ditched the tradition of ending the summit with a full-blown communiqué—a joint statement—reflecting common values and a strategy for confronting the most vexing problems. They may have been scarred by the blowup at the end of the G7 last year in Canada. Trump withdrew from the communiqué and, after leaving Canada, insulted the summit’s host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, sending out tweets calling him “very dishonest and weak.”
Nothing like that happened in this go-round (at least as of this writing. Sitting in his cabin on Air Force One for an eight-hour flight home, Trump had ample time to grab his phone and unburden himself of any grievances he might have suppressed over the long weekend). “They’re going out of their way to accommodate his [Trump’s] whims and wishes,” Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me.
Still, Trump’s counterparts made clear that if he wasn’t willing to be a partner, they might go it alone. Trump has taken a hard-line position on Iran, pulling out of an agreement reached last year by the Obama administration aimed at curbing the country’s nuclear-weapons program. He has hit the Islamic Republic with rounds of sanctions, part of a pressure campaign that has weakened its economy. After Iran downed a U.S. drone in June, Trump came close to ordering a retaliatory military strike.
But over the weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron, acting independently, invited the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to the summit for private talks aimed at defusing tensions with the West. Trump didn’t talk to Zarif, but Macron did. The French president remains committed to the nuclear agreement that Trump has spurned, and wants to ensure that Iran respects the deal’s provisions, a French diplomat told The Guardian.
At a joint news conference today, Trump and Macron sought to downplay any differences over Iran.
“I did it on my own,” Macron said of Zarif’s appearance at the summit, adding that he kept Trump fully briefed on the diplomatic overture to Iran.
Trump had also sought to persuade his G7 counterparts to readmit Russia to the club, from which it was suspended following its annexation in 2014 of Ukraine’s Crimea. The leaders argued about it during a dinner Saturday night. Trump’s view is that Russia’s presence would be helpful in resolving disputes.
“A lot of people say having Russia, which is a power, having them inside the room is better than having them outside the room,” Trump said at the news conference with Macron.
That argument fell flat. Even his newest G7 friend, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was unmoved. “We are opposed because we see no evidence from recent Russian behavior which would warrant readmission to the G7,” a British official told me. “There has been a pattern of malign behavior from Russia—whether it’s 2016 [U.S.] election interference, the chemical attack in Salisbury [England], the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, or actions supporting the Assad regime [in Syria]—which is at odds with the principles and broader ideas around the G7.”
Next year, Trump may have more sway. The G7 will take place in the U.S., and Trump, as host, is free to invite guests, including Putin.
“Would I invite him? Certainly I would invite him,” Trump told reporters.
Trump never seemed all that eager to be in Biarritz. He looked distracted at times. His aides had told reporters that climate change is a “niche” issue that shouldn’t be a particular focus, perhaps the real reason Trump skipped the meeting. During back-to-back meetings with counterparts today, he took time to send out a tweet aiming to debunk an Axios report that he had expressed interest in using nuclear weapons to break up hurricanes.
He doesn’t much like to travel, in any case, as my colleague Elaina Plott has reported.
If he gets his way, he won’t be going far when the next G7 rolls around. He wants to hold it at his golf club in the Miami area. When he described the club and its amenities, the president noticeably perked up.
“Each country can have their own villa, or own bungalow,” he enthused.