G7, Gee Whiz (May 19, 2023)
Welcome to Home & Away. President Biden is in Japan for the Group of Seven (G7) meeting, which captures what this newsletter is all about in that the president is overseas but he is being pulled back home (literally) because of events here…and he is being viewed by his counterparts as much through the lens of American politics as he is through that of U.S. foreign policy.
First, some background. The G7 was created some fifty years ago as a way of broadening Western consultations in two ways: by including the economic along with the political-military normally covered in the halls of NATO, and by bringing in Japan, which had been largely outside the most important consultations as it was not a member of NATO and was seen as too insignificant economically and militarily to include.
The G7 has been somewhat sidelined over the decades by the Group of Twenty (G20) and various institutions and gatherings that involve China, Russia, India, and others. In the late 1990s, the G7 was expanded to the G8 by including Russia, one attempt to integrate Russia following the end of the Cold War. But Russia was suspended in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea. Ironically, the G7’s narrow Western, democratic, Euro-centric composition (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the U.S., with the EU represented as well) makes it more relevant than usual this year given the focus on Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, which in many ways pits the West against much of the rest of the world that has chosen either to side with Russia or hedge.
But Ukraine will not be the sole focus of the get-together by any means. The war highlights the permanence of old-fashioned aggression in international relations, which underscores the threat posed by an ever more capable China that covets Taiwan. How to deal with China in the economic realm is no less central an issue, something the G7 is not well positioned to resolve given a lack of consensus in the room over how tough a stance to take toward China and the extent to which global supply chains need to be rethought with an eye toward reducing dependence on China.
There is as well the nuclear issue. This G7 is meeting in Hiroshima, the city most associated with nuclear weapons. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, whose family hails from Hiroshima and who represented the city in Japan’s House of Representatives, is committed to moving the world in the direction of nuclear disarmament, but the reality is that nuclear weapons are assuming greater prominence in international politics. Indeed, the two fastest growing nuclear arsenals in the world are in Japan’s neighborhood, namely, China and North Korea. Then there is the reality that U.S.-Russia arms control is on life support (amidst threats by Russia to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine) and Iran has reduced the time it would need to develop a nuclear weapon from close to a year to under a month. All of which suggests the gap will be large between what is said at Hiroshima and what is happening elsewhere.
The reason, though, this year’s meeting so captures the essence of Home & Away is that President Biden’s presence will be seen by many of his counterparts through two distinct lenses. The first is the battle of the debt ceiling, which underscores just how divided the United States is politically and how worryingly dysfunctional the world’s most economically important country is. (Genuine negotiations have begun, which means the White House has jettisoned its never credible stance that it would only accept a clean increase in the ceiling. What remains to be seen is whether a deal comes together given expected pushback from both ends of the political spectrum and, if so, what the details are as to what spending is limited or otherwise conditioned.)
The fact that the president is cutting his trip to Asia short (he is no longer stopping in Australia for a Quad meeting or Papua New Guinea to announce a new security pact with the country) makes a bad situation worse as it signals that domestic matters are taking precedence over international concerns. The United States can talk all it wants about long-term strategic competition with China and its commitment to the Indo-Pacific, but that sounds increasingly hollow amidst canceled travel that signals a de-prioritization of the region, not to mention its lack of a credible economic strategy, something epitomized by U.S. failure to join the region’s principal trade pact, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (now known as CPTPP). The very notion that the United States might act so irresponsibly as to default on its debt reinforces the increasingly prevalent belief that it has become a much less reliable partner.
As if this were not enough there is as well the uncertainty hanging over the 2024 presidential election. Donald Trump is the uninvited, unwelcome, invisible, but all the same felt presence at the G7. The prospect of Trump 2.0, which would almost certainly be a far less constrained version of the Trump the world witnessed from 2017-2021, adds to doubts about the United States. Until 2016, America's allies and partners cared about political outcomes here but not desperately. What major party candidates had in common was always far greater than their differences. Policy continuity could safely be predicted to be greater than any change. This is no longer true. And for our friends who depend on us it is understandably unnerving.
The other big international story of the week is Turkey. Hopes were high that the Turkish voters, after two decades of democratic backsliding, economic incompetence, and foreign policy irresponsibility, would finally turn out Erdogan. No such luck.
Actually, the outcome could not have been better for Erdogan. His AKP party will control the parliament. He won a plurality in the first round, which makes him the overwhelming favorite to win the second and final vote, especially as most of the votes of the third place uber-nationalist candidate will likely go to him. But even the fact that there will be a second round adds credibility to the process and to Erdogan despite all he has done to weaken Turkish democracy.
If, and I fear, when, Erdogan wins, the result will be that Turkey will remain an ally but not a partner. That means it will stand in the way of Sweden’s NATO accession, it will help Russia evade sanctions, it will pose a threat to Greece, and it will remain illiberal at home. There is precious little to do about this, as there is no mechanism in the NATO treaty for expelling a member. All of which is to say that a genuine alliance relationship with Turkey will have to wait until that country has new leadership.
Otherwise, over this past weekend the state of Israel turned 75. It is a moment of celebration and concern, as the country has arguably never been more secure from external threat and more vulnerable to things domestic. I am writing a column on this that I hope to share next week.
One last domestic item is worth noting. As expected, the Supreme Court avoided doing anything to reinterpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The companies that provide social media platforms will remain essentially free from liability for the content that they host. This means that social media will continue to pose problems for American democracy, meaning we will need to do more in our schools and beyond to teach citizens to be more discerning consumers of information or more accurately misinformation.
On my home front, I will be watching the PGA Championship, which returns to Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York. Even golf cannot escape the Home & Away tensions, in that the PGA Championship (as one of the four major tournaments played each year) allows those who have defected to the Saudi-backed LIV tour to participate. What is at stake then is not just one of golf’s major prizes but the future structure of professional golf. Here, too, there will be more to say in a week’s time.
As always, some links to click on. And feel free to share Home & Away.
Richard Haass in the news
Monday, May 15: MSNBC Morning Joe on Trump vowing to bring back Michael Flynn if re-elected.
Friday, May 19: Presider for CFR’s CEO Speaker Series With PayPal President and Chief Executive Officer Dan Schulman.
Washington Post Early 202 Newsletter Q&A on how the rest of the world perceives the debt limit standoff.
Check out The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.