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U.S. Tensions With Its Global Allies Are On Display At G-7 Summit


His saying is America First, so perhaps it should be no surprise that President Trump is rarely the most popular guest at global summits. But he has been trying to paint a cohesive image on some issues at least at the G-7 gathering in France over the weekend, announcing possible trade deals with Japan and the U.K. He said, while sitting next to German leader Angela Merkel, that when it comes to Iran, everyone is getting along just fine.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There has been great unity, really. I just - it's been flawless in that sense. And you know, we had a lot of fake news where they're saying, oh, there's no unity; there's no unity - but total unity.

GREENE: OK. How much unity is there really? Also, what should we take from Trump's performance at the G-7? Is he exerting American power in a productive way? And how is he managing American alliances? Well, let's get the perspective of two foreign policy-watchers who are with us - one in China, one here in the United States.

David Rennie is a writer and columnist who is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist magazine. Amanda Sloat is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She's currently advising Democrat Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign, and she worked in the State Department under President Obama with a focus, among other things, on Europe's engagement in the Middle East.

Welcome to you both to the program. Thanks for doing this.


AMANDA SLOAT: Thank you.

GREENE: David, I want to start with you, if I can. This has been a weekend of mixed messages from President Trump when it comes to China and this trade conflict we've been talking so much about. The message seems to be changing almost every day. Is there anyone - is there any way to know what Trump is trying to accomplish here?

RENNIE: Well, I think the problem is that the Trump administration is trying to accomplish more than one thing. President Trump, at least if you take his words over the last several months at face value, he has this sort of view that Chinese trade with America has stolen hundreds of billions of dollars from the U.S.

But he doesn't particularly talk about, you know, China's industrial policy or the way that China does capitalism in the way that some of his advisers do. It's really about, you know, he wants them to buy more soybeans. He wants them to pay more rent for access to the American market. It sounds like a kind of a real estate deal where a man is doing a kind of rent review. Then you have the Trump administration, who have this long, very coherent charge sheet of ways in which they want China to change its entire approach to global capitalism to do with, you know, too much state intervention, too many subsidies - things that really don't seem to interest President Trump so much.

This latest burst of kind of alternating extreme aggression - calling President Xi Jinping perhaps an enemy, at the end of last week, this kind of unprecedented language - and now his much softer language, you can see that the Chinese are really thrown by their state media today. A remarkable thing, I was looking at a state media outlet with 12 million followers on social media. They literally reported half of that tweet where, if your listeners remember, President Trump talked about - he couldn't decide whether the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Jay Powell or Xi Jinping was his bigger enemy. They literally reported the half of that tweet about Jay Powell. They just couldn't mention the Xi Jinping thing. It's just too much for them to process.

GREENE: Wow. They cut the tweet in half as it were, in a way.


GREENE: Well, it is - I mean, if you keep China guessing and throw them off, is there any argument that that could be an effective strategy in this long-running trade conflict? I mean, could this be a strategy here where you have an administration with a specific policy, and then you have a president who is just keeping the Chinese guessing and then throwing them off constantly?

RENNIE: So that's certainly what you'll hear from defenders of President Trump. And they point, with some justification, to the fact that previous presidents have tried all kinds of sort of gentler approaches based on appealing to China to see its self-interest, to become a responsible stakeholder. Remember that phrase where China was going to live up to its responsibilities as a great power and stop being a free rider on the global order?

And it's reasonable to say that, actually, that didn't really change much. You had a lot of warm words from China, a lot of promises. But actually, the abuses that American and other Western businesses complain about didn't really fundamentally change. So there was definitely an argument for a concerted, coherent push on China to really change the way that it approaches globalization and say, look, China; you're just now too big and too powerful to be behaving as if you're just kind of some underdog that doesn't have to obey the rules.

I think the heartbreaking thing for China-watchers who are looking for a more confrontational approach is that President Trump has been doing it the wrong way. That's how they would see it - that this was something you had to do, not just one country but America needed to pull in - you know, with the Europeans; you would make Japan into an ally because plenty of America's trade partners want to have the same confrontation with China. They were ready to be led in a kind of great global coalition to defend the global rules-based trading order, instead of which President Trump is kind of fighting all of his allies at the same time plus China, plus blowing hot and cold. And this is really, really making them lose faith that he knows what he's doing.

GREENE: Amanda, let me turn to you. I mean, one of the things we have seen at the G-7 is a lack of apparent unity. I mean, aren't these summits usually very scripted with few surprises? How different does this feel because of what Donald Trump has done?

SLOAT: I think you're absolutely right. I think we're increasingly seeing that America First is America alone with Trump very isolated on all of these major policy issues. There don't seem to be agreements on trade, on climate, on North Korea, on Russia or on Iran. And normally, these summits are action-forcing events that bring leaders together. And the fact that this is the first time in over four decades since the G-7 has been meeting that there's not a written communique shows how far apart the leaders are in the sense that they can't even come up with a text that is a definitive record of what they discussed and what they agreed at this meeting.

GREENE: Is there something refreshing about blowing up the script and not having a communique that's settled on months before? I mean, could that be a way to get leaders to actually dig in and talk stuff out?

SLOAT: You know, a lot of these communiques end up getting finalized on the margins of the summits. And press reports were suggesting this morning that negotiators were meeting all night to try and hammer out details. And the U.S. was blocking consensus on a number of these things. President Trump clearly has a desire not to coordinate in advance, especially on issues that he cares about, like trade.

And the problem is it makes it incredibly difficult for other foreign leaders to try and address global problems if they are not going from the same starting point. And so this summit really has been marked by a lot of confusion, surprise and mixed messages, which does not serve anyone's interests in terms of trying to address these common problems that we share.

GREENE: Does America alone, if that's indeed what's happening, have lasting consequences?

SLOAT: Absolutely. I think it's undermining the role of U.S. leadership. I think it is preventing us from trying to find collective solutions to all of these things that we are facing, not least on climate change. But given the way that Trump has approached the summit, it's made it very difficult to address some of the pressing issues. For example, French President Macron set this up as a way of discussing Russian intervention in Ukraine, and Trump ended up turning this into a separate discussion about whether or not Russia should be invited back to the G-7. His continued messaging on China, which has created some whiplash, again, has made it very difficult for leaders to try and take a collective approach to addressing some of these challenges.

GREENE: David, let me ask you - I mean, President Trump would make the argument that American power - exerting it, showing it on the world stage - is not just good for the United States. It's good for the world. I mean, does America emerge stronger from a summit like this or not?

RENNIE: So clearly, he has a constituency who want to see America sounding tough and looking tough and, frankly, being more selfish. And I've been in China now for, you know, about 15 months. But before that, I was based in Washington, D.C., for six years, and so I covered the 2016 election. And I don't doubt at all that President Trump is speaking for a lot of Americans who look at the blood and treasure that America has spent over the last, you know, couple of decades. And they think, well, we didn't seem to get much out of that, and the rest the world is, you know, ready to take us for a ride.

But the problem is if you look around the world at who's happy with President Trump tearing up these alliances, it's countries like China, Russia. The North Koreans are pretty happy with him right now. Look at who's unhappy. It's his European allies and oldest friends. And that, I think, should give Americans pause for thought.

GREENE: All right. David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist magazine. Amanda Sloat is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution - talking to both of them about the G-7 summit, President Trump's performance and American power. Thank you both. We really appreciate the time this morning.

RENNIE: Thank you.

SLOAT: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.