Policy Q&A: Sen. Peter Boehm on Canada, Trump and the G7

PM Trudeau speaks with President Trump during the G7 in Charlevoix. June 8, 2018. Adam Scotti photo


In the wake of Donald Trump’s postponement of the Camp David G7, Policy Magazine Associate Editor Lisa Van Dusen interviewed Senator Peter Boehm,  former ambassador and Canadian Sherpa for the 2018 Charlevoix G7, by email.

June 2, 2020

Lisa Van Dusen: Were you surprised that Donald Trump postponed the G7?

Peter Boehm: I am not at all surprised. It is pandemic time. Large meetings, conventions and gatherings are being cancelled or postponed all over the world and even a scaled-down G7 Summit, if held in person, would involve thousands of people involved in security, logistics, media preparations and operations. That is one factor. Also, there’s the fact that there was no consensus among the leaders to accept President Trump’s quickly-issued invitation, since in most instances leaders’ attendance (and return) would need to follow the pandemic behavioural guidelines their own governments established. The “dean” of the group, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, made public comments to that effect. A last factor would be the substance of the summit. Leaders do not wish to fly into political and media uncertainty.

LVD: If you were still briefing Prime Minister Trudeau on G7 matters, what would you advise him to do? Would boycotting the rescheduled summit in the fall be among the serious options at this stage, given events in the US?

PB: It would be very odd and counterproductive for Canada to boycott a US event for a gathering that we traditionally care about. Other than the precedent set in 2014 when the G7 indicated it would boycott the G8 Sochi Summit over the Russian takeover of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine, there have been no boycotts.  Dialogue remains important and all G7 members would expect greater clarity on US plans for an autumn summit in terms of both content and format. Leaders and Sherpas speak frequently with each other and Prime Minister Trudeau has done a lot of that in the past few months. There have been a number of G7 virtual ministerial meetings chaired by the US, comprising finance, health as well as science and technology ministers. This evolving agenda will no doubt be discussed by leaders. Given the velocity of global developments so far this year, the fall still seems very far away. Prudence will be key.

LVD: Having dealt with Trump’s antagonism toward the G7 directly during and after the 2018 G7 and more broadly as an observer, do you think his goal is to mothball the group notwithstanding his musings about expanding the membership? Is that the sense among your former colleagues/international diplomats?

PB: Over time, and not just with the Trump administration, the United States has had a bit of schizophrenic relationship with many of the global multilateral institutions it had been so instrumental in creating after World War II. The US traditionally prefers visible solidarity with “the like-minded”. But when consensus is not evident, or traditional allies will not bend or compromise, it will also go alone. The imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs on  G7 countries in 2018, when in fact Canada as chair was working on a potential steel oversupply solution with all G7 members, serves as a good example. On the other hand, I found President Trump to be an avid and quite verbal participant in the Taormina (2017) and Charlevoix (2018) Summits. As the “G1”, the US doesn’t really value the G7 as much as we do and President Trump has made it clear that he thinks global institutions do not serve his increasingly narrow view of the world nor the best interests of his country, to say nothing of the value for money of US contributions. His administration’s positions on the WHO, WTO and indeed the United Nations itself underscore the point. He would expect summit participants to agree with the US position.  At a summit that will undoubtedly focus on global pandemic management, economic recovery and China, this may prove a tall order.

LVD: Given that the G7 is comprised of democracies and the G20 includes non-democracies, notably China and Saudi Arabia, do you see this as another arena where the clash of liberal vs. authoritarian world orders is playing out?

PB: That is exactly where the informal nature of the G7 distinguishes itself from other bodies as it is comprised of countries with representative democracy, similar economic structures and observance of human rights all based on the rule of law. Conversations between leaders are not scripted and the discussions are therefore not as unwieldy or formulaic as in the G20. Traditionally, host countries have invited “outreach” countries to the second summit day, as Prime Minister Harper did at Muskoka in 2010 and Prime Minister Trudeau at Charlevoix in 2018.  If, in his comments, President Trump meant that he was inviting Russia, India, South Korea and Australia to an outreach session with the G7, that is one thing; if he sees these four G20 members joining the G7, there may be little point in continuing with the G7 as we have known it. I served as Prime Minister Harper’s Sherpa at the last G8 meeting in Northern Ireland and was also with him at the next two G7 Summits in Brussels and Germany. The positive difference in tone, cooperation and sense of purpose without the Russians was very palpable. Indeed the Russian government uses a perennial talking point: it finds the G20 more useful and not antiquated like the G7.  On the other hand, everyone in the G7 interacts on a first-name basis and the informality is striking.

LVD: So, what is the value of the G7 and why should it continue during these troubled times?

PB: Membership in the G7 (and the G8 interlude) has provided Canada with an opportunity to exercise influence and suasion on a global scale. Whether with a greater emphasis on development in Africa (Chrétien, Kananaskis, 2002), newborn, maternal and child health (Harper, Muskoka 2010) or gender equality and ocean plastics (Trudeau, Charlevoix, 2018), Canadian leaders have secured engagement from their counterparts and further work on the key issues of our time in international institutions and agencies. It is often Canada that is called upon to forge the compromise amongst squabbling delegations and to point the way ahead. If effective multilateralism is our ethos, then active participation in such bodies should be our vocation. The challenges today are the greatest since World War II; all the more reason for a small, powerful forum to bring forward necessary and practical initiatives without rancour but with committed purpose.