President Donald Trump talks to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, in Washington, as he prepares to leave Washington for his annual August holiday at his New Jersey golf club. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Donald Trump's lunge for Greenland showcased his transactional approach to diplomacy © AP

The one good thing about Donald Trump’s failed bid to buy Greenland is that it softens up America’s allies for what is to come. This weekend Mr Trump will join his G7 counterparts in Biarritz for what promises to be one of the most bizarre meetings in its history. Summits are supposed to make global problems easier to manage. The G7 — and others of its kind, notably the G20 — are reaching a point where they result in the opposite: a world less manageable than if the leaders had never met. Mr Trump’s lunge for Greenland was the amuse-bouche before the meal.

It had all the relevant ingredients. First it showcased Mr Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy. A country has a piece of real estate that Mr Trump covets, so he offers to buy it. Perhaps it could work both ways. Russia has long had its eye on Alaska, for example. Second, it underlined that Mr Trump loathes alliances. By cancelling his trip to Denmark over its refusal to consider the sale, Mr Trump left a close ally in no doubt that its friendship meant nothing. Fifty Danish soldiers lost their lives fighting alongside US troops in Afghanistan. This death toll is a considerably higher ratio to population than the US.

Third, Mr Trump’s motive for buying Greenland undercuts a crucial aim of the other members of the G7: to fight global warming. The territory’s attraction is that its receding ice sheets will open its land for mineral extraction. Mr Trump does not accept that global warming is taking place, except when it offers a chance to make money. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, would have found it impossible to find a choice of words on global warming to which Mr Trump could have signed up. Little surprise then that Mr Macron announced that the G7 would no longer bother with a communiqué at all. Another day in the Trump era. Another precedent dies.

Finally, Mr Trump’s Greenland bid included the spiciest ingredient of all: his support for Russia to rejoin the G7 five years after it annexed Crimea. The annexation triggered Russia’s expulsion from the group that had been known as the G8. Mr Trump’s philosophy is that each nation should assert its sovereignty — “America First” and so on. In practice he sees a world in which powerful nations’ actions are unfettered by global rules. In such a world small nations matter less. Ukraine’s sovereignty over Crimea matters as little as Denmark’s over Greenland. City states without sovereignty, such as Hong Kong, can be ignored. What matters is a country’s size, not its political system.

What about the summit itself? Mr Trump’s first two G7 meetings offer bleak auguries. In Sicily two years ago, Mr Trump said that the US would quit the Paris accord on climate change. Last year’s summit in Canada was even worse. Mr Trump left early and refused to sign the communiqué because it included the phrase “rules-based international order”. He called Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, “dishonest and weak”. Mr Trump’s third G7 outing promises to be at least as discordant.

The backdrop is ominous. Predictions of a US recession are rife. Mr Trump’s re-election prospects are weakening. Most of Mr Trump’s foreign policy initiatives are crumbling. Top of these is North Korea, where Kim Jong Un shows no sign of denuclearising and has resumed ballistic missile tests. On Iran, America’s European allies appear reluctant to withdraw from the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, the resurgence of Isis belies the US president’s claim that the terrorist group no longer exists. Isis attacks are also complicating Mr Trump’s hope of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan before the 2020 US election.

Mr Trump badly needs a foreign policy win. The obvious one would be China. Most of Europe shares Mr Trump’s fear of an emerging behemoth that does not play by the rules. Unfortunately for US allies, Mr Trump’s remedy is to go it alone. Europe wants to handle China with a rules-based approach. The mere utterance of such words causes Mr Trump to lose his cool. If he can make it through a French weekend without accelerating the demise of the west — offering to buy a chunk of Europe, for example — that would be a victory of sorts. But the chances of that happening are slim.

Get alerts on Donald Trump when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article