The Group of Seven summit was declared a success -- at what, precisely, depends on perspective. Consider the case of a few photos.
The leaders gathered Saturday, after huddling late into the night, to hash out a statement they could all agree to, even US President Donald Trump. It’s that session that produced the scenic town’s iconic image or, to be more precise, images.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s office released a picture that showed her leaning over a table to confront a pouting Trump, with President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Theresa May beside her.
The photo went viral, but there were others in the photographic arms race. One White House’s version showed Trump with his arms crossed, smiling as everyone gathered around him. Macron’s photo focused on him, with Trump barely visible. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s take was released with a wider frame, making sure the host, absent from most other images, was also visible -- standing next to Trump, no less.
The G-7’s power it seems, lies in the angle of beholder.
Tense From the Start
So went the G-7 summit that wrapped Saturday -- everyone called it a win for their particular viewpoint, and agreed to most of a communique, with some exceptions. However barely, it papered over gaps between Trump’s America First vision and the other nations’ push to defend a rules-based global trading system. But the bloc remains under clear strain in the Trump era.
“Many of the current discussions about trade, especially with the U.S., despite the common commitment, will continue,” Merkel said.
The summit was tense from the start, and clearly focused on Trump. He teed it up with a volley of tweets, calling out Trudeau for being "indignant" over trade. Once in La Malbaie, though, Trump struck a conciliatory tone in public and in private, said officials familiar with the talks. Merkel seized a chance after the family photo to speak with him. Trump met privately with Trudeau -- joking that the prime minister was probably happy he would leave early -- and then with Macron, whose handshake was so firm it left a visible thumb print on Trump’s hand.
All eyes were on a session on trade held Friday afternoon. Trump vigorously listed all the griefs he had on trade -- one official called it a "litany" -- particularly with Canada and Europe. He repeatedly mentioned Canadian tariffs on dairy imports, another official said. It at times seemed to be therapeutic, and another official said that it helped to “burst the abscess," a graphic description of a talk that released pressure that had been building.
Afterwards, Trudeau passed the microphone to Macron, who responded for 10 minutes, insisting Europe was also facing barriers and that the U.S. was fudging the truth by not counting, for instance, American tech giants in trade flows.
At that point, midway through Friday, the summit’s outcome was very uncertain. Officials held out hope a full communique could be reached, but acknowledged the divides may be too great and that a different kind of document was possible.
Things warmed over the dinner, where Trump discussed North Korea at length, officials said, and had another private discussion with Trudeau. The leaders attended a performance that night, on a terrace in front of the hotel overlooking the majestic Saint Lawrence river.
Then came an impromptu push just before midnight. Trump, Merkel, Macron, May, Trudeau and Italy’s Giuseppe Conte gathered in the hotel lobby, with their officials releasing photographs of them talking closely over the documents. Japan’s Shinzo Abe -- who has sought close ties with Trump and been more measured in his criticisms -- joined later, officials said. They spoke for over an hour, and ordered their aides, known as sherpas, to haggle through the night.
The talks continued the next morning, with some of the leaders looking visibly fatigued. The day began with a breakfast with members of the G-7 gender council, which Trump arrived late for, but listened intently to. He later told them he’d update his daughter, Ivanka Trump, on their work. “It was one of the better mornings of my life,” to be able to discuss gender equality at length with the leaders, said Katja Iversen, president and chief executive officer of Women Deliver and a member of the G-7 Gender Equality Advisory Council launched by Trudeau. “There’s a lot of work to do still.”
Trump wanted to cooperate and showed a political willingness to converge, an official said. It was in a Saturday morning session, around 10 a.m. local time, that produced a flurry of images as the leaders, ministers and senior staff gathered to work on the document.
Trump then held a press conference, declaring the summit a success. He surprised everyone by proposing to eliminate all barriers to global trade even as he simultaneously resumed his attacks on the global trading system. He repeatedly said, though, that he didn’t fault the leaders he met with; he blamed previous U.S. presidents for not taking his approach on trade issues. Then he left for the North Korea summit.
In the end, the countries signed a joint communique, including Trump. They endorsed “free, fair, and mutually beneficial trade and investment,” leaving considerable wiggle room over what’s considered “fair.” All but the U.S. endorsed the Paris Agreement, while both the U.S. and Japan abstained from the G-7 Ocean Plastic Charter, aimed at curbing both the use of plastics and the accumulation of discarded waste in the seas.
They nonetheless avoided a divisive outcome that would imperil the future of the bloc. Key differences linger -- U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs remain in place with counter-tariffs from the EU and Canada due to take effect in a few weeks. Trump still wants Russia added to the G-7, a notion only Italy publicly backed. It’s an outcome each decided they could live with, from their own view.