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Implications of American Apostasy

Carey Davis, G7 Research Group
June 10, 2018

Amongst the grandiose halls of Versailles in 1982, the Group of Seven's eighth summit toppled into failure after two days of tense dialogue. Cold War fissures simmered through gas trade relations between the European Union, Soviet Union and the United States, with G7 leaders at their concluding news conferences immediately unravelling the delicately constructed consensus communiqué.

Despite the irenic beauty of Quebec's Charlevoix region in June 2018, the American president was not wooed into finding a durable post-summit collective consensus with his fellow leaders of the world's most prosperous, industrialized democracies. On board Air Force One en route to Singapore to meet with North Korea's Kim Jong-un after the Charlevoix Summit had ended, President Donald Trump once again demanded global attention in under 280 characters, lambasting Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau as "meek" and withdrawing from the carefully constructed communiqué that he had just agreed.

Experts point to the president's insatiable appetite for the limelight, his history of last-minute apostasies, and persistent and teasing ambivalence (i.e., the Paris Accords, the Iran Nuclear Deal) as a rationale behind such violation. Yet mining for reason in the mind of a man infatuated with his own self-aggrandizement fails to address the broader consequences.

So, what does a communiqué now bare of the American endorsement imply?

It is another manifestation of Trump's assault on the existing rules of the current world order. It would appear that the Trump administration does not understand the propriety of governance processes. But as one enquirer had asked of an official at an event at the Munk School of Global Affairs, if the liberal world order is shaken so fervently by one man, was it not already weak in the knees?

A society of states requires all the accoutrements of any social enterprise. The preeminent organizing principle since Westphalia in 1648, and then retempered with the burgeoning of international coalitions in the 1940s Bretton Woods institutions and United Nations, is sovereignty. The G7 coalesces around this shared value, a norm that intertwines the leaders of the free world. However, the notion of a society of states may find itself increasingly antiquated. With the likes of Michael Barbaro's If Mayors Ruled the World and John Winthrop's cities upon the hill, theses herald a return to the origin of democracy: the polis. The great metropolises stretching across polar coordinates will supercede their cumbersome and monolithic state arbiters. Perhaps such a revolution is merely quixotic at the moment, but with the augmenting presence of subnationals and non-state actors grappling the pan-national issues that states seem increasingly inept at managing, the rewiring of the social complex has already struck. The significance of subnationals, civil society organizations and the private sector is most conspicuous in dealing with climate change. For example, despite Trump's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, groups such as C40 Cities are pledging to pioneer the American trail to keeping its Paris commitments. It is unsettling that the architect of such norms is now their great deviator.

The harrowing element of yet another iteration of Trump neglecting his responsibilities as the leader of what was once the beacon of freedom and equality is the degradation inflicted upon the American demos and legacy. So consumed by the instant gratification of headlines, the president sacrificed a united Western front as he headed into his summit with Kim Jong-un. With Russia and China already poised to interfere with the Korean peninsula, Trump compromised whatever potential collective authority could have been harnessed by aligning this meeting following the G7. He missed that window of opportunity, and what will come of it — with Kim already holding the swords of Iran and Libya comments above Trump's head — is yet to be seen.

Thus, to paraphrase former British prime minister Harold Macmillan, "events, dear boy, events" once again abrade the capacity for seamless success. Although the vicissitudes of the current state of affairs may seem unprecedented, history repeats itself. The era of empires slipped away with the 18th century; the 21st century may prove to be the epoch of transition from state to city, from the aloof Leviathan to the intimate polis.

A propos the liberalworld order, Heather Cox Richardson summed up the potential trajectory most auspiciously on a National Public Radio panel at Boston's Kennedy Library. She mollified the vexed audience after Trump's election with the metaphorical pendulum of history, for the political and cultural tides sway in perennial momentum. The Gilded Age of the 1890s evolved into the Progressive Era of the early 1900s. Thus, the progressive norms of the past few decades is combatting the ideologies that had been suppressed with no platform to call out from. The root of such regressive formulations such as Steve Bannon in the United States and Italy's Five Star Party is a question demanding the scrutiny of historians. But rather than preoccupy ourselves over which tweet will be enshrined in the pages of historical scripts, let us harness the passions powering that human condition of social progress, of cultivating commonalities and kindling dialogue around dissonance. When the system bestowed with the social contract's obligation to preserve and protect the constituency falters, the body politic must harbour the audacity to craft the world we want to live in.

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