President Trump sent shockwaves throughout the international community in recent weeks when he asserted that Russia should be re-admitted to the Group of 7 (G7), an international economic organization made up of the seven largest global economies. This position, while unorthodox, is not exactly surprising, given Trump’s repeated displays of deference to Putin, and seeming inability to take a firm stance against Russia’s continued bad behavior.
Trump’s support of Russia comes at a time when Moscow is causing increased tension worldwide. The Kremlin’s role in Syria, action in Ukraine, and recent missile tests have put the West on notice of rising hostilities. Just yesterday, two U.S. senators were denied visas, forcing them to cancel travel to Moscow as part of a congressional delegation. The two politicians (Chris Murphy D-CT and Ron Johnson R-WI) actively supported sanctions against Russia, and the denial of visas is almost certainly a reaction to their role in what the Kremlin sees as hostile legislation. The Russian embassy in Washington issued a statement calling Senator Johnson “Russophobic” and placing the blame on the United States for blocking bilateral cooperation.
While Murphy and Johnson aimed to use the trip to continue dialogue with Russia, the Kremlin’s refusal to allow them access is yet another sign that Putin is decrying standards of cooperative internationalism and instead seeks isolation.
Russia’s History in the Group
Russia was admitted to the Group in 1998, making it the G8. Despite international resistance at the time, President Bill Clinton pushed for Russia’s inclusion because he believed it would strengthen Russia’s ties to the West, and that membership would pacify growing Russian anxiety due to NATO’s welcoming of more post-Soviet states into its alliance.
After the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Russia was expelled from the Group. The leaders of the remaining countries issued a joint statement emphasizing their “support for Ukraine’s sovereignty,” and warning Russia that punishment would continue as long as it persisted in violating its “international obligations.” The statement went on to declare that the Group is bound together by “shared beliefs and shared responsibilities,” and that Russian aggression against Ukraine is “not consistent” with those values.
Allowing Russia to re-enter the organization could possibly encourage further regional aggression, since it signals weak resolve on punishment for the 2014 annexation. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has already expressed concern that a “repetition of the Ukrainian scenario” could occur in his country. While there is not evidence that Putin plans to move on Belarus, weakened Western resolve against further territorial infringement does run the risk of bolstering the Kremlin’s willingness to eschew international law yet again.
Trump has defended his position by claiming that “it would be better to have Russia inside the tent than outside the tent,” stressing Russia’s crucial perspective on important global issues. But even if Russia’s re-entrance into the Group could stimulate further multilateral discussion, this benefit is not worth the harm to global democratic norms. Last year the G7 reiterated its foundation of “shared responsibility and common values, such as freedom, democracy and human rights.” Russia’s current activity around the globe violates all of these values.
President Trump’s suggestion to re-admit Russia to the Group also drives further wedges between the United States and its Western allies, suiting Putin’s agenda while harming American security interests and isolating the U.S. on the global stage. At the summit, the topic of Russia’s re-entrance elicited bitter arguments and harsh criticisms. Only Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte gave Trump support. While Japan’s Shinzo Abe took a neutral stance, all the other leaders expressed unequivocal disapproval. This lack of support for Trump’s suggestion is yet another example of how the President, in his deference to Putin, is alienating key Western allies and leading the United States to retreat further from previous global leadership.
The Future of the G7?
The drama over Trump’s advocacy for Russia’s membership obscures larger questions about the power (or lack thereof) of the G7, and its role in a changing international order. This year, the leaders discussed stability in Iran, international trade, gender equality, African partnerships, and climate change (although Trump was conspicuously absent for the meeting on this last issue), but little concrete progress was made besides publication of official declarations.
The 45th G7 summit shone a bright spotlight on the Group’s internal divisions. Amidst a changing international landscape that includes a rising G20, it seems that the G7 is becoming less of an instrument of cooperative democratic power, and more a relic of a bygone era.