In any ordinary year, the annual G7 summit would be in full swing this week. This is no ordinary year, of course. And with U.S. President Donald Trump hosting this year’s gathering, the summit already has abandoned its usual veneer of unity.

In any ordinary year, the annual G7 summit would be in full swing this week, with leaders from that select group of industrialized nations conferring collegially on the biggest challenges facing the world and what they intend to do about them.
This is no ordinary year, of course. And with U.S. President Donald Trump hosting this year’s gathering, the summit already has abandoned its usual veneer of unity.
Trump’s decision to invite Russia’s Vladimir Putin prompted an immediate backlash from the U.K. and Canada. Germany’s Angela Merkel said she wouldn’t attend the meeting unless it was put off due to the pandemic. The member nations’ focus on China and Trump’s public musings about how he thinks the G7 has outlived its usefulness  suggest there’s little reason for the other leaders to travel to the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Start with the timing. Trump has been talking about holding the summit in September just weeks before the November U.S. presidential election. That would give him an opportunity to burnish his image with the American electorate in any way he sees fit.
The summit as campaign prop
Then there’s the agenda. The “let’s-take-on-China” drive dovetails nicely with what most political experts believe will be a key message of Trump’s re-election bid but it leaves Canada in a particularly vulnerable spot, given the ongoing extradition process for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
The president (never a fan of G7 summits or any other multilateral gatherings) is looking to mix things up while offering his own version of why the meeting is being delayed one that has nothing to do with the pandemic.
“I’m postponing it because I don’t feel as a G7 it probably represents what’s going on in the world,” the president told reporters 10 days ago. “It’s a very outdated group of countries.”
Trump has invited the leaders of India, Australia, South Korea. No issues there.
But extending an invitation to Russia, which was expelled in 2014 for annexing Crimea, went over badly.
“Russia was excluded from the G7 after it invaded Crimea a number of years ago, and its continued disrespect and flaunting of international rules and norms is why it remains outside of the G7 and it will continue to remain out,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said at one of his regular news conferences last week.
Awkward timing
A senior government official added this week that holding the summit in the late stages of the U.S. election cycle also would be far from ideal.
“I certainly think it’s fair to say we are not agitating for a meeting at this point,” said the official, who is involved in the planning but wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on the summit. “The other leaders will be very cautious, too, about the timing, or looking like a prop for the president.”
Still, some prominent Canadian foreign policy experts believe the prime minister and the others should attend if the summit goes ahead.
“Even with Trump as difficult as he is, there’s no political advantage for Trudeau and the other leaders to put it off for a year,” said former diplomat Colin Robertson, now vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
“Trump may well be re-elected and they need the U.S. on multiple fronts and to work on the big global issues, including how to deal with China.”
The perils of antagonizing a president
University of Ottawa professor of international affairs Roland Paris, who served as Trudeau’s first foreign policy adviser, holds a similar view.
“We have little to gain by poking Trump right in the eye,” he said in an email this week. “Trudeau can find less provocative ways to express his policy differences with Trump.”
Sustaining the G7 is important, he added, even if it’s being diminished by the current U.S. administration.
“Trump will not be in office forever.”
The annual G7 meeting is different from other summits. It is less formal. Fewer officials are in the room with the leaders. Its members are all countries with democratic traditions.
The summit’s goal, dating back to its first gathering in the mid-1970s, is to provide leadership and work cooperatively to confront the most serious global challenges.
Still, Trump isn’t the first leader to think the annual summit, and its members, need to evolve.
Former prime minister Paul Martin was a co-founder of the expanded G20 group of nations, assembled in 1999 and convened in 2008 to deal with the economic crisis. His goal was to include developing nations and countries from continents not represented in the G7, regardless of their systems of government.
Wait and see
Sen. Peter Boehm insists the G7 serves an important leadership role on issues related to security, health and emerging technologies.
He served as the Canadian “sherpa” organizing the agenda for a number of G7 summits, including the 2017 gathering hosted by Trudeau the one that saw Trump pull his signature from the final communique in a rage after the prime minister called U.S. national security tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum “insulting.”
“September in the current environment is a long time away,” Boehm said Wednesday. “My advice to the prime minister is to stay in close contact with the other G7 leaders, and that includes President Trump, and see how the issues to discuss evolve.”
He points to the prospect of a second wave of COVID-19 hitting in the fall, and the possibility that could precipitate another shutdown of the global economy.
“That’s the making, right there, of a summit,” he said. “That’s why coordination among the G7 is so important.”
Coordination won’t be easy.
Caught between China and a Trump in trouble
The president’s focus on China represents a particular challenge for Trudeau. 
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig remain behind bars, arrested by Beijing in retaliation for Canada’s detention of Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
China’s also banned shipments of Canadian canola and other agricultural products in the past year.
Trump’s desire for a strong statement on China may not be in Canada’s best interests. Even so, Robertson said it shouldn’t be a reason to stay away.
“Look, China is always on the G7 agenda,” he said. He pointed out that the expanded guest list put forward by Trump increases the representation of Asian nations beyond Japan which might prove useful in discussing ways to counter China’s growth in that region.
“If we are worried about China, having India, Australia and South Korea at the meeting offers a geopolitical balance,” Robertson said.
As host, Trump doesn’t have the power to do more than extend invitations for this year’s gathering at Camp David. He can’t unilaterally expand membership in the group.
But he does set the agenda, and the tone. And the president seems intent on keeping the focus on China as his domestic troubles mount over his government’s response to the novel coronavirus.
G7 foreign ministers already balked at the Americans’ language on China during a conference call in March, rejecting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s demand that the communique refer to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan virus.”
Could the Camp David summit end without an agreed-to communique? Could it be left up to Trump, as host, to summarize what was discussed and what the leaders agreed to during their closed-door session?
Of course. And that would be another sign that Trump’s view of the usual collegiality of G7 summits is outdated, too.