Fooled by Trump
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Built in the 14th century, the Castle of Rambouillet is located 45 kilometers (28 miles) southwest of Paris in Rambouillet Forest, near the Palace of Versailles. The castle was a popular getaway for French monarchs and their royal relatives before it became what’s known as a summer home of French presidents.
In 1975, the Rambouillet Castle was where French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing hosted six foreign leaders for a summit, which would later become the Group of 7. The guests of the 1975 meeting were German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, U.S. President Gerald R. Ford, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro and Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Miki. Canada’s representative joined two years later.
The G7 has been run somewhat like a prestigious private club, consisting of only a handful of economic and democratically advanced countries of the West. Russia officially joined as a member in 1997 — leading to the G8 — but the group reverted to the G7 in 2014 after Moscow was removed following its annexation of Crimea. The prestige that comes with being associated with such an exclusive group is what makes it difficult for new countries to squeeze in without unanimous consent from the existing nations.
U.S. President Donald Trump — the host of this year’s G7 summit — has recently invited Korean President Moon Jae-in to the upcoming meeting in the United States slated for September. Moon readily accepted his invitation over a phone call despite public expectations for his prudence not to provoke China. Alongside India, Australia and Russia, Korea was among four countries that Trump wanted to invite to an expanded summit. “I don’t feel that as a G7 it properly represents what’s going on in the world. It’s a very outdated group of countries,” Trump said earlier.
A day after Moon’s phone conversation with Trump, the Blue House made it a fait accompli that the G7 was about to be expanded with Korea’s inclusion. A Blue House official squarely said that Trump invited Korea to the forthcoming summit “not as a temporary observer but as a formal member of a new international system that will be named G11 or G12.” He said Korea’s participation means the country will become part of a group of “leader countries” that will “guide the global order.” Korea’s foray into the expanded G7 will prove to be of “great significance to national interest and to the elevation of national prestige,” he said.
But less than 24 hours after his comments, it turned out the Blue House had acted impulsively. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell pointedly said that while Trump can invite guests to this year’s summit as chair of the G7, any changes in the membership or format of the G7 on a permanent basis is “not the prerogative” of the G7 chair. The statement was effectively seen as a reflection of the voices of France, Germany and Italy — the G7’s three EU members.
Any new members to the G7 would see their inclusion as a token of elevated global prestige, but for the existing members, the opposite holds true. The Covid-19 pandemic has already wreaked havoc on the reputations of G7 countries as they fumbled in containing their domestic outbreaks, whereas Korea has been acclaimed for setting an example for others. Yet G7 nations would think that accomplishment alone does not suffice for Korea to be part of their inner-circle.
It is not the first time that a reform of the G7 was publicly raised. After the 2008 global financial crisis, such talks eventually led to the Group of 20. As the spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry recently mentioned, some may question the need for a G11 or a G12 when there’s already a broader G20.
Alyssa Farah, White House director of strategic communications, said Trump wanted to invite some of the country’s “traditional allies” to an expanded meeting this year to discuss “how to deal with the future of China.” Trump’s gesture could be a sign of pressure for Korea to adopt a pro-America, anti-China stance as Washington and Beijing are on the brink of a new Cold War amid boiling tensions over the accountability for the Covid-19 pandemic and Beijing’s recent passing of a revised Hong Kong Security Law.
Indeed, Korea has gained global clout throughout the pandemic and proud Koreans now see themselves as part of the group of advanced countries. That perception would have made it difficult for the Blue House to turn down Trump’s invitation to a G7 meeting.
But now is not the proper time for Seoul to join. Korea should at least match the GDP level of Britain or France first. If it joins a new G7 now, it may be looked down on by other members, who may accuse Korea of having received special treatment from Trump.
Before Moon’s brash acceptance of Trump’s offer, Korea’s working-level officials should have fielded opinions of the other G7 members about the idea. Given the reactions from other nations, Korea seems to have thought far too ahead of itself. Empowered by its successful handling of the coronavirus, Seoul may want to use this moment as an opportunity to crack into the world’s most elite club of developed nations. But it should be aware that any reckless effort may trigger a diplomatic embarrassment. Let’s not forget what happened to the hastened U.S.-North Korea summits, which were bulldozed by Trump and got nowhere.