A View from the United States: Defending Camelot

President Obama’s final G7 summit meeting occurred against the backdrop of a world in which the core values espoused by the G7—democracy, the free-market economy, and respect for international norms of security and human rights—are increasingly under stress. The very fact that this was a G7 rather than a G8 meeting underscored the recent setbacks in what had been a trend toward consolidation of global norms of open markets and democratic governance. The members of the G7 worked hard to build a world governed democratically in which disputes were to be resolved justly through dialogue rather than by the use of force. But like the knights of the roundtable, the G7 states confront many challenges as they seek to maintain peace and prosperity in the post-Cold War era. 

Across the Middle East—Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria—, failed democratic transitions, political instability, and civil wars have created a massive refugee crisis beyond the capacity of Europe to master. Within the European Union itself, Brexit threatens to derail the region’s fragile economic recovery, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea calls into question the commitment and capability of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to check Putin’s nationalist, irredentist tendencies. In Northeast Asia, the DPRK’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them threatens to blow a hole in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and calls into question the reliability of the United States’ extended nuclear deterrence. In the South China Sea, China’s large-scale terraforming and its refusal to recognize the authority of the tribunal established by UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) have unnerved its neighbors and spurred robust military countermoves by the United States and its allies. Unsure whether the institutions the members of the G7 have nurtured since the end of WWII will adequately safeguard their sovereignty and territorial integrity, many Southeast Asian nations are turning to Washington for security assistance to counter Beijing’s bullying and help them counterbalance China’s growing military and economic clout. 

With so many challenges on his plate, Obama prepared for the G7 summit with four major goals in mind:

• boosting global economic growth and moving ahead with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP);
• building consensus on upholding freedom of navigation and in defense of peaceful resolution of disputes, particularly in the South China Sea;
• reinforcing sanctions enforcement and military deterrents against North Korea; and
• cooperating on global issues, including refugees and achieving early entry into force of the Paris Climate Change Agreement.

At some point during the past few months—most likely only after the G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in April—, Obama chose to augment this list by adding an historic visit with Prime Minister Abe to Hiroshima to his agenda. Following on the heels of Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph for the Atomic Bomb victims at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial, Obama’s pilgrimage was designed to provide a symbolic bookend to his speech in Prague in 2009. There, on his first trip abroad as president, Obama had called for a world without nuclear weapons and pledged to focus on nuclear nonproliferation during his presidency, themes he echoed on Hiroshima’s hallowed ground.

Obama’s visit to Hiroshima and his emotional meeting with the hibakusha overshadowed the output of the G7 summit. Obama’s remarks dominated the news cycle and won praise from the Japanese public.1 Interestingly, his gesture stirred little controversy at home, where the editorial pages of the nation’s major newspapers celebrated the trip. The emotionally powerful Hiroshima moment will certainly find its way into the history books and bolster Obama’s legacy. But his visit probably will do little to strengthen the global nonproliferation movement. Obama’s record on nuclear disarmament will be judged not by his words at Hiroshima, but by the long-term success or failure of the Iran nuclear deal and the ultimate outcome on the Korean Peninsula, where the nuclear issue has defied resolution and the threat has grown steadily on Obama’s watch. As for the rest of Obama’s agenda, it is too soon to say whether he successfully rallied his knights to confront the forces of terrorism, nationalism, and protectionism that threaten Camelot.

G7 Joint Statement Delivers on Most, But Not All of Obama’s Priorities

Taken at face value, the statement that emerged from the Ise-Shima G7 summit delivered meaningful commitments on all of the priorities championed by Obama. Although the leaders’ joint statement was predictably short on specifics on most issues, it, nonetheless, demonstrated the wisdom of paring the G8 down to its G7 core, facilitating consensus-building among like-minded democratic nations. 

Struggling to sell the TPP at home, Obama found a more receptive audience abroad. Although he still faces an uphill battle to convince the Congress to approve it before his term expires, Obama was able to return to Washington with both a strong endorsement of the principle of open markets and free trade as well as a specific endorsement of TPP—the crucial non-military component of Obama’s heralded “pivot to Asia.” On promoting economic growth, the G7 pledged to use “all policy tools—monetary, fiscal and structural—individually and collectively, to strengthen global demand and address supply constraints, while continuing our efforts to put debt on a sustainable path.” The leaders endorsed trade as a mechanism to create economic opportunities for workers, consumers, and firms, and they explicitly condemned protectionism as counterproductive in a highly interconnected global economy. The G7 said the TPP agreement is “an important step forward for the establishment of a platform for common trade rules and trade integration across the Asia-Pacific region, and we encourage each TPP signatory to complete its domestic process.” Obama also won a small concession on the testy issue of currency values—a major sore point among congressional critics of TPP.  The G7 pledged to abide by market-based exchange rates and to avoid “competitive devaluation” of their currencies.
On the South China Sea, Obama got about as much as he could have hoped. Without mentioning China by name, the G7 states reiterated their commitment, “to maintaining a rules-based maritime order in accordance with the principles of international law as reflected in UNCLOS, to peaceful dispute settlement supported by confidence building measures and including through legal means as well as to sustainable uses of the seas and oceans, and to respecting freedom of navigation and overflight.” They also referenced the East and South China seas, emphasizing “the fundamental importance of peaceful management and settlement of disputes.”  In a small nod to Washington’s call for a “freeze” on land reclamation efforts, the G7 members said it was important for states to refrain from “unilateral actions, which could increase tensions.”
China was not pleased, and wasted no time criticizing the G7 statement. In Beijing, the spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry said: “This G7 summit organized by Japan’s hyping up of the South China Sea issue and exaggeration of tensions is not beneficial to stability in the South China Sea and does accord with the G7’s position as a platform for managing the economies of developed nations. China is extremely dissatisfied with what Japan and the G7 have done.”
The real test of G7 resolve in the issue will likely come this summer when the UNCLOS Tribunal is expected to rule on claims by the Philippines that China’s conduct violates the provisions of UNCLOS. Beijing has already stated that it rejects the authority of the tribunal to adjudicate its maritime claims in the South China Sea, setting up a potential showdown.

On North Korea, Obama won unequivocal endorsement of the sanction-heavy approach favored by Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo in response to recent DPRK actions. During the run-up to the G7, the DPRK continued its pattern of rarely missing an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot, reinforcing its image as a nation fundamentally at odds with international norms by testing ballistic missiles in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions and continuing preparations for a possible fifth nuclear test. The brief G7 statement on North Korea was comprehensive in scope, condemning not only the DPRK’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, but also deploring its human rights violations, including the abductions issue.2

As with its posture on maritime disputes, the G7’s statement on North Korea policy is out of step with China’s preferred approach. Despite its concurrence with UN sanctions and promise to enforce them, Beijing is clearly uncomfortable with a sanctions-based policy toward Pyongyang and has urged Washington to adopt a more flexible attitude. China is not willing to isolate the DPRK, and has consistently urged dialogue rather than pressure. In fact, just days after the G7 conclave, and only one day after the DPRK again violated the will of the UN Security Council by testing a Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), President Xi Jinping met with DPRK special envoy Ri Su-yong in Beijing. During the surprise visit, Ri reportedly told Xi that the DPRK would not stop developing nuclear weapons. China’s state-run news agency made no mention of Xi raising denuclearization as a goal of China in its coverage of the meeting.3

On his final agenda items—refugees and climate change—, Obama got some nice words but little substantive support. Europe is exasperated and exhausted by the flood of migrants streaming across the Mediterranean; some driven from their homes by chaos and war, others lured by the promise of jobs and a better life. Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise, as witnessed by the strength of right-wing nationalists in Austria’s recent election. With the United States reluctant to accept more than a few thousand Syrian refugees, and unwilling to commit ground troops or otherwise decisively intervene in Syria’s civil war, Obama was in no position to expect more of his European counterparts. And with oil trading between USD 40 and 50 per barrel, Japan and Germany’s nuclear plants idled, and efforts to slow CO2 emissions are running into an unfavorable headwind.

Hiroshima Delivers Emotional Capstone

If the G7 joint statement delivered respectable, if unspectacular, dividends in exchange for Obama’s investment of time and energy, his visit to Hiroshima proved a political triumph in Japan and did nothing to diminish his growing popularity at home as the end of his second term approaches. Obama’s eloquence matched the solemnity of the event, and he avoided the apology pitfall that could have turned his good intentions into a political liability for Secretary Clinton, the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party. After careful telegraphing by the White House, on the eve of his visit Obama explained in simple language his purpose: “I do think that part of the reason I’m going is because I want to once again underscore the very real risks that are out there and the sense of urgency that we all should have. So it’s not only a reminder of the terrible toll of World War II and the death of innocents across continents, but it’s also to remind ourselves that the job is not done in reducing conflict, building institutions of peace, and reducing the prospect of nuclear war in the future.”4

A job not completed may not exactly be the capstone Obama was looking for coming home from the G7 and his precedent-breaking Hiroshima visit. Nonetheless, it accurately captures much about his administration, including its pursuit of a world free from the threat of nuclear weapons.  The administration’s nuclear non-proliferation record will be mixed, as will be its success in advancing democracy, liberalizing global trade rules, promoting peace and stability in the Middle East, and addressing the root causes and consequences of climate change. But the record will also show dogged effort toward these objectives from year one through year eight.

1. A Kyodo News poll found that 98 percent of the Japanese public approved of the president’s visit to Hiroshima, “Majority of Japanese View Recent Obama’s Visit to Hiroshima Positively,” Sputnik News, May 29, 2016, http://sputniknews.com/asia/20160529/1040444402/japan-obama-hiroshima.html.

2. The full statement of the G7 on North Korea is as follows: “We condemn in the strongest terms North Korea’s nuclear test in January and its subsequent launches using ballistic missile technology. These acts violate multiple UN Security Council resolutions and pose a grave threat to regional and international peace and security. We demand that North Korea immediately and fully comply with all relevant UN Security Council resolutions and its commitments under the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks, and not conduct any further nuclear tests, launches, or engage in any other destabilizing or provocative actions. We call on the international community to fully implement and enforce relevant UN Security Council resolutions. We also deplore the human rights violations in North Korea and strongly urge North Korea to immediately address the international community’s concerns, including the abductions issue.” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “G7 Ise-Shima Leaders’ Declaration,” May 26-27, 2016, http://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000160266.pdf.

3. Jane Perlez, “Xi Jinping, China’s President, Unexpectedly Meets With North Korean Envoy,” The New York Times, June 1, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/02/world/asia/xi-jinping-chinas-president-unexpectedly-meets-with-north-korean-envoy.html?_r=0; Cary Huang and Catherine Wong Kyodo, “North Korean envoy tells Xi Jinping nation will not scrap its nuclear programme,” South China Morning Post, June 1, 2016, http://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/1961300/north-korean-envoy-tells-xi-jinping-nation-will-not.

4. White House, “Remarks by President Obama in Press Availability—Ise-Shima, Japan,” May 26, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/05/26/remarks-president-obama-press-availability-ise-shima-japan.