WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump raised eyebrows Friday by suggesting Russia should be allowed to rejoin the elite group of leading industrialized nations now known as the Group of Seven or G-7. His suggestion to give Russian President Vladimir Putin a seat at the table comes as some European allies aren’t even sure whether Trump is a good fit for the group.
Here’s what happened and why it matters:
RUSSIA WAS KICKED OUT
There are plenty of international forums to engage Russia and other countries. Think the United Nations, the World Bank and the Group of 20, which brings together leaders of the world’s biggest economies.
But the G-7 is intentionally small — a cozy group of relatively wealthy and democratic nations that discuss hot-button political and social issues such as climate change and trade. Members include the U.S., Canada, Japan and four European nations (Britain, France, Italy and Germany).
Russia was invited to join in 1998 as a way to encourage capitalist reforms in the country, turning it into the G-8. But in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin alarmed world leaders after moving troops into eastern Ukraine and taking over Crimea. The act was deemed so aggressive that other leaders kicked Russia out of the group and canceled an upcoming summit in Russia.
SO WHAT’S CHANGED?
Germany’s Angela Merkel says nothing has changed when it comes to Russia. Earlier this week, Merkel said the group is defined by its members’ respect of international law, and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea was a “flagrant breach” of that. “A format that is explicitly based on respecting international law is not viable for Russia at present,” she said.
But what has changed since Russia’s ouster is Trump’s election. Under Trump, the United States has abandoned its traditional role in the G-7 of pressing for freer global trade.
Also new is an ongoing U.S. federal investigation into whether Trump’s associates cooperated in Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election. That probe includes a look at whether Trump himself tried to obstruct justice.
Trump has repeatedly dismissed the Russia investigation as a political “witch hunt” and “hoax.” And while his critics say Trump is suspiciously soft on Putin, the president told reporters Friday: “I have been Russia’s worst nightmare. … But with that being said, Russia should be in this meeting. Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting?”
A NEW G-6 PLUS ONE? AMERICA ON THE OUTS
At issue now is whether the seven nations can conclude their meeting with a joint statement of priorities. France’s finance minister has billed the group as “a G-6 plus one” in reference to Trump’s isolation from other allies. And French President Emmanuel Macron this week threatened to drop the United States from the group’s final agreement altogether.
“The American president may not mind being isolated,” Macron tweeted, “but neither do we mind signing a 6-country agreement if need be. Because these 6 countries represent values, they represent an economic market which has the weight of history behind it and which is now a true international force.”
It’s not a new debate. Trump’s “America first” agenda triggered widespread criticism at the G-20 summit last year.
Asked about Trump’s tariffs in March, Spain’s Economy Minister Roman Escolano said that most countries at the summit shared the “belief that protectionism is a huge historical mistake.”
Trump’s comments Friday on Russia also could alienate him from his own party.
“This is weak,” said Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska in a statement. “Putin is not our friend and he is not the President’s buddy. He is a thug using Soviet-style aggression to wage a shadow war against America, and our leaders should act like it.”
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain put it this way: “This is the antithesis of so-called ‘principled realism’ and a sure path to diminishing America’s leadership in the world.”