Less than a month before Donald Trump sets foot on Canadian soil for the G7, Justin Trudeau's chief summit organizer is being forced to defend the viability of the G7 itself.
Trump's potential to disrupt the summit — an international meeting in which the prime minister has invested significant political capital — is growing larger by the day as his June 8 arrival date in La Malbaie, Que., creeps closer.
"For us, in Canada, the global trade file is of primordial importance." #G7 #Cdnpoli #CanadaFP
Trudeau and his fellow summiteers from Britain, France, Germany and the European Union have already expressed their regrets over Trump's decision this past week to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement.
Trump was already a G7 outlier on trade and climate change. But now there's growing concern that the group itself could fatally fracture, with the U.S. splintering off. The ambassadors from several G7 countries to Canada were forced to address that recently.
Peter Boehm, Canada's G7 sherpa, was also confronted with the issue this past week during an unusually tough question-and-answer session at a gathering in Ottawa.
"Are we into a six-plus-one dynamic?" asked Sandelle Scrimshaw, a former foreign service colleague of Boehm's during a keynote dinner appearance of the Canadian International Council in Ottawa.
Will Trump's disruptive G7 debut be repeated?
The 63-year-old career diplomat offered a careful, measured reply, but he left open the possibility that the G7, which runs on a consensus basis, simply wouldn't be able to reach one next month.
"If leaders were to agree on everything, there wouldn't be a point in having these meetings," said Boehm.
"You try to work out the consensus, and if there isn't a consensus there, it's clear that you state the obvious … that we don't have unanimity on a particular issue."
That would mark a repeat of Trump's disruptive debut at last year's G7 in Italy — his first foray onto the world of multilateral diplomacy. There was no common ground to be found on climate change.
The leaders' 2017 final communique was accompanied by a footnote that said the U.S. would not join the other G7 countries in reaffirming their commitment to the Paris climate agreement, which Trump also abandoned.
Boehm said there has been careful planning and consulting among his fellow G7 sherpas to ensure a smoother, more successful outcome this time.
"The sherpas are in contact all the time. I have a very good relationship with all of them and we have each other's backs because we're in this together."
Disagreements among leaders are nothing new, Boehm explained.
In fact, the format for their talks will encourage that. They'll sit alone at a round table and face off with their sherpas sitting behind to take notes and offer advice.
Having new leaders in the room only increases the possibility for disagreement, he added.
"Last year, there were four new leaders at the table. In my experience, I've seen that leaders will come in, they will be a little bit skeptical because they have not done this before and ultimately they see some value in having a frank discussion."
Free and fair trade important
Canada's frank talk will centre on one important theme, Boehm said: the fact that the country needs the international rules-based system to succeed despite the threats it may face.
At the heart of the agenda that Boehm and his fellow sherpas are carefully crafting is how to widen the benefits of the global economy to reach more people — especially those who feel left out and are feeling a pull towards populist anger.
"Related to that, of course, is our need to work together, and by that I really mean work together to strengthen the rules-based trading system, and encourage free and fair trade. For us, in Canada, the global trade file is of primordial importance."
When the leaders take their places at their round meeting table, they will negotiate — but not in the winner-take-all, 'Art of the Deal' bare-knuckle bartering style that has been associated with Trump.
"In order to negotiate effectively, you have to give something up. It's identifying that bit that you can give up — that little bit of sovereignty that you might lose, and realize that it is for the greater good and for unanimity," said Boehm.
"We all chip away at that."