German Chancellor Angela Merkel shared a photo on her official Instagram account Saturday from the Group of Seven (G-7) summit, surrounded by other world leaders… and in mid-stare-down with President Trump. The photo’s caption describes it as a “spontaneous meeting between two working sessions,” but a subtext of the post was picked up by many who read between the lines. “Angela Merkel’s office has released this photo taken today at the G7, which tells you a lot about how things went,” one tweet reads. (Trump and Angela Merkel’s Stare-Down: Photo From G-7 Sets Internet on Fire)
It took just two tweets by U.S. President Donald Trump to shatter what seemed like a fragile consensus reached by G7 leaders after tense talks at their Quebec summit this weekend and raise the spectre of an all-out trade war with Canada. The tweets, sent as Trump was en route to Singapore for his summit with North Korea, were personal and aimed squarely at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (G7 unity torpedoed by angry Trump tweets dismissing Trudeau as 'dishonest & weak').
On Sunday, Putin said it was not Moscow's choice to leave the G7. "We will be glad to see everyone here in Moscow," he said. He added however that the combined purchasing power of the SCO outstripped that of the G7 and, when asked to comment on the G7 joint statement said the bloc should stop its "creative babbling". ((China-hosted SCO summit 'unity' contrasts with G7 disarray).
It reminded me a little of that marvelous scene in "The Death of Stalin" when the Central Committee meets after Stalin's body is found. The meeting's orchestrated projection of unity within a Central Committee whose members were weeks from seeking each others' murder reminds us of both the comedic element in public searches for unity, and the way in which those public masquerades weaken democratic engagement by anyone outside the magic circle within which agreement and unity must be achieved. It is a a reminder that in the West it a a bit ridiculous to seek to act either like 19th century autocrats, or 21st century bureaucrats when undertaking the very messy business of international relations among democratic countries with broad traditions of fairly heated debate and discord. The G7 is not a bureaucracy--whatever the 21st century's tendency toward bureaucratism might otherwise suggest. While it is important to develop mechanisms for stressing what binds the allies, the importance of this reflex (one that ought to be practiced more often in fact than in form though these ridiculous communiques), it is as important to avoid reducing these critical meetings to little more than exercises in lowest common denominator communication.
But then, this is agitprop!
So why the picture? The Western press has proven helpful here. Helpfully, a German journalist tweeted composites of six contrasting pictures of the same moment – and who released them to the press." ((Merkel's G7 photo says everything about Trump's diplomacy – or does it?)).
It shows Trump, arms folded and eyes glaring, sitting while around him stand a group of world leaders and their advisers. Merkel is centre stage, arms planted on a table, with the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, standing to her left, arms folded and a look of resignation on his face. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, stands next to Merkel, partially obscured, with the British prime minister, Theresa May, more obscured still at his right. (Merkel's G7 photo says everything about Trump's diplomacy – or does it?).
Second, the picture appears easy to invest with meaning. The nature of that ease is bound up with the ambiguity of the composition itself. For those who dislike Mr. Trump and the New Era "America First" Initiative, it concisely paints a heroic picture of Europe's leaders seeking to save the world from an intemperate leader. Merkel stands, Trump sits; Merkel is surrounded by allies, Trump appears isolated; Merkel appears decisive, Trump appears obstinate; etc. For those who despise the European position, the characterizations can be reversed. Here Merkel appears to be a bully, Trump a patient leader; Merkel appears aggressive, Trump patient; Merkel appears as a suppliant, Trump as the decisionmaker; etc.
And some perspectives do not.
Yasutoshi Nishimura, Japanese deputy chief cabinet secretary, and Kazuyuki Yamazaki, Japanese senior deputy minister for foreign affairs, appear to bridge the interior world of the picture and the observer. They also form a marvelous triangle at whose apex is Mr. Abe. They appear as a unit, the screen against which Mr. Trump sits and gives audience.
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