By Denis MacShane*
At the otherwise very routine G7 meeting that was just concluded in Biarritz, France, the one significant point about the meeting to be kept in mind was this: Look at the man who was there (and had not been expected by most) — and the man who was not there (but had been expected to be there by some).
Out of the blue appeared the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif. It was President Emmanuel Macron’s way of seeking to put a special stamp on the summit hosted by him.
Out in the cold remained Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, although his American best buddy, U.S. president Donald Trump had made his desire very clear that his friend in the Kremlin should once again be allowed to rub shoulders with the G7, a group of leading Western economies.
Jazzing up the G7
The G7 was established over 40 years ago, in 1975. The immediate purpose was to manage the aftermath of the first oil shock as well as the additional shock of then-U.S. President Richard Nixon tearing up the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates.
One of Macron’s esteemed predecessors, Valerie Giscard d’Estaing had the idea to bring together the major global economies including Japan on a regular basis.
By 1998, when the G7 had run somewhat out of steam, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair wanted to jazz it up. They moved to include Boris Yeltsin and subsequently Vladimir Putin, turning the G7 into the G8.
Keeping Russia in or out?
The move to include Russia was sensible at the time. Back in 1998, there was a strong hope for Russia to become a market-oriented, civilized economy that wanted to shed its twin roots of communism and gangster capitalism.
One of the problems of today’s interconnectedness and arms arsenals is that, when one major country has committed a major offense against international rules, just about the only gesture that even the most powerful nations can make is henceforth to refuse to meet with the leader of the country that committed that act.
Hence, as Western policymakers struggled to find a policy to “punish” the Kremlin after the annexation of Crimea and the armed assistance to anti-Kiev militants in eastern Ukraine after the democratic revolution in Kiev early in 2014, the only thing they could do was to stop inviting Putin to G8 meetings.
It was then that the meeting reverted back to being just a G7 gathering – plus two European Union officials, the European Commission and European Council Presidents.
Beyond Putin’s illegitimate land grab, there was little reason to include Russia in the circle of advanced Western economies. By the time of the Crimea invasion, Putin had long abandoned any pretence to pursue economic reforms.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that booting out Putin had zero impact on the Kremlin’s approach to Ukraine. Just as including Putin in G8 deliberations previously had not softened his invasion of Georgia back in 2008, or his continued meddling in the West Balkans.
Never mind keeping him and his minions from the Russian spooks’ murder and attempted murder of renegade spies in England, or the non-stop social media interference by Russian state agencies in U.S. and European elections as well as in the Brexit referendum.
Given that the policy of non-speak by the G7 applied to Putin has not worked, Donald Trump argues it is time to be nice to Putin again.
This is precisely the bridge on which Emmanuel Macron seems to smell a deal. He cleverly orchestrated a visit by Putin to the French presidential summer retreat at Bregancon three days before the G7 in Biarritz.
Putin: So near – and yet so far
Macron and Putin chatted away and held a long joint news conference in the sun and sea atmosphere of the south of France. It was almost — but only almost — as if Putin had been to Biarritz itself.
The optics were good for Putin. In exchange, Putin offered to start a fresh round of so-called Normandy dialogues with the new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.
As it happens, the latter is of the same age as Macron, 41 years, and proclaims a similar modernizing, reformist ambition as the French President has for his country.
Putin was at least present in spirit at Biarritz by Donald Trump acting as his medium. He said: “I think it’s much more appropriate to have Russia in. I could certainly see it being the G8 again.”
Macron, the dealmaker
But even as Macron allowed the spirit of Putin to be present in Biarritz to please Trump, he actually invited, in flesh and bone, a man representing another troublesome government, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
In contrast to Russia, which Trump strangely loves, he loathes Iran. And so it is that the U.S. government is attacking Iran on all fronts, so far short of military invasion — even if his National Security Advisor, John Bolton, says military action against Iran “is not off the table.”
Alongside the Trump administration, Israel continually denounces Iran. In return, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, “General” Hossein Salami, denounces Washington saying: “By putting economic pressure on Iran, America wants to force us to enter talks with this country … any negotiation under the circumstances is surrendering to America and it will never happen.”
All of that American bravado and saber-rattling is hard to square with Zarif suddenly appearing in Biarritz.
But in his attempt to show Trump who the real master of the deal is, the odds are that Macron is prepping a tempting offer. How about letting Russia back into the G8 (as Trump wants), in exchange for Trump cooling his fire on Iran?
To be sure, the rest of Europe and the world, except Israel and the Sunni arab dictatorships, wants Trump to back off from his confrontation with Iran and find ways of putting pressure on Teheran without tearing up the 2015 nuclear arms deal.
U.S. and Europe: Two carrots, one for each side
France and the rest of Europe want to restore normal trading relations with Iran and uphold Churchill’s dictum that “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”
And so it is that a grand bargain is now on the table. It would have the G7 Europeans agree to Trump’s request to readmit Putin into the G7, making it again the G8. In exchange, Trump stops the economic pinpricks against Iran that have never altered its policy since 1979.
This deal would subsequently lead to serious negotiations, turning the Iran standoff into a major opportunity. What speaks for this scenario is that Trump is actually fully aware of the brittleness of the Iranian economy and the ever more urgent need for its leaders to develop some progress on the economic front to the Iranian people.
In talking to both Putin and to the Mullah regime’s chief diplomat, Macron’s dynamic orchestration of the Biarritz G7 summit may breathe life into the one of the world’s oldest talking shops.
* A Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK’s Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexit No Exit: Why Britain Won’t Leave Europe.” [London]
** First published in theglobalist.com