The G7 Laid Bare the West's Leadership Crisis—and Abandonment of the Lessons of World War II | Opinion

The historic summit in Biarritz, France, took place on the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Stalin and Hitler occupied and carved out Eastern Europe, and the beginning of World War II. Unfortunately, today's Western leaders missed an opportunity to articulate the lessons learned from those tragic events, which cost the world in excess of 60 million killed and many more wounded and traumatized.

The first lesson is that strong leadership is necessary to deal with challenges. If not for Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, the world could have been a much darker place than it emerged in 1945.

Today, we are witnessing the collapse of leadership in the West, which is dragging whole countries down with it: what with Britain mired in Brexit, France shaken by the yellow vests protests, and Germany stuck in an immigration crisis, political polarization and a painful power transition. Continental Europe views the U.S. with great suspicion. And no wonder: America, once the unquestioned leader of the West, is sinking in the toxic miasma of partisan politics and increasing extremism on the right and the left, despite an overall positive economic performance.

In Biarritz, the unity of the democratic seven was so badly lacking, they failed to come up with a joint communique. French President Emmanuel Macron surprised the rest by inviting Mohammad Javad Zarif, the smooth-talking Iranian foreign minister sanctioned by the U.S. for being the key spokesman for the terror-supporting regime.

President Donald Trump, in turn, rocked the boat by pushing for an invitation of Russian President Vladimir Putin to the G7 summit he will host in the U.S. in 2020. The rest of his colleagues were shocked, which does not prevent Germany and other Europeans from buying the Russian natural gas from the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that Trump has been trying to stop, to no avail so far. Trump never succeeded to explain his fascination with Putin, but if he is trying to prevent Russia from increasingly falling into China's gravitational pull, it makes a lot of Realpolitik sense—and he needs to articulate this.

And if Western leaders are worried about Putin's participation in the next G7, they should listen to President of the European Council Donald Tusk and invite the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, as their special guest, sending a clear message that there is no Ukraine fatigue in Europe.

The second lesson of World War II is that it's better to meet challenges early—and with a united front. Together, the West could have stopped Hitler's murderous insanity in the 1930s. Separately, they failed.

There are two main challenges the collective West is facing now: the rise of an authoritarian China and Russia, and climate change.

While the U.S. is attempting to challenge China in trade and militarily, the Europeans have failed to join and provide support. They caution for a conciliatory position toward Beijing, expecting massive business deals and trade, while allowing a tsunami of Chinese investment, from the Port of Piraeus to nuclear power stations. Only slowly, Europeans are waking up to the danger both they and the U.S. are facing.

At the same time, they criticize Trump's awkward attempts to engage Russia and pull it away from China, which might prevent the emergence of the mighty Eurasian authoritarian axis.

G7 Trump
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attend a working session in Biarritz, France, on August 26, on the third day of the annual G7 Summi Carlos Barria/AFP/Getty

Similarly, the Europeans are pushing for an appeasement stance toward Iran—a religious dictatorship that threatens the Middle East's stability and security, projecting power from the Caspian to the Mediterranean to the Red Sea.

Finally, the intractable U.S. position on climate change is a major wedge issue between the two coasts of the Atlantic. Talk about sitting around while the Amazon burns and the Chinese log the Siberian taiga, the other green lung of the planet, out of existence. More policy coordination to facilitate the transition to electric vehicles, banning polluting diesel engines, phasing out coal and, yes, buying U.S. shale gas to compensate for decades of American taxpayers carrying the burden of Europe's defenses.

For sure, Trump rubbed his colleagues the wrong way, as he does to many in Washington. But it doesn't mean he is all wrong on China, Iran and the EU trade imbalances and over-regulation. Be that as it may, he failed to unite the Europeans and Americans and revive the Western idea of free markets and liberal democracy, which the greatest alliance in history protected against Hitler and Stalin—and won.

On the anniversary of the beginning of World War II, which put our democracies in mortal danger, this is a major leadership deficit and a tragic opportunity lost.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, and director of the Energy, Growth and Security Program at the International Tax and Investment Center.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​