TAORMINA, Italy: Is Donald Trump really going to ditch the Paris climate change accord? Whither the sweeping tax cuts and America First trade policies he has also promised? What is he up to in the Middle East and what exactly are his plans for North Korea?
U.S. partners in the G-7 club of industrialized democracies head for Sicily Thursday hoping for at least partial answers to those and other questions from a U.S. administration still deciding how to implement its radical policy agenda.
Six months after his election, Trump jets to the Italian island for the final leg of a grueling first overseas trip that has temporarily diverted attention from an uncomfortable domestic spotlight on alleged campaign collusion with Russia.
By the time Air Force One touches down at a U.S. military base, the presidential plane will have carried the new commander-in-chief to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Palestine, the Vatican and to both NATO and EU headquarters in Brussels.
The 70-year-old may be forgiven if he is a little tired, but he will not escape a grilling from allies determined to divert him from a path they see as potentially disastrous for the architecture of the post-World War II world.
“The potential for friction is pretty great,” said Julilanne Smith, an analyst at the Center for New American Security. “These are leaders that are not yet convinced about the value of Trump-onomics. They don’t understand it.”
Awaiting Trump in the ancient hilltop resort of Taormina will be icecream-makers who have been mixing up “gelatos” in the shape and color of his celebrated orange-blond quiff.
But the U.S. president, who will not be the only new face on the G-7 block, will be focused on meeting leaders he will likely have to deal with for the duration of his term.
These include the youthful duo of Canada’s Justin Trudeau, with whom Trump has already tussled on trade and border issues, and new French President Emmanuel Macron.
The American leader made few friends with his interventions in the French presidential election campaign, which included suggesting a terror attack in Paris would swing voters behind Macron’s far-right rival, Marine Le Pen.
Though Trump’s disdain for the EU does not sit well with Macron, both men share an interest in economic innovation and pro-business reforms. They are due to have lunch in Brussels Thursday that could set the tone for the summit in Sicily.
Opinion polls point to Britain’s Theresa May and Germany’s Angela Merkel also still being part of the G-7 club after their respective upcoming national elections.
While May, who will also make her G-7 debut Friday, was the first foreign leader invited to the Trump White House, Merkel has made no secret of her reservations about his style and policies, particularly on climate change.
Merkel is a firm backer of the Paris emissions-curbing accord. “I am still trying to convince the doubters,” she said Tuesday, apparently alluding to Trump, who once described climate change as a “hoax” cooked up by China.
Efforts to keep the United States within the Paris framework will likely focus on convincing him that renewable energy forms can complement his pro-growth agenda, rather than tackling his skepticism head on.
Trump has said he would not make a decision on climate change until after the G-7 and he has also backed off on suggestions that NATO might be an alliance that had outlived its usefulness.
Before leaving Washington, national security adviser Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster said Trump would “address unfair trade practices” in Taormina.
But to date, the only concrete move on international trade has been a liberalizing deal with China. Much remains up in the air but other G-7 countries have interpreted that deal as a sign that flexibility and pragmatism will prevail over protectionist doctrine.
Hosts Italy meanwhile are hoping the choice of venue in the country’s poorer south will help leaders focus on not only the need to promote growth but also on the issues raised by Europe’s migrant crisis, for which Sicily is on the front line.
However officials have had to ditch plans to include some language on the benefits of migration in the summit’s final communiqué, apparently because of U.S. reservations. Instead, Italy will concentrate on areas of convergence with the leaders expected to make a joint statement on terrorism after this week’s deadly attack in Manchester.