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Opinion: When world leaders gather for this ‘family photo’ the results can be… awkward

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — The annual G7 summit, a gathering of leaders of some of the world’s wealthiest democracies, used to be a staid, predictable affair. Like-minded leaders would come together, usually in picturesque settings, to fine-tune their strategies, reaffirm their shared values and strengthen their friendship.

Much has changed since those days. But one tantalizing bit has not: the ‘family photo’; the sometimes-stiff, often revealing glimpse of the tensions that may have remained concealed behind the carefully choreographed event.

This year, as President Joe Biden arrives in charming Puglia, Italy, to meet with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and the UK, plus the presidents of both the European Council and European Commission – along with special guests including Pope Francis and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky – expect the photos to expose subtle seams in the event.

If family photo albums offer a look at the twists and turns in private lives, G7 summits have created historic photo collections, snapshots in time that tell the story of Western democracies confronting challenges, even from their own members.

This year’s photo – against a Mediterranean-flavored backdrop of olive trees and warm stone – still manages to radiate the stress of the moment. Times are difficult for the majority of these leaders. The future is uncertain for their careers, their alliance and the world. They seem grim, yet determined.

The 2024 summit comes amid intensifying political turmoil — just days after a European Parliament election that left the centrist leaders of France and Germany gravely wounded politically, with the far right on the ascendence. It will be fascinating to see how the images make visible the new stresses.

Consider previous years.

Tensions were about to explode in 2018, when G7 leaders met in Canada. In the group photo they strained to appear relaxed, but any forced smiles no doubt collapsed after the shutter went silent. The summit was nothing short of a disaster. Then-US President Donald Trump had tweeted insults against the host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, amid disagreements on trade. “Very dishonest and weak,” he called him in one of many Twitter posts.

But the picture that told the story most eloquently, most memorably, had Trump sitting with his arms folded across his chest, German Chancellor Angela Merkel standing in front of him, her hands on the table, leaning toward the US president, with the other world leaders surrounding them, hoping Merkel would prevail on Trump not to toss out the work of the meeting — which he ultimately did.

Trump left before the summit was over, refusing to sign the traditional joint communique.

After the 2018 disaster, the group decided to do away with the communique for 2019 only, lest Trump sabotage it.

Three years earlier, the contrast couldn’t have been sharper with former and future US presidents. Among the iconic photos there’s then-US President Barack Obama in the Bavarian Alps in 2015, on a bench, his arms resting widely before a breathtaking scenery, listening to an animated Merkel expound on her views.

A decade earlier, President George W. Bush gave an unrequested backrub to Merkel, who seemed less than thrilled. Comedians mocked Bush, but Merkel later told CNN it was a “kind gesture at the time,” a sign of friendship.

Incredibly, that 2006 summit happened in St Petersburg, Russia. The host was Russian President Vladimir Putin, invited in 1997 to join what became the G8 during a time of post-Cold War optimism.

It was short lived. In 2014, after Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Russia was suspended. The G8 reverted to G7. (Trump tried to bring Putin back.)

The 2020 gathering was supposed to happen in the US; Trump even suggested holding it at one of his golf clubs. Covid forced the summit’s cancelation; a reminder that the unexpected can and does happen.

The next year brought one of the strangest family photos, a 2021 Covid-era summit. The leaders stood several feet apart, but the distance did little to hide the relief of allies welcoming the change of leadership in Washington.

“The United States is back,” Biden told Europe and the world. (“Back, but until when?” Macron reportedly replied.) The palpable warmth was evident in the images.

The relief of the allies was a reflection of a wider sentiment. A Pew survey of 12 countries, including G7 members, found that confidence in US leadership suddenly rocketed from a median of 17% under Trump to 75% with Biden.

The euphoria of 2021, however, did not last.

In early 2022, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The war is just one of the grave threats facing G7 leaders that come together in the belief that synchronizing their policies in support of global prosperity and stability makes them more effective, more likely to succeed.

A few years before she stepped down as chancellor, Merkel warned of dark forces on the rise. She was talking about the growing support for the far right in Germany, and the surge in antisemitic incidents there.

That premonition seems particularly poignant this week after the far-right Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, whose members repeat banned Nazi slogans and which has close ties to the Kremlinfinished second in Germany’s European Parliamentary elections, ahead of the governing coalition. In France, the picture was similarly dire, after President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party was trounced by the far right, prompting his risky call for a snap parliamentary election.

And, all this in the midst of one of the most consequential elections in the history of the United States — one with enormous ramifications for US allies and for the world — including a candidate who has expressed admiration for autocrats, says he will be a dictator only on day one and has shown little interest in nurturing ties with democratic allies.

Ironically, this year’s summit’s host is Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who is basking in a series of successes, making Italy — with its history of unstable governments — seem one of the most stable G7 governments.

Meloni, from the Brothers of Italy party, a successor to the original fascists, has pivoted to the center since taking office in 2022. Once a Euroskeptic and an admirer of Putin, she now says the summit will focus on “the defense of the rules-based international system,” and on “Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine.”

Meloni remains a staunch rightist, with aspirations to lead Europe in a new direction. But so far, the greatest fears about her premiership have not materialized.

The G7 will also address migration, a top agenda item for the right, as well as the conflicts in the Middle East, the need to control Artificial Intelligence, climate change and other pressing issues.

In the end, the leaders will show their agreement with a communique every one of them will sign, with full unity, and warm handshakes.

But the deeper, more nuanced story of this G7 summit, as in others, may come through most sharply not in the signed documents — but in the photographs, these often awkwardly staged glimpses of the human beings who lead nations.

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