The G7 tries to reconstruct the West: but how successful is it?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Hard on the heels of the elections to the European Parliament last week, which showed the growing weight and influence of the nationalist hard right in European politics, the leaders of the G7 convened in Bari in an effort to demonstrate that the major powers on both sides of the Atlantic are still capable of uniting and leading the Western world. 

The family photo of the event may not have been entirely convincing, however. With the exception of the Italian host, Giorgia Meloni, whose Fratelli di Italia party emerged triumphant from the European elections, all the other leaders of the G7 club are in political trouble at home. President Biden faces an uphill struggle to retain the White House in the November elections. Despite record employment (last month 250,000 new jobs were created), rising wages and sustained economic growth, US voters are in a grumpy mood with what they call “the bad vibes” economy, complaining that they are not yet feeling the upswing evident in the overall statistics. Despite the rosy economic picture and his many domestic achievements, Biden is trailing Trump in the polls and The Economist this week gives Trump a two in three chance of being re-elected despite the undeniable chaos that marked much of his presidency. Things are not much better on this side of the Atlantic. Macron has decided on early elections in France to roll back the advance of the National Rally and build a new coalition around the pro-Europe political centre. But his move is a massive political gamble, with polls in France showing that Le Pen and Bardella are likely to repeat their good performance in the European elections at the national level, albeit not with an overall majority. If they form the next government, Macron’s remaining three years as President are likely to be paralysed and acrimonious, depriving the EU of the leadership that it needs at a particularly dangerous time for its security and prospects for future economic growth. In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and his fragile coalition were also considerably weakened in the elections. Prime Minister Sunak of the UK already looks politically dead with the UK election in just over two weeks pointing to a massive Labour majority and the populist Reform party of Nigel Farage squeezing the Conservative vote in its traditional pro-Brexit heartlands. The EU Council President, Charles Michel, arrived in Bari already at the end of his term and his colleague at the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, still has to ensure that she succeeds herself as Commission President: something that looks currently probable given the strong showing of her EPP group in the elections but, given the horse trading involved in top EU jobs, far from inevitable. Prime Minster Trudeau of Canada and Prime Minister Kishida of Japan have also had a torrid time of late with their governments hit by a series of scandals.

So the composition and geopolitical heft of the G7 may look very different next year when the Presidency shifts to Canada and a summit in the appropriately named Rocky Mountains – at least from a political standpoint. Therefore there was all the more reason for this G7 group of largely likeminded leaders to try to get as much business done before they (potentially) depart the scene and the G7 risks being the scene once more of bitter transatlantic clashes as it was during the Trump years. G7 aficionados will recall from this time a famous photo of a scowling Trump in Quebec in 2018 being badgered at close range by his imploring European counterparts over his protectionist trade policies. At a time of mounting geopolitical tensions and with over 130 conflicts taking place across the globe, the G7 has grown in importance as the focal point of the West’s attempts to put its own house in order and simultaneously reach out to the rest of the world as the latter is wooed by China and Russia. The other Western clubs have not developed the same traction. The US-EU summits have been revived by Biden after a multiyear break; but they have been infrequent and insubstantial, halting long standing transatlantic trade disputes over steel or aircraft subsidies but not ushering in a new US-Europe trade agreement along the lines of the old TTIP proposal. The US and the EU have established a Trade and Technology Council to harmonise their standards and develop a common approach to unfair Chinese trading practices and political and economic interference, but despite a number of meetings, the Council has disappeared from the news, leading observers to be uncertain about how much real progress has been made. But undoubtedly most EU member states still conduct their relations with the United States on a bilateral basis, inviting Biden for state visits (as France did two weeks ago) or sending their foreign ministers on frequent visits to Washington. The UK post-Brexit is also now not involved in EU-US negotiations but is part of the G7.

As another key institution of the West, NATO now holds annual summits, the next being in Washington in mid-July. But these are heavily scripted affairs with set piece speeches and an agenda heavily slanted towards European security issues. There are few in-depth discussions on global challenges (something that led Macron to pronounce NATO “brain dead” back in 2019) and the partner countries invited to participate briefly on the second summit day (Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) are strictly from the West. The Asia-Pacific dialogue forums, such as the QUAD, ASEAN or APEC do not involve the Europeans. By contrast, the G7 has a broader and more global agenda  and discusses economics and finance in the context of security and defence, seeing how they overlap and can reinforce each other. This better tracks how geopolitics actually works in practice. Moreover, the G7 is the best forum for the West’s engagement with the less developed countries. Despite the efforts of Russia and China to enlarge BRICS and turn it into an alternative global forum to the G7 or the G20, the G7 retains its convening power. The leaders of ten other countries showed up in Bari, including African states, the King of Jordan, President Erdogan of Türkiye and BRICS founding member, India. The Pope also participated in a G7 summit for the first time to discuss the ethical and human consequences of AI. This network allows G7 members to offer something concrete to the rest of the world in return for the diplomatic support it hopes to solicit for its own positions. 

Yet what happens on the sidelines of G7 meetings can be as important as what goes on in the conference room itself

Unsurprisingly, however, the main focus of the G7 in Bari was on events in Europe and, in particular, Ukraine. The military aspects of support for the Ukrainian army had already been dealt with in other meetings; first when President Zelensky met Biden, Macron, Scholz and other Western leaders at the D-Day commemorations in Normandy and then at last week’s meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels where another gathering of the Ukraine Contact Group, chaired by the US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, brought together the 50 or so countries sending weapons, ammunition and other types of military assistance to Kyiv. As often in the past countries used these occasions to make further pledges to Ukraine. France for instance of Mirage 2000 fighter jets and the Italians of a SAMP-T air defence system. The Netherlands announced that it had formed a consortium to spend $250mn on 152 mm shells that are used by Ukraine’s older artillery tubes. Biden announced that allies had managed to source five out of the seven Patriot air defence batteries that Zelensky has urgently requested to deal with the daily Russian missile and drone attacks against Ukraine’s cities and its energy and transport infrastructure. An objective of NATO’s Washington summit is to be able to find all seven. Meanwhile, the Czechs announced that they were joining Germany in placing a bulk order for Leopard 2 A8 tanks to replace armour they had already sent to Ukraine and to add to older Leopard 2 A4 tanks that they had previously acquired from the Bundeswehr. Yet what was most significant about the NATO meeting was the decision to give NATO a greater role in planning and coordinating the procurement of weapons and ammunition for Ukraine using the standing NATO civilian and military planning staff. This effort will be run out of the US military base at Wiesbaden and involve 500 procurement and logistics experts. NATO will also play a larger role in training the Ukrainian forces. This said, the Ukraine Contact Group will remain in function as the overarching body for strategic planning and political consultations. We will have to wait and see how well this new, NATO-led mechanism operates. Better coordination and faster delivery of supplies are indeed urgently needed, but the equipment and money will still come from the nations, meaning that the new structure will not be as “Trump proof” as many of its advocates have alleged. Moreover the allies have still to agree on a second proposal from the NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, for NATO to set up a rolling fund of €40bn per annum to help finance the weapons supply and training activities. The idea is to link this to defined contributions by individual allies, similar to the 2% of GDP defence spending pledge. This fund will now probably be agreed at the Washington summit, although it will have implications for other multinational support funds, such as the EU’s Peace Facility or the Ukraine International Fund operated by seven Northern European allies.

Yet what happens on the sidelines of G7 meetings can be as important as what goes on in the conference room itself. Biden signed a bilateral security agreement with Zelensky which pledges the US to assist Ukraine and to help build its armed forces for the next ten years. This forms part of the bilateral security guarantees that were decided by the G7 on the margins of the NATO summit in Vilnius last July. 16 countries have already concluded such agreements with Kyiv which are designed to be a bridge rather than a substitute for Ukraine’s ultimate NATO membership. Japan also signed a bilateral agreement with Zelensky in Bari whereby Tokyo has pledged $6.5bn in non-lethal assistance to Kyiv this year. Yet Zelensky made clear that the agreement with Washington was the most precious for him. It doesn’t commit the United States to come to the defence of Ukraine in the event of future Russian attacks, nor does it provide for additional money over and above the $61bn assistance package that the US Congress recently passed. The agreement does provide for consultations with Washington in crisis situations and for the administration to work with US defence companies to invest in Ukraine and set up more joint production, repair facilities and research and innovation centres there. It goes without saying that equipment produced in Ukraine will be cheaper and get to the front line faster than equipment manufactured in Europe and North America. Yet the US bilateral agreement is an Executive Order and not a treaty approved by Congress. So it will not bind a future administration. 

Putin may have hoped to pre-empt the Burgenstock meeting by setting out his own “peace deal” in advance, but his intransigence […] will certainly stiffen the spine of Ukraine’s international partners

This time round, the G7 focused on financing the Ukrainian war effort. The meeting put the seal on a debate that has been dragging on for months within the EU and between Brussels and Washington. It concerns the use of the $260bn of Russian Central Bank assets, which have been frozen by Western countries as part of the sanctions against Moscow. The debate has been twofold: whether to use just the interest on this money (around $3bn to 5bn per annum) or take all the funds in order to finance the physical and economic reconstruction of Ukraine, reflecting the principle that the aggressor must pay reparations. And whether to use the Russian interest as collateral for loans to Kyiv or to use it to top up western support funds such as the EU’s Peace Facility. Zelensky has argued that Ukraine is not too restricted in what it can do with a G7 financed loan and be allowed to use some of the funds for immediate purposes, such as weapons production and conscription, as well as for longer term investment. Working through these issues took time given the legal complications and the concern not to undermine the global financial system by opening a space for governments to confiscate each other’s investments. Putin has played on these fears by castigating the G7’s decision as “theft” and threatening to retaliate by confiscating Western assets in Russia. But the G7 decision ticks a number of boxes:, it punishes Russia for its aggression and also helps to secure new major loans for Ukraine on an annual basis (as new Russian interest will be generated each year) and it also moves funding for Kyiv from grants to loans which should be more sustainable politically over time. Donald Trump, for instance, wants to stop US grants but is receptive to loans. G7 members now need to make their individual contributions to the $50bn loan. Kyiv has an immediate $15bn financing gap. But as we move forward, Ukraine’s supporters need to keep a close eye to ensure that the G7 loan does not have a detrimental impact on other funding streams for Kyiv. Complementary rather than competitive.

Immediately following the G7, leaders (with the exception of Biden, who was replaced by his Vice President, Kamala Harris) decamped to Burgenstock in Switzerland for the Ukraine Peace Summit. The Swiss foreign ministry deserves credit for bringing 93 countries (including 50 heads of state and government) and eight international organisations together to discuss the core principles  for achieving a “just, comprehensive and durable” peace settlement in Ukraine. Russia was not invited to participate in the Peace Summit which, as it takes two to tango, undermined the value of the event in the eyes of some. Yet on the eve of the gathering in Burgenstock, Putin reminded everyone why it is far too early to involve Russia in peace negotiations. In an address to a conference of Russian ambassadors, he offered peace exclusively on Moscow’s terms. Ukraine must withdraw from all the four provinces in eastern Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed. It has to abandon its quest for NATO membership, reduce the size of its armed forces, renounce nuclear weapons and give Russia a role in guaranteeing the interests of Russian speakers in Ukraine. In return, Moscow would ensure the safe withdrawal of the Ukrainian troops from territories assigned to Russia. Naturally, all sanctions against Russia would have to be lifted. This proposal of Putin, tantamount more to a Ukrainian surrender than to a genuine peace, was quickly rejected by Zelensky and the G7 leaders. Putin’s terms would leave Ukraine in such a vulnerable position that, lacking NATO protection, it could easily fall prey to further Russian aggressions at a later stage. It is hard to see how international law and the principles of the UN Charter would emerge strengthened from this kind of Diktat. Putin may have hoped to pre-empt the Burgenstock meeting by setting out his own “peace deal” in advance, but his intransigence and rejection of any Russian accountability for the war will certainly stiffen the spine of Ukraine’s international partners. The Swiss hosts were also wise in organising the Summit agenda around issues relevant to the wider world. These were ensuring food security through freedom of navigation and condemning the weaponisation of grain exports; preventing the use of nuclear weapons and attacks against nuclear power plants; upholding the rights of prisoners of war and ensuring their rapid and safe exchange; and preventing the forced deportation of children. Canada, taking over the G7 Presidency, will host a follow up meeting of foreign ministers to examine the humanitarian consequences of the war. The Peace Summit was not intended to start a negotiation but to isolate Russia and form a broad international consensus around the core elements on which a peace will need to be based. Usefully it reiterated the need to fully restore the territorial integrity of Ukraine. In this respect it was disappointing that China chose not to participate, particularly as it has appointed a Ukraine peace envoy and has come up with a peace plan of its own. South Africa, Brazil and India refused to sign up to the final declaration. Yet the leaders of Chile and Uganda spoke at the final press conference and condemned Russia for its invasion. Saudi Arabia, a country that Zelensky visited shortly before the G7, was tipped to host the next Summit but it also did not sign the final declaration and so its willingness to take the process forward as something other than a mainly western initiative is not clear. The utility of this kind of exercise is not just to end the war in Ukraine in ways that preserve Ukraine as a viable state but also to shore up the international political and legal order against further aggressions. 

There are plenty of building blocks for the G7 to build on as it moves from broad principles to concrete implementation and technology regulation

To stymie the Russian war machine means not only inflicting military defeats on the invading Russian forces but also choking off their access to sophisticated weapons, particularly missiles, drones, guided air bombs and artillery shells. Ukraine is constantly complaining that when it examines Russian bombs and missiles it is finding dozens of Chinese microprocessors and Western electronic components. Clearly the international sanctions against Russia are being circumvented. Beijing claims that it is not exporting weapons to Russia but the US National Security Council and Treasury Department have unearthed plenty of evidence that Chinese banks have been facilitating Russian financial transactions and trade deals, and Chinese companies have been supplying advanced electronics. The United States has already clamped sanctions on five Chinese and two Hong Kong banks and 50 companies and would like other G7 members to adopt similar secondary sanctions. The UK agreed to do so in Bari. We will need to wait and see if the EU and others follow suit. The G7 members in particular want to target Russia’s oil exports, the main source of its revenue as taxes on oil production accounted for 31% of the Russian state’s revenues last year. The ghost fleet of tankers that Moscow has acquired to move its oil to markets has been a long standing concern and sanctions have been mooted against Türkiye, Israel and Kyrgyzstan.

So, all in all, it was not such a bad week for Kyiv after a difficult spring with Russian offensives in the Donbas and near Kharkiv and worries that the fresh supplies to Kyiv would arrive on the battlefield too late to make a difference. What the G7 demonstrated is that this type of multilateralism works best when meetings are clustered together and build on each other to generate a sense of diplomatic momentum and increased commitment. This type of approach has been reflected in other G7 priorities. The temptation for a global body like the G7 is to pronounce on everything and indeed G7 communiques switching from economic coordination to geopolitics have been lengthy, technical and rarely readable in the past. Fortunately the most recent G7 Presidencies (Germany, Japan, Italy) have recognised the limitations of this approach and tried to move the global agenda forward on one or two specific challenges, keeping them on the agenda from one Presidency to the next in order to build credibility with governments, business and NGOs, particularly in the less developed countries. So yes the Iranian nuclear programme received its usual condemnation in Bari but the spotlight was on AI and Africa.

The Pope’s address to the G7 touched on the need to keep the human wellbeing integrated into the AI loop. He made a passionate appeal to ban autonomous weapons systems and to develop AI in a way that is compatible with fundamental human rights and dignity. His concerns build on the initiative taken by the G7 in Hiroshima last year to produce a Code of Conduct for AI developers. Japanese Prime Minister Kishida has subsequently produced a framework for the global regulation of generative AI. Over the past year the EU has launched its own AI Act that places restrictions on AI technology associated with its level of risk. Biden has also signed an Executive Order calling for legislation on AI and proposing a number of safeguards. US states such as Colorado and California are trying to pass their own bills and anti-trust enforcers in both the US and the EU are scrutinising the big AI companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Open AI. The UK has started a series of AI Safety Summits, the first at Bletchley with a follow up meeting in Seoul this year. The UN has also adopted its first Resolution on AI. So there are plenty of building blocks for the G7 to build on as it moves from broad principles to concrete implementation and technology regulation.

For many years now the G7 has also engaged with Africa. At the G7 in Gleneagles back in 2005 the group forgave $40bn of long-term African debt. Since then there have been other debt relief initiatives and promises to distribute vaccines more equitably and develop Africa’s own domestic production and supply chains in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis. More recently the G7 members have become preoccupied by the economic and security inroads that China and Russia have been making across the continent. G7 meetings have consequently focused not only on warning Africans of the pitfalls of becoming dependent on exploitative Chinese investments and Russian Wagner-style security assistance, but also on improving the West’s own offer. G7 leaders and ministers have fanned out across Africa to preach the virtues of sustainable development, green energy production, improved education and improvements to continent wide transport networks to stimulate more intra-African trade. In Bari the G7 this year agreed on a further financing package of $60bn in grants and low interest loans with much of this money going to combating illegal migration and trafficking. There have been initiatives too to promote more private sector investment in Africa and market access for African exports to G7 members. In Bari, Italy signed up to a G7 project to co-finance the Lobito corridor, a railway line that will link Southern Africa to the centre by running from Angola to the DRC. Again, and at a time when African countries seem fairly evenly divided between those that back the West and Ukraine and those who sit on the fence and/or lean towards China and Russia, consistency and following through on G7 initiatives (rather than simply seeking the media attention of announcements at G7 summits) will be key to the G7’s credibility going forward. 

So, to answer the question in the title of this article, is the G7 proving successful in giving the West more coherence and leverage at a time when Russia and China are stepping up their diplomacy on the world stage and trying to corral their own friends and sympathisers in their campaign to undermine the international liberal order? Yes, for the time being, and especially as the authoritarian adversaries are better at criticising Western positions than putting forward ideas and proposals of their own. Yet this analysis also suggests that there are some key reasons behind the G7’s current momentum. First,it can add value to the work of other institutions by helping them to plug policy gaps. A good example was in Vilnius last July when NATO was in a tight spot because of inflated Ukrainian expectations regarding an early date for NATO membership, something that most allies were not ready to concede. The G7 stepped in with the offer of bilateral security guarantees and NATO was able to avoid a diplomatic rift with its Ukrainian partner. Second is to embed G7 meetings and initiatives in a broader cluster of meetings so that all aspects of a challenge – economic, financial, military, humanitarian and diplomatic – are covered simultaneously and in a complementary way. The Bari meeting, coming together with four other international meetings devoted to Ukraine, is a good example of this clustering whereby the G7 both supports and is supported by the other meetings. It is a model that should be followed in the future. Completeness requires that we also mention in this connection the conference hosted by the German government in Berlin two weeks ago and which dealt with Ukraine’s future energy security and the role of governments and private developers in financing its reconstruction. Third the G7 needs to stick to specific objectives and policy areas to convince its partners of its seriousness and to achieve concrete results, as with AI, Africa, ways to reduce illegal migration and, in the past, vaccines. Here, choosing the right partners to work with beyond the Western camp is essential. Fourth and finally, the G7 needs to be a two-way street, responsive to the concerns of others as it requests global support for its own actions and positions. Avoiding inconsistency and the impressions of double standards is important in enabling global partners to cooperate with the west. The G7 in Bari was helped on this score by the fact that Biden was pushing a ceasefire and hostage and prisoner release plan in the Gaza conflict and had sent his Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, on his eighth visit to Israel and the Arab countries. Just prior to the G7, the US plan had been endorsed by the UN Security Council in a rare display of unanimity. Without the US initiative, criticism of concern for the targeting of civilians in Ukraine not being matched by a similar concern for the plight of civilians in Gaza would have been much more rife. This is a lesson that needs to be heeded in future if the G7 is to rally the broader international community behind its promotion of Western values. Yet, in the final analysis, we have been fortunate that the G7 membership for the past four years has been made up of leaders who have a genuine commitment to working together and upholding the liberal international order, even when they need to dig deep into their own national coffers. It would be heartening to believe that this happy formula will continue for the next four years, but with populism and nationalism gaining traction on both sides of the Atlantic, it is more a hope than a conviction.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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