The G7: a new dawn or more of the same?

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for emerging security challenges at NATO

Summits take place all the time and normally deal with immediate crises or are dominated by one overriding issue. Yet, President Biden’s first overseas trip for the G7, NATO and EU summits is somewhat different. Biden’s intention in leaving Washington for a week on a rare foreign trip is to re-engage the US public in an active US role in the world, by demonstrating that it can bring tangible benefits for US jobs and business – what he calls a ‘foreign policy for the middle class’. Biden clearly saw the G7 and NATO meetings as an opportunity to rebuild the West after four divisive and even traumatic years with Donald Trump in the White House.

The G7 was designed to be the starting point in mapping out a Western strategy, not just for the next two or three years but the next three decades, up to mid-century. Biden had already framed the new Western narrative in terms of the ideological, economic and military competition between the democracies and the authoritarian states. This would necessitate both a new sense of national purpose and economic recovery within the democracies themselves, and also a new unity and re-invigorated multilateralism within existing Western frameworks such as the G7, NATO and the EU.

Naturally, three days of meetings at the Cornish seaside in the UK or two days in Brussels would never be sufficient for defining this new Western grand strategy, let alone filling in all the details, action plans and policy substance. Yet, Biden’s objective was not simply to assert that ‘America is back’ and lay the unilateralist ghosts of Trump to rest, but to persuade America’s allies to sign on to this grand project in its broad outlines. Moreover, his aim was to lay out a specific agenda in areas such as economic recovery, international aid, technology, resilience and military modernisation that would enable the democracies to assert their values and interests on the global stage and thereby meet the challenges of the authoritarians in the long run. So, Biden’s criterion of success for his trip was that the US’s allies would embrace this agenda as their own as well, and work collectively together to implement it. From this perspective, how satisfied will Biden be with the results of his G7 diplomacy?

The G7 has come under a lot of criticism in recent times

Certainly, the G7 – cancelled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic – was the most forward looking and productive for many years, at least in terms of the usual avalanche of ambitious statements of intent. This was important because the G7 has come under a lot of criticism in recent times. Many NGOs claim that it takes initiatives that are not implemented, such as the promise back in 2009 to give $100bn to developing countries to help them to adapt to climate change. Others point out that the G20, founded in 2008, is a more legitimate structure as it includes the emerging economies in the world and is therefore a better mechanism to achieve a global impact than the G7. The latter today represents around 40% of global GDP, whereas it was 60% just a decade ago and 80% when it first met in France in 1975. So, the G7 was under pressure to show that it can still be a useful forum to set international priorities and stimulate broader multilateral initiatives. Angela Merkel spoke of “values-based multilateralism”. The implication was that the democracies not only provide human freedom in contrast to the authoritarian states, but can provide security and economic prosperity as well – and even better than their rivals.

In this respect, in person meetings matter in terms of facilitating relationships, especially as Biden had met in person only the Japanese and South Korean leaders in the White House prior to the G7. So, he held a number of bilaterals, especially with the UK host, Boris Johnson, with whom he signed a new Atlantic Charter’, an updated version of the one agreed between Churchill and Roosevelt in 1941 when they pledged to promote democratic values and universal human rights, as well as new structures for multinational cooperation after the Second World War. This was an important marker for the British in prolonging their ‘special relationship’ with the US and giving the narrative of ‘Global Britain’ a more secure basis after the UK’s departure from the EU. As there is no US-UK post-Brexit trade agreement in sight, one of the promised deliverables of Brexit, the new ‘Atlantic Charter’ is at least a signal that the UK will remain primus inter pares as a security partner for Washington.

If the West is to be a force on the international stage, it needs to better harmonise its financial and economic policies. During the Trump years this type of cooperation proved difficult across the Atlantic, with both the EU and the US engaged in trade disputes over steel, aluminium and aircraft subsidies. There were also hefty disputes over data handling and storage and the taxation of multinational companies, particularly in the technology sector. Here, G7 finance ministers achieved a breakthrough two weeks before the G7 summit when they agreed on a minimum 15% global tax rate and tax adjustments in countries where the tech multinationals do most of their business. The US made the major concessions here but wants the EU countries like France and the UK to abandon their national rules on tax first before the new global regime will enter into force. It is unpopular with Republicans in the US and has to be endorsed by the G20 to be globally effective.

G7 leaders lamented that the West has been put on the public relations defensive by China and Russia

On other trade issues there was disappointment on the European side. The US has kept ‘Buy American’ provisions in its public procurement. The EU and the US have helpfully postponed the implementation of tariffs on steel, aluminium and aircraft, but they have not yet come to a final agreement on removing these tariffs. A new US-EU trade pact is not on the horizon yet. So, much work remains to be done on integrating the G7 economies to boost domestic growth.

The G7 was more impressive for its efforts on the international front.

The G7 was under a lot of pressure to deliver more solidarity on the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in the area of the distribution of vaccines. Biden committed the US to providing 500mn doses of the Pfizer vaccine – 200mn this year and the remainder in 2022. The US has already dispatched 80mn doses from its national stockpile. The UK announced the delivery of 100mn doses over the next year but with no precise timetable. France and Germany each pledged 30mn as part of an overall EU effort totalling 100mn. The G7 leaders made a great deal of these various vaccine pledges and together pledged to distribute 1bn vaccines through COVAX and GAVI by the end of 2022.

The sub-text behind this initiative was not only to help the 46 poorest countries that so far have received only 1% of their vaccine requirements, but also to push back against China and Russia and regain the high moral ground. Several G7 leaders lamented that the West has been put on the public relations defensive by China and Russia, which have exploited in the media their own modest contributions to the developing countries and presented the West as selfish and uncaring, despite the slow progress of their own vaccination campaigns at home. Although the G7’s new focus on getting 60% of the world’s population vaccinated by the end of 2022 was welcomed by many, NGOs pointed out that 1bn extra vaccines falls well short of the WHO target of 11bn and was lacking in urgency given that 3.9mn have already died from the virus worldwide. With two jabs required, the vaccine numbers need to be doubled as part of a wartime mobilisation effort.

G20 endorsement will be key if these initiatives are to get off the ground

Also, there were few details about how the G7 countries can work with the developing countries on setting up administrations and systems to actually inject the vaccines into people’s arms quickly. Here, the G7 members have gained useful experience with their national vaccination campaigns which could be passed on. Given that the virus is now surging in Africa, NGOs also criticised the slow pace of the vaccine distribution wanting more action now. One issue that could have been contentious did not really surface: the transatlantic debate over intellectual property and patent waivers where the US has been in favour but Germany opposed because of its impact on the research and development investments of the pharmaceutical sector.

Instead, the G7 spoke of boosting domestic vaccine production in Africa and elsewhere, setting up a global alert network to spot virus outbreaks earlier and bringing together more rapidly international experts to analyse and identify virus pathogens. Here again, G20 endorsement will be key if these initiatives are to get off the ground. Where the G7 has more autonomy is in learning the lessons of the current COVID-19 pandemic in order to better prepare for future pandemics, a debate led by the UK. Here the debate covered the well-known territory of resilience, ensuring domestic production of key elements like pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and the integrity or diversity of critical supply chains.

Another aspect of pushing back against increasing Chinese influence in the developing world was the adoption of the Build Back Better World initiative (B3W). This was presented as a direct response to Beijing’s One Belt, One Road programme. The idea is to give those countries attracted by Chinese offers an alternative source of advice and expertise with none of the associated downside, as the G7 would see it, of indebtedness, environmental and social exploitation, and long-term foreign control and influence. This initiative chimes with the current emphasis within the G7 countries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic by investing in the digital economy and green carbon neutral technologies and infrastructure. Yet it is not clear where the billions of dollars needed to fund such an initiative will come from and how B3W will be organised and managed. Will it be new money or money re-directed from existing funds in the IMF or World Bank? At all events it can build on the International Development Finance Corporation which the US has set up as an alternative to Chinese financing.

At the urging of Biden, China was addressed directly in the communique

Finally, climate change was another agenda item. In the run up to the COP26 in Glasgow this November, the G7 was obviously keen to reiterate the commitment of its members to halve their carbon emissions by 2030 and to achieve carbon neutrality by mid-century. They also pledged to give $100bn in climate finance to the developing countries to help them to adapt their economies and infrastructure. Yet, as said already, this was the renewal of an old commitment rather than coming up with a new financial tranche for the COP26 for the decade ahead.

Some tough issues were avoided in areas such as domestic carbon taxes and the EU’s proposal for a carbon border tax on goods coming in from countries with lower standards. This said, there were initiatives to protect biodiversity through establishing special climate reserves in up to 30% of the world’s oceans and land surfaces. Equally, the G7 pledged to stop financing coal production in foreign aid projects and to lobby against fossil fuel subsidies. Climate change was one area, however, where the difficulty of making significant progress without having China at the table was remarked upon in much of the commentary.

In sum, China may not have been mentioned in every paragraph of the G7 communique but competing with China and pushing back against growing Chinese global influence were leitmotifs that ran throughout every session discussion topic. The invitation to four non-G7 countries – Australia, South Korea and South Africa – to join the meeting in Cornwall in person, with India linking up by video, testified to the G7’s need to broaden its base and reach out to more major democracies to gain legitimacy and traction for its initiatives with the G20 and beyond. It will be difficult to leave them out on future occasions.

Despite some reservations from France, Italy and Germany – who do not want a confrontational approach towards China – and at the urging of Biden, China was addressed directly in the communique, especially on the topic of the treatment of the Uighur community in Xinxiang and of Hong Kong. China was also criticised for its ‘anti-market’ trade policies, mainly dumping at below market prices. This inevitably led China to push back against the G7’s legitimacy in speaking on behalf of the global community and to denounce once again interference in its domestic affairs. The problem in building coalitions of democracies around new causes is that it also drives adversaries into deeper retrenchment, thereby compounding the competition that brings the coalition into existence.

The age for democratic renaissance will take more than just one upbeat meeting in a sunny Cornwall

The G7 was long on commitments, not all of which lived up to the hopes of observers, but as in the past, the credibility test will lie behind the press announcements and in the painful bureaucratic work mobilising governments, multilateral institutions and the private sector to come up with the needed resources and detailed delivery programmes. Big summit events like the G7 rely on new initiatives and media deliverables that show politicians leading from the front, but following up on previous commitments is just as important for effectiveness in the long run.

The Cornwall G7 was a big effort to return the G7 to its former role as the Directoire of the global political system, the central coordinating axis of the most influential powers around which the global multilateral system turns. Now that Russia has been excluded following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, the short lived G8 has put paid to the idea that the forum could be a badly needed meeting point of the great powers, democratic or otherwise, to build bridges and tackle the global challenges that they still share. For instance, climate change, arms control or regional conflicts.

The G7 has reverted to being essentially a club of the West, the embodiment of ‘old power’ at a time when 3.4bn people and 60% of global GDP reside in Asia, and more of the world’s population live in authoritarian than democratic societies. Whether the G7 can make a comeback as the leader of the West, recovering its strength and its mojo to out-compete the authoritarians, and make the 21st century – against all expectations – the age for democratic renaissance will take more than just one upbeat meeting in a sunny Cornwall. But it will be interesting to watch.

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