Despite some notable novelties, there was a strong sense of déjà vu about the results of this year’s G7 summit of industrialized economies. It seemed to be a throwback to 2016, the final year of President Barack Obama’s time in office and the eve of Donald Trump’s.
And why not? Current US President Joe Biden, who attended the summit in Cornwall, England, this year, was Obama’s vice-president back then. He and much of his team are veterans of the Obama administration’s foreign policy squad.
All were committed to multilateralism, which in the end was music to the ears of America’s G7 allies fatigued by Trump’s go-it-alone policies.
The sigh of relief was palpable. France’s President Emmanuel Macron proclaimed it out loud. “It is great to have a US president who is part of the club and very willing to cooperate,” he said. One Trump critic immediately said he preferred “boring” Biden to “circus freakshow” Trump.
That was a shot at Trump’s “America First” policy. During G7 meetings he attended, Trump badgered allies to increase funds to pay for military defense of the West, to abandon trade practices he claimed undermined the US economy and to stop focusing on climate policies that aim to eliminate fossil fuels, whose US production Trump promoted.
His brusque style and verbal assaults upended the 2019 G7 summit Macron hosted in France. Because of disputes with Trump over trade, it ended without a joint communique. In 2018, Trump stomped out of the G7 meeting in Canada early.
Perhaps Biden boasted that “America is back at the table.” But the arrival of Biden, with its pre-Trump echoes, also brought America back to the lip-service diplomacy common to most G7 summits.
Singling out China
The main novel substantive result of this year’s G7 summit was the singling out of China as a commercial and ideological rival to democratic nations. On trade, in keeping with the G7 practice of issuing consensus platitudes, the group declared it would “consult on collective approaches” to China’s “challenging non-market policies and practices.”
As for human rights, the G7 called on China to respect “fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and those rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong.” Sounds tough, but is actually less dramatic than the terms of condemnation used by Biden’s administration, which accused China of genocide.
All told, the final communique could have been written five years ago when the G7 – the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Canada and Japan – met in Kashiko, Japan.
Then, issues like climate concerns, sustainable development, the global poor, equality, cyber-security and criticism of perceived geopolitical antagonists all took turns on the G7 stage. All are still on the table – and, in some cases, the problems have worsened.
Take the key issue of global health in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In Cornwall, the group committed itself to “increasing and coordinating on global manufacturing capacity on all continents; improving early warning systems; and supporting science in a mission to shorten the cycle for the development of safe and effective vaccines, treatments and tests from 300 to 100 days.”
The language on pandemics used in 2016 – when the wealthy countries were concerned by the outbreak of the deadly SARS and Ebola viruses – serves as a damning reminder of how unprepared they were for last year’s Covid outbreak. The members tasked the World Health Organization to lead in “prompt detection, containment and control of public health emergencies” and to develop cross-border cooperation in vaccine development.
The G7 has pledged to provide one billion anti-Covid vaccines by the end of 2022. That number is deceiving since 130 million had already been pledged. In any case, the WHO says 11 billion doses are needed to make a difference.
In 2016, the G7 also agreed to promote sustainable development in line with creating growth, jobs and good governance, all in line with curbing climate change, putting limits on fossil fuel use and conserving biodiversity.
The same pledges were made this year, but without concrete signs of increased urgency. A promise of a US$100 billion environmental fund to poor countries’ environmental efforts was actually first made in 2009. A proposal for the G7 countries to end the use of coal-fired power plants this year, a key demand of climate activists, was turned aside. Instead, the G7 said its members should not subsidize coal use.
If you think that the recent cyber-attacks on US businesses and government agencies just caught the eye of the G7 after the attacks on US infrastructure and security networks, you’d be mistaken. In 2016, the summit pledged “to take decisive and robust measures in close cooperation against malicious use of cyberspace both by states and non-state actors, including terrorists.”
This year, G7 committed itself to “work together to urgently address the escalating shared threat from criminal ransomware networks.”
In an apparent reference to Russia and China, the G7 called “on all states to urgently identify and disrupt ransomware criminal networks operating from within their borders, and hold those networks accountable for their actions.”
But both countries have ignored an old, explicit call to crack down on cyber-disruption. Neither has signed the international Budapest Convention of Cybercrime, which invited countries to join – in 2001.
If the G7 frequently comes off as ineffective, it is partly due to its origins. It first gathered in response to an economic crisis in the mid-1970s – not as a catch-all talk shop. The group has neither a secretariat, to prepare and follow up on commitments, nor a mechanism for enforcement.
An organization that nominally does possess such mechanisms is the United Nations Security Council. At least that’s what China thinks. Beijing’s embassy in London, dismissing the G7 criticisms made in Cornwall, said: “The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone. There is only one system and one order in the world, that is, the international system with the United Nations at the core.”
Hitting a snag
In the United States, Biden’s performance was dissected in ways that usually accompany Broadway reviews. In Europe a seemingly petty squabble dominated headlines for a time. France and Britain argued over whether, under Brexit rules set between the European Union and the UK, refrigerated sausages would be sold in Northern Ireland, part of the UK but operating partly under EU rules.
The two sides in the argument raised the temperature, with threats of toppling the UK-EU Brexit trade accords igniting civil war in Northern Ireland.
If that spat symbolized the diminished stature of the G7, there may be good reason. In the 1970s, the group accounted for about 70% of global GDP. That has fallen to less than 50% –less if you calculate it by the comparison of purchasing power among national currencies.
There is talk about expanding the group to include India, Australia, South Korea and South Africa, to give the G7 more heft. All of those were invited to attend this year. That might not make for more decisive meetings, but with wider angle lenses on the official cameras, it would expand the photo opportunities for eager leaders to show their importance on the world stage.