U.S. President Donald Trump has had enough of the Group of Seven. It’s hard to fault that instinct: That annual meeting has continued long past its “sell-by” date. It is well past time to consider alternatives, but here the president’s gut has failed him. If there is to be a serious alternative to the G7, it should be a gathering of democracies that focuses on principles of liberal governance and promotes specific measures to advance that agenda.
The G7 was formed in the 1970s as the world struggled with the economic dislocations of that tumultuous time. A meeting of finance ministers from the world’s largest economies to promote economic cooperation morphed into a heads of state summit among “advanced industrial democracies” that sought to provide global leadership on a range of thorny political issues; most simply, the group coordinated policies to win the Cold War.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was invited to join; the Group of Eight was born in 1998. Moscow’s membership was revoked 16 years later after its annexation of Crimea; while the move infuriated President Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader knew that the blow was more symbolic than real. The G7 had been overtaken by the Group of 20 as the global economic coordinating body since the 2007-8 Global Financial Crisis — and Russia remained a member of the latter group.
The G20’s emergence stripped the G7 of one of the pillars of its legitimacy, but its remaining members insisted that they remain relevant by offering guidance on political issues. That ambition was hobbled by divisions among its members, exacerbated by Trump’s “America First” agenda, and the absence of rising powers such as China and India, and the perennial spoiler, Russia. Those three governments voiced their displeasure by joining with Brazil and South Africa to form the BRICS, an alternative leadership forum that would amplify their voice on the global stage.
The U.S. chairs the G7 this year — it rotates annually — and Trump had planned to hold the summit later this month at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. The COVID-19 outbreak obliged him to consider a virtual meeting, but in May he decided to proceed with a live summit with guests physically present. While some leaders including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to go, others did not. Their resistance pushed Trump to announce last weekend that he would postpone the summit until September.
Trump also revealed his dissatisfaction with the G7 format. “I don’t feel that as a G7 it properly represents what’s going on in the world,” he told reporters, adding, “It’s a very outdated group of countries.” To remedy that, he said he would invite Russia, Australia, South Korea and India, turning the group into a G10 or G11. Every G7 chair can invite whomever he or she wishes, and the guest list invariably reflects the host’s priorities. Changing membership on a permanent basis is not a prerogative of the chair, however.
Reportedly, Trump wants to use the forum to focus attention on China and get the attendees to agree to a strategy to address Beijing’s misbehavior. Some of the group’s members are likely to back him. Trump’s musings last week followed news that the British government wants to form a group of 10 countries that would develop its own 5G technology and reduce dependence on Huawei, the Chinese technology giant. It would include the G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — as well as Australia, South Korea and India.
Trump wants to include Russia in his project, reasoning that Moscow would prefer to align with Washington than with Beijing. He is wrong. Putin is unlikely to agree to any anti-China agenda. Relations between Moscow and Beijing have been steadily improving for over a decade. The “axis of authoritarians,” created by a sense of strategic convergence among two disgruntled states, is anticipated by some to become an actual alliance. And while Putin’s objections might be the most strident, it is unlikely that other attendees would have backed a plan that identified China as the world’s “public enemy number 1.”
That shouldn’t discredit the idea of a G10, however. Ash Jain, a former State Department official who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, made the case for a similar group nearly a decade ago, arguing that there is a need for a “new strategic framework — one that brings together America’s closest allies in a standing entity focused on advancing the norms and principles of a liberal state order.” Membership would rest on two criteria: “strategic like-mindedness,” or a common worldview and shared values, and a “demonstrated capacity to act on an international scale,” meaning the possession of the hard or soft power assets that would allow members to influence global affairs.
The G10’s purpose is simple: promote strategic cooperation on global political and security issues and advance the norms and values of a liberal international order. (That echoes Germany’s description of the G7’s purpose when it hosted the group a few years ago: “a community of values that stands for peace, security and a self-determined life all around the world.” Its key principles include freedom and human rights, democracy and the rule of law, as well as prosperity and sustainable development.)
Jain’s efforts prompted the creation in 2014 of the D10 (Democratic 10), a group of like-minded democratic states (the G7 plus Australia, South Korea and the European Union) committed to addressing global challenges, “building and maintaining the rules-based democratic order” in particular. It is a track 1.5 effort, meaning that it is convened by a nongovernmental organization — the Atlantic Council — and attendees include government officials and experts.
Having a nongovernmental organization serve as host allows for more open and candid discussions since all attend in their private capacity and do not speak for their governments. It’s a fig leaf, but it works: The dialogues test ideas and build relationships that governments can then exploit.
One of the primary problems for any group that seeks to defend “rules-based democratic order” is the wrecking ball that Trump takes to institutional arrangements that don’t reflexively back his priorities. He is an unapologetic nationalist, who is more concerned with protecting U.S. prerogatives and righting injustices that he insists have been inflicted against his country than protecting principles that the U.S. has defended and fought for throughout the last century.
Since taking office, Trump has pulled the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord, UNESCO, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the Treaty on Open Skies and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, while demanding the renegotiation of various trade agreements, crippling the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement mechanism, and is threatening to withdraw from the World Health Organization.
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, calls Trump’s foreign policy “the withdrawal doctrine” and it’s hard to see how, with that record, he or his administration can make the case for a rules-based order that treats all countries alike with a straight face.
Still, the idea is worth pursuing, if only to try to limit the damage that such nationalism will do. And if the U.S. is no longer committed to that liberal order, then other governments must redouble their efforts to fill the gap created by the reordering of Washington’s priorities. Of course, there are practical objections to the proposal, not least of which is who is included: Note that India, the world’s largest democracy, is only on Trump’s invitation list.
A G10 should not aim to consolidate the world that existed at the end of the Cold War, or to ratify “the end of history.” It must affirm a normative rules-based framework, the cornerstone of which is respect for the dignity of the individual while accommodating the tectonic shifts that have occurred throughout the world over the past three decades. It must offer opportunities for all major countries to join and to benefit but it must do so in the service of a larger idea. It is an ambitious agenda, but one that is increasingly necessary.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”