Eleven leaders representing more than 2.2 billion people and over half of the world’s economy convened for the Group of Seven summit over the weekend, with all except one physically making the trip to Cornwall, England. This was the first G7 summit since 2019, with the 2020 meeting canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting’s stated purpose was to focus on leading the global recovery from the coronavirus while strengthening resilience against future pandemics, promoting future prosperity by championing free and fair trade, tackling climate change and preserving the planet’s biodiversity, and championing shared values.
As one might expect from such lofty goals and high-level representation, there was much fanfare and media coverage, but what should we make of it all?
To understand what to take away from this latest meeting of the G7, it is helpful to recall what the G7 is all about. First and foremost, G7 nations have the ability to shape the trajectory of the world’s economy. At least that was the original concept when a small group of world powers convened informal meetings in the early 1970s to respond to a global recession and other financial crises.
Over time, this forum has been formalized and expanded both in scope and membership. At one point in the mid-90s, the group even decided to include Russia as a means to shape the country’s recovery following the fall of the Soviet Union. That did not quite pan out like the group intended, and they ousted Russia in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. That left the group with seven members — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — as we see today.
Coming into this meeting, the G7 had much to deliberate, not least of which was helping to get the international community back on its feet following the COVID-19 pandemic. Throw in major issues such as climate change and a growing schism between China and the countries championing the “rules-based international order,” and there was plenty for these world leaders to debate.
So, what should we make of this most recent meeting of the G7? While many topics were discussed, there were three notable takeaways.
When one recalls the origins of the G7, it was not about transactions between the individual participants in the forum, but instead finding common ground in dealing with issues that could destabilize the world. In essence, the powers were looking for ways to cooperate in supplementing the efforts of existing international institutions.
In recent years, the G7 has been marked by relative discord. Many will remember the 2018 G7 summit, which saw a combative stance between its participants. Some will recall that the U.S. pulled its support for the joint statement at the last minute and, in a revealing tweet, then-national security adviser John Bolton wrote: “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank. The President made it clear today. No more.”
Things calmed down in 2019, save for one major development: The White House sought to re-invite Russia to the meeting despite opposition from several of the other G7 members. The administration of Donald Trump was seeking to carry out that invitation in 2020, but the idea faded with the cancellation of that G7 summit and Joe Biden’s subsequent victory in the presidential election.
This year’s G7 talks had all the trappings of a “boring” summit, in that there was not much controversy or sensationalism surrounding the interactions between the participants. That is not to say there was no controversy — as with any negotiation in the pursuit of cooperation, there is always friction. However, good diplomacy tends to mean that the friction is manageable and mundane to the casual observer, meaning we can focus instead on the deliverables rather than the conflict that may have preceded it.
Despite its origins in economic issues and carrying the label “G7,” this summit showcased the emerging concept of the “D10” — as in the world’s 10 leading democracies. The D10 idea has been around since the late 2000s, but this was the first G7 summit to see the concept in practice.
As the G7 has done in other years, the members invited additional participants and reached out to D10 nations Australia, India and South Korea to join the meeting, albeit with President Narendra Modi participating virtually. Of note, South Africa also joined as the lone African representative, and the European Union and United Nations also sent representation to the summit.
The significance of this is that it offers a test bed for the G7’s evolution into a hub for countries championing the so-called rules-based international order. Many will call it an “anti-China” group, but that would imply that it is also an “anti-Russia” or “anti-Iran” or “anti-North Korea” group. The concept centers on leading democracies coming together that espouse the status quo adherence to the rules and norms under the existing U.N. system, as opposed to those countries that seek to exploit it, undermine it or revise it for their own unilateral gains.
Countering China’s rise
Key deliverables during the summit were massive projects including improving education in impoverished countries, coordinating the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and tackling maritime issues such as ocean pollution and unsustainable fishing.
Included among those projects was the “Build Back a Better World” initiative, or “B3W,” under U.S. leadership and with G7 support. The point of the project is to provide funding and other assistance to low- and middle-income countries to aid in development and recovery from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
B3W is a key initiative in strategic competition with China, whose Belt and Road initiative has earned scrutiny for things such as a lack of transparency in dealings and exploitative practices. For example, the Belt and Road initiative is often criticized for its employment of “debt trap diplomacy,” wherein the Chinese projects become so costly that the host nation must offer other major concessions to China in return.
The B3W initiative offers one of the strongest levers in global politics — the presentation of alternatives. Those alternatives do not always need to win out, but giving countries another choice empowers them in dealings with China.
If implemented as envisioned, the B3W initiative can do three things to shape the Belt and Road initiative. First, it can diminish China’s ability to exploit weaker nations who lack viable alternatives. After all, if a country has a better option, then they can exercise it.
Second, the presentation of alternatives increases costs for China’s push toward hegemony, since other options equals leverage in negotiations. In other words, even if China is able to win an infrastructure deal or other major project, the price they either pay or demand will be much more reasonable for the value of the goods and services they are promising.
Finally, alternatives push China toward international norms to remain competitive against the other countries that are presenting options. In this case, the Chinese have to play to the level of their competition if they hope to succeed.
Although it will take time to see how the G7’s efforts this year materialize in practice, the return of U.S. leadership in terms of international diplomacy, the inclusion of other like-minded democracies and the commitments that were made during this summit offer a light at the end of the tunnel as the world looks to overcome the ongoing global pandemic.
Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.
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