The big story from last weekend’s Group of Seven summit of advanced economies in Cornwall, England, was “the United States is back.” U.S. President Joe Biden was greeted like the prodigal son. His commitment to multilateralism, consultation and cooperation with partners allowed the summit, frequently dismissed as little more than a boost for regional tourism, to reclaim the spotlight in international politics.
Still, it’s too early to break out the prosecco. The G7 can be a positive force in global politics, but it will take much more than a “make or break” summit. The group will never again be the apex gathering of economic decision-makers that it once was. It can, however, provide much-needed leadership — if it follows its pledges with action.
The Cornwall summit was a success, at least by recent standards. There was lots of backslapping and bonhomie. Differences were noted, respected and largely contained. There were no breaches of protocol, no embarrassing moments and no obvious or public breaks among participants. It produced a sprawling, 14,000-word, 25-page communique. In the end, there was something for everybody, although most attention will focus on the references to China, the pledge to provide 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines, the commitment to a green revolution and (in Japan at least) support for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Biden commanded the spotlight. His first overseas trip as president sought to transform the U.S. image abroad and set the tone for his presidency. The reassertion of U.S. leadership at the G7 was followed by a renewed commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance in meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Then Biden headed to Geneva for a meeting with Vladimir Putin to show the Russian president and the world how he wants the U.S.-Russia relationship to work.
On the eve of his departure, a survey released by the Pew Research Center showed much of the work was already done. Views of the U.S. were on the rebound. In 12 countries, a median of 75% of respondents expressed confidence in Biden to “do the right thing regarding world affairs” compared with 17% for Trump a year ago. Some 62% have a favorable view of the United States, nearly twice the 34% that held that view in 2020. As the Pew authors laconically noted, “The election of Joe Biden as president has led to a dramatic shift in America’s international image.”
French President Emmanuel Macron provided the money quote of the summit when prodded by Biden to answer a reporter who asked the U.S. president if his country was back. Macron responded, “Yes definitely. It’s great to have a U.S. president who’s part of the club and very willing to cooperate.”
That’s all well and good, but it’s also wishful thinking. The real measure of the Biden presidency and that of the G7 will be the changes they produce. Here, the evidence is more ambiguous.
While the pledge to provide over 1 billion vaccines to poorer countries sounds impressive, it was dismissed by campaigners for global equity. They want an investment of tens of billions of dollars to manufacture and distribute 11 billion doses. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the summit “an unforgivable moral failure,” arguing that the G7 had “failed its first test” after describing the 1-billion shot plan as the equivalent of “passing round the begging bowl.”
A second failure concerned climate change. While activists hoped that the group would set a date to phase out the use of coal, the communique only called for “an overwhelmingly decarbonised power system in the 2030s” and pledged to “accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity,” or coal without carbon capture technology. According to media reports, the United States and Japan blocked a more ambitious deal. The U.K. was also said to have pushed for a phase-out of the production of diesel and gas-powered vehicles by 2035, but that too was nixed in favor of “sustainable, decarbonised mobility and to scaling up zero emission vehicle technologies, including buses, trains, shipping and aviation.”
Those shortcomings are troubling, but historical judgment will depend on the G7’s ability to deliver on pledges it did make. Concrete commitments mostly address climate issues, and include: the 1 billion shot pledge; halving collective emissions over the two decades to 2030; net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and by 2050 at the latest; conserving or protecting at least 30% of global land and at least 30% of the global ocean by 2030.
In addition, they agreed to 40 million more girls in education by 2026 in low and lower-middle income countries; 20 million more girls reading by age 10 or the end of primary school by 2026, in low and lower-middle income countries; and a combined total pledge of at least $2.75 billion funding over the next five years for the Global Partnership for Education.
Those are laudable but look at the communique closely and things get a little wobbly. The word “commit” appears 36 times in the communique, the word “commitment” 46 times, and the overwhelming majority of those references are general intentions. (I read this stuff so you don’t have to.) That language makes plain a dirty little secret: For all the pomp and fine intentions, the G7’s influence is limited. When it was formed in the 1970s, it had the economic clout to exercise real power. Then, its members possessed 70% of the global wealth; today it’s only about 45%. The real instrument of international economic leadership is the G20, whose members account for some 80% of global GDP and two-thirds of the world’s population.
Yet G7 leaders retain their global ambitions, which obliges them and us to think about what constitutes genuine leadership. It isn’t raw power. Neither the biggest economy, the most powerful military, nor the loudest propaganda machine bestows that influence. At best, they provide some leverage, allowing for a quick fix or a temporary solution. They are most easily deployed to block progress or bludgeon some issue. It is much easier to blow things up than to build something new.
No, the mark of leadership is the ability to solve problems, and countries are judged by their capacity to provide public goods — filling gaps in the global order so that the weakest are protected and that instability doesn’t take root and spread. The readiness to play that role and assume the costs associated with it constitute real leadership.
That’s why, as many in the West dismiss China’s Belt and Road Initiative as a mere fig leaf as Beijing tries to increase its influence, many in countries receiving that Chinese investment instead view it as the only way to address a yawning infrastructure gap. (Self-interest is not disqualifying: Every government promotes its national interest unless its leadership is utterly corrupt.) Western leaders have to remember that you don’t beat something with nothing; “just say ‘no'” is not a viable foreign policy. If the G7 finances the Build Back Better World (B3W) partnership — its plan to fill the $40 trillion gap in developing country infrastructure — then it will have re-established its claim to leadership.
This has larger implications. Critics of China insist that taking its money constitutes support for its authoritarian and illiberal politics. In some cases, that is probably true. But in many others, it reflects a judgment that Chinese decision-making is more efficient. Democracy sounds good but it can’t always get things done quickly. (Chinese scholars long tried to make that claim to show their government’s superiority over that of India.) The G7 has a chance — and an obligation — to prove them wrong.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).
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