The leaders of the G7 group of big rich democracies – the US, Japan, Germany, France, UK, Italy and Canada – will meet in Cornwall, in south-west England, from this Friday, 11 June, to Sunday 13 June. The summit will be their first in-person gathering since before the pandemic. It also marks Joe Biden’s first foreign trip as US president: he will then attend Nato and US-EU summits in Brussels on 14 and 15 June and will meet Vladimir Putin in Geneva on 16 June.
The G7 also comes at a time when the West’s effectiveness, cohesion and role in the world are all in question. China’s rise has ended the brief unipolar moment that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall. Divides have opened up between the US and its allies. They preceded Donald Trump’s presidency, though he exacerbated and drew particular attention to them – not least at the G7 summits he attended.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the transatlantic rift and the sense of declining relative power was prompting talk of “Westlessness”. Covid-19 has served to accelerate many of those longer term trends, with North America and Europe caught in long lockdowns as the virus scythed through their populations, while East Asia (including the rising superpower) controlled Covid’s spread quickly and maintained a greater degree of normality. For their part, many Chinese elites are now convinced that the West is doomed to decline and decadence.
The question now is: can the Western alliance bounce back? The language from major capitals ahead of the Cornwall summit is upbeat. As I write in my cover feature in the current issue of the New Statesman, UK and US sources have been briefing that it will show “the West ain’t over just yet”. Lars-Hendrik Röller, Angela Merkel’s G7 sherpa, enthuses that “this is the year where multilateralism is back”. In a Washington Post column Biden wrote: “Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries? I believe the answer is yes.”
So far, so sunny, and the optics of seven mainstream leaders meeting together at the Cornish seaside will doubtless be cheery too, and an obvious contrast to the grimaces and awkwardness of the Trump-era G7 meetings. But will the substance match the form?
[See also: Gordon Brown on how to mend a failing world]
The British government, which holds the group’s rotating presidency, has set out four main priorities: pandemic recovery, free and fair trade, climate change, and shared democratic values. Some more specific agreements are already on the table. On 5 June the G7 finance ministers backed the establishment of a global minimum corporation tax rate of at least 15 per cent (read more on that from Emily Tamkin here) and made a commitment to obligatory climate reporting by companies. On 6 June Boris Johnson said he would seek firm commitments that would lead to the whole world being vaccinated by the end of 2022. The G7 is also expected to back a “Clean Green Initiative” to compete with China’s massive Belt and Road international investment programme.
Another element worth watching is the role played by the four guest countries. In keeping with the Biden administration’s quest to build an alliance of democracies to help contain China, the British government has invited the leaders of Australia, South Korea, India and South Africa (three will attend; Narendra Modi is remaining in India due to the Covid-19 crisis there).
How appropriate the G7 remains as a forum for managing global issues is an open question. It was founded in 1975 in the wake of the oil crisis; since then the world has changed drastically and the relative economic weight of its members has fallen. The G20, the group including the G7 members plus 13 other mostly non-Western powers that came into its own during the financial crisis, is a bigger and more representative format. Unless it can emerge as the kernel of that new alliance of democracies, the G7 might end up looking less and less relevant. Much is at stake this week.
[See also: Can the G7 rebuild a global alliance?]
The New Statesman will, of course, be covering the G7 extensively. We have discussed different aspects of the summit in the past three episodes of the World Review podcast, including David Miliband on Covid-19 and the global hunger crisis, Harry Lambert on the UK’s role as G7 host and its broader role in the world and Rachel Rizzo of the Truman Center think tank on the G7, Nato and the Western geopolitical alliance.