Credit where it is due. If the test before the British hosts of the recent G7 summit was to project the image of a reunified, cooperative Western alliance, the gathering in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, was a triumph. Out with the grimaces and awkwardness of the Trump-era summits, in with warm, back-slapping exchanges and a final communiqué full of swell language about shared principles of liberal democracy and multilateralism. In the concluding press conferences, Joe Biden termed the event “extraordinarily collaborative” and said it showed “the US is back at the table”. Boris Johnson went further, proclaiming: “The West is back.”
The communiqué included support for a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15 per cent and “a timely, transparent, expert-led and science-based [World Health Organisation]-convened” report into the origins of the Covid-19 virus. It devoted far more space to China than previous G7 declarations and explicitly raised Beijing’s treatment of Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Uighurs in Xinjiang. It committed the seven big rich democracies to donating 870 million Covid vaccine doses to the wider world in the next year, to raising $100bn to help poorer countries cut carbon emissions, and to financing infrastructure projects in middle- and low-income countries in a similar fashion to China’s influential Belt and Road initiative. It would be churlish to suggest such achievements did not reflect the rhetoric.
Yet did they live up to it? There, the picture is more doubtful. As difficult as the past years have been – the Trump presidency, the rise of China, the shock of the pandemic – the West never entirely “went away”. The US remains the world’s most powerful military nation and the dollar the world’s leading reserve currency. The G7 nations’ share of global GDP may have fallen from about 65 per cent in 2000 to about 45 per cent today, but that still makes them the world’s wealthiest group of allies and about two and a half times as big as China economically. One can overstate the extent to which the West went away in the first place and therefore exaggerate its supposed revival today.
It is only fair to judge that revival against this, as well as the sheer scale of the climate, geopolitical, economic and virological challenges the world faces. And even on the four stated priorities on the G7 agenda in Cornwall – the pandemic, free and fair trade, the climate, and democratic values – the achievements of this notional comeback summit look underwhelming.
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Of course, 870 million donated vaccine doses are far better than none. But set against the seven billion still needed, which the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy calculates would cover 80 per cent of all adults and thus produce herd immunity, the contribution is rather modest. Gordon Brown, who recently wrote about the importance of rapid global immunisation for the New Statesman, has called the paucity of the G7 vaccine commitment an “unforgivable moral failure” and has argued “millions of people will go unvaccinated and thousands of people, I’m afraid, will die”.
On free trade the final communiqué was vague. By far the most prominent exchanges on that subject in Cornwall concerned not the lowering of barriers but their raising, with British and EU representatives clashing over the implementation (or otherwise) of the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement. One irony is that the legacy of a purportedly liberalising summit may in fact be new tariffs between the host nation and the EU, by far its largest trading partner.
The $100bn annual support for decarbonisation sounds great, as indeed it has done since 2009, when it was first proposed as a rich-world aid goal. But the G7 leaders gave few details on how it might finally become a reality. Details were short regarding other climate commitments, too. Proposing to “accelerate the transition away from unabated coal capacity” is fine, but it would have helped to specify a timeframe. They gave none. As such, the leaders were less ambitious even than their own environment ministers, who in May this year had at least managed to suggest this transition would mostly be achieved by the 2030s. If the rich world cannot be more concrete on this, what hope is there of persuading China and poorer countries to be so at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow this November?
On democratic values, too, which at the summit primarily implied containing the rising influence of China, the G7 did not match its ambitions with money. Even putting aside the fact that adapting a policy already framed by China is an odd form of “leadership”, the Western answer to the Belt and Road initiative (another idea that has been in the ether for a while) lacks a clear funding plan. It can only work, argues James Crabtree of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “with political will and resources attached”. Western credibility is at stake, he warns.
More widely, the cheery optics of the Cornwall summit belied the deeper divisions over China. In his otherwise upbeat parting comments, Biden – who, it seems, fervently believes that history will judge his presidency on how he handles the China challenge – made it clear he would have liked tougher commitments on that front.
To claim that this cluster of middling commitments, rehashed versions of older ideas, unfunded aspirations and plans to make plans amounts to a great comeback for the Western alliance does that very alliance a disservice. It really is capable of more. The best chance that the Cornwall summit has of being remembered as the moment the West roared back to life is if it turns out to be merely the beginning of something much bigger. On that, time will soon tell.
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For full G7 coverage visit newstatesman.com/g7
This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web