So is the West “back”? That was the big question looming over the G7 summit in Cornwall, which concluded yesterday (13 June). As I wrote in my recent New Statesman cover essay, the summit had been billed as a sort of comeback show for multilateralism and the Western alliance in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, China’s rise and the shock of the pandemic. For Joe Biden, the cause of some of the ambient optimism, this gathering of the leaders of the seven big rich democracies (plus the EU and four guest countries) needed to be the launchpad for a new alliance of democracies to contain China – the subject on which he fervently believes his US presidency will be judged by history.
The optics over the weekend were positive, as I had predicted. Logistically, the summit went well. The sun shone over Carbis Bay. There were photogenic strolls on the beach. The grimaces and obvious antagonism of the Trump-era G7 summits were evidently over. “It is great to have a US president who’s part of the club and very willing to cooperate” said Emmanuel Macron, whose public exchanges with the US president were particularly warm. Boris Johnson made a suitably cheery master of ceremonies.
The communiqué agreed and published yesterday includes lots of nice language reflecting broadly shared Western principles and many of the multilateralist, liberal democratic priorities of the new US administration that makes it so distinct from its predecessor. “The West is back,” Johnson proclaimed, for the avoidance of doubt.
That, then, was the style. But what of the substance? It seems fair to judge the summit by the four broad themes placed on the agenda by the British holders of its rotating presidency: pandemic recovery, free and fair trade, climate change, and shared democratic values.
On pandemic recovery, that nice language – Johnson called the agreement a rejection of “selfish, nationalistic approaches” – belied a gulf between the commitments made and the challenge they purport to confront. Though the commitment to donate 870 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines over the next year is better than nothing, it is far less than estimates of the number needed to protect the whole world (Bill Emmott of the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy puts the figure at 7 billion additional doses to achieve 80 per cent herd immunity). Gordon Brown, the former British prime minister who has campaigned on this issue and has written about it for the New Statesman, called this an “unforgivable moral failure” and said that “millions of people will go unvaccinated and thousands of people, I’m afraid, will die”. If the West’s resurgence can be measured by the leadership it shows in ending the pandemic, that leaves plenty of room for doubt.
On free and fair trade, the language of the communiqué is strikingly vague, even by the standards of such texts. By far the most prominent trade-based exchanges at the summit flew in the face of this stated priority: on the sidelines there were tense clashes between EU and British representatives over the so-called Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement, raising the chance of a trade war. Far from rolling back barriers to trade, the summit’s long-term legacy may well be new tariffs between its host nation and its largest trading partner. (That aside, the most significant point in the sections of the communiqué concerning economic prosperity is the commitment to a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15 per cent – a welcome move to end loopholes that facilitate tax avoidance.)
On the climate, too, the outcome of the G7 is underwhelming. The communiqué pledged to “accelerate the international transition away from coal” but did not give this a timeframe. Campaigners had hoped for a specific date; not least as if these rich democracies are unable to be specific about coal phase-out, it hardly sets a good example for China or yet poorer countries to do so at, for example, the Cop26 climate summit in November. Indeed, the leaders’ ultimate statement somehow managed to be even less ambitious than one issued by their own environment minsters last month, which did at least commit to an “overwhelmingly decarbonised power system in the 2030s”. Meanwhile, a longstanding pledge to mobilise $100bn to support developing economies to decarbonise their economies remains an all-too-vague aspiration. One wonders if the British hosts might have been more convincing deal-brokers had they not recently announced the slashing of their own aid budget.
On shared democratic values – which most notably encompasses the contest with China – there were concrete commitments. Where the rising superpower barely featured in the communiqué produced the last time the leaders met, in 2019, here it was a significant focus. The leaders backed a “timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based WHO-convened” report into the origins of the Covid-19 virus. They explicitly highlighted Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the use of forced labour (in practice, another nod to Xinjiang). And they proposed “a step change in our approach to investment for infrastructure”, a much-hailed move to rival Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, by “magnifying support” from the International Monetary Fund. Yet the investment initiative deserves a dose of scepticism: not only is it revealingly framed in reference to a template set by China (is a Western equivalent to something Beijing has already done really “leadership”?), but from the vague language it seems doubtful that the ambition will be matched by the substance, as James Crabtree of the International Institute for Strategic Studies writes for us. More widely, despite the mostly friendly tone, the deeper rifts in the transatlantic alliance remain.
In my cover feature ahead of the G7 I identified three rough, indicative scenarios for the future of the West: the gloom of permanent “Westlessness” (a term coined by the Munich Security Conference), the optimism of “Westfullness”, or the middle-ground, muddling-through of “Westishness, in which aspects of the West’s values and power endure but others fragment”. The summit at Carbis Bay in Cornwall most closely maps onto the third of those.
Yes, the leaders of the West’s biggest economies reminded the world that they can be civil and collaborative, and can do business with each other. They can find a common language to talk about common goals. They can reach agreements in some areas that to varying extents respond to the scale of the challenges they face. And yet a great deal of what was agreed in Cornwall amounts to what Laurence Tubiana, a major negotiator at the Paris climate conference in 2015, called “respond[ing] with a plan to make a plan”. She was referring to the summit’s environmental dimension, but could just as well have been talking about others of its major themes. If this jumble of small to middling commitments, wrapped up in benign but vague language, is what “the return of the West” looks like, then that does pose some big questions about how ambitious and capable the West really is in the 2020s and beyond.
Cornwall was not a bad summit. The leaders who attended, including Biden, got the images and mood that they wanted. Nor was it inconsequential. But in where it did not go farther and achieve more in areas crying out for the leaders present to do so, it also provided a stark demonstration of the West’s limits.
[See also: The return of the West]