Talking shop? Diplomatic beauty contest? Or, deep breath, a forum ‘to unite leading democracies to help the world fight and then build back better from coronavirus and create a greener, more prosperous future’ as the UK government’s G7 website puts it? You can make the case for each definition; you can also argue that the G7 is a combination of all three.
This month, the annual meeting will be hosted by the UK in Carbis Bay near St Ives in Cornwall. Boris Johnson has invited the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the USA to tackle the issues mentioned above and more. The prime minister says: ‘As the most prominent grouping of democratic countries, the G7 has long been the catalyst for decisive international action to tackle the greatest challenges we face. From cancelling developing world debt to our universal condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the world has looked to the G7 to apply our shared values and diplomatic might to create a more open and prosperous planet.’
Some of that is true – the bit about being the most prominent grouping of democratic countries for example. The rest of it requires caveats.
Cancelling developing world debt? They keep doing it. 1999, 2005, 2020… The biggest step forward was probably the 2005 agreement, which led to debt cancellation for 36 countries of a combined US$130 billion. This initially allowed those countries to reduce their overall debt repayments and plough more money into health care and education. However, World Bank data suggests that in the decade following 2005, new lending increased. The Jubilee Debt Campaign calculates that since the 2008 financial crash, 63 per cent of lending to developing countries has been from multilateral institutions, primarily the World Bank and IMF, and 27 per cent from governments, including three G7 members – Japan, France and Germany. Rich nations are also accused of encouraging ‘reckless’ lending by major private lenders by bailing them out. This doesn’t mean that the original decisions were wrong – and they have helped to alleviate suffering – but the G7 has certainly not cancelled developing world debt.
The condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 won’t have kept President Putin awake at night in one of his palaces, but the economic sanctions that followed may well have curbed his enthusiasm for further overt action. Russia was suspended from what was the G8 and there’s no reason to think it will be readmitted in the foreseeable future. Earlier this year, the G7 committed to continuing sanctions and re-affirmed that the ‘illegal and illegitimate’ annexation won’t be recognised. Another major incursion into Ukraine this year would probably have led to the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas-line project, which Moscow needs to boost its ailing economy.
As for the world looking to the G7 to apply its shared values – the governments of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and a swathe of other countries wouldn’t agree, nor would some of their people. However, it’s fair to say that many countries do look to the G7 to take action on a range of issues, and that it is a major fixture in the democratic world. The Johnson government knows that democracy is under pressure around the globe amid the rise of authoritarian and populist leaders. The prime minister supports the idea of a new grouping of the most democratic and technologically advanced nations standing together on values, science, trade and even defence. The shorthand for the idea is called the D10. An indication as to who the ten might be can be found in the invitations to attend the next summit as guest countries, which have been sent to the leaders of India, South Korea and Australia. More than 60 per cent of people living in democracies are in those ten states.
US President Joe Biden is known to be thinking along similar lines and is expected to outline his thoughts about what he sees as a strategic rivalry between the major democracies and authoritarian states, particularly China. The Americans will probably push to include a condemnation of Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang province in the summit’s final communiqué. According to a UN report, at least one million Muslim Uighurs are detained in camps and activists claim many are being subjected to forced labour and even torture. China denies this and says it’s fighting terrorism in the region. It will be interesting to see if any countries attempt to water down the communiqué for fear of economic reprisals. If so, that would undermine claims of ‘shared values’. There will also be discussion about supporting big infrastructure projects in low- to middle-income countries in order to try to counter China’s Belt and Road strategic policy, which enmeshes countries in its sphere of influence.
Were this a normal year, climate change would have led the summit’s agenda, but the meeting will be dominated by the effect of the Covid-19 crisis on the global economy and so we will hear a lot about ‘building back better’. There will be much talk of a synchronized response to both the economic and health aspects of the crisis. Some of this will fall into the ‘talking shop’ category of summitry. There isn’t a great deal more that Japan and France can do to synchronize their health responses, nor will the UK do much more to integrate its efforts with Germany. However, as a bloc, they can present a united front on supporting the UN efforts to accelerate its global Covax plan and then back it up with funding. This will be helped by Joe Biden’s decision to re-engage with the World Health Organization after the Trump years. The seven also have the power jointly to shift the direction of economic growth, which, if shifted in the right direction, is required to fund not just economic recovery for everyone, but also the requirements for health care during the continuing pandemic. More than 80 poor countries won’t benefit from mass vaccination until at least early 2023.
There will be protests outside the summit, although given the geography of Cornwall and its transport links, they may not be as large as at many previous meetings. One of the myriad demands by those protesting will be for the leaders to commit to providing vaccines to the developing world and supporting short-term waivers on patents to allow local production of the vaccine. The UK government recently said that it had no excess doses and so could not send any to India. The USA is beginning a programme to send spare capacity abroad but the other six G7 members are unlikely to be able to announce a joint effort in the immediate future.
Given the levels of debt in the G7 countries it will be worth looking at what is pledged for various initiatives, and then looking again in a year’s time at what is delivered. In 2005 at the Gleneagles summit, US$25 billion was pledged to help development in Africa; five years later, less than half that sum had actually been delivered. Japan had a net debt of 150 per cent of GDP in 2019 (a figure that has been rising steadily during the Covid-19 pandemic), the UK 75 per cent and Italy 122 per cent. Prime Ministers Suga, Johnson and Draghi will find it easier to pledge than to pay.
Climate change will feature heavily, with the expectation of a declaration about net zero emission targets. Prime Minister Johnson wants to make environmentalism part of ‘Global Britain’ and knows that this will help his relationship with Joe Biden. Johnson may prefer to leave any major announcements for November’s COP26 climate summit to be held in Glasgow in November. What we will hear at both events is a push towards ‘techno-green’ – the idea is that new technologies are the key to reducing emissions and this will be linked with ‘building back better’, or in this case ‘building back greener’. What we’ll hear less of is detail about the costs to consumers of becoming ‘net zero’. The more consumers hear about that, the less they tend to support green measures.
Down the agenda we will hear about the creation of infrastructure to allow the G7 democracies to rapidly rebut what is considered to be Russian and Chinese misinformation campaigns against Western countries and interference in elections. There’s also a scheme to digitise paper-based transactions for international trade, to promote the flow of data across borders while upholding online safety laws and ensuring social responsibility by tech companies. All of this will be pushed forward by a series of meetings across the rest of the year involving government ministers.
Amid all of this, no doubt, attendees such as Canada’s Justin Trudeau and France’s Emmanuel Macron will be asked why, if they are so concerned about climate change, they have contributed to carbon emissions by coming along in person. The answers will range from ‘we’re offsetting by doing X, Y and Z’ to pointing out that the heavy lifting, by what are called ‘Sherpas’, was all done by videoconference. Diplomacy did indeed go virtual. What they won’t say is that it looks great on the TV news when you are seen in the company of other powerful people, or that given that this is Biden’s first overseas trip as president, you wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to have a word.
It’s easy to be cynical about such events, to point out that condemnations of authoritarian leaders have little effect. But what to do? Ignore the behaviour of the Myanmar junta or put opposition to the shooting of hundreds of protesters on the record? The list of failed pledges is long, but there have been successes. Chancellor Angela Merkel used a G7 summit to persuade the USA that its climate change policies should fall under the auspices of the UN. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, all G7 nations agreed to stress test their nuclear plants. The 2010 summit, hosted by Canada, established the Muskoka Initiative for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health to reduce maternal, infant and child mortality. It hasn’t been perfect, but billions of dollars have been given and many lives saved. Between 2010 and 2015, Canada delivered 100 per cent of its pledged US$2.85 billion share of the costs.
Boris Johnson will get his moment in the sun (Cornish weather allowing), Joe Biden will feel the love. Everyone can make heartfelt speeches about ‘rebuilding our world’, ‘time running out’, and ‘a cleaner, greener future’, and then go home. Then what? Some of what they said will happen will happen, some of that will make a difference, and then we move on to next year’s summit – this time in the USA.