Whilst this year’s G7 has showed that Western democracies can still come together for productive discussions, it is hard to deny the role of the pandemic in providing attendees an otherwise rare incentive to cooperate. Indeed, the history of the forum has otherwise been rife with empty promises and internal divisions that have made international observers question its utility. When coupled with the meteoric rise of third nations like China, India and Brazil over the past few decades, it is easy to see why many think of the grouping as being largely superfluous nowadays. As such, it remains to be seen whether the G7 will survive as a relevant institution beyond the 2020s.
The largest indictment of the G7, and one that international observers frequently cite, relates to the internal divisions afflicting the forum. The 2010 financial crisis for instance, whilst initially successful in persuading member states to cut interest rates and boost public spending to stimulate growth, ultimately succumbed to disagreements relating to an eventual return to austerity. The Trump presidency, meanwhile, bore witness to intense disputes over Russia’s membership to the institution, highlighting the diverging stances of the Western leaders. These disagreements even culminated with the United States walking out of the discussions.
These issues point to a G7 that lacks clear leadership, which is unsurprising considering its membership largely consists of countries not used to playing second fiddle on the international scene. Being the most powerful actor, the U.S. would be expected to take a more central role in these discussions. Over the past decade however, America’s presence at the G7 has been defined by an uncharacteristic sense of detachment, stemming from Obama’s disinterest in the forum and Trump’s chest thumping. Whilst it is too early to tell what kind of legacy Biden will leave behind, a greater sense of ambition on the part of the U.S. would only help reinvigorate the forum.
And clear leadership is something the G7 would be in desperate need of in the age of Brexit. Throughout the summit, the question of the Northern Irish protocol hung over every discussion involving Britain, taking up valuable time which could have been used to form a common front on critical international policy issues. Biden did little but encourage Johnson to resolve the impasse through one-on-one discussions, a typical foreign policy approach for the President, but one that undoubtedly lacks teeth. Such issues will persist until a figure more willing to lead the developed world appears, gradually undermining the trust between Western economies and jeopardizing the future viability of the G7.
This level of mistrust creates a stark contrast with the Global South’s BRICS, who have successfully coalesced into a rival forum to the G7 on the basis of members’ past experiences with Western exploitation. The rapid progress that has been made by this grouping, visible in projects like The New Development Bank, highlight a degree of unity and dynamism that its wealthier counterpart simply does not possess. Indeed, the G7’s fate will largely depend on whichever political party oversees individual member states at any one time, rendering the forum inherently less consistent than the BRICS’ overall more authoritarian demeanor.
One tool available to the G7 to bolster its international relevance would be to provide greater assistance to developing countries, which are currently being successfully targeted by the BRICS. Africa would be an especially worthwhile destination for the forum to kickstart a rigorous investment campaign, not only combating Chinese and Indian influences, but potentially boosting the security of the European neighborhood in the long-term. Talks of a global vaccination campaign during this year’s G7 meeting are a good start, but member states must ensure that their words are translated into policy.
Ultimately, the G7 enters the 2020s in a precarious, albeit salvageable position. Numerous lofty promises were made this year, which if followed through on, would certainly help reinvigorate the forum’s image. Nevertheless, the ascendancy of rival bodies such as the BRICS, combined with demonstrable disunity among Western nations will inevitably pose considerable challenges for the grouping. Going forward, the G7 would benefit not only from clear leadership, but also a consistent and unified outlook among members befitting the increasingly multilateral and treacherous state of international relations.
Featured photo by G7. Available on Wikimedia Commons under Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.