This year’s G7 is already proving problematic. It’s not only that we don’t know when or where it’s going to take place; the guest list is also in question. President Trump wants to shake it up: “it’s a very outdated group of countries… I don’t feel that it properly represents what’s going on in the world.”
He’s a little bit right. And so he proposed to invite Russia, India, South Korea and Australia too — as “guests”. This, he contends, would counter the might of China and might re-energise the group.
The first to complain was Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. He did not actually say he would boycott the summit if Russia attended, but he said there would have to be “many discussions” first. The UK was next. A spokesman for Boris Johnson conceded that it was customary for the host country to invite others to participate as guests and that the UK would “look at the detail of what the US is proposing”.
But our statement went on to say that the UK would not support Russia’s readmission to the G7, because there was “no evidence of changed behaviour”. In so saying, though, it went further than Donald Trump had done, because while he has in the past mooted the return of Russia to the G7, his latest proposal, to invite Russia as a guest, can be seen as an attempt to avoid the issue of whether Russia should be reinstated after its indefinite suspension over the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
And then the EU’s high representative, Josep Borrell, picked up the baton, saying that the format of the G7 was not for the summit chair to change. “The G7 cannot become G8… until Russia changes its course.”
In fact, the G7 host does have the discretion to invite additional guests. But somewhere along the way, the distinction between Russia being invited as a guest and being reinstated as a full member has been lost. Not that Russia would necessarily even want to be reinstated at what used to be seen as — but is no longer — the world’s top table.
So why is Trump extending the guest list? To make the G7 meaningful again?
In fact, I think the go-it-alone, America-First, Donald Trump is on the look-out for, if not multilateral then glad-handing bilateral relationships with countries that could side with the US in trying to rein in China. Tired of the European olde worlde timidity and, like his immediate predecessors at the White House, entertaining the idea of that still incomplete ‘pivot’ to Asia, Trump is exploring ways to cope with an increasingly assertive Beijing. He knows that Australia, India and South Korea all have beef with China and that they are also casting around for some way of configuring the world in a way that better corresponds both to their own national needs and what they see as the needs of the wider Pacific region today.
Underlying at least some of this is a widespread dissatisfaction with the way existing multinational organisations have been working in recent years, highlighted by the perception that they have not exactly covered themselves in glory during the Covid pandemic. All sorts of international and internal power balances have been upset, exposing differences in the way individual countries responded and the varying success of the measures taken. Only a few, very different, countries — some of the Asian nations, starting with South Korea and Japan, and Germany in Europe — have distinguished themselves. No international grouping has proved in any way adequate to the emergency, let alone excelled.
The WHO, for one, was hardly a commanding presence. So much so that even Trump noticed — and announced an end to US support. Similarly, the United Nations. It is true that in April António Guterres set up what he called the Secretary-General’s Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund, but the target budget, at US$2bn seems pitifully inadequate. Mr Guterres himself was hardly out and about promoting his project, at the very time when almost any attempt at a coordinated response would have been welcomed by many.
Nato helped with airlifting medical supplies, mostly within Europe — though the alliance hardly sang of its achievements from the rooftops either. Help was also delivered by countries on a bilateral basis, including US medical supplies for Russia and EU medical aid for Iran (a breach of sanctions to which the US turned a blind eye).
Given the scale of what had become a global health emergency, however, the fact is that there was a conspicuous gap where institutional leadership might have been. Every government’s priority was to protect its own; borders were closed from Australasia through much of Asia to Europe and on to the United States. This national turning inwards, however, in no way precluded a role for international initiatives and cooperation; there was just no one taking any credible lead.
Once, the world might have looked to the US for leadership. We certainly did during the Ebola and Aids epidemics. The United States was (eventually) at the forefront of the campaign, both medically and morally, to wipe out Aids; it was perfectly placed to lead. Ebola, moreover, was a largely regional epidemic in a part of the world where the US and the West in general had longstanding expertise they could apply.
Coronavirus, however, reached the United States only after ravaging parts of Asia and Europe. When deaths were at their height in Spain and Italy, the US still barely acknowledged it might also have a problem. And when the virus started to make itself felt, the US — for all its wealth and advanced medical facilities — proved no better at handling it than most Europeans.
It was not just the late arrival of coronavirus on US shores, and prior US scepticism, however, that militated against US leadership. It was also that Trump has eschewed global leadership even more than his predecessor, Barack Obama — leaving an even more conspicuous vacuum.
The European Union, which had in the past presented itself a potential alternative pole of leadership, wasn’t up to the job. It regards health as a national issue, so pan-EU channels were undeveloped, and when desperate members begged for central help, the EU was barely able to organise itself.
Enter Gordon Brown, then, who wants to save the world again, as he claimed to during the 2008 financial crisis. Along with various other former leaders, he has tried to resurrect the joint effort they mounted through the G20 in 2008-9, calling for the G20 summit to be brought forward from November to consider a global approach to coronavirus.
But the main reason why the G20’s response to the financial crisis is seen as a success is that the group was not only able to agree a particular set of goals, but it incorporated governments with the power and the political will to do what was required. The extent to which even central governments, let alone an international body, could accomplish a similar feat in relation to very disparate health services is doubtful.
There has also been a move by the UK, as it embarks upon life outside the EU, to form a grouping of major democracies — a D10, comprising the G7, plus India, South Korea and Australia — designed to cooperate in the first instance on technology so as to reduce dependence on China, but which could in the longer term grow into something more substantial.
The close resemblance between the proposed D10 and Donald Trump’s expanded G7 is not coincidental, but there is one key difference. The D10 is not only directed against China, but expressly excludes Russia. Pushing Russia into China’s arms — which could be a consequence — might not in the end work in democracy’s best interests.
The United Nations, for its part, is certainly too unwieldy to address a specific global emergency. The Commonwealth? When was the last time we heard of that? The WHO’s big success was the eradication of smallpox which was a long time ago and a long-term effort. It has not covered itself with glory during Covid.
If not the US, the EU, the UN or the WHO (for pandemics) or an expanded G7 or the G20 or a D10, then where is leadership in global emergencies to come from?
Maybe better to start from what has worked. Identifying and agreeing a set of goals is essential. The members of any group must have the power and the will to honour what is agreed. Inclusivity is another key. A grouping whose real purpose is to oppose China is not going to solve a China problem; similarly Russia or Iran.
The Helsinki Accords, signed in 1975 with the purpose of reducing Cold War tensions, illustrate how this strategy can bring change. The signatories included distinguished statesmen, but you will search in vain for a single leader. And maybe that is how it has to be. With the US bowing out and other actors with different agendas taking the stage, perhaps it is time to allow ad hoc groupings to take a more collegiate approach to a particular task in hand.
Perhaps that is what Trump is driving at with his proposal for an extended G7 this year? Could that help our post-Covid recovery? If only, the next generation might say, we had got our act together sooner.