With the G20 hobbled by Russia’s inclusion, the political conditions are ripe for the G7 to pick up the mantle of leadership once again and prove itself to be much more than a talking shop
Russia’s latest invasion of Ukraine has galvanised the West. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union have taken centre stage in opposition; so too has the G7. Much like NATO, the G7’s relevance, purpose and power have been a matter of debate in recent years. Accusations that the G7 had descended into being a mere talk shop particularly proliferated – and were not entirely unwarranted – after its replacement by the G20 as the top table of global economic governance. However, in response to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s aggression, the club has been given a new lease on life, with an opportunity to demonstrate that it has an enduring role to play on the international stage.
The recent history of the G7 could be told as a story of Russia’s difficult relationship with the West after the Cold War’s end. Mikhail Gorbachev first made overtures by sending a letter to the club during its summit in Paris in 1989, beginning a dialogue that culminated with welcoming Russia into the fold to form the G8 at the Denver Summit in 1997 and the Birmingham Summit in 1998. Russia’s membership was always tricky, with the seven original members preferring to discuss financial and economic matters on their own, until Russia held the presidency in 2006, despite its ostensible inclusion as an equal. Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea definitively brought the experiment of Russia’s incorporation into the club to an end, with the G7 suspending Russia mere months before Putin was meant to host his counterparts again in Sochi. The original G7 met in Brussels instead.
Eight years later, Brussels has again served as the G7’s symbolic home in opposing the Russian president’s hostility. G7 leaders have met in person there twice since the invasion began in February 2022, in addition to five other remote meetings. The G7 has sprung to life with a vigour unseen since the global financial crisis. In addition to declaring unwavering support for the people of Ukraine – and, notably, the people of Russia too – G7 leaders have pulled every policy lever at their disposal. They have weaponised economic interdependence, using sanctions to starve the Kremlin’s coffers while also trying to drive a wedge between Putin and his oligarch class. Indeed, the wager in the 1990s was that by bringing Russia into the economic fold, the country would be so intrinsically tied to the West that the cost of war would be too high. Evidently, this bet has not borne out quite to plan, but such moves might prove sufficient to at least limit or curtail further aggression.
A clear message
The G7 has used this flurry of meetings politically and symbolically too, the two often being two sides of the same coin in international politics. Coming together performatively sends a clear message both to Russia and to the wider international community that the G7 and its allies consider Ukraine to be the top international priority while concurrently signalling Russia’s increasing isolation. Such moves are especially significant for India, the world’s largest democracy and a guest at this year’s summit, which has so far adopted an ambiguous position with respect to Russia since the invasion.
There are sides to be taken. Acting as they have, the G7 leaders have clearly articulated who they are and what they stand for to an extent that they have otherwise found difficult to achieve in recent years, particularly during the Trump administration in the United States. Despite no longer being the top economic club, it is the protection of democracy domestically and a rules-based order internationally that resolutely define the G7’s raison d’être.
That the G7 has accomplished this so swiftly and coherently speaks to an advantage of this group that its institutional successor, the G20, lacks. As a small, tight-knit, like-minded club, consensus on Russia’s moral and legal violations can be reached in a way that is impossible for the larger, more diverse and certainly not like-minded G20. The G7 is a club of allies; the G20 is a club with rivals. This affords the G7’s German host with conditions ripe for a successful summit at Elmau, while the G20’s Indonesian host is in a much more difficult position, needing to stage manage what could well be the most tense G20 summit yet in Bali in November.
With the consensus-based G20 now hobbled in a way that the post-Trump G7 no longer is, the political conditions are set for the G7 to pick up the mantle of leadership once again in international politics and prove itself to be more than a listless talk shop.