The year 2020 was a truly historic one for G7 summitry in several ways. It was the seventh time the annual G7 summit was hosted by the US president since its start in 1975, following those hosted by Gerald Ford in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1983, George H W Bush in 1990, Bill Clinton in 1997, George W Bush in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2012. It was the first time Donald Trump, in his fourth year as president, would chair. His priority agenda, announced before his year began, was quickly overwhelmed by the unprecedented COVID-19–catalysed crises. He responded right away by hosting the G7’s first emergency summit on 16 March 2020, followed by a second summit one month later, both in virtual rather than physical form. As the crises continued, he repeatedly changed the location and the time of the standard, scheduled full-strength summit, and suggested he would add India, Australia and Korea, and even Russia too. As he became increasingly preoccupied with seeking a second presidential term in the US election on 3 November, there was no sign that this summit would take place as his year as G7 host drew to a close.
President Trump, in his fourth year of G7 summitry, was joined at his March virtual summit by Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel at her 15th, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at his ninth before being replaced soon after by Yoshihide Suga, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in his fourth, France’s Emmanuel Macron at his fourth, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at his third, and the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson at his second. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, were at their first.
The US priorities
Initially, these leaders were to focus on the four US priorities announced in October 2019: strengthening growth and prosperity, reducing regulations, eliminating trade barriers and opening energy markets. But those topics were soon crowded out by the proliferating pandemic and its deepening economic damage as 2020 got underway.
With the emergency virtual summit in March, President Trump and his colleagues made the G7 the fast, first rapid responder to the crisis among global summit institutions. There they made 26 commitments: 11 on health, 10 on the economy, three on trade and two on international cooperation. They promised to do “whatever is necessary to ensure a strong global response through closer cooperation and enhanced coordination of our efforts”. They followed up with a second emergency virtual summit on 16 April.
Momentum for and from these summits came from the substantial compliance of G7 members with the priority commitments they had made in August 2019 in Biarritz, France. As 2020 opened, compliance was at only 62%. But under the US presidency, by 3 June 2020, it had risen to 75%. By November it had increased again to 79%.
Further momentum came from the many meetings that G7 ministers mounted throughout the year. Those meetings started with health on 3 February and continued with eight meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors by 13 October. Foreign ministers met on 25 March, and ministers responsible for science and technology met on 28 May. The finance ministers issued statements on the G20’s Debt Service Suspension Initiative on 25 September and on digital payments and ransomware on 13 October. The foreign ministers issued statements on Hong Kong on 17 June and on the poisoning of Russian civil society leader Alexei Navalny on 8 September.
Civil society engagement groups were also active. The Think 7 submitted its 25 recommendations on 10 June. The University 7, created in 2019, continued its work.
As the US year as G7 host approached its end, it had helped accomplish several key things. By November G7 governments, companies and universities, led by the US ones, had invented and tested safe, effective vaccines against the hitherto unknown virus of COVID-19 and done so in record time. By then the unprecedented fiscal and monetary policy stimulus had stopped the severe economic plunge in the first two quarters of 2020 and produced a strong recovery in the third. But as COVID-19 started to surge again in its second and third waves, and further economic shutdowns followed, there remains much for the G7 to do after the United States passes the chair to the United Kingdom on 1 January 2021.