With a change in administration, the US will prove to be a more collaborative and conciliatory partner at the G7 Cornwall Summit
After 2020 anything normal seems like an improvement. The United States hosted the G7 in a year when COVID-19 became a global pandemic, global economic performance suffered and more Americans participated in the November federal election than ever before. That election brought a change in leadership, and at the start of 2021 US president Joseph Biden declared, “America is back!” Leaders in the other G7 capitals greeted the new administration with a collective sigh of relief.
And yet, given the extraordinary events of the past year, there is much to praise about US leadership in the G7 in 2020. At an emergency meeting by conference call on 3 March, led by US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell, G7 finance ministers and central bank governors pledged fiscal and monetary policy support to their economies to mitigate the economic damage from what was then only beginning to be recognised as a global pandemic. A US-hosted videoconference summit followed, at which G7 leaders pledged a coordinated policy response to COVID-19, and instructed G7 health ministers to meet weekly to share information on public health and the spread of the virus. Additionally, the Think 7 summit of scholars, hosted virtually by my institution, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, found considerable common ground among G7 members.
It is not surprising, then, that as British prime minister Boris Johnson took charge as the 2021 G7 host, he expressed optimism that G7 members could work together to overcome COVID-19 and support economic recovery. Johnson even borrowed Biden’s slogan to ‘build back better’ as the G7 theme. Now led by British chancellor Rishi Sunak, G7 finance ministers and central bank governors adopted an ambitious plan to foster the economic recovery of vulnerable countries, which extended this commitment beyond the G7 membership.
Echoing a campaign pledge from then-candidate Biden to convene a ‘Summit of Democracies’, Johnson extended invitations to Australia, India, Korea and South Africa to attend G7 meetings on the strength of shared democratic values. Since January, the United States has joined the rest of the G7 in statements on the build-up of Russian forces in Crimea threatening Ukraine, human rights violations in Tigray (an area of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea), concern over China’s efforts to erode democracy in Hong Kong, the military coup in Myanmar, and the arrest and detention of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Each of these showed remarkable G7 unity, with the United States on board.
One priority of the 2021 Cornwall Summit is to promote joint action on climate change. On 1–12 November in Glasgow, Britain, with the support of fellow G7 member Italy, will co-host the United Nations Climate Summit, which was postponed last year due to the pandemic. Johnson hopes to use G7 environment ministers’ and the summit meetings to build forward momentum for Glasgow – an idea endorsed by the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Biden administration has not only supported this push, but has also hosted the leaders of 40 countries for the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, coinciding with Earth Day in April. That meeting promoted the goal of net zero emissions by 2050 and a financial plan to assist developing countries to transition their economies away from dependence on fossil fuels.
The Trump administration’s confrontational diplomacy with allies overshadowed US engagement with international forums such as the G7, which former president Donald Trump and many in the United States judged by results rather than rhetoric. US leadership and engagement as part of the G7 in 2021 are more cooperative and conciliatory, but, given the scale and urgency of global problems such as climate change, the pandemic, multiplying threats to democracy and human rights, and the need to restore economic growth, the Biden administration will likely continue to insist that the G7 and other summits and forums produce tangible progress towards shared goals.
The 2020 US election reflected the deep divisions among Americans in a close presidential race, and a narrowly divided Congress. The Biden administration won a mandate to re-engage in global diplomacy and this has been welcomed by other G7 leaders. But voters in the United States have given international summits and institutions a second chance to prove themselves, not unconditional support. G7 leaders may have had an easier time ignoring Trump’s harsh rhetoric than they will the polite pressure from Biden, but it is America that is back, and as ever America is a demanding ally.