The digitalisation of diplomacy threatens to undermine the elements of summitry that have made the G7 successful in the past, which, at its essence, is about people and relationships – and the opportunities that arise when leaders come together
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every facet of life, with summitry no exception. Last year’s G7 meeting was the first year in the group’s history that its leaders did not meet in person. The club adapted and moved its activities online, enabling the G7 leaders to discuss the urgent concerns of the pandemic and the economic crisis it ushered in. While the formal business of the club could still be conducted, much of what gives the G7 added value in global governance was undercut by going virtual.
As we begin to consider the post-pandemic future and the continued evolution of the G7, it is important to recognise that, despite some advantages, the digitalisation of diplomacy could actually undermine the very elements of summitry that have made the G7 successful in the past, threatening the viability of the club in the 21st century.
Much is gained in the move online – the complexities of scheduling meetings among world leaders are reduced, and no time is lost to travel or energy sapped by jet lag. It is, in all, easier and cheaper to conduct diplomacy online, and in many ways the move is an obvious next step in the advance of communications technologies, following revolutions in diplomatic practice prompted by the advent of the telephone and the telegraph.
When it comes to the personal summitry that typifies the G7 and the complex global challenges to which it is directed, however, no matter how good online meeting platforms are, there is no substitute for getting people together in a room. What makes the G7 effective in global governance cannot be reproduced online.
In 1975, French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing envisaged the G7 as an intimate affair where the leaders of the advanced, industrialised economies would assemble to address shared problems. Giscard proposed a meeting where the leaders alone would gather, temporarily freed from the gaze of the media, the tinkering of bureaucracies, and the demands of parliaments and political parties. Although the annual event has evolved, the core of what gives the G7 its success has endured: a retreat for those at the apex of their political hierarchies to engage in free and frank exchange, unencumbered by the usual constraints of their offices.
Online meetings reimpose many of those constraints. What renders summitry valuable in the diplomatic toolbox is fundamentally premised on physicality. Most damaging in the move online is the loss of ‘inter-moments’ – the informal, apparently unscripted happenings between formal proceedings at summits. These are the quiet chats in the corner of a room, the impromptu conversations between meetings, the off-the-cuff exchanges during breaks.
Although they might seem insignificant, any practitioner will stress that it is on the sidelines of summits where much of the action really takes place. It is in inter-moments that relationships are built and affirmed, that negotiating positions are sussed out, that favours are asked and that ideas are mooted. Moreover, someone online is always ‘on’ – always being recorded, leaving no room for plausible deniability, or room for privately building rapport and trust. All this is nothing less than the bedrock of diplomatic practice. Yet, without any quiet corners in cyberspace, this is all lost in the shift online.
For the online G7 meetings held this past year, gone are the informal chats on the margins. Even formal summit sessions have been largely reduced to the reading of prepared statements, eliminating frank discussions and leaving no room for substantive engagement over leaders’ positions and pressures. The type of summit that Giscard envisaged has been hollowed out.
As the G7 meets this year at Cornwall, the leaders’ attention rightly focuses on the complex challenges of COVID-19, climate change and economic crisis; but the club must also examine its own form and structure, charting its future for the years and decades to come. How the G7 works is as critical to its success, as are questions about who is included or what issues it focuses its attention on.
We have learned from COVID-19 that no amount of phone calls or video chats or socially distanced anything can really make up for not being together. The same is true for summitry, which at its essence is about people and relationships. Meetings can still be had and policies can still be debated online, but what gives the G7 its real, added value is fundamentally and solely to be found in the opportunities that arise when people are physically brought together.