The G7 is experiencing rejuvenation following years of uncertainty about its future, but challenges regarding the group’s engagement with the G20 and United Nations remain
The G7 seemingly rediscovered its unity and purpose during the 2022 German presidency and its Elmau Summit in June. Leaders and foreign ministers also held several extra meetings, with the forum functioning as a crisis committee on the war in Ukraine. Galvanised by contemporary challenges, the G7 increasingly prioritises its cooperation and stewardship of liberal-democratic values in the face of authoritarian threats.
This G7 rejuvenation follows years of uncertainty about its future, especially since the diplomatic elevation of the more inclusive, although still selective, G20 amid the 2008 global financial crisis. The Trump administration in the United States heightened doubts about the G7’s viability as a supposedly like-minded normative ‘club’ of liberal democracies, by escalating group disagreements on trade and the World Trade Organization, climate and emissions targets, the World Health Organization during the Covid-19 pandemic, security and North Atlantic Treaty Organization defence spending, and multilateralism in general. The election of Joe Biden as president and the war in Ukraine subsequently contributed to reviving solidarity within the G7.
At a joint Think 7–Think 20 roundtable discussion in February 2023, several speakers noted a recent ‘fracturing’ of multilateralism. This echoed what Amitav Acharya of American University calls an increasingly “multiplex world” of parallel, and potentially complementary or competing, architectures within global governance. This is not yet tantamount to an irrevocable fragmentation of multilateralism; Indonesia’s G20 presidency in 2022, for example, was praised for achieving a joint leaders’ declaration at its Bali Summit in November. Meetings such as the G20 finance ministerial in Bengaluru in February 2023, however, have become antagonistic occasions, pitting G7 members against Russia and China. Tensions have been exacerbated by ‘spy balloon’ allegations and G7 sanctions on Russia.
Transcending policy silos
It is often claimed that the G7 gives prominence to security and political issues while the G20 focuses on economic cooperation. The wide-ranging international effects of the conflict in Ukraine transcend such policy silos. The agendas of the G7, G20 and, on some issues, also the United Nations still include considerable overlap and symmetries. The G7 and G20 tie much of their policy engagement to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and Framework Convention on Climate Change, particularly the 2015 Paris Agreement. Many politicians, diplomats and experts believe the G7 should try to influence the G20 agenda, including on the SDGs, climate and emissions targets, and other global public goods such as the One Health Initiative and pandemic preparedness.
Indonesia’s G20 presidency prevented the war in Ukraine from scuppering the Bali leaders’ declaration, but foreign policy and security issues have long influenced the larger forum’s agenda – on terrorism, Ukraine, Syria and other topics. G7 governments emphasise their support for liberal-democratic principles, the UN Charter and the rules-based international order in condemning Russian actions in Ukraine. Diplomacy and more substantive steps might help to mitigate Global South concerns about the G7’s Russia-targeting sanctions, especially their perceived consequences for global food and energy supplies. There is also a legacy of skepticism about G7 inconsistency on non-intervention norms among some G20 members and G77 states at the UN. Whatever the merits of these concerns, the G7 should gradually try to assuage them.
Japan’s G7 presidency combines earlier and more recent priorities – the war in Ukraine, nuclear security and non-proliferation, energy supply problems, food security, inflation and global economic woes, climate, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ‘build back better’ agenda, plus relations with the Global South. The G7 should engage with India’s 2023 G20 presidency in seeking progress on these issues. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has stressed the importance of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament for the G7, in a speech to the International Group of Eminent Persons for a World without Nuclear Weapons in December 2022. This was symbolised by the choice of Hiroshima as the venue for the summit in May 2023; Russia’s suspension of its participation in the New START nuclear weapons treaty indicates the contemporary resonance.
G7 delegations should discuss long-term strategic priorities at Hiroshima, as many commentators perceive a definitive break with the post–Cold War era. The group’s nearly 50 years of cooperation on international challenges might assist its diplomacy with G20 and UN members. The G7 should listen to Global South concerns and ease the burden on low- and middle-income societies managing climate and economic transitions, exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and what has been characterised as a polycrisis in world affairs. Financial costs might be more than compensated, were such engagement to strengthen rules-based multilateralism and global governance.