The G7 summit needs a fundamental reset in 2021. This should be no surprise. The summit exists to solve intractable problems that defy treatment elsewhere. It may not find the right answer the first time and often needs a complete change of direction.
The summit was created in 1975, by French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who won over US president Gerald Ford. It aimed to resolve the economic crises of the day through collective management, which would replace US hegemony. Its first meeting, which I attended, introduced a monetary regime that still survives. Its fourth agreed linked commitments on growth, energy and trade. In the 1980s it added political issues such as terrorism to economic ones.
The British leaders present at summits (Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and even Margaret Thatcher) contributed more to process than policy. They saw the summit as the personal instrument of the leaders. They chose ‘sherpas’ for the preparations who could exercise authority in their leader’s name. They insisted on informality at the summit itself. Callaghan recorded simply that the numbers were small; the discussions business-like; the leaders talked frankly and briefly, and covered a lot of ground.
When the Soviet system collapsed, the G7 took the lead in promoting democracy and market economies in countries breaking free. John Major chaired the summit in 1991. He made progress in helping Eastern Europe and in debt relief for poor countries, a personal crusade. Mikhail Gorbachev came as a guest, but the Soviet Union soon fell apart.
Major then worked to lighten the G7 process, which paid dividends for his successor Tony Blair. Blair chaired the 1998 summit with only leaders present; Russia was added to make it the G8. The agenda had three main items – jobs, crime and finance, including debt relief. The finance issues were not resolved the first time, but the next year’s summit succeeded. Blair chaired again in 2005. One agenda item was Africa, which yielded good results on debt relief and aid volume. The other was climate change, where agreement was reached on the science, which led to the United States rejoining the United Nations debate. African leaders and major greenhouse gas emitters, including Brazil, China and India, took part in the summit.
Thereafter the G8 summit entered hard times. It failed to foresee the financial crisis erupting in September 2008. The G20 finance ministers’ group was raised to summit level and declared the “premier forum for our international economic cooperation”. The G8 struggled to find a role compatible with the G20 summit.
David Cameron solved this problem as G8 chair in 2013. He chose a short agenda – trade, tax avoidance and transparency – to complement the G20 without clashing with it. This approach proved acceptable to the G20. In 2014, after Russia overran Crimea, the other states suspended it from the summit, which became the G7 again. Its worst ordeal came after US president Donald Trump took office. He had no interest in collective management. He abused his allies at the G7 table and preferred dealing with autocratic leaders from China, Russia and even North Korea. The summits he attended achieved little.
The arrival of Joe Biden as US president revives the prospects for the G7 summit, as he has recommitted the United States to multilateralism. Accordingly, the United Kingdom has chaired virtual meetings of the G7 heads and their finance, foreign, health and trade ministers. These have pledged to ensure COVID-19 vaccines reach all who need them, in support of the World Health Organization; to promote a new issue of special drawing rights by the International Monetary Fund; to revive the World Trade Organization; and to pursue reforms of business taxation through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Boris Johnson can therefore confidently pursue a forward strategy for the Cornwall Summit, making it once again the personal instrument of the leaders, meeting informally to address a compact and well-prepared agenda. The participation of leaders from Australia, India, Korea and South Africa should enrich the debate, by enlarging its geographical reach. Johnson has already identified two main themes. The first is responding to COVID-19, especially the global distribution of vaccines and the restoration of the world economy. The second is preparing for the UN meeting on climate change in Glasgow, to restore momentum to the Paris Agreement and promote the actions needed to achieve net zero emissions of greenhouse gases. Political subjects should include a joint statement on open societies, and regional issues such as Myanmar and Ukraine. Some topics, such as financial help for poorer countries stricken by the virus, are ripe for the G20 summit in November and call for close liaison with its Italian chair. The G7 summit has already changed direction at least six times. May the
Cornwall Summit provide a lucky seventh reinvention!