You are here

Leaders sit around a table at a working session during the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, in 2019.

Getting the Band Back Together: The UK and the 2021 G7 Summit

Malcolm Chalmers
Commentary, 3 February 2021
UK
The G7 summit this year is a key opportunity to reassert the importance of Western unity in international affairs. Here is an outline of how this could be done.

The G7 summit, due to take place in Carbis Bay, Cornwall on 11–13 June, will be an important opportunity for the West to come together after its near-death experience during the Trump years.  

But disputes about whether the G7 structure should be replaced altogether by a D10, adding Australia, India and South Korea to its membership, are now diverting attention – and the precious time of senior officials – from the substantive issues on the agenda. 

It is a long time since the combined weight of the G7 was overwhelming enough for it to credibly claim to be the world’s ‘executive council’ for tackling global economic crises. But it remains uniquely placed to be the forum for Western leaders to thrash out common positions across a wide range of issues, which can help them promote their shared interests in broader discussions. Neither NATO nor the OECD can fulfil this function. The G20, while important, plays a very different role. 

The existing G7 members – the US, Japan, Germany, the UK, France, Italy, Canada and the EU – have much in common. They are all high-income market economies, with robust liberal democratic institutions (albeit fraying in some cases). They are also close military allies, forming the core of the US-led alliance network that has been in place for seven decades. 

The experience of the last four years of President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has imposed enormous strain on this unity, calling into question the credibility of US security guarantees in Europe and East Asia, and raising the spectre of go-it-alone economic policies. Meanwhile China happily exploits divisions in Western ranks, sealing separate trade and investment deals with the US, the EU and its Asian neighbours, and imposing punitive sanctions against Australia without much comeback from its allies. 

The West, or the Rest?

The rapid rise of China over the last decade, and the broader shift in power to Asia, has eroded the West’s relative weight in the international system. In response, a significant shift in strategic focus towards the Indo-Pacific is under way in Europe, both in the major states (the UK and France most notably) and in the leadership of the EU. More movement in this direction will be needed. 

Unfortunately, in today’s charged post-Brexit environment, debate on the UK’s role in the world is sometimes reduced to an argument that ‘Global Britain’ means prioritising the US (or the Five Eyes) over strong links with the UK's European allies. This is a dangerous dichotomy. 

Taken as a whole, the West remains the world’s strongest coalition, militarily, economically and politically. But the West has always been a heterogenous grouping, with profound differences in geographical interests and defence burdens baked into their relationships with each other. As a result, even as Western unity becomes more necessary, it becomes more difficult to maintain, opening up new opportunities for competitors – Russia and China above all. If there is to be one overarching message from this G7 summit, therefore, it needs to be that the West is back as a cohesive coalition, under US leadership, determined to promote common interests and values.

Priorities

What does this mean in term of summit priorities? First, the G7 needs to demonstrate the West’s common resolve to tackle the two global emergencies of the day – the devastation being wrought on health systems, and national economies, by the coronavirus pandemic, and the accelerating threat that climate change is posing to the natural environment on which we all depend. An effective response to these crises requires a wider community of states, together with unprecedented private sector involvement. But a coherent and energetic Western effort, pushing for strong multilateral action at a global level – through the WHO and COP26 (the UN Climate Change Conference) – can create opportunities for cooperation which, under a second Trump term, would simply not have been possible.

Second, a combined effort to manage the forces of economic nationalism is needed. Most Western states are under pressure to row back on globalisation, increase self-sufficiency in key areas and ensure that the green revolution generates jobs at home. Intensifying competition with China and other non-Western states has also led G7 members to introduce new restrictions on inward investment, justified on security grounds. While many of these steps make sense in isolation, in combination they risk a beggar-thy-neighbour dynamic from which all could lose. The G7 can provide a forum to mitigate these pressures – for example in combating ‘vaccine nationalism’ – through cooperative programmes and enhanced consultations.

Third, the G7 needs to recognise the growing strategic significance of sub-Saharan Africa. This has not got off to a good start under the UK’s presidency. The last five G7 summits all included guest attendance by the leaders of African countries, in most cases by several such leaders. By only issuing such invitations to Australia, India and South Korea, the UK is at risk of being seen to be sending a message that its Indo-Pacific tilt is at the expense of Europe’s neighbourhood, and of Africa in particular. 

This interpretation is likely to gain credence by the steep cut due to take place in UK aid flows in 2021 – down by a third on 2019 levels. So far, the UK's public statements on the G7 agenda have done little to dispel the impression that development is being deprioritised. It is not too late to take remedial action, for example by including key African governments in meetings at foreign and economic minister level. Given the extraordinary pressures which the pandemic is putting on the continent, this should be a priority. 

Finally, the G7 can be an important forum for addressing the threats to liberal democracy posed by populism and extremism, fuelled by new media and (in some cases) external interference. Each Western country is trying to find its own way to balance freedom against public protection as efforts are made to regulate social media, enhance cyber resilience and detect foreign efforts to subvert governments and their security apparatuses. With many of the threats in this area being transnational in nature and directed most of all at the US and its allies, it makes sense to use the G7 to seek common responses. 

Focusing on What, not Who

This is a big and important agenda, likely to involve much work in the lead up to the summit. Progress will not be possible across every heading. But less is likely to be achieved in Cornwall if the UK continues to press for a decision on its D10 proposal, which would add Australia, India and South Korea to the G7’s permanent membership, thereby turning it into a G10 (or ‘D10’ to emphasise shared democratic values).

The presence of Australia, India and South Korea as invited guests of the UK presidency this year is to be welcomed. The inclusion of Australia and South Korea as permanent members, however, is not easy to justify in terms of relative economic weight, given comparable GDP levels in Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia, all states with competitive democratic systems. 

Yet, it is the proposed inclusion of India that would pose the most fundamental questions about the G7’s purpose and cohesiveness. Indian and Western interests are converging on the need to balance Chinese military power in the Indo-Pacific. The formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – designed to further military and security cooperation between the US, Australia, India and Japan – is a positive step in this direction. If existing members are willing, the UK and France (and possibly other European powers) should consider forging stronger links with this arrangement. 

But full Indian membership in a transformed G7, with the much wider remit that it has, would be a step too far. Unlike the existing members, India is not a US ally. It continues to have close defence ties with Russia and is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It adopts foreign policy stances on key issues – Chinese repression in Xinjiang, Russia’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, the UK and now on its own soil against Alexei Navalny, the annexation of Crimea – that are quite different from the Western consensus, and much closer to those of the West’s strategic rivals. It has always been one of the most reluctant participants in multilateral trade talks and has recently moved in a more protectionist direction. If India were to be accepted inside the G7 tent, the prospects for reaching a consensus on any of these issues would be much reduced. 

The G7 summit this year is a key opportunity to reassert the importance of Western unity in international affairs. On most issues of global concern, the West will need to work with other states, together with international organisations and the private sector, to have the necessary critical mass for change to happen. But the West remains a powerful coalition for shaping these global issues, grounded in its members’ shared interests and mutual commitments. And it provides a vital construct for defending those interests when efforts at wider international cooperation fail. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: G7 summit in Biarritz, France, 2019. Courtesy of the public domain.

Author

Malcolm Chalmers
Deputy Director-General

Professor Malcolm Chalmers is Deputy Director-General of RUSI and directs its growing portfolio of research into contemporary... read more

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Support Rusi Research