G-7 Summit: What it Tells Us About the Challenges to Western Cohesion

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1975, Château de Rambouillet, 50 kilometers south-west of Paris. The heads of state and government of the six leading industrial countries gather for their first joint summit meeting. Today’s Group of Seven (G-7) was born. At its 44th summit, which took place at La Malbaie, Canada last week, the group saw a historic transition from careful policy coordination to undisguised political discord. From tensions over a possible readmission of Russia to President Trump’s instruction not to endorse the arduously negotiated communiqué – the gathering ended in a diplomatic fiasco. The more so as only one day later, on 10th June, China successfully orchestrated the inking of a joint summit declaration among members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also counts Russia and, more recently, India and Pakistan, among its members. Is the West breaking apart while the East consolidates?

 

Looking Beyond Trump

This G-7 summit is widely perceived as a watershed moment. Careful optimism about the prospects of waiting out the current US administration is waning. Instead, pundits sense the beginning of a trade war or even the destruction of the Western alliance. A scare is taking hold that, by the time President Trump resigns from office, the very foundations of the liberal international order might be damaged beyond repair. The events of the past weekend are a stark reminder of his readiness to undermine foundational institutional practices of the Western international community. It comes as no surprise that a thorough reassessment of the potential implications of a further three or seven years of Trump presidency is in the making.

As the dust settles, however, it will be equally important to step back and reflect on longer-term trends. How have changes in the international system affected Western states’ ability to act as a broadly cohesive group? Will the G7 be able to reaffirm its role as the pivotal steering committee in international affairs post-Trump?

 

Why the 21st Century Multipolar System Erodes Group Cohesion

Among the many G’s, the G-7 is a dinosaur. Its comparatively manageable size, the economic and political clout of its members, and their shared set of beliefs about the benefits of free markets, the rule of law, and human rights have made the G-7 a predictable and durable cornerstone of the international order. In the 21st century, however, the absence of a commonly perceived Soviet threat, more distributed interdependence, and shifts of power and economic gravity away from the transatlantic axis make for a drastically changed international system.

One implication is that issues of global scope can no longer be adequately addressed without consulting non-Western powers. The creation of the G-20 following the 2008 Global Financial Crisis is a reflection of the growing number of influential actors. Large groups complicate consensus finding, and the tedious search for the lowest common denominator defies ambitious targets. At the same time, complex distributional struggles have arisen. The existing international order has provided the basis for the spectacular rise of many new players and will likely not be put into question as such. Still, the pressure for greater voice and participation in global rule-making is raising.

Another implication is wavering domestic support for the liberal international order in G-7 societies themselves. Trump’s provocative assertion that current global tariffs make the US ‘the piggy bank that everybody’s robbing’ might fail to withstand economic scrutiny, but there remains a strong perception among parts of the Western working population that the burden of sustaining an open international trading system increasingly offsets its benefits. What is essentially a surviving creature of Western preeminence is now being under reform pressure from within. The American G-7 delegation reportedly refused to agree to language that would buttress ‘the’ rather than ‘a’ global rules-based trading system. It was isolated, but in the bigger picture, only Canada’s and Japan’s governments are not facing continued domestic pressure from strong anti-globalization movements.

 

Towards a G-X World

All this goes to show that the G-7’s difficulties to live up to its traditional role as catalytic and coherent steering committee run deep and their essence will not disappear as government administrations come and go. This is not to say that last week’s summit fiasco wasn’t a drastic juncture in its own right. After all, the G-7 was, until recently, perceived as a forum where consensus could be reached on issues that were intractable among larger and more heterogeneous groups of states. The key point is that the parameters for group diplomacy have changed.

It remains to be seen whether we are, in the end, as Ian Bremmer worries, approaching a G-0 world, in which no group of countries is able or willing to advance a coherent global agenda. At least on the surface, it appears more likely that we have entered what David Rothkopf terms a G-X world, in which states respond by proliferating partly overlapping groups and partnerships. Either way, the strategic imperative of the day, both Bremmer and Rothkopf would agree, is the diversification of partners and flexible shifting between coalitions depending on the issue at hand. Even Germany, which has positioned itself as a stark defender of the liberal international order and a resilient transatlantic relationship, has not failed to hedge. It now entertains G-2-like partnerships with a wide range of non-Western countries, including regular summits with Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian leaders.

Last weekend serves as a warning of the fallouts of erratic diplomacy. It has aggravated the lingering symptoms of systemic constraints on group cohesion that have emerged long before Trump assumed office. The West has not broken apart, nor has the East consolidated. Both are plagued by rifts. States have already begun to prepare for a multi-partner world in which cohesive and broad governance coalitions are increasingly unlikely to persist. The G-7 can be a powerful instrument, but as a variable in today’s complicated equation of overlapping groups and partnerships, it is unlikely to reemerge as the predictable factor it once was.

 

David Hagebölling is a Visiting Researcher at WZB’s Global Governance unit. He is ESRC Scholar and doctoral candidate at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations and member of St Antony’s College.

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