The state of the world according to its most powerful people took the form of the two communiques issued this week following the G7 annual meeting and the NATO Summit. These documents, products of intense negotiation between specialist diplomats, are an important barometer as to what these alliances consider to the be the challenges of our time as well as setting out the broad brush strategy they plan to adopt to tackle them.
The G7 looked, from an external perspective, a huge amount of fun. A combination of global leaders not having had many face-to-face meetings in the last year as well as the retreat nature of a getaway to the Cornish coast in the glorious sunshine helped. So did the celebrity chefs, the flybys by Red Arrow jets and the chance for their partners to be photographed enjoying the sea air. Yet the summit’s communique, very much its most business end feature, was illuminating in what it did and didn’t focus on.
It read like a slightly retro document signifying perhaps a return to more conventional multilateral diplomacy of the later parts of the Cold War. Russia was mentioned seven times, China four. There was a stress on the ‘rules-based’ system and despite being amongst the worst conflicts of a generation; neither Yemen or Syria was mentioned at all.
The sense of being a return to more traditional ways of working was strengthened by the US and the UK agreeing a grandiose new 'Atlantic Charter' just before the meeting to help the world recover from Covid crisis, boost trade and protect democracy. The new charter will 'form the foundation of a sustainable global recovery' as Prime Minister Johnson and the US President promised the world a 'better future'.
The G7 communique is of course not a legal document, nor one that will suddenly result in the foreign or defence policies of any of its members suddenly changing direction. Instead, it provides a compass that more detailed and distinct policy will steer these major powers towards, with the strength of consensus providing the political capital to prioritise and resource better.
The fact that Afghanistan and Iraq are mentioned in passing reflects a transition away from the counterterrorism focus of much of the post-9/11 period into a recognition of strategic competition with a disruptive Russia and the need for a more nuanced relationship with China, which is largely recognised as the single biggest strategic question of our time. The communique explains that the G7 will cooperate with China “where it is in our mutual interest on shared global challenges, in particular addressing climate change and biodiversity loss in the context of COP26 and other multilateral discussions. At the same time and in so doing, we will promote our values, including by calling on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
There is of course and inherent tension between the cooperation elements and those that promote policies that are juxtaposed with those currently held by the Government in Beijing and it is here that a critical focus will need to be maintained to assess the state of the relationship between the world’s traditional economic powers and its new rising competitor.
Whilst the headlines focused on President Biden announcing that the US was “back” and contrasting himself to his more disruptive predecessor, there was also insight into the G7 and its expectations of what it can achieve in the limits of the agreements made. In particular the call for the most powerful countries to lead on a mass global vaccination effort. According to the WHO some eleven billion vaccines are needed to protect the world along the adage that “nobody is safe until we’re all safe”. This nice and potentially fluffy sounding motto has very real-world consequences seen most recently by the fact that the Indian ‘Delta’ variant of the virus has forced the UK to delay further unlocking by a month.
Yet despite 11 billion shots being needed, the most the G7 could commit was 1 billion. As former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, explained “we need to do for the world what Britain has done for itself: to construct a virtuous circle, starting with guaranteed G7 funding that underwrites the pooled purchasing of vaccines, which in turn generates new manufacturing capacity on every continent”. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that in the new era of global competition that the G7 has set out its stall around, it is not the answer to all the world’s problems but just a significant piece in a jigsaw that is made up of many others. The central question remains whether China accepts the jigsaw analogy and whether they and the G7 are able to collaborate constructively around its rules and processes. Communique
by: James Denselow levant