Bold G7 needed amid Ukraine, pandemic crises
The G7 may appear ill-suited to tackling the overlapping challenges facing the world, from the Ukraine war to the pandemic but it has often been at its best in turbulent crises.
Many forget the body was founded in the 1970s in the aftermath of geopolitical and economic shocks when Washington pulled out of the Gold Standard during the Vietnam conflict. Back then, Richard Nixon also resigned as US president and there was a clear danger of currency wars and wider turmoil.
Yet, the “Western Club” then proved fit for purpose, playing a key role in the management of the most important exchange rates. It also brought Japan into the Western policymaking community, and a similar far-sighted, strategic approach is needed today.
In the aftermath of Russia’s latest geopolitical gambit, and after the schisms of Donald Trump’s US presidency, the G7 should therefore now take an important step back and try to concentrate again on unity and the big strategic questions facing both the West and the wider world. And there is no bigger short-term challenge than the impact of the Ukraine crisis which comes in the midst of the continuing coronavirus crisis.
While the G7 was created in the instability of the 1970s to monitor developments in the world economy and assess macroeconomic policies, Ukraine has brought its role as a geopolitical lynchpin to the fore. The Club of Japan, the US, Canada, Germany, France, the UK and Italy have helped spearhead in recent weeks several vital measures: The massive international package of sanctions against Moscow; a pledge never to recognize any redrawn boundaries for Ukraine; the provision of billions in aid and assistance; considering reconstruction plans for the nation; and attempting to ameliorate a mounting food and energy security calamity that could make for an exceptionally difficult period to come.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, relations have been so poor between the G7 and Russia that Moscow may never be readmitted to the club, as constituted as the G8, so long as Vladimir Putin remains in power. Russia joined the summits from 1997 to 2013, but following the annexation of Crimea, Moscow was told it could only rejoin if “it changes course and an environment is once again created in which it is possible for the G8 to hold reasonable discussions.”
While Russia is excluded, leaders from India, Indonesia, Argentina, Senegal and South Africa have been invited to give greater international perspective. Moreover, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky will either join by video, or in person, and is likely to again prove the star of the show.
Ukraine has brought G7’s role as a geopolitical lynchpin to the fore.
This year’s G7 discussions on Ukraine are only the latest example of the prominence of geopolitical and security issues in the club’s meetings. In recent years, the body has played a significant role in the West’s policies toward Libya, North Korea and the South China sea too.
The Italian G7 presidency in 2017, for instance, placed strong emphasis on the turbulence in North Africa and the Middle East, including Iraq, Libya and Syria. This included a push toward fostering stability in Libya following the collapse of the Muammar Qaddafi regime.
Another example was the discussion on the South China Sea during Japan’s presidency in 2016. Then, the G7 warned of “any intimidating coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions” given the territorial disputes over several archipelagos there involving countries such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines
This prompted strong objections from Beijing, which claims much of the South China Sea, and it asserted that the G7 should focus its time on its founding mandate of global economic cooperation. As this reaction indicates, the G7’s involvement in its geopolitical dialogues has met with significant international criticism from time to time.
Building on this, it is also sometimes asserted, especially by developing countries, that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the UN to engage in these geopolitical and security issues, and/or is a historical artefact given the rise of new powers, including the BRICS. However, it is not the case that the G7's international security role is new.
An early example of the lynchpin function the body has played was in the 1970s and 1980s when it helped coordinate Western strategy toward the Soviet Union. Moreover, following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the G8 (including Russia) assumed a key role in the US-led “war on terror.”
Fast forward to 2022, and it is now the Ukraine crisis gripping the world — so the meeting will be dominated by geopolitics again, despite criticism of the G7’s actions in this area. The body’s longstanding track record as a security actor, and the continuing uncertainty over Ukraine, underlines the fact that this geopolitical role is not only likely to continue, but could also grow in significance.
• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.