All talk, no action? The G7 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting

The G7 group of the world’s seven largest ‘advanced’ economies – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) – has been meeting annually since 1975, with only one cancellation (owing to Covid-19) in 2020. G7 meetings are also attended by representatives of the European Union (EU) (the eighth member of seven, one might say) with other countries and international organisations invited to join particular events and meetings. 

Each G7 member country (never the EU, therefore) assumes presidency of the group for one year on a rolling basis – perhaps not the best way to organise and run a high-level inter-governmental organisation, especially one with such an ambitious agenda. The G7 presidency organises meetings to cover seven ministerial tracks – economic, environmental, health, trade, technology, development and foreign policy – as well as a summit meeting of G7 leaders. In 2021, the UK holds the 47th G7 presidency and so the summit will take place in Cornwall, in June.

The first event under the UK presidency took place earlier this month. Having recently merged the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, the UK was able to integrate two G7 ministerial tracks into one – foreign and development ministers of the group met in London from 3rd to 5th May 2021. 

The meeting was also distinctive in several other ways: it was ‘Covid-19 secure’; it was the first ‘in real life’ meeting of foreign and development ministers in over two years; in the post-Brexit permafrost UK Government ministers and officials had to be nice to EU representatives, and perhaps even describe them as ‘colleagues’; the meeting was attended on the final day by foreign ministers from Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa and by the Chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers Meeting for discussions on such matters as open societies, climate change and gender equality; and finally, the meeting generated an enormous 40-page communiqué.

The apparent ‘tilt to the east’ was not the only clue to the nationality of the 2021 presidency. Unsurprisingly, preparatory statements and the final communiqué used language (e.g. ‘integrated approach’, ‘build back better’, ‘green recovery’) noticeably similar to that found in recent UK policy papers, particularly the cross-government Integrated Review and a Defence Command Paper, both published in March 2021. 

More significantly, like the Integrated Review the G7 communiqué was not short of ambition. The document contains three substantive sections, each laden with declarations and commitments. Thus, the G7 is determined to champion media freedom, improve the governance of cyberspace and promote ‘freedom of religion or belief for all’ (Section III: Open Societies) and will work to ensure more equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines, to improve education for girls and to prevent famine and food insecurity (Section IV: Sustainable Recovery). 

As far as Foreign and Security Policy are concerned (Section II), the document comments explicitly on no fewer than seventeen troubled or troubling countries, ranging from North Korea to Myanmar to Libya. Five regions receive special attention (the Western Balkans, the Indo-Pacific, the East and South China seas, the G7-Africa Partnership and the Sahel) as do two perennial themes in international security – maritime security and non-proliferation and disarmament. 

As a tour d’horizon of the state of the world in 2021 the communiqué is impressive. But the G7 aspires to be something other than a spectacularly well-informed university seminar in international security; it aspires to have practical effect. The document is assertive and determined, using ‘commit’ (or a form of it) over 100 times. But rhetorical commitment is not quite the same as the real thing, and if everything is a commitment then perhaps nothing is. The document shows its limitations most clearly when it comes to addressing two of the most pressing and complex challenges to the wealthy western view of the world – the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia. 

The treatment of the PRC is strangely deferential and legalistic. The PRC is ‘encouraged’ to behave more constructively with regard to the rules-based international system, is ‘called on’ to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms and to act in accordance with international commitments and legal obligations, is ‘encouraged’ to seek peaceful resolution of disputes in the Taiwan Strait, and is ‘urged’ to act more responsibly in the global economy. In other words, the PRC is invited – terribly politely – to fix the problems the G7 believes it has created or condoned. This is not the diplomacy of either sticks or carrots, but of the furrowed brow. 

As for Russia, G7 ministers ‘note with regret’ Russia’s destabilising military behaviour on the border with Ukraine and in Crimea and its ‘malign’ use of political disinformation and cyber attacks, insists that those who use chemical weapons should be held accountable and expresses ‘solidarity’ with those affected by Russian behaviour which will ‘continue to be met with the staunchest resolve’. The communiqué does at least promise to ‘address and deter’ Russia’s aberrant behaviour but gives no indication as to how that might be undertaken.

The communiqué touches upon problems that are of very serious concern, and the conviction it shows is, no doubt, just as serious. But what now? The G7 is not, of course, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and cannot be expected to behave or sound like a politico-military alliance – nor would we wish these problems and challenges to be viewed through NATO-standard binoculars. But when the G7 produces such a comprehensive, highly principled and outcome-oriented perspective on global security it is not unreasonable to expect it to be able, to some extent at least, to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’. 

In response to the challenges so convincingly described in their communiqué, if the best that these champions of western interests and values can offer is lofty principle and high-minded verbiage, if their preferred response to simmering crises is conversation, then the West is probably in more trouble than we are aware.

Prof. Paul Cornish is a Thomas Telford Associate Fellow in Strategic Power and Infrastructure at the Council on Geostrategy. He has contributed to numerous parliamentary inquiries and has been a member of the Chief of the Defence Staff’s Strategic Advisory Panel.

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