Has the G7 lost its mojo?

Trump’s hampering of the Charlevoix summit may be the final straw for the group, argues John Sinclair. Is it time for global leadership to shift to an enhanced G20?  

By: /
June 13, 2018
G7 summit
Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the G7 summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, June 9, 2018. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

After a series of sessions on global trade and the key Canadian priorities of gender equality and climate change, the highly anticipated two-day Group of Seven (G7) summit ended Saturday afternoon in Charlevoix, Quebec.

Briefly, there was hope that the collective communiqué issued at the summit’s end would stand. It spelled out the key successes for Canada’s leadership: a $3.8 billion fund for women and girls’ education in conflict-affected and fragile states, as well as a charter to tackle killer plastic residuals in the world’s oceans (endorsed by all except for the United States and Japan). There was also familiar wording, again without US endorsement, on trade and climate change.

However, just hours after Trudeau released the document, the post-summit positive vibes were shattered by a mid-air tweet from US President Donald Trump, who had already flown off from the tedium of G7 discussions to his anticipated star role in Monday’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The president issued new trade threats and harsh personal insults to Trudeau, plus a formal US repudiation of the communiqué.  

Peter Navarro, Trump’s trade adviser, said on Fox News, referring to Trudeau, “There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.” He has since apologized for his inappropriate choice of words.

The divisive outcome of the summit has reinforced a growing sense among some G7 leaders and outside commentators that the group has lost its way, becoming a clique with no common vision. ‘We are G6+1’ became the bitter flavoured phrase of the day during the summit. Those six members had hoped for a better outcome, even while they recoiled over recent months from the confused and threatening worldview of an American leader who is a non-believer in a structured global order.

What does this all mean for the future of the G7 as a leadership forum which, following the 2008 global financial crisis, has seemed somewhat stuck in a policy rut, with few bold new ideas? There is also an impatience in other countries, notably increasingly powerful emerging economies, that too often felt the G7 has tried to pre-empt a discussion that could have been more effective in a more inclusive forum like the G20, or a specialized committee of the UN.  They also question why a supposedly global leadership forum such as the G7 still chooses to exclude giants such as China and India, while having several much smaller countries as full members.

How is the rest of the international community likely to react in the coming months to this perception of lost leadership? Is it just a rough patch or a signal of terminal decline?

"What does this all mean for the future of the G7 as a leadership forum which has seemed somewhat stuck in a policy rut?"

Ambitious non-G7 countries may privately welcome the setbacks triggered by Trump, because this could open up space for more inclusive approaches to international policy debates. This second circle of global leaders — China, Russia and the other BRICS — may initially be amused by or able to exploit the pressures Trump puts on the G7. But the fun side will end quickly, because ultimately, they also desire an orderly world in which they can trade and invest as equal, respected partners with G7 countries.  

As I proposed a few months ago, part of the answer could lie in a reformed, enhanced Group of Twenty (G20)The G20 was initially a global partnership of finance ministers created by former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin — a combination of the old G7 with a cross-section of faster growing emerging economies, notably the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). It was ‘promoted’ to the status of leaders’ forum as a major voice and most effective actor in terms of bringing the 2008 global financial crisis under control.

The G20 could now lead on discussions on the global future in many ways, even if lacking the G7’s once-cozy style. The G20 is more geopolitically inclusive and represents a significantly larger share of the world economy. Its next summit will be chaired by Argentina in late-November, with all G7 countries invited as members, hopefully present and engaged in preparing its agenda. A shift to the G20 would mean leadership would be held by a much broader-based, hence more legitimate, group, one where G7 and BRICS countries are already present, but within a structure in which no one country, not even the US, is dominant. 

Some will argue that it would be better to properly strengthen the United Nations, but that step would mean extensive work within its clumsy world of 200+ national delegations, versus a more flexible 20 or so delegates in the G20. However, it would still make good sense to add the UN Secretary-General to G20 summits, instead of having an over-represented European Union.  

 Some tidying up will be needed within the G20. Perhaps a rotating steering committee with leaders from both North and South could be created that would also replace the present expensive array of itinerant sherpas. Also, some steps would be needed to make the G20 even more inclusive, by providing for some formal representation for the least developed and fragile states. A gender-empowering rule could be added, requiring that 50 percent of its delegates be women.  

Canada cannot escape this gloomy prognosis. A vengeful Trump can do a lot of damage, especially to an economy such as ours that has put too much reliance on US investment and the convenience of trading with our southern neighbour. Looking forward, we should take the high road and align ourselves with those who are looking for more radical change or to take advantage of present Trump disruptions. We need to be less wary about building economic and political relations with the developing world, where we have old friends and natural alliances. All this will take time, as government and our private sector seek out new partners. But, with Trudeau and Trump both eligible for second terms, the friction between current leaders is not likely to be resolved up any time soon.