Established in 1976 with the accession of Canada, the Group of 7 (G7) has represented and advocated for the interests of the world’s largest economies. According to its statute, the group consists of undoubtedly like-minded Western nations defined by shared democratic values.
In addition, all members are in defence relationships of alliance (the Washington Treaty of NATO, and the treaty on mutual cooperation and security between the US and Japan). However, while these defence relationships are in place, the like-mindedness of G7 member states has visibly changed since 2017. Even though this change may not appear so in the family photos of smiling G7 leaders, it is rather apparent in the mood and outcome of the talks.
Well before the latest G7 summit meeting which took place this year from August 24 – 26th in Biarritz, France, President Donald Trump announced he wanted the restoration of the previous G8 format which included Russia from 1997 to 2014. Instead of addressing other outstanding issues, Trump, supported by Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, spent a great deal of precious time on this question during the inaugural dinner. The other five G7 leaders alongside President of the European Council Donald Tusk have clearly opposed Russia’s readmission to the club, recalling that Russia was kicked out of G7 for good reason and has done nothing to deserve readmission.
President Trump commented later that the consensus on Russia is “a work in progress”, suggesting he will likely continue to press this issue until the US is scheduled to take over the G7 presidency and host the subsequent summit meeting next year. Trump argues that Russia should be added to the G7 because they are needed for solving pressing international problems (Ukraine, Syria, Iran, etc.). While the need for dialogue and negotiations with Russia is obvious, that certainly does not make G7 more effective and, even most importantly, does not imply Russia’s inherent right or merit to be a full-fledged member of the club. There are also other major players in the world (China, India, Brazil, etc.) In this regard Russia’s role should not be overstated (even if Russia has the most nukes).
Russia was invited to join the G7 in 1997 when it was ruled by President Boris Yeltsin. At the time, the West still had hopes that Russia could continue to develop as a (more-or-less) democratic country despite its economic troubles. However, in hindsight this decision turned out to be short-sighted; in just two years Vladimir Putin and his entourage occupied the Kremlin and took Russia in a totally different direction. Therefore, the principle question is not whether Russia should be allowed to rejoin G7 (and therefore arguing whether Russia has or has not fulfilled Western expectations since 2014), but whether Russia is actually entitled to belong to G7. Furthermore, what kind of club would the G8 be with Russia once again? What or whom would the G8 represent and why then exclude China, India, Brazil and South Korea whose economies are larger than Russia’s? How exactly is Russia more democratic than India?
The G8 did not really work until 2014, since it was in fact a G7+1, and it likely will not work in the future. In actuality, the G7 desperately needs to be amended with a new fresh look and substance, not expanded only to water down its raison d’être. Contentious issues between the G7 members range from climate change to Iranian nuclear disarmament, not to speak of liberal trade versus protectionism and trade/tariff wars. Such stark differences of opinion were still very evident in Biarritz even if President Trump did not prematurely leave the G7 summit, as he did last year in Canada (also withdrawing his signature from the communiqué of the meeting in Quebec).
Although significant contradictions and loose ends remain, ultimately there were some potentially positive signs in Biarritz. The G7 leaders agreed to provide aide to Brazil for fighting fires in the Amazon. However, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro rejected the aid, characterizing the offer as colonialist. Meanwhile, consensus on climate change and the Paris Treaty of 2016 remained notably absent. President Trump refused to meet with the Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif or to accept France’s good will (communicating with Iran and relieving tensions), but the host, French President Emmanuel Macron, who had met with Zarif, expressed the need for a meeting between Trump and the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in the future. That surely cannot be excluded, but it would probably take a lot more to bring the two leaders together, including initial bargaining positions that are sufficiently appealing to Israel and Saudi Arabia (Israel conducted an aerial attack on an alleged Iranian “killer drone” base in Syria in the town of Aqraba and immediately went public in order to make a point while the Iranian foreign minister was flying to Biarritz).
Trade issues were among the most important items on the agenda, as widespread fears of a global economic recession loomed over the summit. Such a recession would likely be accelerated and aggravated by escalating trade and tariff wars (conducted primarily by President Donald Trump). Trump announced that the G7 leaders had praised his trade war with China and also threatened France with unprecedented tariffs on its wine exports to the US in response to newly imposed France taxes on US tech giants. Macron and Trump ultimately managed to agree on a temporary agreement whereby France could impose these taxes but only until the OECD works out new taxation rules in this domain for all its members states. Despite this small compromise, the main trading issues between US and the EU remain unresolved.
UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, made his first appearance at a G7 summit meeting, having toured the European capitals, where he sought support for (once again) reopening the UK-EU deal to gain further concessions from the EU at 27. On the other hand, President Trump, who loudly supports a no-deal Brexit (apparently in the American interest), promised Johnson could quickly achieve a “very big deal” (bilateral trade agreement). However, in the case of a no-deal Brexit, the UK would probably find itself at the mercy of President Trump, who would likely not be particularly generous.
Finally, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appeared to disagree with President Trump after Trump stated that North Korea’s latest missile tests did not violate any agreements. Abe affirmed support for the US-North Korea process, but reaffirmed the position that the missile launches violated resolutions passed by the U.N. Security Council. All these examples of differences in vital issues do not instill sufficient optimism and certainty that the G7 still represents common values and a shared purpose in the Western world.