The Impotence of the G-7

French President Emmanuel Macron shows a watch made of recycled plastic waste from the ocean and working with solar energy during a work session focused on climate at the G-7 Summit in Biarritz, France, August 26, 2019. (Ludovic Marin/Pool via Reuters)
What, at this point, does the high-profile diplomatic summit purport to do?

At this year’s G-7 Summit in Biarritz, France, the summit’s host, President Emmanuel Macron, gave each of the other leaders in attendance a watch made of recycled fishing nets and powered by solar energy. The watches, he explained, symbolized the group’s collective commitment to global sustainability and ocean conservation — though actually, they symbolize the summit’s pointlessness.

Was it always so? In 1975, the leaders of the then-G-6 — France, West Germany, Japan, Italy, the U.K., and the U.S. — met outside of Paris to tackle that year’s oil-related financial crisis. The next year, they became the G-7, as Canada joined under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (the father of the country’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau). Soon after, the president of the European Commission was invited to attend, as were other countries. In 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, then general secretary of the U.S.S.R.’s Communist party, came to observe the summit in London, where it was hoped he’d learn a thing or two about democracy, liberty, and how to make friends and influence people.

Of course, the summit never had any real political or legal force behind it. But the idea was that — given the overwhelming economic clout of the G-7, which originally made up almost 70 percent of the global economy, at least in nominal terms, though that has now fallen to around 50 percent — greater transparency on macroeconomics would better prepare and coordinate international markets.

Perhaps inevitably, the scope of the enterprise was soon extended beyond economics. It became a political power show, a festival of diplomacy, and a field day for journalists and political cartoonists around the world. In 1998, Bill Clinton allowed Russia into the club, where it remained until 2014, when it was booted for annexing the Crimea from Ukraine. The idea behind this was, presumably, to humiliate President Putin into changing his ways, which he evidently still hasn’t.

The July 2008 summit, held in Japan, managed to achieve little by way of warding off the global recession, though some noise was made about a universal code of conduct for hedge funds. During the summit, the then-president of the European Union called for emerging economic leaders such as China, India, and Brazil to be included in future meetings. (They weren’t.) The United States also said it would “seriously consider” halving greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. (It hasn’t — and likely won’t.)

And then, in 2017, into this global political sideshow stormed Donald J. Trump, possibly the least diplomatic president in U.S. history.

Just months before the 2017 summit, Trump sparked fierce criticism by withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The joint communiqué issued by the group at the end of the May summit explained that America was thus “not in a position to join the consensus on these topics.” The same year, Trump suggested that Russia be readmitted to the group, again despite the protests of all the other members. The perceived isolation of the United States within the G-7 had increased so much by last year’s summit that journalists and the French government described the group as the “G6+1.”

This year, President Macron was singing a rather different tune. He said that “Trump very rightly wants to defend the interests of his country. . . . He does it well, he’s somebody that likes things said directly and to make deals.” Trump, too, was cordial. When asked about the surprise visit of Iran’s foreign minister to the summit, he said: “I don’t consider that disrespectful at all, especially when he [Macron] asked me for approval [to invite an Iranian delegation].”

So wherefore such chopping and changing? As former British prime minister Gordon Brown put it:

When you have got an organisation that cannot agree on a communiqué, that has got no agreed agenda, that’s got no agreement even on membership, and has broken down, as far as I can see, over the weekend into small huddles of individuals doing bilateral discussions, you’ve really got a leaderless world.

It is rightly called by some the G-Zero because the world seems to be more divided than I can remember. And that means that the G-7 is impotent.

This week, Macron admitted as much when he described the G-7 as “an informal club” with “no mandates.” So the question lingers: What does it do?


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