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G7: An Honest Review

The world is awash with product reviews. Star ratings and feedbacks for all range of things from movies to cars, so why not political events too? If you want to know what the G7 meetings actually are, The Wall Street Journal has a good explainer. Other than that, here is my honest review of this year’s G7:

The setting

For the past three days Carbis Bay, Cornwall, became the centre of the world. It is actually one of the prettiest places on Earth. Bonus points to the UK team for hosting this year’s G7 here. If you haven’t been there yet grab one of those £14 couch tickets (even if the trip is nine hours long from London) because I totally recommend it.

The cast

The usual not so diverse crowd. In the leading roles were US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, France’s President Emanuel Macron, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

In the supporting roles, we find EU’s Chief Commissioner Ursula Von Der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel. Now why it is still called ‘G7’ when the EU is invited too (making it more like a G7+) is anyone’s guess.

And there are also guests: South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa (although South Africa was invited after complaints were raised that there wasn’t any geographical representation of Africa – so they picked one of the most westernised African countries there is).

Scenes to treasure

There were some moments of embarrassed tension when it seems that Macron needed some basic geography lessons from Boris in regards to Northern Ireland amidst the ongoing “sausage war.”

But there were also some funny ones as when HM The Queen while taking one of those awkward family pictures asked: ‘Are you supposed to look like you’re enjoying yourself?’

Speaking of which, I recommend that at the next summits the socially distanced family picture and the silly elbow greetings are dropped. The audience, that’s us, is neither blind nor stupid, we know that you don’t socially distance – you just had a reception beforehand with drinks, close contact et all, and you even posted the pictures online!

The plot

On the official Instagram feed of the 46th President of the United States (@POTUS) a picture was posted showing Joe Biden and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, overlooking the beach at Carbis Bay.

Biden is supporting his left hand on Boris’s back – a gesture that Biden will keep repeating during the summit. Boris, with both hands in his pockets, seems to be listening to what the 78 years old leader of the free world has to say.

The message that wants to be conveyed is that those two are discussing serious world issues: climate change, girls’ education, inequality, and recovery from the pandemic.

Maybe so. However, despite the idyllic setting, the top three comments to the picture (with 12k, 8k, and 5k likes respectively) are all about how Boris looks like a ‘cosplay’ of former US President Donald Trump.

Plot twist?

The people in the comments were wise to notice that this G7+ is, firstly, about Trump and the shadow cast by Trumpism over the rest of the globe. Secondly, it is about China, more specifically, how to contain China. While lastly, it is about Russia. The perennial question in continental diplomacy ever since the Congress of Vienna: how to include Russia in European politics while at the same time making sure its influence is limited.

Why those three topics and not the ever-touted vaccine diplomacy, climate change and the global tax on corporations? Firstly, because this latter category is just headline politics. Take vaccine diplomacy for example. The US and the UK are both eager to hand out their surplus vaccines (read getting rid of the unpopular Oxford AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson shots) especially if this gets them some international kudos.

And if the average Economist reader needs more examples that the real purpose of this year’s G7+ is not ‘inoculation, inoculation, inoculation,’ just point to the guest lists: all countries with a China problem.

The Real Plot

Hence the real plot: Boris, on his part, would like the world to forget that his bromance with former US President Trump was actually a thing. The Europeans will try to put under the rug the reasonable grievances that Trump raised while making sure Russia and China fill up the agenda. Biden, on the other hand, as Bill Maher argues, is on a ‘Sorry about the last guy tour.’

This is not in itself a negative development. However, the US President should not forget that alliances are a two-way street. Before departing on his European voyage, Biden wrote in an op-ed in Washington Post that this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners.’ Very good stuff.

But what about their commitment to America? As a recent Foreign Policy article discusses, Biden’s talk is honey to the ears of Europeans who are known, for example, ever since the 1960s to miss on their NATO contributions; or as Rosa Balfour and Lizza Bomassi of Carnegie Europe argue, even to sign investments agreements with China behind Biden’s back.

Enter the antiheroes: China and Russia

In this case, it is to be cheered that the puzzling quip of former president Obama that he needs no George Kennan (highly regarded architect of US Cold War containment strategy) seems not to have caught on Joe Biden, who was Obama’s Vice President.

As such, perceptive is Tom Tugendhat MP observation, who was quoted in The New York Times arguing that ‘America’s foreign policy hasn’t fundamentally changed [since Trump].’ That is indeed right, as a tougher line on China is one of Biden’s primary goals for this summit.

And China is indeed one of the most pressing topics that loom over this year’s G7+. Boris, for example, suggests the creation of a task force on China while Merkel (or the German auto-industry?) desires a more positive approach.

Although the win goes to team Biden for rallying the G7+ to challenge China’s human rights record in their final communique. While the biggest thing to come out of the summit is an agreement on infrastructure to counter China’s One Belt One Road Initiative; creatively titled Build Back Better World Partnership (B3W).

The Climax

But China isn’t the only audience the communique targets. On Wednesday, 16 June, Biden is due to meet Vladimir Putin in Geneva. The US President bets that the G7+ and the NATO meeting in Brussels on Monday will provide momentum.

However, Biden won’t be the only one with momentum behind him. Putin will join him in Geneva four days after Russia’s national day – hardly a low-point in Russian. morale.

Here is where I would like to draw attention to that one instructive episode on the side-lines of the then G8 in 2007 (Russia was a member of the G8 but was expelled, hence now the G7) when then French President Nicolas Sarkozy was also extremely bullish before meeting his Russian counterpart, only for Putin to bring Sarkozy’s expectations back to Earth.

Whatever will come out of Putin-Biden’s meeting is a wild guess. Especially as there won’t be any press conference for our psychology-trained journalists to assess body language.

Score and Sequel

For almost two years, the leaders of the world’s most developed economies haven’t seen the whites of each other’s eyes except pixelated through Zoom. This is one of the reasons why this year’s G7+ meeting is so important.

Commentators praised the return of ‘personal chemistry’ to world politics, forgetting altogether that exactly three years ago (when Trump was in charge) they were lamenting over that.

Nonetheless, they are right this year: personal diplomacy is important, even if sometimes it can end up badly, as it did with JFK and Khrushchev in 1961; or even if it ends up lifting up the spirits (literally, go check out the stories) as it happened with Clinton and Yeltsin in 1994.

Having said that, for all the above-mentioned reasons I would give this G7+ a neat 4/5. Additionally, for next year’s sequel here is a suggestion to make the G7+ more interesting: invite Putin back in. After Russia was expelled from the group in March 2014, US Presidents took to meet with Putin after G7+ summits anyway (here in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019) – so spare the planet some air miles.

Yes, Biden called him ‘a killer’ but Putin recently said in an NBC interview that he really doesn’t mind. And if you want a serious China strategy, you will need him more than anything else.

I write, think, and comment on international political stuff

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