G7 Summit: Group’s Chance to Redefine its Role



Creon Butler | Chatham House

The G7 summit to be held in Cornwall on June 11-13 will be the first ‘in person’ meeting of western leaders since the pandemic took hold in March 2021. 

It will be their first real opportunity since then to work out a collective response to the enormous test posed by the pandemic, as well as three other global challenges – climate change, the accelerating digitization of the global economy and growing strategic competition between the West and China. 

As well as substantive outcomes the summit delivers, it will also be an opportunity for leaders to consider what role the G7 should play over the next decade or longer.  

The grouping was formed when six of the current members – the United States, Britain, Germany, Japan, France and Italy – first met at the Chateau de Rambouillet in 1975 in the aftermath of the first oil shock. Canada and the EU were invited to join the group shortly afterwards . In these years, if agreement could be reached on an aspect of managing the global economy – initiating a fiscal stimulus, completing a global trade negotiation, restructuring developing country debt or boosting international aid – it was typically decisive.

This situation largely prevailed through to the early 2000s, when the G7’s influence began to decline. Driven primarily by its declining share of world economic activity as a result of the rapid growth in China and other emerging economies, the G7 also faced an increasing diversity of global players with the growth in international civil society and multinational corporations. 

The change in status was recognized in the response to the 2008-9 global financial crisis. While G7 finance ministers and central bank governors played a pivotal role in preparing the ground, it was the G20 major economies that delivered the response to the crisis.

As the G20 took centre stage, there were doubts as to whether the G7 – or G8 as it then was with the participation of Russia – had a future at all. Many thought, or at least hoped, that the G20 would be able to continue its unity of purpose.

Over its next five summits, however, the G7/G8 demonstrated its value, not just in terms of the nature of the discussions that were uniquely possible among its leaders, reflecting their shared culture, values and personal familiarity, but also through the specific outcomes it achieved. 

The group remained a critical forum for addressing economic crises – such as the Eurozone crisis –that originated or were contained within its membership. It developed new approaches to solving global problems that could be mainstreamed through wider bodies, particularly the G20.

With Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the G7 quickly became a focus for major differences between the US and its traditional allies. By contrast the Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, together with its continued commitment to multilateralism outside the EU, has, if anything, increased the logic for the G7. 

The new Biden administration’s energetic support for coordination with allies and willingness to lead on such controversial issues as global tax arrangements and a Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights waiver for vaccines, combined with the greatest period of economic upheaval since the Second World War, means that the G7 now has a unique opportunity to evolve. 

To achieve this, there are four issues on which G7 leaders need to reach agreement in Cornwall.

First, they need to reaffirm their shared values, highlighting their belief in democracy, human rights, support for the free market and economic openness. This should be much easier now that Trump has left office, but there could still be areas in which it will be difficult to reach consensus, for example on the role of the state and the G7’s stance on free trade. The leaders will also need to consider how to put these values into effect. 

Second, the group needs to be clear about what it can and cannot do. It no longer has the economic scope, financial resources or legitimacy to solve the world’s biggest challenges on its own – not in the short term as we have seen with the roll out of Covid vaccines to the developing world, or longer term as seen with unsustainable developing country debt and climate change. Short of morphing into the G20, it cannot aspire to this. 

The group should be clear, however, that it does see itself as having a core responsibility to come up with and champion approaches that can effectively address these problems and that do so in a way that is equitable and reflects the concerns of the wider international community. 

Third, the group should acknowledge that a further core responsibility will be to provide a forum in which its members can coordinate policies to uphold shared economic values and interests, including when these are in competition with other economies. 

And fourth, the G7 needs to explain how, taking account of these values and roles, it will work constructively with other economies and the global governance architecture. In a practical sense this is the most important, both in terms of the group’s ability to influence the international agenda and in the example it sets to other major economies. It is also the most difficult. 

The lead on solving some global issues – such as climate finance, recovery from the pandemic, reform of the global tax system and developing-country debt – must necessarily lie ultimately with the G20. 

Others – such as resilience in supply chains, digital governance and national security considerations in investment – may need to be dealt with at a G7 level among close allies but could still be tied into more universal frameworks of benefit to all. 

The G7 will need to balance finding global solutions to global problems with parallel efforts to underpin the values and economic interests of its members and find a way to communicate this sympathetically. 

Apart from the inevitable ‘not invented here’ syndrome, there is a risk the wider world will distrust G7 initiatives intended for the greater good if they are presented alongside actions that are focused on upholding common group interests.  To counter this the G7 will need to persuade sceptics – through practical examples – that competition in some areas can coexist with cooperation in others. 

To complement greater clarity on its new role, the G7 should take stock of how it can maximize its effectiveness.  In principle, the presidency needs the consent of other members for the decisions it takes on summit organisation. This is rarely withheld, but any change of approach will only become permanent if actively supported by other members and adopted by subsequent presidencies.

There have been several attempts by individual presidencies to review the effectiveness of the institution and hardwire the conclusions into future practice.  These have had mixed results at best. But there are four themes on which the group should try again to reach a consensus in Cornwall.

First, expansion: The success of the G7 depends on the like-mindedness of its participants, the fact that the leaders typically get to know each other well, and that the group is small enough to sit round a medium sized dining table. 

It should therefore set a high bar for any permanent expansion and potentially rule it out for the foreseeable future. It is particularly important to avoid including new members who would prevent discussion of core national economic security interests – as was the case when Russia was a member. 

Second, scope: The G7 has ranged across economic, social and political issues, and this should continue. Similarly, a successful theme may be inspired by an immediate crisis or be a slower-burn, second-tier topic that deserves to rise to the top tier. 

But the most successful presidencies have almost always had limited agendas focused on one or two themes where effective outcomes can only be achieved through international cooperation. The G7 should establish this approach as a norm with the summit tackling at most three closely related themes or two unrelated themes. 

Third, outreach: Both the G7 and G20 have experimented with a range of outreach approaches to countries, international organizations and non-official stakeholders. Sometimes these have been valuable, but too often they have been largely cosmetic and potentially counterproductive. It should be a priority to work out what works and what doesn’t.

Specific steps should include: identifying areas where outside expertise or political support is critical to a chosen theme and embedding outreach to specific countries, institutions or individuals from the outset; avoiding permanent institutionalized groups of stakeholders rolling over from one presidency to the next, since these can easily become divorced from the presidency agenda and an end in themselves; and ensuring that any high-level independent expert group established to investigate aspects of a chosen theme publishes recommendations well before the final outputs for the summit are locked down.

Fourth, tools and working methods: Covid has transformed the way the G7 and G20 groups have worked over the past year, with  most preparatory meetings and contact between leaders happening virtually. It is critical to capture the best of virtual working in future practice, while recognizing that a complete lack of personal contact is a major drawback. 

One approach might be to cut the number of in-person ‘Sherpa’ meetings from four to two and add four shorter virtual sessions. The G7 needs to make sure it has communications that are secure enough to meet the needs of its growing role in economic security.

During the Cornwall summit, the British presidency has a rare opportunity to communicate a clear vision of what the G7 is for and how it will operate in the future. This would be an important contribution to the wider system of global governance, enhancing the influence of the individual G7 members and setting an example to similar groups in what could otherwise become an increasingly fragmented and dysfunctional system. 

We should all hope that it steps up to this challenge. 

Creon Butler joined Chatham House from the Cabinet Office where he served as director for international economic affairs in the National Security Secretariat and G7/G20 ‘sous sherpa’, advising on global policy issues such as climate change, natural resource security, global health threats and the future of the international economic architecture. Earlier in his career, he served in the Bank of England, HM Treasury and in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where he was director for economic policy and chief economic adviser.

To read the full commentary from Chatham House, please click here.

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