Ever since his election as US president, Joe Biden has lost no opportunity to announce that “America is back”. The underlying message of the G7 summit that has just concluded in Cornwall could be summarised as “the west is back”. The goal of the assembled leaders was to display unity, purpose and leadership in tackling the world’s problems — and to reach out to the wider world.
This was the first summit meeting of the G7 nations — the US, Japan, UK, France, Germany, Canada and Italy — since the outbreak of the pandemic and the defeat of Donald Trump. But, while the leaders assembled in Cornwall displayed plenty of ambition, the summit leaves behind big questions about whether the G7’s delivery will match its rhetoric.
That question of delivery hangs over many of the big topics that the G7 addressed — including vaccines, climate and the effort to create an international infrastructure drive to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
On vaccines, the G7 has promised to deliver a billion doses to the developing world within a year. But this impressive-sounding number may still be too little and too late. The World Health Organization has said the world needs 11bn vaccine doses to effectively combat Covid-19. And a rollout that may take 18 months will mean many more deaths — and plenty of time for new vaccine-resistant strains of the virus to develop.
Competition with China was the underlying theme of much of the G7 summit. But the Chinese government is likely to pledge a larger number of vaccines to the wider world than the G7. However, doubts about the efficacy of Chinese vaccines may mean that this is a mixed blessing.
The G7’s determination to push back against China’s growing global influence was most evident in the group’s backing for a western alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative to build infrastructure across the developing world. The idea is that the G7 option will offer higher environmental standards and more transparency on loans and governance.
But it is also likely to offer considerably less money — a point on which the G7 communiqué becomes notably vague. Meanwhile, Chinese banks and companies are already hard at work on landmark projects all over the world — such as the construction of a new capital for Egypt.
Beyond the announcements and the headlines, there is the deeper question about how united the western world really is in its resolve to oppose Chinese sway. Even in the margins of the G7, it was evident that the language used by the US and Japan was notably stronger than the rhetoric of the Europeans.
The four nations invited to join the G7 in Cornwall — in particular India and Australia — are clearly important to any effort to organise the democratic world to take on China. But speaking just before the G7 summit, Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, stressed the need for Europe to maintain its “independence when it comes to our strategy to China.” This sentiment would be shared by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and even, to an extent, by Boris Johnson. Britain’s prime minister is described by one exasperated official, from an allied nation, as “still wanting to have his cake and eat it on China.”
The G7 cannot avoid the reality that Chinese co-operation is essential to tackling climate change. What the assembled leaders attempted to do in Cornwall was to provide leadership to the global effort. They announced ambitious plans to shut down polluting coal-fired power stations as soon as possible — and to protect 30 per cent of the planet’s land and oceans by 2030. The official communiqué was inevitably a little light on detail. But the suspicion remains that the practical steps to achieve these goals may not be forthcoming.
After Cornwall, Biden’s next stop is a Nato summit in Brussels — followed by a meeting with Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. The G7 communiqué made a point of calling for an investigation into the use of chemical weapons on Russian soil — as well as condemning Russia’s tolerance for ransomware attacks launched from its soil. The hope is that Putin will be impressed by the displays of western resolve and unity put on in Cornwall and Brussels.
This year’s G7 summit certainly did make a strong contrast with the Trump years, when the US president seemed much keener on inflaming divisions with old allies than displaying unity. Even the Trump-friendly Johnson was probably sincere when he described Biden as a “breath of fresh air” for the western alliance.
Putin — as well as China’s president Xi Jinping — will take note that things have clearly changed in the western alliance, with the departure of Trump from the White House. But will the Russian and Chinese leaders be intimidated or chastened? Perhaps not yet.
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