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G7 Leaders Combine to Decisively Confront the COVID-19 Crisis

John Kirton, G7 Research Group
March 16, 2020

On Monday, March 16, 2020, G7 leaders, following their emergency conference call, issued a G7 Leaders' Statement of 794 words. They put people and their health first and the economy second, stating in the first sentence that the "COVID-19 pandemic is a human health tragedy and a global health crisis, which also poses major risks for the world economy." They then immediately committed to do "whatever is necessary" for a strong global response "through closer cooperation and enhanced coordination of our efforts" and their strong conviction of the need for a "strongly coordinated international approach." They thus clearly showed that the G7 was back, as the central global crisis response club, with decisive, coordinated action reminiscent of its earlier peaks at its scheduled summits in 1979 and 2005.

A systematic analysis of the statement, according to the six major dimensions of performance of G7 governance, confirms this view.

In its public deliberations, the statement's brief 794 words were more than those in its similar ad hoc emergency statements since March 2, 2014, which came largely in response to Russia's invasion and annexation of the Crimean region of Ukraine. The opening paragraphs that linked health and the economy, in that order, broadly embraced science, evidence, necessary public health measures, research and technology co-operation, as well as confidence, economic growth, jobs, trade and investment. The subsequent sections devoted to health and to the economy expanded the subjects and instruments mobilized against COVID-19.

In their principled and normative direction setting, the leaders affirmed the G7's first distinctive foundational mission of preserving and promoting open democracy, by noting their actions would be "consistent with our democratic values." They also affirmed their G20 progeny's first distinctive foundational mission of promoting financial stability by asking their central banks "to continue to coordinate to provide the necessary monetary measures in order to support economic and financial stability." They even partly affirmed the G20's second distinctive foundational mission of making globalization work for all by stating "we will work hard to protect the health and safety of everyone in our countries."

In their collective decision making, the G7 leaders produced a total of 33 precise, future-oriented, political obligatory commitments. Health came first with 21 commitments, and the economy followed with 12. The 33 commitments were far more than the average of those in their earlier emergency statements since 2014. Moreover, their statement was a highly action-oriented one, for an average of one commitment for every 23 words.

In their delivery of these 33 decisions, through G7 members' compliance with their leaders' commitments in the coming months, the jury is out. But promising signs exist. The first is the barrage of compliance-consistent measures that the members unleashed as the statement was being crafted and that they agreed on and immediately announced after it was publicly unveiled. The second was its historic emphasis on both G7 health and finance ministers to meet weekly to follow up, because holding ministerial meetings on the same subjects during a presidency is the strongest predictor of compliance with the leaders' commitments on those subjects. This time, the leaders' exceptional emphasis on ministerial follow-up was consistent with — and could even reflect their awareness of — the unusually low level of compliance thus far with their health commitments and other commitments they made at their most recent annual summit in Biarritz, France, in August 2019.

In their institutionalized development of global governance, G7 leaders assumed the responsibility and burden themselves by emphasizing and tasking institutions of their own. Most notably, G7 health ministers, who have only started meeting in the 21st century, were now tasked with meeting weekly. G7 finance ministers, who started meeting in the early 1970s even before their leaders did, and who have long met several times a year, were asked to meet weekly as well. In this way, health finally became equal to finance in the G7's institutional world.

In their institutionalized development of global governance outside the G7, the leaders wisely started with the World Health Organization, promising to "fully support the World Health Organization [in] its global mandate to lead on disease outbreaks and emergencies with health consequences, leaving no geographical vacuum." They added other undefined "international organizations." On the economy G7 leaders specified the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, adding other international organizations too.

Most encouragingly, the statement ended with two commitments. First, G7 leaders pledged: "We will continue to coordinate through the G7 Presidency including at the G7 Leaders' Summit." Second, they said they "call upon the G20 to support and amplify these efforts."

These closing calls are particularly import, given the many important things that were missing in the G7 leaders' speedily assembled, short statement.

First, no links were made to the other key, closely connected subjects, starting with the contemporaneous global crisis of climate change and the gender inequalities that the COVID-19 pandemic brings.

Second, there were no affirmations of the G7's second distinctive foundational mission or promoting human rights, which properly some see as inherently involved in current and coming government moves to control COVID-19.

Third, there was no promise of more badly needed money for the WHO, either on a one-time emergency basis or permanently, to put in place the global health infrastructure to control COVID-19 and the pandemics still to come.

Fourth, G7 health ministers were not mandated to work with the WHO.

Fifth, one wonders if Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, was even on the G7 leaders' call, if only because he would have been the only medical doctor or health professional there.

Sixth, some will note that it was only once the health crisis became an economic crisis that G7 leaders were willingly to act in the personal, collective way.

Seventh, G7 leaders could have defined a time when they would electronically meet again in the near future, to cope with a disease that is still spreading faster than any global governance forum is responding to it.

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