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G7 Leaders Plan to Confront Their Latest Health Crisis by Videoconference

John Kirton, G7 Research Group
March 14, 2020

On Monday, March 16, 2020, G7 leaders are scheduled to hold a videoconference to discuss and agree on collective action to confront the current COVID-19 crisis. They will discuss strengthening information sharing and research and development on the causes of the crisis and a vaccine that could prevent its escalation among those still physically untouched by it. The videoconference was initiated by French president Emmanuel Macron, host of the 2019 G7 summit at Biarritz, who proposed it in a phone call on March 13 to U.S. president Donald Trump, who hosts the G7 this year. It follows similar videoconferences by G7 ministers of health on February 3 and G7 finance ministers and central bank governors on March 3. G7 finance deputies also spoke by conference call on March 12.

This is the first time since G7 summitry started in 1975 that G7 leaders have had an ad hoc emergency videoconference call among themselves. To be sure, they have held three in-person summits between their regularly scheduled annual ones. The first was in 1985, when U.S. president Ronald Reagan called his G7 colleagues to join with him before he went on to meet his Soviet counterpart at the first Superpower Summit in half a decade. French president Fran├žois Mitterrand was the only who chose not to attend.

The second was in 1996, when all G7 leaders travelled to Russia for the Moscow Nuclear Safety Summit with their new partner Boris Yeltsin, whose re-election campaign they sought to boost in this way.

The third came in 2014, at the Hague, in a two-hour G7 leaders' gathering on the margins of the long-scheduled Nuclear Safety Summit. They discussed how to further respond to Russia's invasion and annexation of the Crimean region of Ukraine and how to shape their regularly scheduled G7 summit. They decided to do it at the same time as it had been scheduled, in June, but to it in Brussels without Russian president Vladimir Putin, rather than in Sochi at the G8 summit, which had emerged in 1998.

G7 ministers and officials have often conferred virtually, with the first such meeting among G8 justice and interior ministers holding a three-hour videoconference in 1998 (Hajnal 2007).

The March 16 videoconference is the first intersessional meeting to have been called on such short notice and to have been inspired by a crisis on health. The closest predecessor was the creation of the ministerial-level Global Health Security Initiative, inspired by the deadly anthrax attacks in the United States in the immediate wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington DC. Here the initiator was Tommy Thompson, then serving as U.S. health secretary. The GHSI included all G7 members but not Russia although it was a member o the expanded G8; it included Mexico, whose intense agricultural trade with the United States was first considered as a possible source of the anthrax that led to deaths in the United States. While not presenting itself as a G7 body, the GHSI deepened in practice the long-standing work of the G7 in global health governance (Cooper, Kirton and Schrecker 2007; Cooper and Kirton 2009). That G7 health governance spiked in at the 1998 Birmingham Summit, and was high from 2000 to 2017 in G7 leaders' deliberations and commitments and their countries' compliance with them (Muhanna 2019).

The March 16 videoconference is also the first to bring digital diplomacy to the G7 leaders' level. As with the founding of G7 summitry in 1975, it appears to be the result of a French initiative, but the United States is the decisive player in the end and perhaps throughout.

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Hajnal, Peter I. (2007). The G8 System and the G20 (Farnham: Ashgate).

Cooper, Andrew F., John Kirton and Ted Schrecker, eds. (2007). Governing Global Health: Challenge, Response, Innovation (Farnham: Ashgate).

Cooper, Andrew F., and John Kirton, eds. (2009). Innovation in Global Health Governance: Critical Cases (Farnham: Ashgate).

Muhanna, Duja (2019). "G7 Performance on Health," in John Kirton and Madeline Koch, eds., G7 France: 2019 Biarritz Summit (London: GT Media).

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