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America's Free World Leadership through the Democratic G7

John Kirton, Director, G7 Research Group
January 19, 2021

As Joe Biden prepares to become U.S. president at noon on January 20, 2021, the world wonders if America will remain, or return as, the leader of the free world under his watch. Yes it will, but only if he abandons his predecessor's instincts to lead alone and chooses instead to co-lead with America's closest, globally consequential democratic colleagues, starting in the G7 and its D10 extension this year.

When the G7 summit began in 1975, its success depended above all on a United States able and willing to lead, with the support of a strong second member as a first, full follower (Putnam and Bayne 1987). Yet as the crises that assaulted America and the G7 grew after the end of Watergate and America's defeat in its then longest war in Vietnam on April 30, 1975, peaking with the 1979 Iranian revolution and second oil shock, the key success factor shifted to collective management, starting with America co-leading with another G7 partner, and then America adjusting to follow another member's lead (Bayne 2000, 2005; Kirton 2020). The United States did so at the G7's 1979 Tokyo Summit, which invented the global governance of climate change, with the most ambitious and effective control regime the world has seen thus far (Kirton and Kokotsis 2015).

Biden's America is still able to lead, as it stands first in the world and in the G7 in its overall power and in the specialized capabilities that are most needed now. Conquering COVID-19 comes first. With some help from its government's Operation Warp Spread, the United States leads the world in producing and rolling out in record time the world's first two fully tested, transparently approved and thus trusted COVID-19 vaccines. But to do so, with the first Pfizer-BioNTech one, the U.S. firm worked with its German partner from the start. This shows that the United States needs the help of its G7 partners to assemble enough power to ensure its purposes and proclamations, such Biden's inaugural address, will have a practical effect.

Biden's America is now willing to lead with its closest democratic partners at its side, in a way that Trump's U.S. was not, and in a way that previous presidents at times forgot to do and lived to see their unilateralism fail. Biden has long promised that he will begin his presidency by assembling a broad summit of democracies to combine their power to meet the unprecedented crises and challenges of the day.

The good news is that the United Kingdom, which America followed and relied on to win the First and Second World Wars, is hosting the G7 this year. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already called an emergency G7 summit for late February, a few short weeks after Biden and his team settle in. He has also invited the leaders of the principal global democratic powers of India, Australia and Korea to participate in the regular G7 summit in Cornwall on June 11–13 as equals in all sessions as the Democratic 10 (D10). He is thus giving life to an idea incubated by a few American academics a decade ago, and that could help get Biden's broader summit of democracies off to a fast start to assume full form later in the year.

Boris Johnson has already chosen as his G7-D10 summit priorities the same ones that Biden will feature in his inaugural address: conquering COVID-19, controlling climate change and building back better through a green recovery. Above all, both will feature defending democracy, at home and around the world.

This is the distinctive foundation mission of the G7 summit – to protect within its own members and promote global the values of open democracy and human rights. It was proclaimed at the start of the communiqué of the first G7 summit in France in November 1975, when America was still reeling from the traumatic assault on American electoral democracy by its sitting president, Richard Nixon, at Watergate in Washington DC and his resignation before being impeached. It also came at a time when democracy was under assault elsewhere in the G7, with Euro-communism sweeping southern Europe and even threatening to take hold in Spain after Franco's death. This G7 mission was reaffirmed in almost the same words at the G7 summit in Brussels in 2014, held just after a de-democratizing Russia invaded and annexed the territory of a democratic Ukraine. The democratic threat to Europe still looms large, in Crimea, Poland, Hungary and Russia itself, where Alexei Navalny returned to be immediately jailed.

Leadership requires followership, and here Biden's supply will be backed by an extraordinary array of eager supporters. The past four years of Donald Trump have produced enormous pent-up demand for America's global democratic leadership again. So Biden's American leadership will have not just a strong wind in its sails, but a great, genuine, G7-D10–wide gale.


Bayne, Nicholas (2000). Hanging In There: The G7 and G8 Summit in Maturity and Renewal (Aldershot UK: Ashgate), pp. 3–18, 191–217.

Bayne, Nicholas (2005). Staying Together: The G8 Summit Confronts the 21st Century (Aldershot UK: Ashgate), pp. 3–35, 191–235.

Kirton, John (2020). "The United States' Cooperative Leadership in G7 and G20 Governance," SAIS Review of International Affairs 40: 1 (Winter-Spring): 103–116.

Kirton, John and Ella Kokotsis (2015). The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Farnham UK: Ashgate).

Putnam, Robert and Nicholas Bayne (1987), Hanging Together: Cooperation and Conflict in the Seven-Power Summits (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

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