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Facing Global Challenges Face to Face:
The 2021 G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Meeting
John Kirton, Director, G7 Research Group
May 3, 2021
On May 3–4, 2021, G7 foreign and development ministers meet for their first discussions since 2019, with the foreign ministers meeting in person in London and the development ministers participating virtually. Several significant steps forward are likely to come from there.
First, the mere fact that this meeting is taking place in person provides powerful proof that the COVID-19 pandemic is being beaten and that full success could soon come. Moreover, it is being beaten within the world's most powerful democracies, based on their scientific superiority in vaccine invention and production, their democratic values that balance individual freedom and choice with the collective public good, and with democratically leaders who, despite all their flaws, are governing more effectively than their non-democratic rivals of China and Russia, with vaccines of their own. Participants in the G7 meetings will include representatives from India, South Africa, Korea and Australia, whose leaders will participate in the leaders' meeting at Cornwall in June.
Having started to win the war against COVID-19 at home, the G7, led by the United Kingdom and United States, have started to share their vaccines and other health supplies with other struggling countries abroad, as the European Union has done from the start and the US did with neighbouring Canada and Mexico several weeks ago. The united G7's first biggest beneficiary is India, the largest, most resilient democracy in the world. But many other countries will follow, including hard-hit South Africa and Brazil, as the other democratic members of the BRICS.
The second achievement is the transition from a year of degraded digital diplomacy to in-person governance, where real communication can take place in real time and real trust thus be built. Informal chats in the corridors, or over a cup of tea, allows for more ambitious and even spontaneously constructed agreements among participants who can transcend the different time zones and the digital interruptions that inevitably come from virtual meetings.
The third achievement will be addressing an unusually wide range of issues, both to meet clear and present dangers and to prepare the way for the G7 leaders' summit in Cornwall only six short weeks away on June 11–13.
Indeed, clear and present dangers have assaulted the G7's distinctive foundational mission since its creation in 1975: to protect – within its members and to promote globally – the principles and practices of open democracy and individual liberty. The threat is just as clear today as it was in 1975, but no greater than it was then. Eurocommunism was sweeping southern Europe and the fate of Italy and Spain were then much in doubt. Now the dangers lie far eastward, and Poland and Hungary are still loyal members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. When the first summit took place in Rambouillet, France, in November 1975, the US had just fully lost its then longest war, in Vietnam, six and a half months earlier. It is unlikely that Afghanistan – now America's longest war – will be lost as fast and as fully. For some of America's G7 partners, it has been their longest war as well.
Thus G7 foreign ministers will unite to take further steps against the murderous military coup that destroyed democracy in Myanmar, the authoritarians strangling individual liberty in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and threatening it in Taiwan, and those following the same path in Europe, where the fate of a democratic Ukraine is on the line. They must also worry about prospects for democracy and individual liberty for women and girls in Afghanistan, once US, G7 and NATO combat forces fully withdraw a few short months from now.
The old security subjects of nuclear and missile proliferation remain central, with Iran and North Korea at centre stage. On Iran, where the UK, France and Germany join the US in the front ranks from the G7, the challenge is to offer the beleaguered moderates in the Iranian government enough relief now from the crippling sanctions, so that they can get the hardliners to start serious talks to get the nuclear non-proliferation deal destroyed by Donald Trump back on track. On North Korea, whose economy and food security are getting worse, the challenge is to convince China not to ride to the rescue of an already nuclear-armed, authoritarian buffer state. On the new, non-state security subjects of terrorism, the recent deadly attacks in France require G7 attention yet again. And the even newer issues of disinformation, election interference and Ethiopia will get scrutiny too.
Economic recovery will be the easiest issue. In the first quarter of 2021, the US with 6.4% annualized growth, Canada with 6.5% and the UK also bouncing back, will be able and willing to share their stimulus with an EU and Japan still struggling to get back to sustained growth. Together G7 members will have the money to help many outside countries, through their control of the International Monetary Fund and its special drawing rights, and the World Bank too.
By far the toughest issue is climate change, the only genuinely existential threat that the G7 and the global community now confront. Joe Biden's Leaders Summit on Climate on April 22–23 got off to a promising start. But much needs to be done now, before the UN climate summit in Glasgow in November – a long half a year from now. The first and easiest thing to do is for the rich G7 members to finally keep their long promised and long overdue commitments to end their fossil fuel subsidies and to give developing countries $100 billion a year in climate finance. They could also kill killer coal production and use for electricity and heating at home, stop financing coal plants abroad, agree to plant and grow a trillion trees, and preserve all the powerful carbon-absorbing peatland they possess. But to succeed at these and the other things needed to control climate change in time, the G7 must find a way to bring Brazil, Russia, India and China on board – by far the biggest challenge of all.
This foreign and development ministers meeting is also a significant step in institutionally developing democratic global governance in a more intense and expanded way. G7 ministers will be joined by their invited colleagues from democratic India, Australia and Korea, as well as Brunei as the chair of the Association of South East Asian Nations. They will set the stage for the G7 Cornwall Summit, when the leaders of the first three countries will come to produce the Democratic 10, and will be joined by the leader of democratic South Africa. And UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab, welcoming his American counterpart Antony Blinken to London on May 3, said they would keep working on this agenda through to the large Summit of Democracies that President Biden will host later in the year.
In all, the dismal digital diplomacy of the past year has been replaced by direct diplomacy among democracies in an expanding way.
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