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University of Toronto

A Successful Start to G7 Summitry in 2021

John Kirton, Director, G7 Research Group
February 25, 2021

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On February 13, 2021, the British government formally announced that it would hold an emergency virtual summit on February 19 (United Kingdom, Prime Minister's Office [PMO] 2021d). The meeting would focus on the COVID-19 pandemic and building back better from its devastation. The announcement also highlighted that: "This month the PM [Prime Minister] and Foreign Secretary will chair meetings of the UN Security Council focused on coronavirus, conflict and climate change."

This showed that British prime minister Boris Johnson was off to a swift, strong start to bring G7 summitry back and potentially spur it to strong success in 2021. The February meeting would be the first G7 summit hosted by Johnson and the first G7 summit since one held virtually on April 16, 2020, with no communiqué released (Kirton and Koch 2020). Johnson's first G7 summit would be held even sooner in his year as host than President Donald Trump had held his, on March 16, 2020, during the U.S. G7 presidency. Johnson's February 2021 meeting was thus a fast start to the well-prepared, regularly scheduled summit to be held on June 11-13 in Cornwall. This, too, was a sharp contrast to 2020, when Trump did not stick to his plan to host his summit in June 2020 and then never fixed another date or place for a full-length summit.

The G7's February 2021 summit started an unprecedentedly intense sequence of global summitry in 2021, focused on the combined crises of COVID-19, economic recovery and climate change. It would be followed by a meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that Johnson would host on February 23, the first British prime minister to do so since 1992. The UNSC meeting could include U.S. president Joe Biden as well as France's Emmanuel Macron, and China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin, as well as India's Narendra Modi. Other non-permanent UNSC members are Estonia, Ireland, Kenya, Mexico, Niger, Norway, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tunisia and Vietnam.

It would be followed by the Earth Day Summit on April 23, the G7 Cornwall Summit on June 11-13, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda the week after, the UN food summit in New York in September, and the G20 summit in Rome on October 30-31, and culminate in the UN's climate summit in Glasgow on November 1-12.

The G7's February summit was the first major multilateral meeting for the new U.S. president. It could be the pathway to the summit of democracies that Biden had long promised to produce very early in his presidential term, as well as his Earth Day summit in April.

It was also the first outing for Italy's Mario Draghi as a leader, who, supported by almost all major political parties in Italy, was sworn in as prime minister on February 13. He appointed a cabinet with Roberto Cingolani, a physicist and information technology expert, as minister for ecological transition, a new portfolio combining the old environment and energy ones (Balmer and Jones 2021). This move was consistent with the need for stronger climate polices to secure funds from the European Union's major recovery plans, with Italy as the largest designated recipient.

For Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, it was also his first participation at the G7 leaders' level, although having assumed office in September 2020, he attended the G20's Riyadh Summit in November, hosted virtually by Saudi Arabia.


The prospects and performance of the G7's February summit inspired a debate among several schools of thought.

In the lead-up, the first school saw unpromising prospects, as the summit attracted no attention on the participating government's website or in the members' media (Navarreto 2021). A second school saw an opportunity to work with the G20 and UN to advance climate change control. James Forsythe (2021) said it would make Johnson decide "whether to push the issue or to try to garner more allies before raising it." The third school predicted a strong success. John Kirton (2021a) declared on February 14 that it showed "British prime minister Boris Johnson is off to a swift, strong start to bring G7 summitry back and spur it to success in 2021 … [as] an integral part of a well-prepared plan for global summit governance as a whole, in which the G7, G20 and United Nations work together from the start to solve the unprecedented crises and challenges the world now face."

At the summit's end, there was a strong consensus that the summit had succeeded on the critical, urgent issue of raising more money for COVAX to control COVID-19, but not on the proposal for G7 members to donate 5% of their available vaccines to the poorest countries in the world soon.

The first school saw the G7 taking an optimal route by giving COVAX more money rather than any of their vaccines right now, even though time was short (Times 2021). This was because, despite their global competition with autocratic Russia and China, "donating vaccines abroad before a domestic vaccination campaign has been completed is politically highly dangerous in a democratic country in a way that is not true of autocratic states." Meagan Byrd (2021) also saw "some strong success in health," on COVID-19 and strengthening the World Health Organization (WHO).

The second school saw substantial success. This came primarily on health, in mobilizing money for COVAX, strengthening the WHO, and supporting the Global Health Summit in Rome, health financing, the One Health approach and universal health coverage (Kirton 2021b). Sonja Dobson (2021a, b), based on the G7's "respectable track record" on development and debt relief in the past, saw substantial success on development, by the promise to work with the G20 on the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI) and the Common Framework.

The third school saw significant success in bridging transatlantic divisions left by Trump and in reaching out to the G20. John Vogler said the summit showed that G7 leaders realized they needed to reach out to major economies such as India and China to deal with the global pandemic, economy and climate change (Jarvis 2021).

The fourth school saw successful U.S. re-engagement in multilateral cooperation in earnest, through the G7 and the UN at the Glasgow climate summit (Dodwell 2021). This was due to Joe Biden's desire to swiftly undue the deep damage of that his presidential predecessor had done.

The fifth school saw a solid start on climate change. Brittaney Warren (2021) said "on climate change, the G7 leaders laid a solid foundation for the regular G7 summit scheduled for June 11-13 … But, as usual, they need to do much more."

The sixth school saw a slow start on health, in getting the needed vaccines to the poor on time, even though COVID-19 cases and deaths globally were by now in decline. CE Noticias Financieras (2021b) noted that "the  truth is that doses will not reach the poorest countries massively until most citizens of the rich have been immunized." Others emphasized that details were scarce about who would get how many vaccines and when from the G7 (Lawless 2021).

The seventh school saw a split G7. Emily Rauhala, Michael Birnbaum and Amanda Coletta (2021) emphasized the divisions between Macron, who wanted to send the G7's scarce vaccines to front-line health workers in Africa now, and the others, who wanted to send only money through COVAX while saving their vaccines for themselves.


These schools present several puzzles. They concentrate heavily on the promises to fund COVAX and donate vaccines, and give little attention to the other health issues, beyond development and climate change, and the actions on economic recovery and trade. Nor did they pay attention to the many things that were discussed only in the meeting or not at all but that did not appear in the communiqué. These were led by the pressing political security issues on China, Russia, Myanmar and elsewhere. These included the absence of affirmations of the principles of open democracy and human rights, which are the G7's distinctive foundational mission and the core common principles of G7 members. Also largely missing was attention to the causes of the highlighted results, beyond the domestic political pressures in their democracies that led G7 members to hoard their vaccines for now, and Biden's desire to re-engage with the world. Absent also was an awareness of Johnson's plan for his year as G7 host, in the form of the five-point plan he presented at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in September 2020, before the results of the U.S. November 3 election were known, or an indication of why Biden allowed Johnson to lead, rather than wait for his own long-promised summit of democracies.


The G7's Virtual Summit on February 19, 2021, was a substantial success. In terms of process, it succeeded in taking place very early, almost a month before than its equivalent last year hosted by U.S. Donald Trump on March 16, 2020. It attracted all the G7 leaders, and easily integrated the three new ones in discussions that were as informal and spontaneous as the digital format allowed. Leaders issued a collective communiqué that contained 27 commitments, with 85% being highly binding ones. They were likely to be complied with at a high level (Kirton 2021b).

In its substance, the summit immediately mobilized the needed money for COVAX and the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), so vaccines could soon start to flow from G7 members to the poor outside. It provided strong support for the WHO at a time when doubts about its pandemic response were growing. It also made new commitments to control climate change, and to make the UN's Glasgow summit in November a success. It clearly signalled an engagement-first approach to China. Yet while its performance surpassed that of its predecessor in March 2020, it did little to guide a coordinated jobs-rich, green economic recovery, or publicly address the many acute political security concerns in China and elsewhere.

This substantial success in process and substance was propelled primarily by the shock-activated vulnerabilities of COVID-19's new variants emerging inside the G7 in its UK host and outside the G7 in South Africa in Brazil. These brought new lockdowns in the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada, even if case counts, hospitalizations and deaths globally and in most G7 countries declined. Recent climate shocks in 2021 affected several G7 members, above all when the lower 48 states of the United States were struck by a deadly freeze and snowstorm, just before and during the summit itself. The shocking attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 showed the vulnerability of the United States to the democratic principles and practices that G7 members shared and that their first distinctive foundational mission obliged them to preserve and promote.

Multilateral organization failure arose from the failure of the WHO and COVAX on their own to get enough vaccines to poor countries before those countries produced new virus variants, and the failure of the several, separated environmental organizations to control the climate shocks. Yet a supporting pull came from the G20 summit to be held in October and the UN's climate summit in Glasgow in November. The G7's global predominance in the invention and possession of safe, fully tested, effective vaccines, and the internal lead of the United States, United Kingdom and Germany incentivized a collective G7 response, spurred by the Cold War COVID-19 vaccine competition from China and Russia. The broader competition from these BRICS rivals, where democracy was declining amid protests in Russia, reinforced the G7's convergence on democratic principles, recently reinforced with Biden replacing Trump as president of the United States. Political cohesion was solid, as the new leaders from the United States, Italy and Japan enjoyed their "honeymoon" period, despite their uncertain legislative control and domestic popularity over the longer term.

Above all, leaders at the first G7 summit in 10 months, after the missing scheduled U.S.-hosted one, cherished their club at the hub of an expanding network of global summit governance in 2021, with the United Kingdom, United States and Italy, and the existential threat of climate change, at the core. And at its core was stood the skill of Boris Johnson, who presciently put in place as early as September 2020 a plan designed to bring out the best of the G7's global leadership, with Joe Biden's America adjusting to its partners on the central issues of COVID-19 and climate change.

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Plans and Preparations

The February virtual gathering was no spur-of-the-moment summit. Rather, it was an integral part of a well-prepared plan for global summit governance, as a whole, in which the G7, G20 and United Nations work together from the start to solve the unprecedented crises and challenges the world now faced.

Johnson's preparations for his 2021 global summit leadership publicly began in his video address to UNGA on September 23, 2020, when he first publicly presented the UK's plans and priorities for the G7 summit. He said he was poised to "outline an ambition to use the UK's G7 presidency next year to implement a five-point plan to prevent future pandemics and global health crises" (Gross and Pickard 2020). He added a further priority on climate change, noting that Britain would lead "as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of this great United Nations in London in January, and through our G7 Presidency, and as we host the world's climate change summit, COP26 [26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change], in Glasgow next November" (Johnson 2020).

On January 12, it was reported that Johnson planned to hold a special virtual G7 summit at the end of February, after the inauguration of Joe Biden (Nardelli 2021). Here Johnson could present his priorities and agenda for his regular summit. It could include promoting democratic values and human rights, and a united front on China. The special virtual summit would focus on the immediate response to the COVID-19 crisis. Also on January 12, British foreign secretary Dominic Raab (2021) noted in Parliament the UK's crucial role on open societies, human rights, climate change and the COVID-19 response.

Johnson signalled that his agenda for the G7's February summit would be broad and bold. His February 13 announcement declared: "The solutions to the challenges we face – from the colossal mission to get vaccines to every single country, to the fight to reverse the damage done to our ecosystems and lead a sustainable recovery from coronavirus – lie in the discussions we have with our friends and partners around the world"  (PMO 2021d). He added that his UNSC meeting would focus on the link between climate change and conflict. It would thereby bring the great greenhouse gas emitters of China and Russia into the climate change control cause.

Momentum from Compliance

These early, carefully crafted, prescient preparations joined substantial momentum from other sources. One was the high compliance of the United Kingdom and other G7 members with their 21 priority commitments made at their last regular summit, held in Biarritz, France, in August 2019. By mid October 2020, G7 members had complied at a strong 79%, a level well above the mere 62% they had achieved by the beginning of 2020 when Trump took the G7 chair.

By member, compliance was led by Angela Merkel's Germany at 93%, followed in a close second by Johnson's United Kingdom at 91%. Then came the European Union led by Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel at 86%; Justin Trudeau's Canada at 84%; Emmanuel Macron's France at 84%, and Japan, now led by Yoshihide Suga, at 76%. Then came Donald Trump's United States at 65%, and Italy at 60% then under Giuseppe Conte.

Momentum from the Ministerials

Much more momentum came from the first G7 ministerial meetings. The UK had scheduled seven from the start, for ministers of finance, foreign affairs, health, development, trade, digitalization, and environment. While dates and places had not been finalized by February 19, two had already met.

G7 finance ministers and central bank governors, hosted by British chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey, assembled on February 12. Although no communiqué was issued, the hosts issued a release titled "Chancellor Prioritizes Climate Change and Urged Support for Vulnerable Countries in First UK G7 Finance Meeting" (UK, HM Treasury 2021). The release reported that Sunak told his G7 colleagues he would make "climate and nature considerations a central priority for this year's Finance Agenda, paving the way to a truly green global economic recovery." He urged them to match the UK goals before the Glasgow meeting and transition smoothly to net zero. Climate thus came first, ahead of his other priorities of distributing vaccines, financing vulnerable indebted poor countries and ensuring fair digital taxation. Moreover, the new U.S. treasury secretary, Jane Yellin, provided strong support, declaring her desire for multilateral solutions on climate, digital taxes and debt relief. She "told the other finance ministers the US now recognised it must play a 'crucial role' in global efforts to combat carbon emissions and they should expect a 'dramatic increase in US engagement' on the issue compared with the Trump years" (Giles and Politi 2021).

G7 health ministers met on February 18. Among other issues, this discussed antimicrobial resistance, a longstanding subject of British G7 leadership and one central to the zoonoses animal-to-human diseases that spawned coronaviruses of the COVID-19 type.

In addition, G7 foreign ministers issued statements on the arrest and detention of Alexei Navalny by Russia on January 26 and on the coup in Myanmar on February 3.

Momentum from Bilateral Meetings

Further momentum came from the many bilateral conversations held by Johnson as host. In their first conversation, Biden and Modi "agreed to further our cooperation against climate change" (Roche 2021). In the days leading up to the February 19 summit, Johnson spoke to Merkel on February 8, focusing on cooperating through the G7 on COVID-19 and climate change (PMO 2021b). They also discussed Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, Navalny and Russia's obligations under the Chemical Weapons convention. Johnson spoke to Suga on February 16. In addition to addressing COVID-19 and economic recovery, Johnson "welcomed Japan's commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and looked forward to an ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target ahead of the UK-hosted COP26 Summit in November" (PMO 2021c). They also spoke about maritime security, trade, Myanmar, Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

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On the Eve

Immediately before the summit started, Johnson announced three health initiatives. First, he would "call on world leaders to back efforts to speed up the development of new vaccines, treatments and tests at a G7 meeting" (PMO 2021a). Accepting a proposal by Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) earlier in 2021, he sought to slash "the time to develop vaccines for new diseases to 100 days," which was one third of the current average. He "asked Sir Patrick Vallance to work with international partners, including the WHO and [CEPI], as well as industry and scientific experts to advise the G7 on speeding up the process for developing vaccines, treatments and tests for common pathogens." He wanted "international collaboration to intensify research and development, modernise medical trials and create more innovative vaccine manufacturing and supply chains, we can save lives in future health crises and prevent the next pandemic."

Second, Johnson confirmed that the UK would "share the majority of any future surplus coronavirus vaccines from our supply with the COVAX procurement pool to support developing countries, in addition to the UK's £548 million funding for the scheme." He would encourage "G7 leaders to increase their funding for COVAX in support of equitable access to vaccines."

Third, Johnson would "also call on G7 leaders to support a treaty on pandemic preparedness through the WHO."

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At the Table

Shortly after 9:00 am EST, Johnson started the Virtual Summit by waving at those on screen, saying it was "great to see all of you" (Giordano 2021). He began the discussion by calling on his colleagues to create "a plan to rebuild the global economy after the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic" (Faulconbridge and James 2021b). Johnson said "it was great to have new faces such as U.S. President Joe Biden and Italy's new prime minister, Mario Draghi…. We also want to work together on building back better from the pandemic — a slogan that I think Joe [Biden] has used several times. I think he may have nicked it from us, but I certainly nicked it from somewhere else — probably some UN disaster relief programme" (Giordano 2021). Biden reportedly laughed in response. Johnson also said: "The G7 is the great gathering of like-minded liberal free-trading democracies, it's a very very important forum, we stand together on many issues around the world, whether its our views on the coup in Myanmar … or on the detention of Alexei Navalny in Moscow" (Faulconbridge and James 2021b). He expressed his hope of meeting the G7 leaders, including Draghi, "face to face" in Cornwall in June (Giordano 2021).

Johnson emphasized the coronavirus recovery and protecting against future health emergencies, and encouraged the G7 leaders to increase the global vaccine supply. He said: "Science is finally getting the upper hand on Covid which is a great, great thing and long overdue. But there is no point in us vaccinating our individual populations — we've got to make sure the whole world is vaccinated because this is a global pandemic and it's no use one country being far ahead of another, we've got to move together. So one of the things that I know colleagues will be wanting to do is to ensure that we distribute vaccines at cost around the world – make sure everybody gets the vaccines that they need so that the whole world can come through this pandemic together" (Brown 2021).

Johnson then addressed climate change, stating: "I think this is the right moment for us all to focus on the other great natural challenge about which we've been warned time and time again. We can't ignore it, the warnings have been even clearer than they were for Covid, and that is the problem of climate change, and that's why we're going to be working very hard to get some great things done at G7 on our plans for the Cop26 summit that we are holding along without Italian friends in Glasgow in November" (Brown 2021). He continued: "It's great, by the way, that Joe (Biden) has brought the United States back into the Paris Climate Change Accords — a great step forward."

Johnson emphasized "the G7's responsibility to demonstrate to the world the benefits of our shared democratic values by creating open and prosperous societies" (Mercopress 2021).

Merkel said, "Again, multilateralism will have more options within the G7" (CE Noticias Financieros 2021a).

Macron addressed the role of social media platforms in preserving the freedom of speech and regulating digital technologies, after Facebook's blackout on newsfeeds in Australia (Faulconbridge and James 2021a).

During the meeting Suga declared his intention to hold the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo this summer, as scheduled, as a "testimony that human beings will have won the battle with the novel coronavirus" (Hirose 2021). He also outlined Japan's contribution of $200 million to COVAX and declared his opposition to "protectionism in the area of public health." It was reported that as the meeting came to an end, Biden said: "I knew a guy who used to say: 'I don't just understand you. I overstand you.' I overstand you" (Parker et al. 2021).

Other issues may have been discussed at some length, but did not warrant much mention in the joint statement issued at the end of the summit. Trudeau, in parliament a day before the summit, said that issues such as "holding China to account" on human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong "are things we will continue to work on, including tomorrow in our virtual G7 meeting" (Canada, House of Commons Debates 2021).

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The summit's biggest achievement was mobilizing more new money to combat the COVID-19 crisis still ravaging the poorest people and countries in the world. It raised over $4 billion for ACT-A and COVAX to bring the total G7 support to $7.5 billion. Although this was less than the $7.3 billion mobilized on the spot at the 2010 Muskoka Summit for maternal, newborn, and child health, it was enough to meet the urgent, critical need. It also showed renewed U.S. leadership, with the Biden administration proving $2 billion immediately and $2 billion over the next two years. Canada, which was the second largest initial contributor, now added another $75 million for a total of $940 million for ACT-A (York and Curry 2021). The European Union Commission promised to double its funding to €1 billion.

A second significant step were the promises to "strengthen the World Health Organization, "supporting its leading and coordinating role," and to accelerate vaccine development and deployment, manufacturing and sequencing of new variants (G7 2021).

A third advance was supporting the Global Health Summit in Rome, work on future pandemics, health financing, the One Health approach, universal health coverage (which exists in all G7 members except the United States).

However, G7 leaders only supported "voluntary" rather than mandatory licensing of the critical COVID-19 vaccines, failed to increase the base budget of the WHO so it could meet its new demands, neglected the threat of antimicrobial resistance and committed only to "exploring the potential value of a global health treaty" (G7 2021).

On economy recovery and development, they did little new. They pledged to "continue to support our economies to protect jobs" rather than clearly signal that they backed the $1.9 trillion in new fiscal stimulus that President was struggling to get his badly divided Congress to approve (G7 2021). On development and debt relief, they pledge to "strengthen support" to struggling countries but took no specific action on the central DSSI. Equally general was their support for a new regime for digital taxation by mid 2021, data free flow with trust, and reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO). There was no pledge to prevent or redress their trade or investment protectionism.

On climate change and biodiversity, their promises were strong but focused on the distant future — the Glasgow summit in November and a net zero in 2050, in 30 years. They did not repeat, let alone strengthen, their oft-stated, long-unfulfilled and badly overdue commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

On China, they did send a clear, accommodating signal of engagements first, and continuing consultation to cope with all "non-market policies and practices" (G7 2021). There was no mention of the Uighurs, Hong Kong, Taiwan or their arbitrarily detained citizens, and nothing on Russia or Myanmar at all.

The big winner was the G20, which G7 leaders promised to support and work with several times. This supports the hope that for the first time, the G7, G20 and UN summits this year will work together for the greater good.

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Dimensions of Performance

Domestic Political Management

Attendance at the Virtual Summit was complete, even if Macron arrived slightly late: all G7 leaders participated. The statement contained a compliment to Japan by expressing support for the Olympics it would host on July 23.

Media approval was strong. The elite media overwhelmingly headlined and editorialized that the summit had succeeded on raising money for COVAX, followed by the qualification that it had failed to produce the proposed 5% tithe of G7 vaccines to be sent to poor countries.

The front-page headline story in the weekend Financial Times highlighted the "COVID-19 pledge to poorer nations" and the "Paris accord rejoined" noting that "the US joined a pledge to increase the funding and supply of Covid-19 vaccines to poorer nations" and that the summit underscored "the US's formal re-entry yesterday to the Paris climate accord before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November" (Manson, Chazan and Parker 2021). The inside story also led on a positive note by stating: "Leaders of the G7 rich democracies have vowed to boost supplies of Covid-19 vaccines to the developing world, although divisions remain over the speed at which to share doses" (Parker, Williams, Peel and Chazan 2021). It added the summit's "warm glow," Trudeau taking a selfie, the G7's increased pledges to COVAX and Biden's commitment on climate change. This appeared to answer the front-spage headline the previous day, which declared "Macron calls for urgent supply of Covid-19 vaccines to poorer nations," leaving the clear impression that the summit had indeed done what it was designed to do (Khalaf, Hall and Mallet 2021a, b). Similarly, the print version of Canada's Globe and Mail headlined "Canada, G7 Boost Vaccine Funding" (York and Curry (2021).


Private deliberation was strong. G7 leaders met virtually for about two hours, welcoming and collectively interacting with two key new leaders — U.S. president Joe Biden, inaugurated in January, and Italy's Mario Draghi, assuming office in early February and hosting the G20 summit on October 30-31 and co-chairing with Boris Johnson the UN's climate summit in Glasgow on November 1-12. The veteran leaders had already worked with Japan's new prime minister Yoshihide Suga at the G20 Riyadh Summit.

Public deliberation was significant. The meeting ended with the "Joint Statement of G7 Leaders." Its 711 words were slightly fewer than the 794-word communiqué issued on March 16, 2020. The joint statement began by pledging to work together to beat COVID-19, build back better, and draw on members' democratic values and open societies "to shape a recovery that promotes the health and prosperity of our people and planet" (G7 2021). This trilogy of prosperity, people and planet perfectly matched that of Italy's G20 summit, but now with the economy first and the ecology last.

The statement then devoted two paragraphs to health, one to economics, and one to the natural environment, before ending with a look ahead to the G7's Cornwall Summit in June and Japan's Olympics in July.

Direction Setting

The Virtual Summit's direction setting was low. There was only one affirmation of democracy and none on human rights.

Decision Making

In all the statement contained 27 precise, future-oriented, politically obligatory, collective commitments, with all G7 members agreeing to every one (see Appendix A in Kirton 2021c/a>). This was slightly more than the 25 the G7 produced at its first virtual summit on March 16, 2020, also held to confront the COVID-19 crisis, with Trump in the host's chair.

The February 2021 commitments were largely strong, although not synergistic ones.[1] A significant 78% were strongly binding, almost as high as the 80% from March 2020 (see Appendix A). Of the eight commitments on health, 88% were highly binding (compared to 91% the year before); 80% of the five on macroeconomic policy (compared to 75% the year before) were highly binding; and 100% of those on climate change, international cooperation, digitalization, trade, tax and gender were highly binding. But only 25% of the four commitments on development was highly binding and the labour-employment one was low.

A unique value of summits is that they bring together country leaders, who, both at home and abroad, are uniquely responsible for their whole governments and must worry about the problems on all subjects, all at once, all the time. They must commit to synergistic solutions that simultaneously bring co-benefits for many issues, rather than simply one single silo at a time.

Here the February summit performed poorly. A full 23, or 85%, of its 27 commitments were siloed and only four, or 15%, were synergistic (see Appendix A). Two of the three climate change commitments were siloed, or 50% of the four siloed ones. One commitment linked climate change to its ecological twin of biodiversity. The other linked climate change more broadly to its energy sibling and to labour and employment. It thus reflected Biden's central message that climate change control brings more good jobs.

Another synergistic commitment linked labour and employment to macroeconomics, in a conventional macroeconomic-to-microeconomic way. But the other commitment linked gender quality to macroeconomics and to "ethnicity." This is the first time a G7 summit has referred to ethnicity in this context. It is the G7's way of saying "black lives matter," in the spirit of inclusiveness that Biden and other G7 leaders emphasized back home.


These 27 commitments are likely to be highly complied with, given their match with what has proven to increase G7 compliance in the past. Using the compliance data assembled by the G7 Research Group, Jessica Rapson (2020a) has found that the strongest predictor of G7 members' compliance with their summit commitments is holding a ministerial meeting on the same subject during the summit year, especially before the summit takes place. Because G7 finance ministers and central bank governors met on February 12 and G7 health ministers on February 18, their leaders' eight commitments on health and five on macroeconomic policy — about half of the total — will likely get a compliance boost. It may be that in this case, with such an early summit, subsequent ministerial meetings could help compliance. If so, the initially scheduled meetings of ministers responsible for climate change, development, digitalization, but not labour and employment or gender should also get a compliance boost.

Compliance with G7 summit health commitments, on which eight were made at the Virtual Summit, have high compliance when health ministers meet, and when they specifically reference the WHO, Meagan Byrd (2020) has found. Both should help boost compliance here.

On climate change, where G7 leaders made three commitments with two synergistic ones on February 19, Brittaney Warren (2020) has found that compliance has been increased by a pre-summit ministerial meeting and surrounding summit support. Both factors should boost compliance here two, especially with the Glasgow climate summit in November co-hosted by Boris Johnson and, probably, the ad hoc Earth Day summit hosted by Joe Biden on April 22.

Two other facts suggest high compliance with most of the 27 commitments made in February. First, for the G20 summit, Jessica Rapson (2020b) has found that higher compliance comes with highly binding commitments, which dominated the G7's suite of 27.

Moreover, compliance with G7 commitments is particularly high on the subjects that the February summit concentrated on. Since the summits started in 1975, the G7 has averaged 76% on health, 86% on macroeconomic policy, 75% on development and 73% on climate change. On these subjects, G7 leaders made 20 of their 27 commitments on February 19. On their five remaining commitments, where five subjects secured only one commitment each, past compliance has averaged 82% on labour and employment, 72% on digitalization, 69% on gender, and 65% on trade.

Finally, the bigger, broader, more diverse G20, which held a virtual extraordinary summit focused on the COVID-19 crises on March 26, 2020, saw members comply with its assessed priority commitments at a level of 72% a mere two months after the summit took place (see Cicci et al 2020).

Development of Global Governance

The institutional development inside the G7 was absent, as there were no references to its own bodies. However, outside the G7, performance was substantial, with 18 references. These were led by the G20 with five, showing that the G7 and G20 were working together as never before. The came the WHO, the ACT-A, and COVAX with three each, and the World Health Summit with one, giving the health bodies 10, or 56%, of the references. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and UN Biodiversity had one each, giving the environmental bodies 11%. This was more than the March 2020 summit, which had none. The 2021 Virtual Summit gave the WTO and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development one each, giving the economy and the environment an equal share.

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Causes of Performance

Shock-Activated Vulnerability

This substantial success was propelled primarily by the shock-activated vulnerabilities (SAVs) of COVID-19's new variants emerging outside the G7 in South Africa and Brazil, the new lockdowns recently required in the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada, and the recent climate shocks in 2021 affecting several G7 members and, above all, the lower 48 states of the United States just before and during the Virtual Summit itself. The shocking attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6 showed the vulnerability of the United States to the democratic principles and practices that G7 members shared and that their first distinctive foundational mission obliged them to preserve and promote.

Mediated SAV shows the salience of these shocks (see Appendix B). The front page of the U.S. edition of the Financial Times in the week leading up to February summit was dominated by stories on COVID-19 every day, followed by stories on the economy, which also appeared every day. Climate change appeared on February 17 and peaked at 50% on February 18, as a severe cold spell and winter weather paralyzed the United States  and prevented the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. This distribution well matches the distribution of the commitments by subject. Democracy also appeared, if less frequently. The G7 summit itself appeared on February 19 and 20.

Multilateral Organizational Failure

Multilateral organization failure arose from the failure of the WHO and COVAX on their own to get enough vaccines to poor countries before the new virus variants arose, and the failure of the several, separated environmental organizations to control the climate shocks. Yet a supporting pull came from the G20 summit in October and the UN's climate summit in Glasgow in November.

Predominant Equalizing Capability

The G7's global predominance in the invention and possession of safe, fully tested, effective vaccines, and the internal lead of the United States, United Kingdom and Germany incentivized a collective G7 response, spurred by the cold war COVID-19 vaccine competition from China and Russia.

Converging Characteristics

The broader competition from these BRICS rivals, where democracy was declining amid protests in Russia, reinforced the G7's convergence on democratic principles, recently reinforced with Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump as president of the United States.

Domestic Political Cohesion

Political cohesion was solid, as the new leaders from the United States and Italy enjoyed their "honeymoon" period, despite their uncertain legislative control and domestic popularity over the longer term.

Public support was strong for the G7's major advances. An Ipsos Mori poll released on February 19 showed that 69% of British respondents favoured sharing their surplus vaccines globally once the "immediate needs of protecting the population were met," and only 19% were opposed (Sharman 2021). More broadly, a poll conducted by the Angus Reid Institute (2021) conducted between February 11 and 19 showed Canadians chose the top issues in Canada as follows: COVID-19 47%; health care 36%; climate change 29%; economy 27%; jobs ranked only eighth at 21%.

Club at the Hub

Above all, leaders at the first G7 summit in 10 months, after the missing scheduled U.S.-hosted one, cherished their club at the hub of an expanding network of global summit governance in 2021, with the United Kingdom, United States and Italy, as well as the existential threat of climate change, at the core. Also at its core was the skill of Boris Johnson, who put in place as early as September 2020 a plan designed to bring out the best of the G7's global leadership, with Joe Biden's America adjusting to its partners on the central issues of COVID-19 and climate change.

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Conclusion: Strengthening G7 Compliance

There are thus good grounds for anticipating that the many strong promises made at the G7's February Virtual Summit will become promises kept, especially on the critical subjects of health, economic recovery and, above all, climate change control.

However, G7 leaders can still do several things to improve compliance with the commitments they made there (Kirton 2021c). The first thing they can do is add meetings for ministers responsible for labour and employment and for gender to their existing sparse schedule. If the leaders care about jobs, as they say they do, why they have not started with a ministerial dedicated to this issue seems to be a particularly puzzling omission. Second, in the coming months they can hold more meetings of their health ministers and finance ministers, alone and together, and add more meetings for their ministers of environment too. The environment ministers could usefully meet before Biden's Earth Day summit on April 22, to strengthen the mutually supportive synergies between it and Johnson's G7 and UN climate ones.

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[ 1] Strong commitments are those with high politically binding verbs, where leaders declare "we will" or "we shall" or "we resolve to" do more than before. Weak commitments merely reaffirm what has been previously promised or pledge to continue to do is already being done.

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Appendix A: Analysis of 2021 G7 Virtual Summit Commitments

Subject N % High Low Binding Ministerial Past Compliance
Health 8 30% 7 1 88% Yes 76%
Macroeconomics 5 19% 4 1 80% Yes 86%
Development 4 15% 1 3 25% Yes 75%
Climate change 3 11% 3 0 100% Yes 73%
International Cooperation 2 7% 2 0 100% - -
Labour-Employment 1 4% 0 1 0% No 82%
Digitalization 1 4% 1 0 100% Yes 72%
Trade 1 4% 1 0 100% Yes 65%
International taxation 1 4% 1 0 100% No -
Gender 1 4% 1 0 100% No 69%
Total 27 100% 21 6 78% 6  


Subject N %
Silos 23 85%
• labour-employment –macroeconomics
• climate-biodiversity
• climate-energy-labour/employment
• gender-macroeconomics-energy
4 15%

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Appendix B: Stories by Subject in the Elite Media (Financial Times)

Date Health Economy Climate Digital Democracy Health-Economy Health-Climate G7/G20
Nov 22 0 0 0 0 0 0 0  
Nov 7–8  67 33 0     25 0  
Nov 9  67 57 33     33 33  
Nov 10 100 100 0     100 0  
Nov 11  25 50 25     25 0  
Nov 12  67 67 0     67 0  
Nov 13  50 25 25     25 0  
Nov 14–15  50 25 0     25 0  
Nov 16  25 50 0     25 0  
Nov 17 100 25 25     25 25  
Nov 18                
Nov 19 75 50 0     50 0  
Nov 20 75 50 0     50 0  
Nov 21–22 50 50 0     25 0  
Dec 9 50 25 25 0 0 0 0  
Dec 12–13 25 25 25 0 0 0 0  
Dec 14 75 25 0 0 0 0 0  
Dec 15 50 25 25 25 0 25 0  
Dec 16 25 25 0 25 0 0 0  
Dec 17 0 50 0 0 0 0 0  
Dec 18 50 25 0 25 0 25 0  
Dec 19–20 25 25 0 50 0 0 0  
Dec 21 67 33 0 0 0 22 0  
Dec 22 67 33 0 0 0 33 0  
Dec 23 67 33 33 33 0 33 0  
Dec 24 50 50 0 0 0 25 0  
Dec 29 50 25 0 0 0 0 0  
Dec 30 100 100 0 0 0 100 0  
Dec 31 0 33 33 0 0 0 0  
Jan 2–3 75 25 0     25 0  
Jan 4 50 75 0     50 0  
Jan 5 25 25 0     0 0  
Jan 6 33 0 0     0 0  
Jan 7 0 0 0     0 0  
Jan 8 0 0 0     0 0  
Jan 9–10 33 33 0     0 0  
Jan 11 75 0 0     0 O  
Jan 12 33 0 0 66 33 0 0  
Jan 13 0 25 0 0 0      
Jan 14 66 0 0 0 1      
Jan 15 100 50 0 25        
Jan 16–17 75 25 0 0 25 25    
Jan 18 50 25 25 25 50 25 25  
Jan 19 25 50 0 0 50      
Jan 20 33 33 33 0 33 33    
Jan 21 67 33 33 0 67 33 33  
Jan 22 67 33 67 0 33 33 33  
Jan 23–23 33 33 0 33        
Jan 26 100 100 0 0 0 100    
Jan 27 67 33 33 0 0 33 33  
Jan 28 25 25 0 0 25 0 0  
Jan 29 50 50 0 0 0 25 0  
Jan 30–31 33 67 0 0 0 0 0  
Feb 1 25 25 0 0 50 0 0  
Feb 2 25 25 0 0 25 0 0  
Feb 3 25 25 25 0 25 25 25  
Feb 4 33 33 0 33 0 33 0  
Feb 5 0 0 0 25 50 0 0  
Feb 6–7 75 25 0 25 25 0 0  
Feb 8 50 50 25 50 25 25 25  
Feb 9 25 0 25 25 0 0 0  
Feb 10                
Feb 11 50 50 25 0 25 25 0  
Feb 12 25 0 0 50 0 0 0  
Feb 13–14 75 25 0 25 0 25 0  
Feb 15 25 25 0 0 2 25 0 0
Feb 16 50 50 0 0 0 50 0 0
Feb 17 25 50 25 0 25 25 25 0
Feb 18 50 25 50 50 0 25 25 0
Feb 19 67 67 0 67 0 33 0 G7 33%[a]
Feb 20–21 50 25 25 0 25 25 25 G7 25%[a]

[a] Headline stories.
Excludes appearance in any continuation of the story on inside pages.
Health-economy and health-climate is their co-appearance on the front page part of the same story.
Numbers are % of stories on front page.

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