Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 13 July 2020

Why Donald Trump is 'almost' right about the G7

The group's relevance is fading, but adding more members makes co-operation less likely

In this December file photo, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at US President Donald Trump walking past her in London. AFP
In this December file photo, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at US President Donald Trump walking past her in London. AFP

It has been a peculiar few weeks for US President Donald Trump. He suggested against all medical advice – and common sense – that disinfectant could be a cure for coronavirus. He claimed that he self-medicates with hydroxychloroquine – something his own government says is a bad idea. He faces domestic turmoil over race relations and a difficult presidential election.

And yet in the midst of all this, Mr Trump has suggested something that could re-shape one of the world’s power structures. He wants to scrap the G7 as it is currently organised. Formally it is a Group of Seven rich democracies whose leaders meet to discuss the world economy and other matters.

This year, coronavirus made a face-to-face meeting seem impossible but Mr Trump persisted until Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said she would not attend. (She and Mr Trump do not get on.) Mr Trump suddenly cancelled the meeting announcing that he did not feel that "it properly represents what’s going on in the world. It’s a very outdated group of countries".

Mr Trump had planned to stage G7 this year at a golf resort he owns in Florida. Because of coronavirus he tried to change the location to the presidential retreat at Camp David. It is entirely possible that he cancelled the whole summit in a fit of pique. It is also true that Mr Trump has shown scant regard for multilateral organisations.

The World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the European Union are among those pillars of international co-operation that he does not like. He barely tolerates Nato although the alliance has been a rock of stability and peace in western Europe for generations. But with the G7 he does have a point – well, almost.

The G7 idea began in 1973 during the worldwide oil crisis. Then US treasury secretary George Shultz wanted to bring together his counterparts in France, the UK and West Germany. The group expanded to include Japan, Canada and then Italy. With the fall of communism in 1991, Russia's then president Boris Yeltsin was given a boost by being invited and the G7 became the "G7 Plus 1" – until Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and Russia was no longer invited.

When I attended a G7 meeting as a TV correspondent, what struck me was simply the lack of news. There was a bland joint communique but the event was an extended photo-opportunity to show leaders rubbing shoulders with other leaders. In terms of the G7 making policy pronouncements, I suspect some readers may be able to think of something that has changed their lives for the better, but right now I cannot.

This is not to denigrate the idea of leaders using the G7 to get to know each other and understand the need to co-operate on economic issues, climate change, coronavirus, money laundering, mass migration and other matters. But the G7 format and the structure – as Mr Trump rightly says – does not reflect power in the world as it is now.

Some argue that there is no reason for France, Germany and Italy all to be there when they are all together in the eurozone. An EU representative would surely be enough. Jim O’Neill, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and a former UK treasury minister, coined the term "Brics" – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – and suggested that “at a minimum … global-governance bodies should include China, if not all of the Brics". Lord O’Neill also wondered if Canada should be represented in the G7 at all.

From left to right: China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi, South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, Brazil's Michel Temer and Russia's Vladimir Putin at a Brics summit in 2018. EPA
From left to right: China's Xi Jinping, India's Narendra Modi, South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa, Brazil's Michel Temer and Russia's Vladimir Putin at a Brics summit in 2018. EPA

Mr Trump suggested a different cast list bringing Russia back plus Australia, India and South Korea. Omitting China defies all logic and appears to be merely another dig at Beijing from a President whose anti-China rhetoric is part of his re-election campaign. Roughly half of the increase in world GDP since 2010 has come from China alone, and whatever the difficulties between Washington and Beijing, the Asian superpower should be at the top table.

The core question though is what, if anything, is the G7 for?

As presently constituted, it is a talking shop for seven democratic countries with advanced economies. If it is truly an economic forum then the massive economies of China, India and probably Brazil need to take part. But since 1999, there already exists a G20 that brings together the Brics and the G7, plus Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, and other countries that could serve instead as a wider forum.

However, a White House adviser once wryly explained to me the dilemma here. Big international meetings are absolutely necessary to achieve worldwide co-operation, but there is a catch. Behind the scenes government officials from all the countries involved try to hammer out a communique that all the leaders can agree unanimously so that they can return home with a “success". The more leaders involved, the less likely to achieve total agreement and the more bland the final communique.

Talking shops such as the G7 may serve a purpose, but I doubt many readers will feel their lives have taken a turn for the worse now that this year's G7 summit will not earn its place in the history books.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: June 2, 2020 03:50 PM

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