Disarray at G-7 summit: Is Western leadership dying, or adapting?

Why We Wrote This

Does it matter if the West no longer provides leadership in a changed world? The G-7 summit seems to have shown that the shared interests and values needed to address global challenges still exist.

Ian Langsdon/AP
Flanked by President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron (center) addresses the G-7 leaders during a working session in Biarritz, France, Aug. 26, 2019. Other leaders attending were Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

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The Group of Seven summit in France was described around the world as a show of disunity and disarray – not to mention American retreat. And it posed the question: Does a Cold War-era Western group based on common interests and values such as democracy and free markets still have a global leadership role to play in the 21st century?

The answer, thanks to clever French diplomacy and progress in forging common positions on key global issues, seemed to be that while Western leadership may be down, it is not out.

Exhibit A: host Emmanuel Macron’s invitation to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to the summit’s sidelines. The effort even earned a bit of praise from the normally anti-Iran and anti-multilateral U.S. president, Donald Trump.

Still, for some experts, no amount of adapting to new global realities is going to make a leadership model designed for the 20th century an answer to the challenges of the 21st. “If what we’re seeing is indicative of what passes for Western consensus, then no amount of putting lipstick on a pig is going to cover over the inability of Western leadership to address today’s fundamental issues,” says Notre Dame Professor Michael Desch.

When French President Emmanuel Macron declared it would be “pointless” to try to deliver the traditional final communique at the G-7 summit he hosted last weekend it prompted some to wonder if maybe the organization itself is pointless.

Leaders of the Group of Seven major economies had been especially riven by conflicting perspectives on global issues from climate change to trade.

But the larger question behind the doubts about the G-7 is whether a Cold War-era grouping based on common interests and values such as democracy, the rule of law, free markets, and human rights still has a global leadership role to play in the 21st century.

One answer might be that a more multipolar and nationalistic world certainly seems to pay less heed to Western leadership. After G-7 leaders pledged $22 million to help fight fires raging in the Amazon rainforest, an indignant Brazil turned the aid down, with President Jair Bolsonaro saying it reflected a “colonial” mentality.

On the other hand, when Mr. Macron issued a surprise invitation to Javad Zarif to the summit’s sidelines the Iranian foreign minister jumped at the offer and met with a number of Western officials. The effort to make headway on the Iranian nuclear challenge even earned a bit of praise from the normally anti-Iran and anti-multilateral U.S. president, Donald Trump.

In the end, the message sent by a summit widely described around the world as a show of disunity and disarray – not to mention American retreat – seemed to be that while Western leadership may be down, it is not out.

What some clever French diplomacy – and progress in forging common positions on key global issues from the environment to Hong Kong democracy – demonstrated is that there is still a role for the leadership and common action of the world’s major democratic economic powers.

“It’s possible for the headlines coming out of this summit to be that Donald Trump and [British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson are the harbingers of the failure of Western diplomacy and that multilateralism in the West is dead – but that’s not what happened at all,” says Jon Alterman, senior vice president in global security and geostrategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

New circumstances, shared values

“This was not the memorial service for the G-7,” he adds, “this was the G-7 adapting to a new set of circumstances and ultimately moving a number of balls forward on issues of key interest to the major economies and democracies.”

One of the most glaring “new circumstances” is a U.S. president who relishes the role of disrupter and has shown considerable disdain for the traditional American-led, post-World-War-II multilateralism the G-7 embodies.

For Mr. Alterman, the G-7 is a “family” working together on the basis of common interests and values. And what struck him about this summit in the French Mediterranean city of Biarritz is how the family was able to overcome differences – and accommodate an unpredictable “father” in Mr. Trump – to make some useful progress.

“The father’s not playing the traditional role,” Mr. Alterman says, “and yet the members of the family had a useful meal and got stuff done.”

The divisions buffeting Western leadership and doubts about its relevance should surprise no one, some say, given that the conditions that prompted the creation of the G-7 no longer exist.

“The existence of a common threat in the Soviet Union and the pressures of the Cold War were critical, it’s what pushed the allies together and prompted the U.S. to maintain its embrace of Europe,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University.

The end of the Cold War has indeed denied the Western powers that original common threat, he says, even as domestic political upheaval and the weakening of the Western democracies’ traditional moderate-right and moderate-left parties have contributed to tough times for Western multilateralism.

But what haven’t gone away, Professor Lieber says, are the “underlying shared interests and shared values,” ranging from democracy and free-market economies to freedom of speech and religion and the role of women in society, that make a forum like the G-7 matter.

“Those underlying commonalities and motivating values still give an essential purpose to a community like the G-7, despite the disarray,” Dr. Lieber says.

New leadership model

Still, for some experts in international relations, no amount of adapting to new global realities or accommodating of chaotic and nationalist leaders is going to make a leadership model designed for the 20th century an answer to the challenges of the 21st.

“If what we’re seeing [at the G-7 summit] is indicative of what passes for Western consensus, then no amount of putting lipstick on a pig is going to cover over the inability of Western leadership to address today’s fundamental issues,” says Michael Desch, professor of international relations and director of the Notre Dame International Security Center in Indiana.

To fashion a new model of global problem-solving, Western countries and the world more broadly will have to start by recognizing there is no longer one benevolent superpower ready and willing to shoulder the burden of leadership, Professor Desch says.

“In a period when the U.S. strode the world like a colossus, systems based on one power with the interest and capability of leading were feasible,” he says. “What the world needs today is a way to foster cooperation on critical global issues without a hegemonic power. It will be tough,” he adds, “but it might be the only way to move forward.”

Professor Desch says he did catch a glimpse at the G-7 summit of one potential avenue for global problem-solving. (He says even the word “leadership” may not fit what the 21st century requires.) What may be called for, he says, is the kind of ad-hoc leadership-by-issue that was displayed by Mr. Macron on the Iranian nuclear issue, or even Mr. Trump taking the helm of the China trade dispute, which is a global challenge affecting much more than just the U.S.

“Macron’s invitation to the Iranians to crash the [G-7] party may indeed be the new model for moving issues forward,” he says.

The French president’s gambit did seem to move the nuclear issue’s two main antagonists, Iran and the U.S., closer to direct talks, with Mr. Trump sounding open to engaging with Tehran and even to the idea of some kind of loans to prop up a staggering Iranian economy.

By Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was insisting that debilitating U.S. sanctions would have to be lifted before he would meet with Mr. Trump. Still, the way Mr. Macron went about “breaking the ice between the Iranians and the Americas … demonstrated extraordinarily skillful diplomacy,” says CSIS’s Mr. Alterman – noting that such diplomatic acumen underscored the relevance of Western leadership.

A place for Putin?

Another initiative that to some might fall into the category of realist thinking for today’s world is President Trump’s insistence that Russia be readmitted to what was the G8 – until Moscow’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The call for welcoming Russian President Vladimir Putin back into the exclusive club received little support. But Mr. Trump hinted that as the host of next year’s summit he could very well issue an invitation to Mr. Putin on his own.

Inviting Mr. Putin might strike some as akin to Mr. Macron’s invitation to Mr. Zarif to Biarritz.

But Georgetown’s Dr. Lieber says, not so. Emphasizing the importance of Western values to the purpose of the G-7, he says there is nothing about Mr. Putin’s leadership of Russia that suggests he has any interest in those values – unless, he adds, it is to undermine them.

The idea of inviting Mr. Putin back in “demonstrates a serious misunderstanding on Trump’s part of what the G-7 is,” Dr. Lieber says.

“When Russia was invited in in the first place it was in a blush of naïve hope that Russia would embrace everything Western Europe represents, from democracy to the rule of law and so on,” he adds. “Obviously that hasn’t happened, so Russia has no place rejoining” the club.

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