G7 Summit in Japan: No Historic Highs


The G7 has yet to redefine its purpose and role following Russia’s exclusion. Reinvigorating it will require leadership, creativity, and a degree of reflection.

President Barack Obama apparently wasn’t looking for much at the G7 Summit in Ise-Shima, Japan. It’s understandable—Mr. Obama will be in office for only another seven months, and even if he sought agreement on a major new initiative, he would not be able to implement it, much less get any real credit for it. As a result, American media reports made the summit look less like an essential consultation among key U.S. allies than a convenient excuse for President Obama to visit Hiroshima and useful platform for his criticism of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Of course, while Mr. Obama has responsibility for his own decisions about how to approach his final G7 meeting, American media coverage is not entirely or even primarily his responsibility. The Ise-Shima Summit was the G7’s forty-second gathering of heads-of-state, including seventeen G8 summits with Russia from 1997 to 2013, and the group has evolved considerably over the years in not only its composition but also its purpose, activity, influence and visibility. The current period is not one of historic highs in any of these areas.

While the G7 leaders managed to reaffirm existing positions on the South China Sea and Ukraine, and to announce modest plans to deal with climate change and other problems, they didn’t appear to do much else. Part of the problem may be that they are not quite sure what to do.

After its origins as a mechanism for coordination among large Western economies during the economic turmoil of the mid-1970s, the group increasingly adopted a political role during the final years of the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Precisely because of its political symbolism, former President Bill Clinton pressed other member governments to invite Russia into the G7 during the 1997 Denver Summit, called the “Summit of the Eight.” Economics didn’t justify this at all—even then, China had the largest non-Western economy outside the G7, over twice as large as Russia’s economy in nominal terms. Nor did Russia’s governance.

That said, Russia’s participation in G8 summits had significant consequences. First, differences in perspective between Washington, its allies and Moscow made its political discussions more important—since agreement among G8 members was harder to reach, it was more useful in addressing those issues on which Russia’s position made a difference, like non-proliferation and terrorism. This in turn attracted greater media attention, in that potentially contentious meetings are usually more interesting than wholly friendly ones, and difficult agreements (or sharp public disagreements) attract more scrutiny than more routine interactions. Consider the wide dissemination of a single photograph of Presidents Obama and Vladimir Putin at the 2013 G8 Summit in Lough Erne, in which their body language speaks volumes about U.S.-Russia relations at that time.

Second, G8 discussions between the original seven members and Russia at times shifted some attention away from another key challenge—the negative economic effects of globalization for some social groups and resulting anti-globalization protests. At the same time, after large-scale violent protests surrounding the World Trade Organization’s 1999 summit in Seattle, G8 hosts increasingly organized the meetings in more remote and secure locations, rather than large urban centers. Separating the traveling media from economically motivated protesters only further increased media focus on the G8’s political role.

Third, Russia’s G8 membership opened up broader possibilities for the group, particularly in seeking a format for China’s participation that would secure the G8s long-term future as a club for key powers. Though the G8 struggled to achieve this, especially because the G7 countries could not find a way to include China fully without making it a member, and were unwilling to offer full membership to another non-democracy, the possibility remained. Today it is much more difficult to see a way forward, partially due to the G7-Russia dispute and partially due to China’s growth over the last ten to fifteen years.

The G7 has yet to redefine its purpose and role following Russia’s exclusion. This is quite natural to some extent, in that only two years have elapsed and G7 leaders have many other tasks both domestically and internationally. As a result, however, the G7 appears to be on autopilot for the time being. Reinvigorating it will require leadership, creativity, and a degree of reflection. If the G7 is not to be a truly global body, which seems increasingly unlikely, a return to its roots as a coordinating group may be the most promising path—particularly if leaders are willing to abandon their present focus on negotiating long but predictable joint statements and releasing fact sheets to document their non-binding “commitments.” The G7 could be much more useful as a forum for extended strategic dialogue among Washington and many of its closest partners, without the artificial pressure to produce something for display.

Since an outgoing U.S. president is in no position to lead such a transformation, and no one else seemed inclined to try in advance of the Ise-Shima meeting, Mr. Obama understandably decided to focus on security two personally important components of his legacy, his unrealistic quest for a world without nuclear weapons and more realistic (but still uncertain) project to elect a Democratic successor who can defend and consolidate what he sees as his accomplishments. Whether the next American president—or any of the G7’s other heads of state—will develop a long-term vision for the body remains to be seen.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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