The G-7 Gathers in Biarritz for a Dysfunctional Family Reunion

Police officers patrol the beach in Biarritz, France, ahead of the G7 summit. Jerome Gilles/Getty Images

Originally published at World Politics Review

August 19, 2019

Police officers patrol the beach in Biarritz, France, ahead of the G7 summit. Jerome Gilles/Getty Images
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

This weekend, leaders from the G-7 will convene for their annual summit, this time in Biarritz, France. French President Emmanuel Macron, who is spearheading France’s G-7 presidency this year, bills the meeting as a chance to relaunch multilateralism, promote democracy and tame globalization to ensure it works for everyone. More likely, the gathering will expose the political, economic and ideological fault lines threatening Western solidarity and international cooperation.

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What a difference five years makes. Back in 2014, the G-7 gained a new and unexpected lease on life after Russia seized Crimea and earned itself an ejection from what was then the G-8. The rejuvenated G-7 seemed poised to resume its onetime role as an intimate forum for policy coordination among like-minded, advanced market democracies, as distinct from the more heterogeneous and unwieldy G-20.

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That rosy scenario, of course, did not play out. The intervening years would bring about the calamitous Brexit referendum and its aftermath, Donald Trump’s American presidency, and surging anti-globalist and nativist sentiments across Europe. The resulting fissures and preoccupations have further reduced the diplomatic heft of a bloc that has seen its share of global GDP decline from 70 percent three decades ago to just under 50 percent today.

Trump’s election proved particularly catastrophic. At his first G-7 summit in 2017, in Taormina, Sicily, the president repudiated longstanding U.S. support for liberalized trade and signaled that the United States would leave the Paris climate accord, which he orchestrated soon after. Things got worse last year, in Charlevoix, Canada. Enraged at a perceived “betrayal” by host leader Justin Trudeau, Trump went ballistic, refusing to sign the final communique, which is usually an innocuous affair.

The French government is no doubt bracing for similar theatrics, while pressing on with Macron’s ambitious vision for the summit. At the heart of his program is dealing with the adverse effects of globalization. “Our priority will be combating inequality,” his government explains. “The aim is not to abandon globalization… but rather to better regulate it so that nobody is left behind.” This is an imperative Macron has learned at home, too, after months of protests by the “Yellow Vests,” or Gilets Jaunes.

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Macron’s team has identified five areas where G-7 members can cooperate on global inequality. These include enhancing economic opportunity, regardless of a person’s gender and origins; taking on global environmental degradation, which disproportionately affects marginalized communities; fighting insecurity, extremism and terrorism, which lock societies in cycles of violence; expanding digital empowerment and human-centered artificial intelligence; and renewing the G-7’s partnership with Africa, so that the continent can share in global prosperity.

The French government has also promised to overhaul the format of the G-7, so that it will no longer be “just a behind-closed-doors meeting between Heads of State and Government.” For the past eight months, it has solicited input from women, youth, labor, businesses, academics, scientists, civil society and think tank representatives. Gender equality has been an issue of particular importance, as France has followed in the footsteps of 2018 host nation Canada in signaling its commitment to a “feminist foreign policy.” 

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Macron has also expanded the Biarritz guest list beyond G-7 nations, reflecting his belief that “the time when a club of rich countries could alone define the world’s balances is long gone.” He has invited four major democracies—Australia, India, South Africa and Chile, which hosts the annual U.N. climate conference in December—as well as several African partner countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Senegal and Rwanda.

But the real summit action, as always, will reflect less the formal agenda than the underlying geopolitical, economic and domestic political pressures on the major players, often playing out on the sidelines. Expect major frictions on the following topics:

Trade Wars. America’s G-7 partners will be desperate for any sign of a truce in the spiraling U.S. trade war with China, which has roiled financial markets. The dangers of a global downturn are growing, with Germany now “teetering on the edge of recession.” The Trump administration has recently taken aim at French wine exports as well, in retaliation for France’s decision to impose a 3 percent digital tax that disproportionately affects U.S. tech giants. Given the circumstances, even a tepid statement of support for reform at the World Trade Organization and new trade rules combating market distortion are tough sells.

The real G-7 summit action will reflect less the formal agenda than the underlying geopolitical, economic and domestic political pressures on the major players.

The Brexit Endgame and the EU’s Future. In a calculated snub to other G-7 leaders, Trump plans to meet with new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson en route to the summit, and to press him to proceed with a “no deal” Brexit. Their relationship is already “off to a roaring start,” as John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, enthused. In Biarritz, expect Macron and Merkel to push back hard against any sign of Trump’s continued, pernicious effort to encourage the EU’s dissolution.

The Defense of Democracy. Macron desperately wants the G-7 to resume its role as a counterweight to authoritarian trends sweeping the world. Trump’s coziness with strongmen and thuggish temperament complicate that task immensely. Look for Macron to push for a common, bold stance against Russian disinformation operations in Western societies, as well as statements of support for democratic aspirations in Hong Kong and Russia. Expect Trump to resist on both counts.

Digital Globalization. At their mid-July meeting in Chantilly, G-7 finance ministers and central bank governors scrutinized Facebook’s plans for a new cryptocurrency, Libra, which they view as a potential threat to national sovereignty and the functioning of the international monetary system. They also discussed the need for fairer taxation of multinational tech companies, which have often avoided taxes through profit-shifting. Expect little action on these issues, however, given salient U.S.-China technology competition and Trump’s sour grapes over Macron’s digital tax.

Climate Action. Since Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord in June 2017, Macron has been the agreement’s most vocal proponent, spearheading the One Planet Summit and insisting that the world unite to meet the target of no more than 1.5°C global temperature rise from the pre-industrial period. The French president will push the G-7 for firm commitments on emissions reductions, biodiversity protections and ocean conservation, leaving Trump the odd man out again.

Given Trump’s frequent outlier status, next year’s G-7 summit should be even more interesting. For the first time in seven years, the meeting returns to the United States, allowing the Trump administration at last to shape the agenda. Rather than continuing to “address more and more problems,” a Trump adviser explained last month, the White House wants to get “more focused.” As to the summit’s venue, the president has floated the idea of using the Trump National Doral Resort in Miami. Hurricane season, indeed.

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