Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 6 May 2021

 The west is back. So we heard when foreign ministers of the group of seven rich democracies rolled into London this week. To prove the point, the ministers produced a communiqué and annexes running to dozens of pages. 

No corner of the geopolitical landscape escaped their attention. The vaccine rollout against Covid-19, climate change, China’s superpower ambitions, the frayed condition of democracy, Russian aggression in Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear ambitions were among the headliners.

The G7 is also committed to addressing shortages of clean water and lack of educational opportunities for young girls in the world’s poorer nations. Myanmar’s generals have been told to step back from power. The World Trade Organization is ripe for reform. And the world’s autocrats will be held to account for violations of international human rights norms.

To be fair, the socially-distanced body-language was encouraging. Donald Trump has left the White House. The quiet intelligence of US secretary of state Antony Blinken is a reminder of just how bad things were when America’s allies confronted the angry bombast of Mike Pompeo.

“We are all multilateralists now,” one diplomat gushed. A senior US official exclaimed the G7 represented “the most like-minded group on the planet”. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian seemed to concur. He observed he had had more contact with Blinken during the past three months than with Pompeo over nearly three years.

Sad to say, conviviality is not a substitute for organising purpose. The few who take the trouble to wade through the communiqué are unlikely to find a clear route map for the world’s democracies. Perhaps that awaits the summit of G7 leaders scheduled for June.

The corollary of saying something about everything is that you end up saying nothing much about anything. Differences can be tucked away in the verbiage. A short statement would have demanded sharper choices and some hierarchy of priorities.

The G7 could simply cast itself as a platform for rich democracies ganging up on China. But we are not living in the cold war. The Soviet Union presented at once a systemic and an existential threat to the west. China undoubtedly wants to establish itself as the world’s pre-eminent power, but it is not trying to convert democracies to communism and, as yet at least, is not threatening the west with nuclear evisceration.

Economic interchange with the Soviet Union was negligible. For all the recent decoupling, China remains deeply embedded in the global economy. Colleagues can agree with Blinken’s characterisation of a relationship with Beijing that is naturally competitive, sometimes adversarial, and on issues such as climate change necessarily collaborative. What’s missing is a consensus on where the balance should be struck. Blinken says the US is not trying to “contain” China. But how far does it want to constrain it?

Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, has been promoting the idea of opening up the G7 to create a wider grouping of democracies. As this week’s G7 host, he invited India, Australia, the Republic of Korea and South Africa to join some of the sessions. It would be an easier case to make if the UK had not just quit the world’s most powerful democratic club.

Blinken came up with what is probably the closest the G7 will get to a useful mission statement. If the west was not in the business of holding China down, he said, the leading democracies do share a clear interest in shoring up the rules-based international order.

Making multilateralism work is not the snappiest of slogans. Likewise, upholding global norms and values lacks the ring of an heroic endeavour. But both mark out the essential faultline with Beijing and, for that matter, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Beijing and Moscow want a return to a 19th century global order where great powers rule over their own distinct spheres of influence. If the habits and institutions created since 1945 mean anything, it has been the replacement of that arrangement with the international rule of law.

Today’s contest is between these two systems. It is a fight the west can win by persuading the world’s non-aligned nations that it has a better offer. It is quite simple, really. Instead of complaining about the economic coercion inherent in, say, Beijing’s Belt and Road plan, the G7 should present its own development projects. A timetable to vaccinate the world against Covid-19 would be a good start.

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