When the meeting of the Group of Seven industrialised countries wrapped up on Monday, it was more clear than ever how stark the divisions within the global order have become. The G-7 agreed on little; there were reports at least that Europe and the US had come to some basic agreement over the former’s controversial taxation of the latter’s big technology companies, but details are thin on the ground. Even the global crisis of the moment — the fires in the world’s greatest carbon sink, the Amazon forest — was met with only a perfunctory promise of $20 million for reforestation, subsequently rejected by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
The divisions between President Donald Trump’s America and its partners in the G-7 over international trade, climate change, and how to handle the Islamic Republic of Iran are bad enough. But those were not the only fault lines on display. It is worth remembering that many of the other members of the G-7 are in the midst of deep disagreements with their peers. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s UK is preparing to leave the European Union without a deal on its future relations with the bloc. Italy is challenging its European partners’ rules on budget deficits, and is undergoing a political crisis of its own as its ruling populist alliance falls apart. And Japan is in the middle of a new Cold War with a fellow liberal democracy and US ally, South Korea.
Thus, for the first time in decades, the G-7 broke up without a joint communique. This was planned in advance by the hosts, President Emmanuel Macron’s France; Mr Macron had said that “nobody reads communiques anyway” except to try and figure out where disagreements had been papered over. It was perhaps a wise change to avoid incidents such as the one that happened after last year’s meeting, when Mr Trump didn’t even wait to get home to repudiate the communique, but did so by tweeting from Air Force One on his way out of Canada. Yet it is also a marker of an apparent loss of purpose for the G-7, which can no longer fulfil the need for which it was set up during the oil crises of the 1970s: To ensure the industrialised world speaks with one voice. Of course, the “industrialised world” is itself much larger than it was then, reducing the G-7’s relevance further.
The G-7 itself is not yet useless. For one, it represents a way of ensuring collective pressure can be put on Mr Trump by other countries. The American president relishes such conflict, but is also vulnerable to personal diplomacy: More has been achieved on Iran in the past two days than in the year prior.
The problem perhaps is that the G-7 lacks the institutional strength to create and provide sustainable solutions that mean summits are about more than the disagreements of the moment. The G-20, in contrast, has a secretariat and working groups that allow for joint policy to evolve over successive summits and even if leaders change. As the other G-7 leaders prepare to be hosted by Mr Trump in the 2020 summit, it would perhaps be appropriate for them to ask if that is something worth emulating.