Munich Conference (G7) reflects challenges for developing a common approach

US President Joe Biden on expected lines at the G7 called for the restoration of the trans-Atlantic alliance, while declaring America is back on the international stage. He promised that the US would come to the aid of allies as stipulated under Article V of NATO, “An attack on one is an attack on all.” Acknowledging problems in the past, he pledged to engage with Europe to earn back the position of trusted leadership.

He argued for pushing back against Russia mentioning in particular the need to respond to ‘the SolarWinds attack’ that was allegedly aimed at federal and corporate computer networks. He also accused Russian President Putin for undermining the NATO alliance and weakening the European project. He exhorted others to prepare together for long-term strategic competition with China, particularly in cyberspace, artificial intelligence and biotechnology. He added that the West must again be setting the rules of how these technologies are used, rather than ceding those forums to Beijing. He also blamed China for not abiding by international standards, “We have to push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system.”

Notwithstanding the Joint Statement issued at the end, which emphasised that It “will work together and with others to make 2021 a turning point for multilateralism and to shape a recovery that promotes the health and prosperity of our people and planet”, the response of other nations did not show the enthusiasm on all the issues that US hoped for. The thrust of all members was on the economic recovery and dealing with the pandemic.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreeing with Biden, called for the US and Europe to find a common approach to deal with China and Russia, adding that she had “no illusions” that interests from either side of the Atlantic will always line up. She made it clear that Germany was no longer willing to simply follow the US at the world stage. She pointed out the issues that are the most pressing — from fighting terrorism in Africa to reviving stalled diplomatic talks in Ukraine. She also added that words alone were not sufficient hinting the need for an action-oriented plan.

Observing that Russia continually entangles European Union members in hybrid conflicts, she asked the G 7 partners to “come up with a trans-Atlantic agenda toward Russia that makes cooperative offers on the one hand, but on the other very clearly names the differences”. On China, she said, “In recent years, China has gained global clout, and as trans-Atlantic partners and democracies, we must do something to counter this.” However, she admitted that this may be more complicated given China’s dual role as competitor and necessary partner for the West.

On Iran, while Germany remained in agreement with the US when the latter pulled out in 2018 from the agreement, in 2019 Merkel rejected the demands of the Trump administration for Europeans to pull out of the agreement. Now she has supported that the agreement should be given another chance. She said: “I will at least try to bring new momentum into the negotiations.”

She complimented Joe Biden for bolstering international cooperation and multilateralism: “The change of government in the United States of America, in particular, has strengthened multilateralism.”

French President Macron defended his concept of European strategic autonomy adding that this would make NATO even stronger. He stated that Europe should be “much more in charge of its own security,” increasing its commitments to spending on defence to “rebalance” the trans-Atlantic relationship.  He made clear the post-war American-dominated world order needs to yield to new realities. In an answer to a question, he noted the increasing importance of Asia in the current security environment suggesting that Europe should take more burden of its own defence.

UK PM Johnson stressed on rebuilding world economy. He said, “We also want to work together on building back better from the pandemic”, mentioning that the term “build back better” was nicked from somewhere else. He pointed out: “The G7 is the great gathering of like-minded liberal free-trading democracies, it’s a very very important forum, we stand together on many issues around the world, whether its our views on the coup in Myanmar… or on the detention of Alexei Navalny in Moscow.” He reflected the need for a coordinated approach on international issues, despite their lingering differences over Brexit.

In essence, much has changed over the years. The G-7 has flavour of 20th Century. It was formed informally as a group of industrialised nations in 1973. International relations have undergone significant changes with the globalisation and digitalisation. Its membership varied from 4 (Library Group) to 8.  Russia became a member in 1998 of this group but was ejected in 2014 after Crimea joined the Russian Federation.

The European countries have developed their own priorities in the fast-changing international environment. Some Western countries are unwilling to toe the US policies on all issues. As is clear from the responses, not everyone shares the view of Biden towards Russia. As far as China is concerned all are against its aggressiveness but they have developed economic linkages with China making it difficult to adopt the same approach which US has in view of the trade war.  China became the European Union’s largest trading partner in 2020 and decoupling would be a long process. The shifting of the gear from the pandemic to the post pandemic period has to be smooth.  Hence, the need to engage with China was clearly mentioned in the final statement: “With the aim of supporting a fair and mutually beneficial global economic system for all people, we will engage with others, especially G20 countries including large economies such as China.” This may be indicative of the US adopting a nuanced policy towards China.

Crucially, the statement also mentioned that on “non-market-oriented policies and practices” the partners would consult each other on collective approaches. While this suggests cooperation on the issues of climate change and the reversal of biodiversity loss, this also indicates their resolve to deal with increasing belligerence of China. The G-7 decision to “cooperate on a modernised, freer and fairer rules-based multilateral trading system that reflects our values and delivers balanced growth” is a pointer that they would oppose the predatory economic policies on which the Chinese BRI projects are based and challenging the international rule-based system that respects the oceans as the common heritage of mankind. Thus, despite some differences over some issues, they are likely to have a long-term strategy to check the Chinese aggressiveness.

If the larger objective is to have a stable and peaceful environment based on multilateralism and equality that would ensure ‘prosperity of all in the planet’, then a larger group of countries is needed to work in cooperation on the well-defined approaches. The current membership of this group is extremely limited to achieve the overall objective. The G 7 should seriously consider the proposal of re-inducting Russia and involving Australia, India, South Korea and ASEAN. That only the West should determine the rules for the use of technologies like cyberspace, artificial intelligence and biotechnology is an unrealistic objective in the globalised world.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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