ELMAU, Germany — The coziest club on the global summit circuit is back together, but its inability to solve global problems is raising questions about whether G-7 leaders need to spend more time out of their democratic comfort zone.
The G-7 is useful as an organizing space for democracies, because of gridlock at institutions like the U.N. Security Council, where Russia or China can easily use their veto power to stymie action.
But the G-7 — which now represents less than 50 percent of global GDP — also risks being out-of-sync with a global community tired of Western paternalism.
The signs are everywhere: from African and Asian abstentions at the U.N. General Assembly over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to the Solomon Islands signing a security pact with China, and India regularly threatening to derail trade negotiations.
A new G-7 goal, announced Sunday, to pump $600 billion into emerging economy infrastructure by 2027 isn’t likely to change that calculus.
That’s both because China is well ahead in infrastructure diplomacy — spending $50 billion to $100 billion a year on foreign infrastructure for a decade now — and because the G-7 plan is old news. The 2021 G-7 summit promised a Build Back Better World initiative, and didn’t deliver.
The EU did announce a $315 billion Global Gateway plan back in December, money that’s yet to be spent but which was recycled into Sunday’s announcement. The Biden administration wants to “leverage” $200 billion of public and private money — but hasn’t asked Congress to pony up.
Reinhard Butikofer, a member of the European Parliament, and former leader of the German Greens, is not impressed: “committing $200 billion without knowing whether Congress will sign on to his initiative at all is a pretty empty gesture from POTUS,” he told POLITICO.
G-7 versus G-20
The larger G-20 group was elevated to the level of a leaders summit in 2008 to bring more emerging economies and middle powers to the global decisionmaking table.
Instead of prioritizing that more complicated G-20 group, with its mix of democracies and autocracies, the Biden administration is doubling down on the G-7. A senior Biden administration official said Wednesday that “President Biden and his administration’s focus on the G-7 has elevated it to being the premier vehicle for multilateral engagement.”
In recent years, however, summit organizers have understood that the G-7 feels empty when restricted to its core seven governments.
In 2021, that prompted summit host Boris Johnson to invite India, South Africa, South Korea and Australia to the party. This year the German government invited back India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and added Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, Argentina’s Alberto Fernández and African Union President Macky Sall.
While the 2022 guests represent nearly 3 billion people, dwarfing the 700 million or so residents of G-7 countries, they’re only playing minor roles. The guests didn’t even make the cut for dinner Sunday. They were instead entertained separately by the Bavarian state premier, nearly two hours away from Schloss Elmau, the main venue.
In contrast, the EU receives two permanent observer seats at the G-7 table, and is fully integrated into the summit program.
There’s the unmistakable feeling of elitism here in Upper Bavaria’s Wetterstein mountains. Elmau is guarded like Davos: roughly 18,000 police are keeping the leaders safely locked away from the plebes.
Most press and all protesters are kept far away from the leaders — a mountain separates the main summit press center and Schloss Elmau. Accessing Elmau involves a three-hour wait and a trip on a climate-unfriendly military helicopter.
Protesters spent Sunday penned into the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, their anti-G-7 songs battling with the noise from the helicopters throughout the afternoon. Local residents are frustrated.
In policy terms, the G-7 members make an elaborate show of their commitments and compliance. But it has the feel of an ESG corporate report that misses the point.
The University of Toronto’s G-7 research group says G-7 members hit a record 90 percent compliance rate with their commitments during the past year, even as they presided over skyrocketing inflation, remained behind schedule on their climate commitments, mismanaged the withdrawal from Afghanistan and were unable to prevent Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The dangers of over-promising
The biggest risk of this G-7 summit is that leaders stay buried in micro-commitments and vague promises, instead of working to address the consequences of their impact on the world. But fiscal concerns and problems at home — particularly in Washington — threaten to distract from the urgent needs.
Russia has provoked harsh Western sanctions, but those sanction policies are also driving up food and energy costs in places that can’t afford such disruptions, in part because Covid costs have wrecked federal budgets around the world.
The U.N. Secretary-General’s Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance concludes that around 1.7 billion people in 107 countries are significantly negatively impacted by this dynamic.
The G-7 is taking action where more flexible formats like the World Economic Forum have failed to step in, via a “Global Alliance for Food Security,” promoted by the United States, the German G-7 presidency, and the World Bank.
But no specific financial commitments or deadlines have been announced, and the alliance doesn’t touch on the Black Sea shipping lanes closed off by the Russian navy.
Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt is scathing about the lack of urgent G-7 and NATO discussion around a military operation to reopen Ukraine’s Odesa port to allow food exports.
“To rely only on U.N. talks to unblock Odesa port is hardly realistic, since Russia will not give way until they see the U.S., EU and U.K. are ready to move in and escort [ships carrying grain],” he said.
The German government said in a written statement that recent negotiations were “guided by the conviction that short- and medium-term support must be programmed in a way that leads to a long-term sustainable transformation of agriculture and food systems.”
A history of inaction
The G-7 has been down this road before.
President Barack Obama in 2012 asked G-8 leaders (Russia then was still a member) to adopt a New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. The goal then: boost local producers, lift 50 million out of poverty and get Africa to a point where it once again would be a significant exporter rather than food aid recipient.
Just 10 out of 55 African Union member countries joined the alliance, and France withdrew from it in 2018. A decade after Obama’s initiative, Africa’s dependence on Russian and Ukrainian food commodities exposes how little has changed in food systems.
Adjacent to food sustainability concerns are fears among NGOs that G-7 governments are deprioritizing their climate commitments.
As the world’s leading democratic economies struggle to contain the price of oil while punishing Russia for invading Ukraine, they are accused of undermining their own efforts to get poorer countries to switch to green energy.
Developing nations have long pointed out that they have historically contributed little to today’s warming atmosphere and extreme weather. Now they can push back when Western envoys urge them to speed up expensive transitions to clean energy: why should they, when even Germany is firing up shuttered coal plants?
Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders and a former president of Ireland, says that this summit “must be where rich nations finally deliver on the climate finance promises they have made” to developing nations.
A German government-commissioned paper — from members of Think7, a group of climate research institutions from G-7 member countries — told the G-7 to lift its sights.
Their top recommendation is to open the doors to the party: “preserve the G-20 as an effective forum for global problem-solving,” arguing that rich democracies will only achieve climate success when they “join forces” with other G-20 countries.
European Council President Charles Michel told reporters Sunday that he doesn’t rule out sitting at the G-20 table with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this year, and is looking for ways to express disapproval without destroying the prospects of multilateral summits.
A senior EU official said that the widening divide between the G-7 nations and developing economies means the G-20 is more important than ever: “Diplomacy is not about having just cozy chats with your like-minded friends,” the EU official said.
David Herszenhorn and Karl Mathiesen contributed to this report.