Meetings of the G8 group comprising the world’s richest nations used to be an exercise in well-choreographed consensus. The largely technocratic, centrist leadership of major countries would discuss how to tweak the global economy, help those they believed were being left behind and generally congratulate each other on their overlapping progressive and largely democratic values.
The June 8-9 gathering in Quebec of the now G7 – Russia was suspended for annexing the Crimea in 2014 – could hardly look more different, much to the alarm and irritation of its host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. U.S. President Donald Trump last week alienated the other six nations by effectively starting a trade war, plus the meeting will be overshadowed by the growing worry that the new populist Italian government will throw the euro back into crisis.
It’s unclear what can genuinely be achieved at the summit. The Canadian agenda is in many respects a throwback to more predictable times; its focus is on finding ways to broaden economic growth and manage climate change. But in reality, Trump’s latest trade bombshell – imposing steep tariffs on metals imported from Mexico, Canada and the European Union – will be a major issue.
That’s a pity. Since the 2008 financial crash, the real decision-making body for international affairs should have been the broader G20, although this group has often itself proved dysfunctional. The G7, however, offers a different opportunity – a chance for those in charge to battle over an even larger question: what the democratic West and its allies, particularly Japan, really want. What do they offer the world, and how can they defend those values?
There is now an increasingly clear crisis of confidence in Western democratic institutions – and the rise of idiosyncratic leaders like Trump, this week announcing his belief that he could pardon himself for any wrongdoing – takes place at a time of profound geopolitical shifts. Military and broader tensions with an increasingly autocratic and self-confident Russia and China are rising almost by the week.
As Trump’s election victory and trade war rhetoric demonstrates, the consensus around building a more globalized economy is also badly damaged. In democracies and autocracies alike, there is concern that the next round of industrial mechanization may cost jobs and undermine living standards, without any clear international strategy to mitigate that. This is one area the G7 meeting does intend to tackle, although given the limited amount of time likely to be dedicated to it, a breakthrough feels unlikely, to put it mildly. The broader problem facing the West is relatively simple. For most of the last few centuries, the social contract of capitalist democracy has been that it will deliver both rising living standards and greater personal freedom to its citizens. With stagnant wages and growing demands on health and social systems from an aging population, that now feels much less certain.
Amongst huge swathes of society, there is also a growing doubt that existing democratic systems deliver the quality of leadership required. Frustrations with the technocratic leaders of the last decade had been building for years – and now much of the urban middle-class society is horrified by the emergence of populists such as Trump.
Even where relative centrists still hold sway – most particularly in President Emmanuel Macron’s France and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany – far-right parties are on the rise, and could gain more power over the next decade. Britain’s political leaders might like to see themselves as middle-of-the-road and part of the responsible mainstream, but the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union has them embracing an ever more unpredictable-looking Brexit.
Amongst the G7 leaders, only Canada’s Trudeau and Japan’s Shinzo Abe do not face serious populist insurrections at home. They too, however, must confront the same broader societal strains, and neither’s position looks unassailable.
Amid this gloomy outlook, managerialism is perhaps unsurprising. It would be good, though, if the G7 were able to also outline a narrative on what the West does right.
Despite all their flaws, the liberal democracies remain amongst the only countries in the world where citizens are not in abject fear of those in authority, where liberty and even life are broadly protected against the savagery of unrestricted government power. Even with the challenges posed by growing burdens of age and ill health, they still offer the best social safety nets on the planet.
Put simply, they remain the best places to live – even if this fact helps produce their other greatest challenge: how to manage migration from populations who see those benefits much more clearly.
A decade ago, these were things the rest of the world was lazily assumed to also be heading towards – even China, Russia and other more dictatorial states. That’s clearly no longer the case – by most measures, human rights and freedom have been eroded globally in the last five years. But that makes it more important for the G7 states to come together and remind the world – and perhaps more importantly, themselves – of what they do believe in, and why they think it matters.
That doesn’t feel a likely outcome from the Canada summit. Even if it was, the days in which this group could dictate and lecture to the rest of the world, largely unchallenged, are clearly very much over.
Still, unless the G7 states – or those who live in them – can pull themselves together and define their values in the years and decades to come, they may be surprised to discover just how much they still have to lose.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps