Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

What’s the Point of the G-7?

By Emma Ashford , a senior fellow in the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and Matthew Kroenig , deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council.

Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma. As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, it’s exciting to see that people are starting to travel again. I notice more happy sightseers on social media; my wife and I just booked a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for later this summer; and Air Force One is wheels up on its way to Europe.

In U.S. President Joe Biden’s first overseas trip, he will visit the United Kingdom for the G-7 summit, Brussels for meetings with NATO and the European Union, and then over to Geneva for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That gives us a lot of material to debate. Where should we begin?

Emma Ashford: Well, you know what it’s like. Summer in Washington always concentrates the mind—mostly on the possibility of getting out of town as soon as possible. And despite the best efforts of the ongoing cicada insurgency (which actually grounded the presidential press plane!), it looks like Biden has successfully departed for Europe.

It’s a packed schedule. Let’s start where Biden is starting: with the G-7, which has been out of the spotlight for a few years. Since the 2008 financial crisis—and particularly since Russia was expelled from the then-G-8 after the invasion of Crimea—it seemed like the G-20 was going to replace the smaller grouping. All the attention being lavished on the G-7 meeting suggests an unexpected return to relevance for the group.

MK: I think it is becoming more relevant. The problem with the G-20 is it includes China, and China is the biggest challenge facing many of the leading democracies in the group. The G-7 is a small club of wealthy democracies that can coordinate on common challenges, including those posed by Beijing.

EA: That’s an interesting way to describe it. After all, the G-7 is mostly a club of the biggest market economies, formed after the economic shocks of the 1970s. It never included the Soviets because they weren’t a market economy. But China is a much different case, mostly capitalist and heavily integrated with world markets. And obviously Russia was included in the group because of its progress toward marketization in the 1990s before being excluded again for political reasons.

You can’t exactly coordinate on global economic questions if you’re going to exclude the world’s second largest economy.

I guess my question is: What is the point of the G-7 these days? You can’t exactly coordinate on global economic questions if you’re going to exclude the world’s second largest economy.

MK: The G-20 remains an arena in which to engage China, but again, the problem with coordinating with China to solve global economic problems is China is causing many of those problems. The G-7 provides a forum for mostly like-minded countries to engage in deeper cooperation.

EA: Well, I think there are plenty of economic problems that don’t emanate from China. And there’s a variety of global problems—from climate change to trade barriers—that you really need China to resolve! So I don’t particularly see the value of the G-7, especially when most members are in NATO and cooperate in other ways.

MK: You are right to question the value of the G-7 as currently configured. It was created in another era, and (with the exception of Japan) all of its members are part of the transatlantic community at a time when the Indo-Pacific is a bigger priority. My colleagues and I published a report this week calling for the transformation of the G-7 into a Democracies 10 (D-10) to include more representation from leading democracies in other regions, especially Asia.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly supported the idea of making this week’s summit the first convening of a new D-10, but he faced resistance from some current G-7 members. He did go ahead and invite Australia, India, South Africa, and South Korea as participants to this G-7 summit, which I think is a step in the right direction.

EA: I am still very skeptical of the notion of any “alliance of democracies,” whether it’s the D-10 or something broader. I think it would be difficult to implement, face big challenges from the countries that stand to lose out, and more importantly, risk turning geopolitical competition with China into something more ideological and dangerous.

It ultimately depends what the group will focus on. If it’s going to be defensive, focusing on things like internal threats to liberty and democracy or rising populist nationalism—or even figuring out ways to insulate democratic political systems from outside interference!—that seems like it could be useful. But if it’s designed to be a “common front” against China, I think it’s deeply problematic.

MK: Competition with China is already ideological and dangerous. Chinese President Xi Jinping has a vote in the matter, and his writings show he is quite ideological, and his actions prove that he is dangerous.

And a grouping of democracies can be a practical (not ideological) way to solve many problems. Can we develop standards and norms for new technologies like artificial intelligence that are consistent with democratic principles and human rights? Can market economies find a coordinated way to push back against China’s unfair trade practices? These questions and many others are best solved by powerful and free countries working together. Having Beijing in the room would be counterproductive.

EA: Well, I look forward to seeing the United States try to find a coordinated set of democratic principles and development standards that meets the joint approval of Germany, India, and Japan. I suspect I’ll be waiting a long time.

Getting back to reality for a second, we do know the G-7 is expected to make a big announcement at the summit that falls into that first category of democratic defense. The members will announce an agreement on a global minimum tax, a first step toward trying to ensure big multinational companies cannot simply dodge their tax obligations by headquartering themselves in tax havens. This is something the United States has been pushing for some time and should be popular at home.

MK: Biden will be able to claim that this step helps advance his goals of anti-corruption and creating a “foreign policy for the middle class.” After the United Kingdom, Biden will be off to Brussels for a NATO summit and meeting with EU leaders. Consistent with the overall theme of this trip, these gatherings will provide the Biden administration with another symbolic opportunity to revitalize U.S. alliances and partnerships with other leading democracies.

EA: If I remember right, Biden’s speech to the Munich Security Conference in February started with the phrase “America is back,” and that certainly seems to be the overarching message of Biden’s trip to Europe. The administration is keen to patch over the rifts caused by four years under former U.S. President Donald Trump.

But that will be far easier said than done. New polling from the European Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund suggests European publics are increasingly skeptical about the United States’ ability to play its traditional leadership role; more now look to Berlin than Washington. And many European leaders are wary of the prospect of a future Trump-styled administration in the United States, prompting calls for increased strategic autonomy.

I suspect the EU and NATO summits will provide nice photo-ops but little in the way of substance.

MK: As you know, international relations theory says alliances are the result of shared threats. And there are plenty of shared threats pushing the United States and Europe together. Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe at the White House, said the NATO summit will focus on threats from Russia and China as well as cybersecurity, climate change, and the drawdown in Afghanistan.

EA: I’m afraid none of those are great examples. European countries were apparently quite upset that they were barely consulted on the Afghanistan question before the United States announced its withdrawals. There are obvious splits on Russia, as the recent issue of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline showed. And on China, there’s a lot of evidence that European states are wary of following the United States into an unlimited competition with China. That polling I mentioned earlier shows a strong tendency among European publics to hedge against China, not to join the United States in opposing it. Again, I expect to see lots of effusive statements from this summit, but the big questions are going to be much harder to solve.

The Europeans are coming around on the threat posed by China.

MK: You are correct in that smaller states often focus on their narrower (often pecuniary) interests and have a hard time seeing the bigger strategic picture. It takes a superpower to lead. And the Europeans are coming around on the threat posed by China as other public opinion polling shows.

It is also not accurate to say the United States wants “unlimited competition.” The Biden administration has called for a balanced approach that includes room for engagement with both Beijing and Moscow.

EA: Funny you should mention that. Biden is also meeting with Putin later this week. His campaign and administration have repeatedly talked in strategic documents about the importance of diplomacy—even with adversaries—to achieve U.S. interests, and they really seem to be putting this into practice with Russia. It’s a good choice. I doubt we’ll see anything concrete come out of this meeting with Putin, but even having the conversation is beneficial.

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel put it in April, “as long as you are talking, you don’t shoot at each other.”

What do you think?

MK: I agree. Biden is expected to press Putin on many difficult issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s foreign election interference, and Russian-based cyberattacks, including the recent ransomware attacks on the U.S. energy pipeline and meat supplier. But he should also attempt to engage Putin in a new round of arms control talks to reign in Russia’s buildup of battlefield and exotic nuclear weapons.

It’s unlikely that engagement with Russia or China will produce any major breakthroughs, but we need to try. If nothing else, it shows that Moscow and Beijing, not Washington, are the real problem.

Indeed, several analysts this week suggest we see an emerging Biden doctrine.

EA: Well, I have some questions about that: Is the Biden doctrine framed in terms of democracies versus autocracies? Or is a much more pragmatic approach to diplomacy with all? Because I see signs of both from the administration.

MK: Commentators in the Wall Street Journal and the Atlantic say Biden and his top advisors see the major fault line in contemporary international politics as a competition between democracies and autocracies, and they fear democracies might very well lose. The solution in Biden’s view, therefore, is to strengthen democratic alliances and demonstrate that democracies can deliver for their people. This is why he is motivated to revitalize U.S. alliances and to push forward big domestic packages at home: Both will strengthen the United States to better take on China.

Although I disagree with parts of Biden’s domestic agenda, I agree with these analysts and with Biden that the democracy versus autocracy angle is a helpful framework for making sense of today’s global challenges (after all, I did write a book on it) and how to solve them.

EA: We’ve talked about this before. And I still have some major worries about the democracy versus autocracy framing. Let me just focus on one: There are many countries that don’t fit neatly into either category, some of which might actually be important for the United States as it thinks about the China challenge. States ranging from Vietnam to India are quasi-democratic, and you risk losing them if you go with this all-or-nothing framework.

That’s why I really hope the Biden team is serious about its approach to Russia. It makes far more sense to approach all countries pragmatically and on the basis of common interests like strategic stability than it does to build a grand ideological alliance.

It doesn’t seem to me yet that Biden himself has actually decided on either course, although there are certainly people in his administration pushing both.

MK: It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. It should be both/and. Washington should pursue deeper cooperation with like-minded allies that share our values and interests, even as it engaged with pragmatic engagement with cooperative nondemocracies like Vietnam. And it should push back hard against autocratic rivals like Russia and China.

EA: Then I don’t really see the point of framing it as democracy versus autocracy; if you’re going to work with everyone anyway, then just avoid the off-putting framing. But I suspect we’re never going to agree on this.

MK: The United States’ more than 30 formal treaty allies are all democracies (NATO members, Japan, South Korea, and Australia), and they make up roughly 60 percent of global GDP. The biggest challenges to the United States and its allies in the free world come from autocrats like China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia, which make up another 18 percent of global GDP. That is why it is a helpful framing. Although I’d like to have Vietnam on our side, the global balance of power does not hinge on which way Hanoi leans.

EA: I’m glad you learned at least one thing from the last Cold War!

MK: I am also confident democracies can prevail. Autocrats make big mistakes. Just this week, the Chinese Communist Party made another revision to its failed one-child policy. The policy unnaturally constrained China’s population, created a demographic nightmare, and undermined China’s economic growth. Beijing is now allowing parents to have up to three children.

EA: Well, that should do the trick. I have two young kids and have barely slept in three years. No way the Chinese can out-compete us if they have three kids each!