We live in an era of hyperbole, in which gripping accounts of monumental triumphs and devastating disasters take precedence over realistic discussions of incremental progress and gradual erosion. But in international relations, as in anything, crises and breakthroughs are only part of the story; if we fail also to notice less sensational trends, we may well find ourselves in serious trouble -- potentially after it is too late to escape.
The recent G-7 Summit in Biarritz, France, is a case in point. Despite some positive developments -- French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, was praised for keeping his American counterpart, Donald Trump, in check -- little was achieved. And, beyond the question of substantive results, the summit’s structure portends a progressive erosion of international cooperation -- a slow, steady chipping away at the global order.
It is somewhat ironic that the G-7 presages the future, because it is in many ways a relic of the past. Formed in the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, it was supposed to serve as a forum for the major developed economies: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the G-7 continued to shape global governance on issues ranging from debt relief to peace operations and global health. In 1997, the G-7 became the G-8, with the addition of Russia. Still, the body epitomized an era of Western preeminence in an institutionalized liberal world order in full bloom.
That era is long gone. The 2008 financial crisis hobbled the body’s core members, which, together with the rise of the emerging economies, especially China, meant that the group no longer possessed the critical mass required to guide world affairs.
The larger and more diverse G-20, formed in 1999, thus gradually overtook the G-8, formally replacing the latter as the world’s permanent international economic forum a decade later. In an increasingly complex and divided global environment, the G-20’s flexible policymaking style -- including a preference for non-binding commitments -- was regarded as more viable than the hard-law methods of older multilateral institutions.
The G-8 drifted along as a mere caucus. When Russia’s G-8 membership was suspended in 2014 -- a response to its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea -- it became even less weighty, though more cohesive, with its members sharing a more consistent worldview. (Some, including Trump, now call for Russia’s reintroduction to the group.)
But even that slight advantage was demolished with Trump’s election in 2016. His administration began attacking allies and rejecting shared rules, norms, and values. The situation reached a nadir at the 2018 G7 Summit in Quebec, where a petulant Trump criticized his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and publicly disavowed the summit’s final communique as soon as it was issued.
Against that backdrop, this year’s summit in Biarritz elicited great trepidation. With little hope for consensus on any consequential issue, the meeting’s French hosts focused on keeping up appearances, choosing expediency over impact. Goals were kept vague. In fact, Macron announced before the event that there would be no final statement, declaring that “nobody reads communiques.”
But that decision represented a major loss. Final communiques are policy documents, providing important signals about significant compromises to the international community. The 2018 declaration, which Trump rejected, was 4,000 words long, identifying a set of shared priorities and common approaches to addressing them.
The Biarritz summit, by contrast, ended with a 250-word statement that was so vague and anodyne as to be all but meaningless. On Iran, for example, G-7 leaders could agree only that they “fully share two objectives: to ensure that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons and to foster peace and stability in the region.” On Hong Kong, they reaffirmed “the existence and importance of the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 on Hong Kong” and called hollowly “for violence to be avoided.” On Ukraine, France and Germany promised to organize a summit “to achieve tangible results.”
To be sure, some positive steps were taken in Biarritz. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s surprise appearance created a potential opening for future US-Iran talks. Pressure was placed on Brazil to respond to the fires that are decimating the Amazon. And the US and France broke an impasse over a French tax on tech giants. But any high-level international gathering produces these kinds of limited actions, merely by facilitating interaction among world leaders.
Many have recognized the shortcomings of the latest G-7 summit. But, drawn to calamity as we so often are, assessments often center on the body’s possible collapse next year, when the G-7 summit will be hosted in the US by Trump, who will go nowhere near the lengths to which Macron went to hold the last one together. (On the contrary, Trump’s interest in the summit seems to revolve around his desire to hold it at his struggling golf resort in Doral, Florida.)
But this perspective fails to recognize the full implications of the Biarritz summit: it signals a broader shift in international governance away from concrete policy cooperation toward vague statements and ad hoc solutions. To some extent, the G-20 pioneered this approach, but at least it had vision and a set direction. That can no longer be expected.
Unless leaders take stock of the current trend, the conclusion of the Biarritz summit will be a marker of the world order’s future -- ending not with a bang, but with a whimper.Ana Palacio
Ana Palacio is former minister of foreign affairs of Spain and former senior vice president and general counsel of the World Bank Group. She is a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University. -- Ed.(Project Syndicate)