Against a backdrop of unprecedented unrest – Europe’s first major war in three decades, the highest inflation rate in decades and a rapidly worsening global food crisis – Western leaders have gathered for two key summits. The G7 met in Germany and NATO leaders met in Madrid. The outcomes of both events indicate the limits of western-dominated global governance and increasing polarization.
Both summits were dominated by the war in Ukraine, and both pledged to continue to support Ukraine “for as long as it lasts”. But the immediate effects of such statements are symbolic at best.
On June 27, while G7 leaders were meeting at a castle in Bavaria, a Russian attack destroyed a shopping center in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, killing several people. And while NATO’s new strategic concept identified Russia as “the main and immediate threat to the security of the Allies and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”, Russian forces continued to step up their offensive in eastern Ukraine and they expanded their campaign of destruction. populated areas in Ukraine.
It would be unrealistic to expect summit declarations and commitments to lead to immediate and lasting solutions to the deep crises currently facing the world. But the problem exposed by both the G7 and NATO meetings runs deeper.
A ‘fair world’
The German G7 presidency adopted “progress towards a just world” as its target in January 2022. This was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, making it virtually impossible to make any meaningful progress towards such an ambitious goal. Not even falling back on climate change targets or mitigating it, let alone reversing it, seems like the worst of the global food crisis is beyond the reach of the leaders of the world’s richest democracies.
This is despite the announcement of an additional $4.5 billion (£3.7 billion) in funding to ensure global food security, bringing G7 pledges to more than $14 billion so far this year.
Even to more immediate challenges, such as the cost of living crisis, G7 leaders have few effective responses to offer. This is partly, if not mainly, because the main causes of the global economic crisis are simply beyond the control of a Western club of states.
There is not much they can do about Putin’s war in Ukraine, his blockade of Ukrainian food exports and his reduction of gas flows to the EU. The negative effects of these non-military instruments of war will only increase over time, especially when winter comes.
Nor do the G7 leaders have any influence over China’s zero-COVID policy. This poses a major challenge to global supply chains by disrupting the production of electronics and computer components and a range of other goods destined for global markets.
The continued absence of China – the world’s second largest economy – from the G7 is perhaps unsurprising, given that the G7 democracies and a country ruled by a communist party have little in common politically. But there was little sign of a truly more cooperative approach with China — rather a list of criticisms and demands aimed at China in the G7 leaders’ communiqué. This does not bode well for the future.
And the announcement of a $600 billion partnership for global infrastructure and investment to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative in developing countries smacks of desperation rather than a credible alternative. The partnership is significantly less ambitious than its failed predecessor, the Build Back Better World Partnership, announced at last year’s G7 summit.
Perhaps most telling of the G7’s constraints on modeling global governance in their own image was its failure to reach an agreement with other countries invited to the summit on the future direction of the international order. If there was any hope that the G7 and the EU would convince the leaders of Argentina, India, Indonesia, Senegal and South Africa to take a firm stance against Russian and Chinese attempts to destroy the current international order, then the rather empty “Resilient Democracies Statement” would make short shrift of them. It even mentioned the war in Ukraine only once.
This growing rift between a small group of wealthy liberal democracies and the rest of the world was also evident at NATO’s Madrid summit, albeit in a different way. Already in his opening statement, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg made it clear that this summit would “make important decisions to strengthen NATO in a more dangerous and competitive world where authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China openly rule-based international challenge order. †
These include the adoption of a new strategic concept, the increase in high-preparedness forces from currently 40,000 to 300,000 by next year, and an invitation to Finland and Sweden to join the alliance.
Stoltenberg may have denied during a press conference that there were discussions about creating a NATO equivalent in Asia-Pacific. But NATO members’ ambition for a more global defense and deterrence stance is clear from the list of invited partner countries, including Australia, Japan, Korea and New Zealand. According to the Declaration of the Madrid Summit, their participation “demonstrated the value of our cooperation in addressing shared security challenges”.
Taken together, the declining ability of the G7 to address critical economic problems at the global level and the downsizing of NATO members into a Cold War-style defensive and deterrent stance signal a fundamental change in the international order. The post-Cold War illusion of US-led unipolarity may be long gone, but neither will it be replaced by a multipolar world.
With Russia’s latest attempt to make its future tripolar stall on Ukraine’s battlefields, all signs are that countries around the world will have to decide whether to side with China or the US in a new bipolar future. The G7 and NATO summits may be the first signs that only a minority will choose the latter.