With Russia Out of the G8, What About the G7 and G20?

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Prime Minister Harper has insistently demanded that Russia be expelled from the G8. But what sort of G7 will survive that action? And what happens to the G20?

For now, the situation was resolved at Monday’s crisis G7 meeting called by President Obama as an add-on to a nuclear summit this week. The Sochi G8 is cancelled and the G7 core will instead have a friendly chat with each other in Brussels. The G8 is suspended, Russia is not quite expelled.

Whatever the temporary outcome, what will now be left for the G7 as a global leadership forum (as opposed to a dinner club with quality photo-ops for a cabal of Western leaders)?

All the indications are that Europe was and remains divided, especially its unofficial leader, German Chancellor Merkel. Its more cautious perspective will ultimately count for a lot more than the Canadian bravado and appeals to jingoistic Canadian voters. The biggest enthusiasts for expulsion are probably underemployed NATO planners in Brussels. However, as today’s heightened tensions ease and a likely less-than-perfect electoral process happens in Ukraine, sober minds will likely prevail.

The interesting questions are about the longer-term implications for global governance. Whatever the temporary outcome, what will now be left for the G7 as a global leadership forum (as opposed to a dinner club with quality photo-ops for a cabal of Western leaders)? Over the past several years, both U.S. and French leaders have mused that it was time to drop the ritual.

The now further diminished G7 will soon be no more globally powerful than the BRICS. President Obama, running from Congressional hawks—and even Mr. Harper, responding to a million Canadian Ukrainians—will have noticed the stony silence from their powerful G20 peers on the topic of  reversing Crimea’s return to the Tsarist Russia fold.

It would seem the global South does not like the G7 tendency to interventionism. The BRICS have already issued a statement dismissing the musing of Australia’s PM that he might also un-invite Russia from the G20 he hosts this year. They said simply the G20 is ours, not your political plaything.

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All this may be good news for a G20 which recently had been looking prematurely aged as an institution. Its non-G7 members, both BRICS and even other smaller Western nations, would be happy to see a diminished G7, which they viewed as wasteful when it just talked and disturbing when it sought to play tough.

The G20 had been upgraded from a club of finance ministers into being ‘the global summit’ when a reluctant George Bush realized that the U.S., even with its Western partners, could not cope alone with the global financial crisis. It needed the help of the emerging economies (the BRICS), notably India, China and Brazil. (As a political footnote, Russia has a seat in all these clubs: the BRICS, G20 and even a special Asian political forum with China.)

The G20 did a great job getting together the fiscal stimulus effort that pulled us all back from a second Great Crash. But now the G20’s core activity is fine-tuning financial processes and regulations designed to ensure that another group of New York and London-based bankers cannot create a global slump. This is important work, but is best suited to the skill set of central bankers, not presidents. Today’s G20 is looking boringly technocratic—not a desirable image for the new global leadership forum.

How might the G20 move ahead to fill the G7 void? On the surface, it suffers simultaneously from being too diverse and not properly inclusive. But diversity should be its strength. When the G7 squabbles (as it often does), it is too much the bickering of rich old men (with only one woman, Chancellor Merkel) who often ignore the poverty and insecurity that still is the global norm. When the G20 cannot agree, it is because of something more fundamental: the fact that the industrialized West and its critically important global neighbours have yet to understand what a global partnership is and how to make it happen.

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When India and Brazil blocked consensus in the WTO, it is because they perceived the offers on the table to be protecting the richer West’s desires for continuing privileges with respect to tariffs and agricultural subsidies. A response of the West, including a relatively innocent Canada, is to create a Trans-Pacific Partnership, seen by its critics as a defensive trade deal designed to largely exclude the non-OECD developing world, most notably China. (China—and incidentally Russia—are presumably two of the largest Pacific nations).

The developing South’s response is equally defensive. It de facto refuses to take on its share of global leadership. It is wary of entering into meaningful partnerships around fundamental issues such as climate change and international development.

A diminished G7 will provide the opening that should re-energize the G20. If there is future friction in the latter body, it will more likely be because truly global issues are being discussed with all major stakeholders at the table, as opposed to the chatter of a clique of powerful nations trying to preserve political and economic privileges. The G20 will also need to clean up its institutional act, including formalizing a voice for the poorest nations in its deliberations. With a weak (or non-existent) G7, the G20’s agenda will automatically broaden to currently forbidden topics such as global security or climate change. At least in that body (unlike the Security Council), nobody has a veto and consensus is the working rule.

And what of the G7, that body to which Canada was added as an afterthought because the U.S. was feeling lonely with all those Europeans? First, it will stop pretending it is a place for global decisions; at best it will be a club to co-ordinate minority Western interests. Its members will be preoccupied for now with their own struggle to recover from the global financial crisis. In parallel, they will need to change their style to be more effective and willing partners. Eventually, to the regret of few outsiders, it will wither away altogether.

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