In June 2010, one commentator described the end of the G8 Muskoka Summit as such: “The Muskoka G8 Summit is likely to be the last G8, a victim of the financial crisis and a global shift eastward as the G20 becomes the premier global economic forum.” A bold prediction, given that the G8 had been a mega event attracting more than 5,000 members of the media, civil society, and business leaders. And hundreds of thousands of activists. The end of the G8 did come, but not quite how it was predicted. It wasn’t usurped by the even larger G20, but rather renamed for the ousting of one of its members, Russia, four years later. And so, the G8 became the G7. And the G20 became an even bigger (yet, not more important) affair signaling perhaps the revival, not the end, of grand summitry.
There was a time when great powers attended large congresses and turned the course of history (think Treaty of Westphalia and the Paris Economic Conference). But those days seemed over (although one may argue that the upcoming U.S.-North Korea Summit to be held on June 12 in Singapore, is an example of the kind of summitry that rivals history). As political scientist Ian Bremmer coined it famously in his book Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World (2012), in a G-Zero world, there is a deficit of global leadership and no grand nation wants to shoulder all the responsibilities of such leadership alone. It’s true. Recent shifts towards isolationist politics and differences in approach to economy and society have made any consensus difficult to reach. But there is no platform more prominent than the G7 and G20, two forums within which the world’s top donor countries send their highest ranking political and economic leaders to discuss how best to approach the world economy.
The G7 (which currently consists of the U.S., the UK, Italy, France, Germany, Canada, and Japan) was initially created in 1975 as a setting within which non-Communist nations could address the numerous economic concerns spurred by the Cold War. With the eventual end of the Cold War and admittance of Russia in 1998, the G8 became representative of a vast majority of the world’s global GDP; but with the banning of Russia from the G8 in 2014 due to the country’s controversial annexation of Crimea (amongst numerous other international tensions), the G7 began to lose influence as its existing member states were unable to reach consensus on many international matters. While the G7 today represents almost half of the global GDP (46%), it is met with criticism regarding its ability to actually solve the world’s monetary issues as well as its failure to include emerging markets in its decision-making.
Enter the G20: With over twenty nation states represented as well as the European Union, the G20 represents a much larger percentage of the global GDP (80%) and two-thirds of the world’s population. With similar goals and structure as the G7, the G20 has the added ability of understanding the needs of not only the world’s largest powers, but emerging markets as well—but this benefit also often comes at the cost of little definitive consensus actually being made in regards to solving global economic issues, due to competing values amongst the countries.
In fact, while the G20 was extremely effective in situations such as the 2008 world financial crisis in bringing unprecedented cooperation amongst nearly all involved nations (i.e. keeping markets open, preventing countries from protectionist policies, and creating a stimulus that would cushion the drop in worldwide financial growth) it has—similar to the G7—seen a lack of cooperation amongst its members in recent years. Thus, it is fair to ponder if we are entering a world where these platforms can no longer effectively lead the world economy—and whether or not that’s a good thing.
There are several signs that point to the fact that we are already living in a G-Zero era: the departure of the UK from the European Union in 2016 resulted in significant controversy both within the European Union as well as throughout the world, leading to further fragmentation within an already conflicted European continent. Similarly, the U.S.’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was met with much discontent, with the balance of power disrupted through Asia, leading China to swiftly fill the hole left by the U.S. Perhaps most controversial of all, the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement demonstrates how the U.S. has relinquished its role as the world’s police.
With all of this fragmentation occurring around the world, the question is, then: are the G7 and G20 actually necessary to keep world order and peace? Can a different, more effective platform upon which leaders can meet be created? Or, should we embrace the G-Zero world for what it is?
Despite criticisms, the G7 will continue this year, with Canada set to host and serve as president for the forum this upcoming June. With a focus on sustainable finance and long-term prosperity, especially in regards to how the economy can contribute to the environment in beneficial and socially conscious ways, Canada’s goal for the G7 this year is to work with leaders to help solve the economic and environmental issues within Canada—and from there, figure out how to scale this knowledge to the rest of the world. It is perhaps in this way that the G7 (and G20) can regain its ability to better solve international issues, by bringing international attention to each other’s domestic issues.
Whether or not the G7 and G20 bring about the historic solutions our world needs, one thing is clear: power abhors vacuum. If the U.S. and others renounce their historic roles; others will fill in. The challenges our world faces are collective and they are of extraordinary proportions; we need a revival of the age of grand summitry to get through them. On its face, the G7 (and the G20) may not feel like the event of that magnitude. The representatives meet for less than two days. And they promise little more than their best efforts. But that doesn’t mean the forums are of less importance. If power and wealth (and problems) are truly shifting around the world, the coordination for solutions will become more necessary than ever.
About the author: Ana C. Rold is Founder and CEO of Diplomatic Courier, a Global Affairs Media Network. She teaches political science courses at Northeastern University and is the Host of The World in 2050–A Forum About Our Future. To engage with her on this article follow her on Twitter @ACRold.