The annual summits of the Group of Seven (G7) rich democracies have only rarely been newsworthy affairs. In fact, during the 1990s and 2000s when I was editor in chief of The Economist we often chose not to send any journalists to cover these summits, because nothing really happened at them. Nevertheless it was important that the G7 continued to exist, however unnewsworthy most were, for the meetings have created a strong habit of consultation and cooperation between these countries, a habit which becomes valuable when there is an international crisis. Which is what we have now.

Some critics argue that the membership of the G7 is outdated and should become more inclusive to bring in a wider range of experiences and points of view. It is true, of course, that unlike in 1975-76 when the G7 idea was first invented, the member countries of the United States, Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Canada and Italy can no longer be said to dominate the world economy.

Yet these seven do still carry a very big weight in world affairs, especially once we remember that three of them really represent the 27-country European Union, that six of the countries are members of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) military alliance, and that the seventh, Japan, is also a treaty alliance partner of the United States.

Moreover, the seven still share one crucial characteristic: their political systems and basic values are close enough that they can reach agreements and take actions quite quickly and effectively when crises occur that represent a shared threat to all these countries’ interests. And we should recall that for 17 years, from 1997 to 2014, the G7 was in fact made more inclusive by adding Russia as a member, making it the G8.

No one can argue that post Cold War Russia was shunned by the leading western powers. It was only when President Vladimir Putin used military force to achieve the illegal annexation of the Ukrainian province of Crimea in 2014 that this inclusiveness was brought to an end.

The Russian invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine, in February 2022 was the greatest such common crisis faced by the G7 since the end of the Cold War, one that confirmed the true intentions behind Putin’s 2014 actions. The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001 was also a shared crisis, but one that most directly affected one member above all, namely the United States. The Russian invasion, with the economic shock it caused, and with the Russo-Chinese joint statement about geopolitics that preceded it by just a few weeks, was different because the implications of this crisis really are universal for the whole G7.

At one level, the sense of urgency and clarity of purpose that accompanies a truly universal crisis makes the planning and choreography of a G7 summit rather easier. In the days when these summits were simply photo-opportunities attached to routine discussions, a host nation had to be rather creative if it wanted to have an impact or be remembered. At a time of war, the agenda writes itself.

The most obvious effect of this on the Hiroshima summit hosted by Japan this weekend has been that the war in Ukraine inevitably overshadowed the initial expectation of the hosts putting a great emphasis on nuclear disarmament to reflect the choice of city. This is not a bad thing given that while all countries can agree on the importance of nuclear disarmament there is little chance of progress as long as the world is seeing confrontation between the major nuclear powers and the emergence of new nuclear weapons states such as North Korea and soon Iran.

Meanwhile, the G7 nations are impressively united on the main issues surrounding the Ukraine war: weapons and financial support for Ukraine, and sanctions against Russia. They are also increasingly united on the other big threat facing the world, namely the need to act so as to deter any conflict over Taiwan. The big planned increase in Japan’s defence budget and the country’s new national security strategy have given Japan and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida a central place in that effort, arguably making Japanese policy more important than at any previous moment in the G7’s history.

This unity can be expected to last at least until the 2024 US Presidential election. The spectre of a second White House term for Donald Trump casts a dark shadow over the longer term unity and credibility of the G7. There is little doubt that all the leaders present in Hiroshima, and not just President Joe Biden, will be hoping that Trump will fail. But there is also another big challenge that lies in the background of this year’s G7 and that will remain prominent in the coming year. It is that alongside deterrence the G7 countries know that they also need to raise their game in diplomacy. And agreeing upon how to do that is far from simple.

They need to raise their game in diplomacy because, powerful as they are in economic and military terms, it is clear that the vast majority of other countries in the world are not on their side either over the conflict in Ukraine or over their growing competition with China. That vast majority of other countries is not on Russia’s or China’s side either. In fact, large emerging powers such as India and Indonesia do not want to be on anyone’s side and prefer to pursue their own national interests.

The first task of G7 diplomacy is to keep things this way: in other words, to convince such countries to stay non-aligned rather than becoming closer to China. Inviting the leaders of India and Indonesia to attend the Hiroshima G7 summit was a helpful gesture towards this goal. But gestures are not enough. National measures, led by the United States and Japan, to increase economic security have produced added tensions with some non-aligned countries that fear they and their companies will be adversely affected.

The economic and financial magnetism of China is strong, even if China is no longer enjoying the rapid economic growth it once did. China’s role as the world’s leading provider of credit to governments, both from poor countries and middle-income ones, has added to this magnetism.

The G7 countries also have economic and financial magnetism, but during the covid pandemic and following the Russian invasion of Ukraine they have not looked as generous or resourceful as they once did. At times, they have also appeared self-serving and sometimes overly sanctimonious in the conditions they have attached to their support.

In coming years, the G7 countries are going to need to work hard to change this perception. They will also need to find ways to engage more diplomatically with China itself. That, however, might also become easier if they can show convincingly that they are building strong friendships, beyond military alliances, with other key countries in the Indo-Pacific region in particular. An authoritarian superpower like China respects strength, and alongside the G7’s economic and military strength we also need to see more diplomatic strength too.

This article was originally published in Bill Emmott’s Global View substack. Subscribe here.

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