US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday convened the first ever virtual meeting of G7 foreign ministers amid the mounting coronavirus crisis. While the G7 may appear a body ill-suited to tackling the health emergency, with disagreements surfacing during the conference, it has always been at its best when reacting to the big issues of the moment.
The fact that it was founded in 1975, in the aftermath of the geopolitical and economic shocks following Washington’s withdrawal from the gold standard, underlines that it was designed for turbulent times. Back then, President Richard Nixon had resigned and there was a clear and imminent danger of currency wars. The G7 proved fit for purpose, playing a key role in the management of the most important exchange rates. It also brought Japan into the Western policymaking community, and we need a similarly far-sighted approach today.
Another example of the G7’s capacity for action was shown when it played an important role in convincing the Russians to pull the remnants of the Red Army out of the Baltic States in the 1990s — even though this issue was not on the formal schedule of discussion. This action was just one part of the lynchpin function the body played in the 1970s and 1980s in helping coordinate Western strategy toward the then-Soviet Union.
So the body has a proven record of stepping up to the plate when needed, and it could potentially play a significant role in coordinating an international response to the pandemic. This is especially so as the body is so well represented by European states, particularly Italy, France and Germany, which are currently at the center of the health emergency.
As well as this week’s foreign minister session and a parallel engagement on Tuesday between G7 finance ministers and central bankers, Donald Trump will convene the G7 leaders via video teleconference in April and May, and has also replaced the in-person G7 summit at Camp David in June with a videoconference. So there is now a clear pathway to coordinated action being taken in the weeks to come.
The key actions emerging from this week’s foreign minister session — despite disagreements between Pompeo and his counterparts over the former’s insistence that the pandemic be called the “Wuhan virus” — reinforced those from last week, when world leaders “committed to doing whatever is necessary to ensure a strong global response through closer cooperation and enhanced coordination of our efforts.”
It could potentially play a significant role in coordinating an international response to the pandemic.
The actions going forward will be fourfold. Firstly, a commitment to coordinate on public health measures to protect people at risk from coronavirus; secondly, to restore confidence and growth and protect jobs; thirdly, to support global trade and investment; and finally to encourage science, research and technological cooperation.
Take the example of the first and fourth pillars, where there is agreement to enhance efforts to strengthen health systems globally and work with the World Health Organization to foster its global mandate to lead on disease outbreaks and emergencies, as well as the private sector to assist global efforts such as the Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. There is also a commitment to increase coordinated research efforts, including through support for the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation.
On the second pillar, the G7 will mobilize monetary and fiscal measures to support the workers, companies and sectors that are most affected. At the same time, central bank coordination will provide the monetary measures to support economic and financial stability, and to promote recovery and growth. To this end, the G7 finance ministers will now liaise weekly to coordinate and implement this agenda.
There is clearly a role for international organizations . The G7 is therefore also working with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and others to support a coordinated global response, including designing and swiftly implementing the international financial assistance that is appropriate to help countries, including emerging and developing economies, face the health and economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic.
On the third pillar, there are work streams underway around facilitating international trade and investment, “not only to restore the level of growth anticipated before the pandemic but also to build the foundation for stronger future growth.” As the G7 leaders acknowledge, this will require coordination not just across the G7, but also the G20, to support and amplify these efforts.
This is a big agenda and it is to be hoped that the G7 will put aside recent divisions, particularly (but not exclusively) those between Trump and the other six leaders. These reached their nadir at the Canadian summit in 2018, but tensions still exist.
The coronavirus chaos allows the G7 to take an important step back and try to concentrate once again on the big strategic questions facing the West. There is no bigger short-term challenge than coronavirus and, if Western leaders can do this, it could help make the body relevant again, while also helping to neutralize the argument put forward by some developing countries that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the UN, or even G20, to engage in these international issues and/or is a historical artefact given the rise of new powers such as China and India.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.