In the build-up to this week’s G7 summit, a wide range of issues, from climate change to the global economy have been discussed by Western ministers. However, the overriding issue to be discussed in Hiroshima from May 19-21 is the conflict in Ukraine and its ongoing ramifications.
It is getting close to 500 days since Russia’s invasion, and there is no obvious sign that the conflict will be over any time soon. This was highlighted last Tuesday by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said: “I don’t think peace negotiations are possible at the moment. … Both sides are convinced they can win … I don’t see Russia being willing to pull out of the territories it’s occupying at the moment and I think Ukraine is hoping to retake them.”
The outcome of the conflict therefore remains highly uncertain. What is much clearer is the galvanizing effect it has had on the West, including the G7, in the past year and a half.
While Joe Biden is still widely criticized, it is his presidency that has helped rebuild and renew the transatlantic and wider Western alliance, and also highlight the areas in which international cooperation is now most urgently needed.
The G7’s revival as a political and economic force has surprised many, especially after the woes of Donald Trump’s presidency, and also the early successes of the G20 after it became a leadership forum following the 2007-08 financial crisis.
Indeed, for some time it was speculated that the G7 might even cease to exist. Part of the reason for that was the G7’s declining share of the world economy. In the 1970s, the members of the Western club were responsible for about 80 percent of global gross domestic product; the figure is now closer to 30 percent.
Fast forward to 2023, however, and the unexpectedly unified Western response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has renewed the G7’s self-confidence. To be sure, that might yet unravel, especially if there are any “bumps in the road” arising from Ukraine.
One such challenge could be the return of higher energy prices. Last Tuesday, for example, Goldman Sachs predicted gas prices will nearly treble this coming winter across Europe. It forecast prices could rise above €100 ($108) per megawatt hour in the second half of this year, compared with the current €36.
However, for now at least, there has been a reversal of the trend in the years between 2017 and 2021 when a dominant narrative was the uncertainty about the enduring purpose of the West (which some analysts termed “Westlessness”).
It should be remembered, too, that while the G7’s membership no longer includes all of the world’s most-dominant economies, as it did in the 1970s, it still retains significant economic strength and its members accounted for almost 15 percent of global GDP growth in the period from 2012 to 2022.
Of course, key questions about the future of the West predate Trump’s term as US president. Moreover, it is not only Trump who has highlighted the problems with key Western alliances, as illustrated by the UK’s Brexit vote in 2016 to leave the EU.
What is now needed is a multiyear dialogue during which forums such as NATO and the G7 step up to the plate.
Yet, there is no question that Trump’s presidency intensified the concerns about the future of the West, which is why there has been such a sense of urgency among transatlantic partners since then to develop a strategy for a new, unfolding era of great-power competition.
The revival of the West as the world’s leading political and economic force is far from complete, however, even now. Significantly more needs to be done to accomplish Biden’s goal of seeing the Western community reunify against what he perceives as common challenges from not only Russia but also China.
One necessary move is for all key parties, including the EU, Canada and Japan, to acknowledge that it might not be possible for the old liberal order to be brought back in exactly the same form as before. Desirable as that might be for many, it is now clear that a return to the full mosaic of the old rules-based international order might not be realistic, not least given that significant portions of populations in Western societies remain supportive of populist leaders such as Trump.
The window offered by Biden’s presidency is therefore the right moment to try to address these issues. It is also the time to explore what a new Western-led approach to global governance should look like.
A prerequisite for enabling these goals is concentrating on the big strategic questions facing the West. While Ukraine is currently top of that list, there are many more beyond it.
One example is the future of international trade, more than a quarter of a century after the creation of the World Trade Organization. This system is creaking and may yet collapse under the strain of recent sanctions imposed around the globe.
To help address this, and other key questions, there is a need for more of the West, and its allies, to agree that there are a range of economic, and not just military, challenges that are better met together. What is now needed is a multiyear dialogue during which forums such as NATO and the G7, imperfect though they are, step up to the plate, given that they are organizations of powerful, like-minded democracies with shared values.
Some skeptics will say nothing significant will change any time soon. Yet this might be too pessimistic.
At this latest moment of geopolitical and economic crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 2023 and 2024 might well prove to be decisive years during which to build the foundations of a renewed West, a project that would be galvanized if Biden wins a second term in next year’s election.