Last week’s G-7 summit was a mostly drama-free affair. The confrontation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came only after the summit ended. Members of the G-7, including the United States, issued a joint communique in which they agreed on the need for free and fair trade. The U.S. withdrew its support, and a war of words between the heads of state of two staunch allies ensued. Putting their spat in perspective requires an understanding of what the G-7 actually is.

What we now call the G-7 was meant to be an organization of the leading industrial countries in the world. It originated in the 1970s in response to the Arab oil embargo, which had hit the industrial world hard. It hit back by forming an entity that represented the major industrial powers that were struggling with high energy prices.

What the group was supposed to do remains unclear. What’s clear is that it accomplished very little. It didn’t speak with one voice, nor did the supply and demand of oil give the group much leverage over OPEC. So the group convened a summit and issued communiques, and what had been a response to a specific event became an annual meeting.

Without a specific purpose, it has become a meeting of the world’s major economic powers. Except that some of the leading economic powers in 1973 are no longer the leading powers in 2018. Its members – the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada and the United Kingdom – are relatively unchanged. But Italy now has the eighth-largest economy. Canada has the 10th-largest economy. Russia, now the 11th-largest economy, was part of a G-8 for a while, but it was banished because of its behavior in Crimea. But most important, China and India boast the second- and seventh-largest economies in the world and yet are not members.

If the G-7 were constituted by the top seven economies in the world, it would probably hold different meetings with different agendas. Not having China and India at the table, after all, makes any decisions taken on economic matters of limited importance. Their inclusion may not make the G-7 any more viable as anything more than a forum for discussion, but the bigger point is that like many institutions of its ilk, the G-7 is frozen in a time that no longer exists. During the Cold War, its members arguably did represent the bulk of the world’s industrial. But it remains a fundamentally Euro-American creation, consisting of Euro-American agendas that dominate the event out of the sheer number of leaders there.

That agenda, of course, is provincial. It fails to represent the complexities that a contemporary global power like the United States is concerned with. This year’s summit was a case in point. For the Europeans and Canada, this meeting was an end in itself, a forum to jointly voice their displeasure about tariffs. For Trump, it was merely a pit stop on the way to Singapore and the North Korea talks. That was probably also the case for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for whom North Korea is not as distant an affair as it is for the Europeans. They have opinions, but they have little skin in that game. Again: Had China and India been invited, North Korea may have been a more prominent item on the agenda.

Which is not to say that trade tariffs don’t matter. They do. But they matter in different ways to different countries. And this goes to the heart of one of the biggest problems facing the G-7: The consensus, such as it is, sought by its members is getting harder to reach. It’s difficult enough when the group’s purpose is clear and its membership appropriate. But they aren’t. The international order changes, and if institutions like the G-7 are to be useful at all, they have to change with it. And until the G-7 adapts to the times, episodes like this weekend’s between leaders will continue to pop up regardless of who’s in the White House.

This article originally appeared on Geopoliticalfutures.com and is republished with permission.

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1 Comment on "The G-7, Frozen in Time"

  1. In many ways, the G-6,7,8,9 (depending on era) is a strange beast that appears to be about saying that we will not shred the world up by being overly nationalistic while being overly nationalistic. It is that old adage that if you keep talking you might not eliminate a possible armageddon, but you will kick it into the long grass.

    When it comes to relative economies, really it is even madder than you paint.

    Governments (The UK’s in particular) love drawing the picture of a nice league table with the US at number one, China at 2, and so on.

    But, though that is true, it is also misleading. If you draw this on a graph, perhaps just taking in the top twenty, it looks very different.

    Right at the top of the steepest part of the line is the US. About halfway down in China, for though they are second, the US is hugely richer. Then the long line continues down to just about the bottom of the graph, and there are the rest of us, dwarfed by the two biggies and jostling for position.

    If you like, if you compare this to the London Marathon, the US is the wheelchair racers, by far the fastest, China is the elite runners, and the rest of us are the amateur runners, some in fancy dress.

    But, while we pretend we are all equals, and while we pretend that we think globally, we will continue to need talking shops to cover up that we would rather go back to restrictive trading practices and be ripping each other off as much as possible. A bit of imperialism thrown in would be quite nice too.

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