The Complexity Of Foreign Policy Is On Display At The G-7 Summit

Heather Cox Richardson

Leaders from the Group of Seven (G7) met for their fiftieth summit in Italy from June 13 to June 15. Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States formed the G7 in 1975 as a forum for democracies with advanced economies to talk about political and economic issues. The European Union is also part of the forum, and this June, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky also attended.

This summit was a particularly fraught one. When it took office, the Biden-Harris administration, along with the State Department under Secretary of State Antony Blinken, set out to reshape global power structures not only in light of Trump’s attempt to abandon international alliances and replace them with transactional deals, but also in light of a larger change in international affairs. 

In a speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in September 2023, Blinken explained that the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union had promised a new era of peace and stability, with more international cooperation and political freedom. But while that period did, in fact, lift more than a billion people out of poverty, eradicate deadly diseases, and create historic lows in conflicts between state actors, it also gave rise to authoritarians determined to overthrow the international rules-based order. 

At the same time, non-state actors—international corporations; non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, that provide services to hundreds of millions of people across the globe; terrorists who can inflict catastrophic harm; and transnational criminal organizations that traffic illegal drugs, weapons, and human beings—have growing influence.

Forging international cooperation has become more and more complex, Blinken explained, at the same time that global problems are growing: the climate crisis, food insecurity, mass migration and mass displacement of populations, as well as the potential for new pandemics. In the midst of all this pressure, “many countries are hedging their bets.” 

They have lost faith in the international economic order, as a handful of governments have distorted the markets to gain unfair advantage while technology and globalization have hollowed out communities and inequality has skyrocketed. “Between 1980 and 2020,” Blinken noted, “the richest .1 percent accumulated the same wealth as the poorest 50 percent.” Those who feel the system is unfair are exacerbating the other drivers of political polarization. 

These developments have undermined the post–Cold War political order, Blinken said. “One era is ending, a new one is beginning, and the decisions that we make now will shape the future for decades to come.”

In his inaugural address on January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden vowed to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” Saying that “America’s alliances are our greatest asset” just weeks later at the State Department, the president and officers in the administration set out to rebuild alliances that had fallen into disrepair under Trump. They reinforced the international bodies that upheld a rules-based international order, bodies like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) organized in 1947 to stand against Soviet aggression and now a bulwark against Russian aggression. They began the process of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, both of which Trump had abandoned. 

Officials also worked to make international bodies more representative by, for example, welcoming into partnerships the African Union and Indonesia. They also broadened cooperation, as Blinken said, to “work with any country—including those with whom we disagree on important issues—so long as they want to deliver for their citizens, contribute to solving shared challenges, and uphold the international norms that we built together.”

At home, they worked to erase the “bright line” between foreign and domestic policy, investing in policies to bring jobs back to the U.S. both to restore the economic fairness they identified as important to democracy and to stabilize the supply chains that the pandemic had revealed to be a big national security threat. 

On April 28, 2021, in his first address to a joint session of Congress,  President Biden said he had told world leaders that “America is back.” But they responded: “[F]or how long?”  

That question was the backdrop to the G7 summit. Trump has said he will abandon international alliances, including NATO, in favor of a transactional foreign policy. He supports Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attempt to replace the rules-based international order with the idea that might makes right and that any strong country can grab the land of weaker states. 

Earlier this month, Biden used the occasion of the commemoration ceremonies around the 80th anniversary of D-Day to reinforce the international rules-based order and U.S. leadership in that system. On June 4, before Biden left for France, Massimo Calabresi published an interview with Biden in Time magazine in which Calabresi noted that the past 40 months have tested Biden’s vision. Russia reinvaded Ukraine in February 2022, and Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, 2023. Putin is trying to create “an axis of autocrats,” as Calabresi puts it, including the leaders of China and Iran, the state that is backing the non-state actors Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis of Yemen, and Hezbollah in Lebanon in order to destabilize Israel and the Arab states. China is threatening Taiwan. 

Calabresi pointed out that Biden has responded to these threats by shoring up NATO and welcoming to it Finland and Sweden, with their powerful militaries. His support has enabled Ukraine to decimate the Russian military, which has lost at least 87% of the 360,000 troops it had when it attacked Ukraine in February 2022, thus dramatically weakening a nation seen as a key foe in 2021. He has kept the war in Gaza from spreading into a regional conflict and has forced Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza, although the Palestinian death toll has continued to mount as Netanyahu has backed devastating attacks on Gaza. Biden’s comprehensive deal in the Middle East—an immediate ceasefire, the release of all hostages held by Hamas, a big increase in humanitarian aid to Gaza, and an enduring end to the crisis with the security of both Israelis and Palestinians assured—has yet to materialize.

In Italy the leaders at the G7 summit stood firm behind Biden’s articulated vision, saying that the G7 “is grounded in a shared commitment to respect the U.N. Charter, promote international peace and security, and uphold the free and open rules-based international order.” On hot-button issues, the G7 backed Biden’s Middle East deal and support for Ukraine, agreeing to transfer $50 billion to Ukraine from the interest earned on Russian assets frozen in the European Union and elsewhere. 

The Biden administration announced additional economic sanctions to isolate Russia even more from the international financial system. At the summit, on June 13, 2024, Presidents Biden and Zelensky signed a ten-year bilateral security agreement that commits the U.S. to supporting Ukraine with a wide range of military assistance but, unlike the NATO membership Ukraine wants, does not require that the U.S. send troops. The agreement is legally binding, but it is not a treaty ratified by the Senate. If he is reelected, Trump could end the agreement.

Immediately after the G7 summit, world leaders met in Switzerland for the Summit on Peace in Ukraine, held on June 15 and 16. Ukraine called the summit in hopes of persuading major countries from the global south to join and isolate Russia, but the group had to be content with demonstrating their own support for Ukraine. Vice President Kamala Harris, who attended the summit, today posted: “The more than 90 nations that gathered at the Summit on Peace in Ukraine hold a diverse range of views on global challenges and opportunities. We don’t always agree. But when it comes to Putin’s unprovoked, unjustified war—there is unity and solidarity in support of Ukraine and international rules and norms.”

Earlier this month, Finnish software and methodologies company Check First released a report exposing “a large-scale, cross-country, multi-platform disinformation campaign designed to spread pro-Russian propaganda in the West, with clear indicators of foreign interference and information manipulation.” The primary goal of “Operation Overload” is to overwhelm newsrooms and fact-checkers and spread “the Kremlin’s political agenda.” 

Foreign affairs journalist Anne Applebaum told Bill Kristol of The Bulwark that China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea do not share an ideology, but “they do share a common interest, and the common interest is undermining…America, Europe, the liberal world, the democratic world.” They do this, she said, because the oppositions in their own countries are inspired by and use the democratic language of freedom and liberty and rights and rule of law, and leaders need to undermine that language to hold onto power. They also recognize that chaos and uncertainty give them business opportunities in the West. Disrupting democracies by feeding radicalism makes the democratic world lose its sense of community and solidarity.

When it does that, Applebaum notes, it loses its ability to stand up to autocrats. 

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