Time and again over the last century, the United States and the other liberal democracies in Europe, East Asia, and elsewhere have found themselves on the same side in grand struggles over the terms of the world order. This political grouping has been given various names: the West, the free world, the trilateral world, the community of democracies. In one sense, it is a geopolitical formation, uniting North America, Europe, and Japan, among others. It is an artifact of the Cold War and U.S. hegemony, anchored in NATO and Washington’s East Asian alliances. In another sense, it is a non-geographic grouping, a loosely organized community defined by shared, universal-oriented political values and principles. It is an artifact of the rise and spread of liberal democracy as a way of life.
The closest thing this shape-shifting coalition of like-minded states has to formal leadership is the G-7, whose annual summit brings together the heads of seven major industrial democracies—Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States—and the presidents of the European Commission and European Council. It is not an international organization with a charter or secretariat. Its goals are only loosely defined, and its influence on the world stage has waxed and waned over the decades. But in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing challenge to the liberal international order, the G-7 has emerged as a dynamic coalition, positioned at the political epicenter of global efforts to defend democratic societies and what its leaders call the “rules-based international order.” As U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan aptly put it, the G-7 is the “steering committee of the free world.”
The G-7’s strong suit is its ability to foster solidarity and coordinate policies among the leading democratic stakeholders of the Western-oriented multilateral system. Its modus operandi is agenda-setting, coalition-building, cooperative policy action, and efforts to shape the global narrative. Presidents and prime ministers come and go, crises and policy conflicts erupt and fizzle out, but the work of the G-7 continues—namely, to build on decades of cooperation among like-minded states to protect and advance the fortunes of liberal democracy. In a fractured and divided world, this role is in increasing demand.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has illuminated—and partly triggered—today’s scramble by the great powers to shape global political alignments, coalitions, and groupings. Military aid, economic sanctions, United Nations votes, summit diplomacy, and alliance-signaling are the stuff of 21st-century world politics, and foreign-policy success or failure hinges on one’s ability to get large coalitions of states on one’s side. For Russia, its war against Ukraine is fueled by grievances about the encroachment of NATO and U.S. hegemony, while China sees the war as an opportunity to build support for a post-Western international order. Meanwhile, the global south has emerged as a loose and diverse grouping, and many countries are trying to stay on the sidelines as they hedge their geopolitical bets, draw on older principles of nonalignment, and navigate appeals from both sides. More of the world lives outside the G-7 than inside it, so the ability of the leading democracies to protect their equities and shape global rules and institutions depends more than ever on building coalitions. And this is where the G-7 comes in.
The G-7’s role in galvanizing cooperation among democracies was showcased at the group’s May summit, hosted by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in his hometown, Hiroshima. Calling the meeting the “most important in Japan’s history,” Kishida guided his counterparts toward agreement on a wide range of pressing global challenges. First and foremost, the leaders articulated a collective condemnation of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, arguing that it was an outrageous affront to the global system of rules and principles of order. The summit declaration reaffirmed the leaders’ commitment to the defense of a rules-based order, called for the peaceful settlement of territorial disputes, and urged all nations to rally to Ukraine’s defense. This is the G-7’s most elevated role, made all the more credible by Russia’s violent aggression: to speak for the community of nations, defend the core principles of the U.N. Charter, and make the case for the great modern-era project of building a cooperative world order with a glimmering of decency and justice.
With an eye on China, the G-7 leaders also said they would coordinate their efforts to prevent “cutting-edge technologies” developed in their countries from getting into the hands of rivals using them to build “military capabilities that threaten international peace and security.” If implemented, this would give the Biden administration an important buy-in from U.S. allies for creating targeted barriers to prevent the export of the most precious high-end technologies to China, a goal with profound implications for the long-term global balance of power. In the area of technology competition, partnerships and coalitions shape the patterns of winning and losing, and the G-7 process is singularly capable of fostering this sort of cross-regional and cross-sectoral cooperation. Indeed, new restrictions on technology investments in China announced by the Biden administration in August were first discussed in Hiroshima, with Britain and the European Union publicly stating they are considering similar measures.
During the Biden years, alliance cooperation across the liberal democratic world has entered a period of remarkable innovation and creativity. Japan under Kishida has committed to nearly doubling its defense budget, while Tokyo and Seoul have taken steps to work more closely in security affairs. It is no accident that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol was invited to Hiroshima. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also attended, and on the sidelines of the summit, the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad—Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—discussed the next steps of their cooperation, including on digital technology, undersea cables, and maritime infrastructure. Germany, too, has reoriented its security relations, strengthening its role in NATO and ending its energy dependency on Russia.
Japan and the EU have also signaled their intentions to strengthen their economic and security ties. Following the summit, Kishida and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met again in Brussels to announce a new trade initiative and the launch of a ministerial-level strategic dialogue. Many of these efforts to strengthen security cooperation among democratic states are still a work in progress, but the G-7 provides the most centralized venue for advancing policy coordination among democracies.
The Hiroshima summit also made efforts to reach out to swing states in the global south, symbolized by the presence of the Indian and Brazilian leaders. In various statements and communiqués, the leaders promised stronger economic engagement with developing countries. They affirmed their shared commitment to raising new capital—up to $600 billion—for the G-7 Partnership for Global Infrastructure Investment, a democratic response to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Competition with China has also given additional impetus to efforts by the G-7 countries to respond to calls from the global south for new assistance to alleviate crushing debt burdens and promote development.
The summit also showed how the event can provide a platform for the host leader to speak to the crisis of the moment. In light of Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in the context of its war in Ukraine, Kishida pressed the other G-7 leaders to sign a joint statement affirming their commitment to a “world without nuclear weapons.” This aspiration was given unusual profundity with Hiroshima as the setting for the summit. To be sure, the arms control and disarmament agenda is playing out in other forums, such as the P5 Process and the five-yearly NPT Review Conference. But the summit provided a unique opportunity for Kishida, whose home city suffered from the atom bomb, to rally states to “reject the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”
Over its 50 years of meetings, the G-7 has compiled a mixed record. The summit process began modestly in 1973 as the four-member Library Group, a periodic informal meeting of the U.S. treasury secretary and three European finance ministers, seeking to coordinate macroeconomic policies in the wake of the first oil shock and subsequent financial crisis. The grouping soon expanded its membership to include Japan, Italy, and Canada, and in 1975 it became an annual meeting of heads of state and government. In the G-7’s early years, the summits were devoted mainly to trade, finance, and monetary issues, with coordinating efforts run primarily out of finance ministries. During the Reagan era, the G-7 countries periodically expanded their consultations to national security and alliance issues. In the Clinton years, Russia was invited to join, creating a G-8, only to be disinvited in the aftermath of its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. During the Obama years, the G-7 was eclipsed by the G-20, which brought together a wider group of countries critical for the functioning of the world economy. But in contrast to the G-7, the G-20 never developed into a meaningful decision-making forum, and its record of fostering policy cooperation has been disappointing. Like other multilateral venues, the G-20 has fallen victim to the often sharply divergent agendas pursued by China and Russia on the one side and the Western democracies on the other.
The G-7 also has its limitations. When this grouping of states first met, the seven economies amounted to roughly two-thirds of global wealth, while the seven countries today account for about 44 percent of the global economy (or 51 percent including the rest of the EU). The summits have often been dismissed as photo opportunities, with little diplomatic or policy follow-through. There is no permanent organization with a historical memory or staff that can turn communiqués into action. Each year brings a new collection of leaders and strategic circumstances, and the success of these meetings depends on the leaders’ willingness to use the venue to foster cooperation. Then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s disastrous participation in the 2018 summit hosted by Canada shows how easy it is for a leader to disrupt the proceedings. At that summit, the Trump delegation objected to the communiqué that affirmed support for “the rules-based international order,” only reluctantly agreeing to it when “the” was changed to “a.” In the end, the acrimony led Trump to withdraw U.S. support for any communiqué.
Ultimately, the significance of the G-7 process hinges on its ability to operate as a sort of open club of democracies. The summit process provides a unique global setting that gives this grouping of states a platform to leverage their economic and geopolitical heft to push or pull a wider coalition of states in one direction or the other. Their collective identity as the world’s leading industrial democracies allows them to define and pursue shared strategic goals. Their political gravitas is built on the historic position of these states as the founders and curators of the multilateral institutions and security alliances that make up the liberal international order. Their moral gravitas is built on their willingness to at least attempt to live up to their own ideals—and their promises to build inclusive and fair rules and arrangements to solve global problems. Fifty years after its first meeting, the G-7 will need to build on these inherited capacities and expectations, finding ways to expand the coalition to include rising states that seek to be part of the governing grouping of the world’s democracies. Other countries, including the rising democracies of the global south, should be able to find a place at the table. The formal inclusion of the three countries already participating in G-7 summits on a regular basis—Australia, India, and South Korea—would make it the D-10, where the D stands for democracy.
The G-7 will be most successful if it operates as an inclusive club, using its trilateral networks across Asia, Europe, and North America to build coalitions that align with the long-term interests of the community of democracies. The rise of China as a systemic rival to this world of liberal states reinforces the importance of the G-7 as a coordinating entity. If the geopolitical competition between China and its democratic rivals is a chess game, it is a game in which each side can move multiple pieces at the same time while also adding pieces to the board. In today’s chess game to rewrite the rules of trade, technology, finance, security, energy, and the environment, the side with the largest coalition will have the upper hand. In this game, the G-7 gives the world’s democracies the advantage, coordinating moves and adding players to their team.
This story appears in the upcoming Fall 2023 print issue.