Tamlin Vickers and Anna Bailey of DRD Partnership, an international strategic communications firm advising embassies, corporates and global NGOs, discuss the diplomatic courses charted at the British-hosted G7
If there was a lesson to be drawn from the recent G7 summit – the first to be held in person since 2019 – it was that in international relations influence is better gained through taking an open and engaging approach rather than a combative and disengaged one. This applies equally to countries as it does to the press and other stakeholders. Despite UK efforts to present a resoundingly successful summit and position itself as a driver of a rejuvenated multilateralist era, the negative perceptions of how Boris Johnson’s government has behaved in relation to Brexit and on-going tensions on issues such as EU trade negotiations, vaccines and China were hard to shift. This wasn’t helped by the insistence on keeping stakeholders at arm’s length throughout the summit, giving rise to an accusation of style over substance and stage management. On the other hand, as is often the case with the Johnson government, credit should be given for the innovative and mould-breaking approach – sandy toes and bangers did feel more in tune with the post-pandemic era than grand banquets and formal statecraft.
Setting the scene
The summit was hosted in the picturesque coastal county of Cornwall, with full British pomp on display: leaders were hosted at the Eden Project by The Queen and the Prince of Wales, and there was a fly-over from the RAF’s Red Arrows. This careful choreography – complemented by the sun coming out for most of the summit – helped to create what was regarded by those present as a genuinely positive dynamic throughout. In keeping with previous
G7 moves to widen participation and bolster the club’s clout, invitations were extended to the leaders of India, South Africa, Australia and South Korea. This ad hoc expansion of participants is regarded as having been a success, and perhaps provides a prelude to a possible ‘D10’ club of democratic nations, which many feel would be better placed to counter the rise of China.
What did G7 leaders agree?
A ‘New Atlantic Charter’ was jointly presented at the outset of the summit by the US and the UK, in an effort to set the direction and inject impetus to the talks. The Charter set out aspirations for closer transatlantic cooperation on eight shared challenges, including climate change, the threat of cyber-attacks, future pandemics and electoral interference. For the US the initiative was a way for President Biden to signal his country’s return to the international stage, while for the UK it was a means to highlight the commitment of post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’ to a bold multilateral agenda.
Leaders’ discussions were said to be detailed and constructive, culminating in a wide range of commitments announced at the summit’s conclusion. On foreign policy, leaders reaffirmed a general commitment to upholding the rules-based international order and agreed to an infrastructure financing offer for the developing world, focused on supporting clean and green transitions (the details will be worked on by a taskforce, which is set to report back this autumn). This was a clear demonstration of the G7’s desire to provide an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
On the environment, Sir David Attenborough hosted a discussion about achieving net zero and reversing biodiversity loss. Some reasonably ambitious environmental goals were agreed, including a commitment to achieve net zero by 2050, to end international coal finance this year, and to protect at least 30 per cent of global land and 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030. On gender equality, leaders committed to increase funding for girls’ education and to prioritise gender equality in the post-pandemic global economic recovery. On COVID-19, a commitment was made to finance and donate a further billion vaccine doses, and to strengthen the global health system and improve surveillance of new diseases. In an effort to ease recent transatlantic (and indeed trans-English Channel) tensions over vaccine export restrictions, attendees affirmed a commitment to protect critical global supply chains.
The rebirth of multilateralism?
The summit was a welcome opportunity for leaders to
finally meet in person and to display unity on a range of pressing global issues. President Biden marked the US’ return to multilateral engagement, which was welcomed particularly warmly by continental European leaders, for whom the event was generally regarded as a success. Their number around the table, with Germany, France and Italy’s leaders joined by Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel, ensured they were able to have a strong influence on the outcomes. The EU is feeling buoyed by the recent success of its vaccine rollout following early missteps, and the prevailing view is that President Biden is helping to sustain this positive narrative through the reopening of channels between the US and EU.
As is often the case with these summits, however, the commitments made were largely symbolic. As such they were widely criticised as insufficient by a range of third parties, including the media, think-tanks and NGOs. Moreover, the veneer of unity on display could not gloss over the fact that challenges remain. As former Italian Ambassador, Stefano Cacciaguerra Ranghieri remarked to us, “while the Trumpian era of international relations has past, the global problems which developed before and during Trump’s presidency have not gone away.” Germany in particular continues to be concerned about US pressure for a tougher line on China; Chancellor Merkel’s visit to Washington on 15 July will be a chance for her to discuss this issue with the US administration.
The summit showed above all else that despite careful choreography and proactive diplomacy leading up to the event, the UK struggled to control the narrative, due to a combination of the ongoing Brexit-related tensions with the EU and a feeling of unease towards press and other stakeholders. The event highlighted how difficult it will be for the UK to position itself as a pillar of the rules-based international order while it is regarded as having turned its back on perhaps the most multilateral of all organisations, the EU. Moreover, recent UK actions on the Northern Ireland Protocol are being seen, particularly by European allies, as going against a collaborative spirit. In Germany, while it was noted that President Biden had not made an issue out of his irritation with the EU-UK tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol, it was also noted how Brexit had nonetheless cast a shadow over an otherwise harmonious summit.
The UK’s decision to keep the media at arm’s length – located an hour away, heavily restricted, few foreign journalists – can in part be explained by a genuine concern of governments to protect against leaks and cyber-attacks. However, many rightly ask how the G7 can pledge to defend democracy while neglecting their responsibility to be transparent and held to account by the media. It is worth noting that the Biden Administration performed better with the press pre-summit, sending National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on a whirlwind press tour around Carbis Bay on the Friday.
Returning to an open approach
There are genuine challenges around COVID-19 and cyber threats that continue to present challenges to a fully-functioning democracy, part of which is engagement with a free and questioning press. But the UK – advertently or not – allowed this to frustrate media at what could have been a more open and transparent event and left a lasting impression to some foreign press circles of a government that wanted style to triumph over substance. As we emerge from the pandemic we should seek to return as quickly as possible to accepting questioning from third parties if
we are to rebuild genuine dialogue and trust.
Tamlin Vickers is the Brussels-based Partner of DRD Partnership, while Anna Bailey is a London Associate of the firm. DRD is an international strategic communications firm, advising embassies, corporates and global NGOs. www.drdpartnership.com
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