THE MULTILATERAL GUINEA PIG
James Landale, BBC News diplomatic correspondent, offers some ‘diplomatic lessons’ from the G7 in Cornwall
After many months slumbering in lockdown, diplomatic life is awakening. Lunches are being had face-to-face. Meetings sometimes now require travel. Embassy receptions are being planned with something approaching hope. Whisper it quietly, but even on occasion, behind closed doors, the handshake has begun to supplant the awkward elbow bump. The symbol of this diplomatic renaissance was the G7 summit in Cornwall, the start of this year’s multilateral season taking in Nato in Brussels, the G20 in Rome and COP26 in Glasgow. As such, the G7 was the guinea pig, a chance to see how international politics could fare amid the pandemic. Was it feasible or were the logistics insurmountable? The G7 was also a crucial first test of the UK government’s ‘Global Britain’ foreign policy. What follows then is a random selection of diplomatic lessons learned from that warm weekend in June when a slice of the western world descended on the Cornish riviera.
Seasides are good.
If you can, hold your G7 on the coast or at the very least along the shores of a river. This year in Carbis Bay followed the precedent set in recent years by Biarritz, La Malbaie and Taormina – littoral locations all. The visual optics for the television cameras are gorgeous. But more to the point, the pretty bays and stunning sunsets are supposed to make everyone feel good about life. How can a politician possibly argue about the position of a comma in a communiqué
when they have just walked bare foot on a beach? There is also the small side benefit that it is hard for protestors
to gather and demonstrate down inaccessible, windy lanes far from the comforts of metropolitan life.
Deploy a royal family.
If you have one, flaunt it. The British royal family was out in force in Cornwall. The Duchess of Cambridge visited a school with Jill Biden. The Queen hosted the leaders for drinks at the Eden Project and had Mr and Mrs Biden for tea at Windsor Castle. At a dinner, the Prince of Wales urged
G7 leaders to make greater efforts to protect the environment. His wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, was much admired for the way she hosted the world leaders while not neglecting a generous glass of red wine. For all the family melodramas, the British royals exude soft power. Statesmen and women can rarely hide their desire to meet a Queen who has known their predecessors since before 1952.
Subvert the format (Part 1).
The event may have been called the G7 but it was unofficially known as the D11. Alongside the original seven members were the leaders of India, Australia, South Korea, and South Africa. Much debate was – and is – being had about how democracies should organise themselves better internationally but it is clear that whoever hosts the G7 can mix it up and invite who they want. There is much caution among G7 members about giving another country an official G-spot but it is considered unlikely they will ever meet together alone again.
Subvert the format (Part 2).
Make sure you reach a consensus over who is coming to your G7 and what their status is. The President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, was the only representative from his continent in Cornwall. At his end of summit news conference, he made it very clear he was unhappy the African Union had not been invited too. He also noted dryly he had been referred to as a “guest” whereas in the past he had been described as a “partner”. Nomenclature is important in diplomacy. The G7 may not expand formally but there is a need for some kind of formulation in future
to make ex-officio attendees feel more welcome. This would be made easier if the purpose of this wider group of countries was agreed. There is quite a difference between an anti-China club and a loose coalition of liberal democracies that wants to share more technological know-how.
Subvert the format (Part 3).
G7s, like any summit, have a format, a liturgy of convention that includes the family photo. It has become a tired event – has any political leader ever printed this photograph and hung it up in their downstairs loo? – and some members are declaring UDI. In Carbis Bay, the European leaders – egged on by Emmanuel Macron – had a drink together outside the hotel and ostentatiously published photographs on their Twitter feeds. “As always, the same union, the same determination, the same enthusiasm! The G7 can begin,” declared the French President, seemingly unaware that he was not actually host this year. But the point was made: diplomatic conventions are there to be broken, or at least bent and the family photo is no longer sacrosanct.
Don’t get into a row about sausages.
The one thing you need as host is a clear desk before your summit. Try to avoid any rows that might highjack your agenda. In Carbis Bay, the UK ignored this advice and picked a fight with their continental guests over post-Brexit trade across the Irish sea. Regardless of the merits of the arguments, disputes like this tend to disrupt summits. Instead of focusing on the pandemic and climate change, the margins of this meeting were taken up in briefing wars over the Northern Ireland Protocol and a putative export ban on chilled meat products. The G7 could have been a moment to repair relationships and engender trust in congenial surroundings. Instead, both sides came away from Cornwall with hackles raised. So when it comes to summits, discussions about sausages should be strictly limited to the barbecue on the beach.
Don’t get too touchy feely.
One of the positive side effects of the pandemic has been the restoration of personal body space. The one man who seems to have missed the memo is Monsieur Macron. In Cornwall, the French president was all over Joe Biden like a coronavirus. When they walked, Mr Macron had his arm around the US president. When they stood, Mr Macron held his hand or touched his arm. The 78-year-old president responded to this excessive intimacy with the stiff aplomb of an aging Labrador being pestered by an enthusiastic puppy. One could almost be nostalgic for the long ‘grip and grimace’ handshakes between Mssrs Macron and Trump.
Don’t waste the communiqué.
The text of the communiqué is always released at the end of the summit. By then, much of the media is tired, bored and desperate to get home. There is a flurry of news conferences where the heads of government declare victory before rushing for their planes. The substance of what was agreed is frequently ignored. Yet, as everyone knows, the bulk of this document is negotiated weeks in advance. Here’s a free tip for future G7 sherpas: why not publish part of the communiqué during the summit, rather than at the end? Then, at least, a few more people may actually read it.
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.