G7 summit at Carbis Bay: the limits of multilateralism?

This post is by Dr Haro Karkour, Online Tutor for Queen Mary Online's MA in International Relations and MSc in International Public Policy. Haro's research focuses on International Relations (IR) Theory. 

‘We, the leaders of the Group of Seven, met in Cornwall on 11-13 June 2021 determined to beat Covid-19 and build back better’ reads the opening paragraph of the Carbis Bay G7 summit communiqué. Aside from defeating Covid-19, the summit aimed to tackle climate change, support ‘free and fair trade’, regulate the ‘free flow of data’ and strengthen the democratic alliance against human rights abuses by authoritarian regimes.

How can students of IR Theory make sense of the recent G7 summit? Liberals, of whom Biden is exemplar, perceive in the summit’s goals a revival of multilateralism. That is, the summit represents liberal democracies working together to defend liberal values such as democracy and human rights, as well as the protection of the international economic order based on free trade. Realists, however, would offer a bleaker picture. How would realists make sense of the G7 summit?

A realist analysis of the G7 summit would first point out the discrepancy between the nations’ aspirations and a reality that falls short of this aspiration. To a realist, this failure can be explained by the fact that the nation state, the main actor in the international scene, chooses sub-optimal outcomes, rather than cooperation for the common good.

Take for instance the summit’s aspiration to beat the pandemic by vaccinating 70% of the globe. Although the price of inoculating 70% of the globe is $50 billion, this number is dwarfed by the benefit it offers: increased economic output, estimated at $9 by 2025.

And yet, Covax remains billions of jabs short while advanced democracies such as the UK accumulated enough doses to vaccinate their population five times over. Between hunting a stag collectively or a hare individually, as realists would put it, the UK chose to hunt a hare.

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A realist analysis would, secondly, raise suspicion about the G7’s calls for ‘common rules’ to govern cyber space and ‘fair’ trade practices. While a liberal would present these as ultimate goals to promote ‘free societies’, a realist would pause and question who these rules serve at the expense of whom.

A call for ‘free flow of data’ for example, disproportionately benefits the US at the expense of China, which has the advantage of a large population and pool of personal data, necessary for machine learning. Chinese ‘data nationalism’ is of course incompatible with a multilateral system of free trade. But so is Biden’s economic nationalism to protect American jobs and ensure productivity. Both prioritise the national over the international; the political over the economic.

Based on these observations, a realist would note that the G7 outlived its time, akin to a station whose last train has departed. The world is no more dominated by liberal democracies, and nor pushing the democratic agenda is in every country’s national interest.

The US today needs to either compromise with illiberal regimes to revive a genuine multilateral order or accept the bifurcation of the world into ideological camps. In response to the Biden-led ‘united front’ at the G7, for instance, China on 15 June flew 20 fighter jets, along with four military aircraft and nuclear-capable bombers into Taiwan’s air defence zone.

The realist analysis of the G7 summit is thus sobering. In contradiction to the liberal aspiration for an international order where multilateralism is the order of the day, the summit for a realist is representative of a world that is ideologically bifurcated.

To be sure, this bifurcation is not caused by the summit, since for instance in the last year China and Russia ramped up joint military exercises in the Caucasus and Indian Ocean. But nor does the summit alleviate its worst consequences. The harder the Biden team pushes its liberal democratic agenda, as it did at the G7 summit, the tighter Russo-Chinese military cooperation will become.

Kenneth Waltz, the father of neo-realism in IR, predicted in 1993 that ‘in the fairly near future, say ten to twenty years’ new powers may rise to balance US power’. Although 10 years off the mark, Waltz was ultimately correct in his assessment . The balance of power remains relevant and in full operation with the US and its allies on one side, and China, along with Russia, on the other.

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Topics: MA in International Relations

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