The G-7: then, now, and forever.

Today wraps up the annual G-7 meeting in Biarritz. Much has been said and, true to the style of Emmanuel Macron, more still has been left unsaid. But in all the coverage of events, be it yesterday’s surprise visit by Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif or the by-now customary harrumphing of the Anglo hot-heads at the diplomatic table, the basic flaw with the G-7 meetings as global talking shops has gone unremarked. Again. 

Forty-four years ago, in 1975, the first ever group of industrialised nations meetings took place. That year it was a “G-6” of France, West Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain and the US who met to discuss the issues of the day. That year they also met in France, at the Chateau de Rambouillet outside Paris, where conditions were a good deal more cramped than at Biarritz: the British delegation had to work out of Napoleon’s bathroom.*

On one level, the setting for that first meeting could hardly have been more different. In 1975 the Cold War loomed large still. Not only was it West Germany in attendance that year, but the main reason for inviting the Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, was to remind him where his international allegiances lay. Moro’s Christian Democrats were seen by the Americans as having been a little too accommodating of the surging Italian Communist Party (PCI), and Moro needed bringing into line (three years later he would in fact be assassinated amid the country’s growing political factionalism).

Since then West Germany has become Germany again, the G6 has become the G7 (with the addition of Canada) and for a while even operated as the G-8 (in the years when Russia was included). Since 1981 it has also in effect been a G7+1, with the European Commission a permanently welcome guest. Much has changed in other words. Leaders now exchange twitter-spats in advance of their actual meetings.

But from 1975 to 2019 much remains the same as well.

Then as now, world leaders were meeting in the context of a wider economic unease. Then it was the great inflation of the 1970s; today it is the ongoing fallout from the financial crisis and the low inflationary era of slow growth it bequeathed. Across nearly half a century, and the world’s most powerful states remain, in other words, at the mercy of economic forces. Ironically, it was a dawning recognition of this fact that prompted the Rambouillet meeting in the first place. As West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt muttered before the event, part of the need for such a meeting was because his fellow-leaders: “lack an understanding of the complexity of problems of this, the worst crisis since the 1930s.” Arguably today they still do.

But then as now, the leaders of those same nations were also caught between trying to reach agreement on what to do about global issues and the entrenched domestic constituencies they would need to sell their commitments to. In 1975 the biggest loser coming out of the G-6 was Britain’s Harold Wilson, for example, who was forced at the meeting to make commitments to stay away from tariff barriers and to lower inflation – “We will not allow the recovery to falter. We will not accept another outburst of inflation,” read the final Communique he signed off on – even though this was precisely what the Trade Union movement at home was then pushing Wilson to do. He would end up paying for that choice with his job.

Then as now, finally, there was the year’s de facto ‘problem’ - the real issue that causes global leaders to get together, or that preoccupies them behind the scenes at least when they do. In 1975, a year after the first OPEC price spike, it was the need to reach agreement on monetary policy in the wake of the new-found power of the oil cartels; this year the Amazon is on fire and the only person doing something about it is a 16 year-old making her way across the Atlantic by boat.

In these facts, too, we see that the real agenda has in many ways not changed across half a century of meetings. In both cases, it is the web of structural dependencies linking carbon extraction to the political economy of an outdated liberal internationalism that poses the chief barrier to addressing real global social issues. It is the prior commitments of each leader present to maintaining the fragile authority of that out-dated international order that prevents them taking the necessary risks (though unnecessary risks there are a-plenty) needed to reform it from the domestic scene up.

“The Mandarins have been compressed, rather than suppressed,” quipped one wag from that cramped British delegation working out of Napoleon’s bathroom in 1975. He was right. The mandarins are not inclined to giving way at these meetings; it is not in their interests to do so. For that we need another international politics altogether.

*Rambouillet and the emergent politics of global summitry is dealt with in more detail in Chapter 4 of Empire of Democracy, in the context of the re-emergence of the European project and the break-up of the Cold War international framework.

Simon Reid-Henry