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Trump wants to expand the G-7. Is he right?

The coronavirus pandemic has upended diplomacy around the world as the face-to-face interactions it thrives on suddenly became fraught with risk. While President Trump hoped this year’s meeting of the Group of Seven advanced economies (G-7) might be spared from the disruption, it was not. After it became clear that other leaders would not attend a planned gathering in June, Trump reluctantly announced on May 30 that the 2020 G-7 summit would be postponed (for a second time) to September or later.

Beyond representing a setback to the president’s efforts to demonstrate that the U.S had vanquished the virus, the announcement was notable for Trump’s proposal that the postponed summit include four additional countries: Australia, South Korea, India, and Russia. “I don’t feel that as a G-7 it properly represents what’s going on in the world,” explained Trump, who reportedly wishes to make China a central topic of the meeting.

The idea, however, received quick and sharp pushback. Both the British and Canadian prime ministers let it be known that they would veto any move to readmit Russia, which was suspended from the club (then the G-8) following its 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Since then, they argue, Moscow has continued to violate the international norms that a responsible stakeholder in the multilateral forum would be expected to follow.

This criticism is justified. From its persistent propagation of disinformation to its malign financial backing of foreign political parties, the Kremlin has clearly demonstrated a desire to interfere with and subvert democracy in recent years. Unless Moscow radically changes its behavior, it has no place in a self-professed “community of values” upholding principles of “freedom and human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

So much, then, for Russia. How about the others? Separately from Trump’s proposal, the British government recently suggested the formation of a “D-10” group (including the G-7 nations plus Australia, South Korea, and India), which would coordinate to promote alternatives to Chinese suppliers for critical emerging technologies such as 5G. This idea has gained some traction, with certain thinkers even recommending that the D-10 widen its functional scope and replace the G-7 altogether. The rationale is primarily geostrategic – as the Asia-Pacific region amasses a progressively greater share of global wealth and power, the geographical balance within the club of the world’s leading democracies should reflect this new reality.

From a purely strategic perspective, this is sound logic. To counter Beijing’s increasingly aggressive tactics around the world, there will need to be greater cooperation among Western democracies and their allies that neighbor China. While the three countries mentioned are all valuable partners in this effort, they do not all demonstrate equal commitment to upholding the values of the G-7.

Specifically, it is important to distinguish between Australia and South Korea on the one hand, and India on the other. Looking at the 2020 global freedom rankings, published by Freedom House, one can see that all current G-7 nations obtained a score of at least 86/100 and are firmly established in the “free” category. Australia and South Korea have scores of 97/100 and 83/100 respectively, making them clear fits for the group. India, however, does considerably worse – its score of 71/100 puts it on the verge of classification as “partly free” and is nearly identical to that of Hungary or Tunisia.

Even more worryingly, India recorded the largest decline in score of any of the world’s 25 largest democracies from 2019 to 2020. This backsliding was due to a range of alarming actions by the Hindu nationalist government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including the introduction of new discriminatory laws against Muslims and the brutal suppression of those who protested against them.

Of course, it is important not to exaggerate these setbacks. India does not come anywhere close to being an autocracy in the mold of Russia or China. And it is not the only large democracy trending in a negative direction – the United States, for example, has become significantly less free since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and now registers the worst freedom score among current G-7 members.

Nevertheless, the status quo in India should prompt reconsideration of its inclusion in an expanded G-7 for the time being. If it wishes to remain relevant, the club must retain high standards for its members’ commitment to freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. This is especially true given the increasing preeminence of the G-20 for economic discourse, as the G-7’s claim to global influence now rests on the legitimacy of its distinction as a community of values.

The best course of action for the time being is for the G-7 to become the “G-9+”: this would have Australia and South Korea as full members and give India  (perhaps along with other countries such as South Africa or Brazil) associate membership status with the potential for a future upgrade. Such a format would allow the organization to update itself for present-day realities without sacrificing its ideals.

In a final tally, then, President Trump’s proposal should receive a grade of 2/4, or 50% — not a disaster, but certainly not great either. What is abundantly clear is that he views expanding the G-7 as little more than an instrument for countering China, rather than a structure through which the U.S. can work with like-minded partners to advance its values in the world.


Nick Lokker

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