Somewhere in China, a company recently received an order for boxes and boxes of reusable face masks with G7 UK 2021 embroidered on them. Over the weekend in Cornwall, in southwest England, these little bits of protective cloth were handed to journalists covering the 2021 summit of some of the world’s most powerful industrial economies—so they could write in safety about these leaders’ efforts to contain China.
The irony of the situation neatly summed up the trouble with this year’s G7 summit. The gathering was supposed to mark a turning point, a physical meeting symbolizing not only the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic but also a return to something approaching normalcy after the years of Donald Trump and Brexit. And in certain senses it was. With Joe Biden—the walking embodiment of the traditional American paterfamilias that Trump was not—no one feared a sudden explosion or American walkout as before. Biden is not the sort of person to hurl Starbursts at another leader in a fit of pique. And yet, the reality was that the leaders in attendance were playing their diplomatic games within tram lines graffitied on the floor largely by the former U.S. president, not the incumbent one.
Emerging from a weekend of summitry last night, it was hard to avoid the reality that the great questions hanging over the gathering were ones shaped either by Trump or by the years of Trump: Europe’s frustration with American vaccine protectionism (which began under Trump but has been maintained by Biden), ongoing disputes over Brexit, the future of NATO, worries over Russian interference, and, ultimately, China, the great other at this event. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in her closing remarks: “Look, the election of Joe Biden as U.S. president doesn’t mean that the world no longer has problems.”
Everywhere you looked—whether in the communiqué itself, or the press conferences and summaries of leaders’ meetings—you could see the unresolved questions of the past few years, as presidents and prime ministers reacted to the problems thrown up, exacerbated, or actively caused by Trump. All agreed that they wanted to move on from the instability of his tenure, but they seemed divided and unclear about how, never mind what the new era should look like. With Biden’s congressional majority in doubt and Trump’s future intentions uncertain, Europe retains a latent fear that the U.S. is merely between eruptions, not recovering from one.
The leaders seemed to embody this sense of time being paused. Merkel has been chancellor so long, she attended her first G7 summit with George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Italy’s Mario Draghi might be a new prime minister, but he is no stranger to the world’s global establishment—a representative of the old order if ever there was one. Even Biden himself, hailed as a “breath of fresh air” by the summit’s host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is hardly a new face on the world stage.
Ultimately, this G7 summit seemed to be stuck somewhere between the past and the future—between the era of Trump and the world some of these politicians hope to create.
Although each country had its own objectives at the summit—and several tangible deals were agreed upon, including a minimum corporate-tax rate and hundreds of millions of vaccine doses to be exported to the world’s poor—the true focus of this meeting was not on the official agenda. Amanda Sloat, Biden’s adviser on European affairs who traveled with him to Cornwall, said the “overarching theme” of the summit was the rise of China.
A senior White House official insisted in a briefing with reporters that there was a striking amount of convergence among G7 attendees, as the other powers moved closer to the U.S. agenda than they had been willing to under Trump. And unlike in 2018, when leaders could not agree on how to confront the thorny issue of China, this year’s final communiqué did explicitly mention the country on everybody’s mind.
While this reveals the strength of Biden’s diplomatic approach over Trump’s, would China have been one of the summit’s dilemmas without the four years of chaos under the old regime? As Thomas Wright wrote in The Atlantic, just two years ago the current U.S. president was arguing that America did not need to worry about China. “Come on, man,” Biden had declared. “They’re not competition for us.”
Britain’s leader was of a similar view not so long ago as well. “Let me assert this as powerfully as I can,” Johnson wrote in 2005: “We do not need to fear the Chinese.” He added: “The Chinese have neither the ability nor the inclination to dominate the world. They merely want to trade freely, and they should be encouraged.” Johnson, whose views were in line with much of the British establishment’s at the time, argued that Beijing’s integration into the world economy was an “unalloyed good” and that Britain and other countries should not respond with such “chicken-hearted paranoia.”
Washington now has a bipartisan consensus that China is a strategic and ideological rival. Johnson too has dramatically shifted his stance, as has the British government writ large. As host of this year’s summit, Johnson portrayed the meeting as an alliance of “the great democracies of the world.”
This is a vision that is perfectly aligned with Biden’s, in which global democracies are locked in a battle with an autocratic wing led by China. And—despite this particular summit seeming unsure of whether it was part of the past or ready for the future—this is where Biden most clearly differed from Trump, and the outlines of a new era could be seen.
Trump saw the world in terms of power, not values, and wanted Russia (which had been ejected from what was then the G8 for its annexation of Crimea) brought back into the fold. Biden sees a world where democracy must be defended, and in Cornwall succeeded in pivoting the G7 toward this view, supported by Britain and others. In his closing remarks, Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said the European Union agreed that “liberal democracies and open societies face pressure from authoritarian regimes,” and said that this had prompted G7 leaders to work to “spread our values of freedom, rule of law, and respect for human rights.”
One of the big announcements of the summit was the Western rival to China’s multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure project, which critics see as a giant plan to extend Beijing’s influence around the world. The release of the G7 infrastructure push came after Biden suggested to Johnson in March that the world’s democracies needed to develop their own alternative to stop developing countries from falling into China’s orbit.
Yet it is hard not to be cynical about what was actually announced. One of the members of the G7—Italy—is already a member of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, though Draghi said last night that it was reviewing this policy. The EU, spurred by Germany and France, has also reached a provisional investment agreement with Beijing despite pleas from Biden’s team to hold fire. (A problem for Biden is that France and Germany instinctively do not share his worldview as wholeheartedly as Britain and Canada do.)
At the heart of these disputes, then, lies a difference of vision for the 21st century. Biden embodies the traditional American role of leader of a free world. It is one that the British, Canadians, Japanese, Australians, and South Koreans in attendance in Cornwall were happy to maintain, albeit updated for the new world, with less naïveté toward China.
In Europe, though, there is a desire for something more: to be partners, not followers. As France’s Emmanuel Macron put it to Biden, “Leadership is partnership.” This has long been part of the European discourse, particularly in France—and yet the desire accelerated while Trump was in the White House and doesn’t look to be ebbing.
Another issue on which the leaders seemed stuck in the past was Brexit.
The summit began and ended with a confrontation over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. A few days before the summit, The Times of London broke the news that the U.S. had officially warned Britain not to inflame tensions in Northern Ireland—part of the United Kingdom, and distinct from the Republic of Ireland, a separate country and EU member state—after failing to implement parts of the agreement it reached with the EU as part of its Brexit divorce package.
The fact that Biden had made the warning before the summit was seen as an attempt to remove any chance of a diplomatic confrontation in Cornwall. The issue nevertheless dominated proceedings among the Europeans, with the French, German, Italian, and EU leaders all using their one-on-ones with Johnson to warn him not to renege on the agreement he himself negotiated in 2019.
Despite the pressure, Johnson refused to back down—and indeed used the G7 summit to go on the attack. On Saturday, he warned that he would not hesitate to unilaterally suspend parts of the agreement to preserve trade between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. He then accused Macron of saying Northern Ireland was not part of the same country as the U.K.—something that Dominic Raab, Johnson’s foreign secretary, said was offensive. This provoked a diplomatic spat on the summit’s final day, with each side briefing its national press with its own narrative, overshadowing whatever other goodwill and diplomatic achievements had been made.
For Johnson, his tactics risk deepening the distrust and opprobrium he already faces in Europe and parts of the U.S., isolating him and his government even as he tries to build a “Global Britain” after Brexit.
As the summit was brought to a close in Cornwall, Johnson faced questions from the international press about his likeness to Trump, and his policy toward Northern Ireland. It was as if time really had stood still. In his book Have I Got Views for You, Johnson writes that “politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length” in which kings are made and unmade for “a kind of rebirth” for their kingdoms.
The G7 leaders gathered in Cornwall to bury King Trump, as well as the era of crisis and division that he oversaw. If this weekend’s summit is anything to go by, we are still very much operating in the wreckage wrought by that old monarch, and unsure yet what needs to be built in its place.