The Covid-19 pandemic currently acts as a magnifying glass under which we can view the state of international cooperation. What we see there is cause for deep concern. We are observing a global health crisis to which only a few countries have reacted quickly, transparently and on the basis of facts. Too often, trivialisation, cover-ups or the spreading of conspiracy theories have prevented an effective response. Moreover, as developed countries of the Global North are ramping up the vaccination of their publication large parts of the Global South have a long way to go before vaccination is rolled out to a somewhat sufficient extent. As a result, over 3.7 million people have died so far.
The international economy is also facing a crisis on a scale that surpasses the global financial crisis of 2008/9. The imperative to restrict social contact has resulted in factory closures, disruption of global supply chains, the collapse of global aviation or the closure of businesses worldwide. According to the estimates of the World Bank the global economy contracted by 3.5 % in 2020 and will grow strongly this year by 5.6 %. This rebound, however, will be highly uneven and many countries of the Global South that are excluded from widespread vaccination campaigns have to expect a subdued growth scenario.
It is to be feared that the Covid-19 pandemic will not only impact health and economic systems, but also political systems will reach the limits of their capacity. How can international cooperation be strengthened under these circumstances and what role will club governance formats such as the G7 and G20 play?
More international cooperation wanted, but how?
Decision-makers around the world initially responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with border closures and restrictions of export of medical products and food. This restriction of international economic relations and the focus on national concerns may have been understandable in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, but in the medium to long run it will weaken international trade and hamper a rapid and complete economic recovery.
More international cooperation is needed to prevent the reinforcing of existing protectionist and economic nationalist tendencies. In addition, the pandemic seems to give rise to deepening of already existing geopolitical rivalries. International organisations, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), are being weakened in this situation and deprived of the financial resources needed to help poor and vulnerable countries in particular to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Furthermore, the Covax initiative to share vaccines worldwide has so far pooled just 150 million doses and is struggling to make up for a gap of 200 million doses which is at least partly caused by supply disruptions originating in India.
Under these difficult conditions, club governance formats such as the G7 and G20 are more important than ever. However, the G20, which was launched to combat the global financial crisis, has so far failed to respond adequately to the Covid-19 pandemic. At their virtual Extraordinary Leaders’ Summit, G20 Leaders committed “to do whatever it takes and to use all available policy tools to minimize the economic and social damage from the pandemic, restore global growth, maintain market stability, and strengthen resilience”. To keep this promise, the G20 must join forces and launch concrete and ambitious cooperation projects on the way to its summit in Rome at the end of October. These include not only improving the financing of global health institutions such as the WHO and the global role out of vaccines through Covax, but also the reduction of export restrictions and the reform of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is essential for the coordination of national trade policies and the creation of new rules, for example in the field of e-commerce that has become even more important during the pandemic.
What role for the G7?
The G7 can play an important bridging role on the way to a successful G20 summit, as was the case in 2017. For without the decisions taken in a smaller circle at the G7 summit in Taormina after controversial discussions, the G20 summit in Hamburg would not have been so successful. This was particularly true in the area of trade. But the G7 is just returning from a deep identity crisis. This is not only due to the fact that central actors no longer saw the G7 as a central forum for coordinating global politics and the economy. It is symbolic that the communiqué of the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Canada, was torn in half by US President Trump on his return flight. The change of leadership in the US gives some hope that the US will enter a more cooperative path. The recent decision by G7 finance ministers to change the way multinational corporations are being taxed has been made possible by a concession of the Biden administration. The push back by Republican law makers in the US congress, however, make clear that the US will remain a conflicted player when it comes to multilateral cooperation.
The identity crisis of the G7 is also due to its unclear format. Last year’s discussions about a reinvitation of Russia, which was excluded from the then G8 in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, are behind us but may re-emerge in the future. The counter proposal of France’s G7 presidency in 2019 and to some extent the current UK presidency is also not without risk. The French Presidency has tried to renew the G7 by inviting a number of like-minded partners to take forward concrete policy initiatives for sustainable development despite the deep differences of opinion on key issues such as climate change. The expansion of the G7 format and the emphasis on the like-mindedness could backfire when consensus for G7 initiatives is sought in the much more diverse – and yet more important – G20.
In previous years, societal actors, such as non-governmental organisations and research institutes, were also more closely involved in the G7 process. The involvement of so-called Engagement Groups has been an integral part of the G20 for years and is increasingly seen as an important element in stabilising international cooperation (below the level of official diplomacy).
The G7 no longer represents the world's most important economic nations. Nevertheless, the G7 can still make an important contribution to the G20 and multilateral processes and support key global sustainability projects.