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. As a result, over 400,000 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. The IMF expects that the ‘Great Lockdown’ could lead to a 3% slump in the global economy and according to the ILO, up to 25 million workers could lose their jobs worldwide.
It is to be feared that the Covid-19 pandemic will further increase the number of victims and as a result not only 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. Moreover, multilateral cooperation as such is made more difficult because it often relies on physical meetings as virtual meetings with nearly 200 country representatives are difficult to realize.
Under these conditions, in which multilateral cooperation is not desired or not practicable, 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 Riyadh in November. These include not only coordinated stimulus packages or improving the financing of global health institutions such as the WHO, 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 in a deep identity crisis. This is not only due to the fact that central actors no longer see 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 identity crisis of the G7 is also due to its unclear format. The plans of the American government to expand the circle of G7 participants to include Russia, which was excluded from the then G8 in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, threaten to divide and weaken the G7. More promising is the approach of last year's G7 presidency. 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. Last year, 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. Moreover, its internal cohesion is weakened by the US's disregard for international cooperation. Nevertheless, the G7 can still make an important contribution to the G20 and multilateral processes by emphasising its like-mindedness and using "mini-lateral" coalitions to support key global sustainability projects.