Even if the so-called G7 group of industrial democracies is no longer as powerful and/or relevant as it was when it was first launched more than four decades ago, it is still capable of making a difference on the global stage where a difference is necessary. Pictured: Foreign ministers of the G7 meet in London on May 4, 2021. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
Even if the so-called G7 group of industrial democracies is no longer as powerful and/or relevant as it was when it was first launched more than four decades ago, it is still capable of making a difference on the global stage where a difference is necessary. It is therefore good news that the group, consisting of the US, Canada, Britain, Germany France, Italy, and Japan managed to convene a face-to-face conference of its foreign ministers in London, the first in two years.
The ministerial conference, also attended by the European Union foreign policy spokesman, had the task of preparing the agenda for a full summit of the seven nations, again in Britain, next month. The planned summit will provide Joe Biden with his first foray into the international arena as US President.
While the holding of the London conference was good news, it also contained an element of bad news. To start with, the British host tried to promote one of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's many brainwaves by inviting India, Australia, and South Africa as guests with a wink and nod in the direction of the Commonwealth.
Having relished then regretted his reputation as the British Donald Trump, Johnson isn't sure how he might get along with Biden, who has made no secret of his "unhappiness" about Brexit. Johnson and his team have been promoting what they call a D-10 group of democracies, most of them part of the Anglo-sphere, as a broader alternative to G7 and a cozier version of the G-20.
The real bad news, however, is that the London conference failed to develop a coherent and mutually agreed analysis of the international situation, without which no serious policy-making is possible. The Americans came to London with a set of clichés used during their presidential campaign last year, notably the catch-all "America is back!", but were unable to say where that "back" was or whether it was necessary to go there.
They also talked a lot about "multilateralism" without making it clear what it was they wanted to be multilateral about.
Multilateralism is a method of doing things, not the substance of policy. You could do both wise and foolish things multilaterally. The Libyan disaster resulted from President Barack Obama's "leading from behind" multilateralism. The latest example of foolish multilateralism is the cut-and-run policy the Biden administration is marketing on Afghanistan. (Even Hillary Clinton has questioned the wisdom of that decision.)
"Consensus" was another cliché circulated in London. But consensus, too, is an abstraction that, if not applied to a clear policy, is useless or even dangerous. Consensus on jumping together from a cliff may sound dramatic but could be suicidal.
In any case, there was hardly any consensus on the key issues raised at the London conference.
There was no consensus on how to categorize the challenge that China and Russia are supposed to pose against what US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken calls "the rule-based international order", a cliché that adds another layer of ambiguity to any analysis of the current situation.
Does this mean that that international law and norms as practiced since the end of World War II are no longer sufficient and that additional "rules" are needed? And if yes who fixes those rules?
While President Biden portrays China as a growing monster capable of "eating us up", Canada and the European trio of Britain, Germany, and France see the Communist-dominated power as a lucrative partner. In fact, had it not been for Trump's pressure, Prime Minister Johnson would have not canceled the controversial 5G deal with the People's Republic. As for China, investment plans currently taking shape could make Germany the People's Republic's number one economic partner.
France, too, is drawing closer to China as a source of direct investment, technology transfer, and market for luxury goods and agricultural products.
There is also no agreement on what kind of threat Russia poses. While the Americans claim that Vladimir Putin is trying to revive the Soviet Union, the Europeans think he is after reconstituting the Tsarist Empire.
What seems clear is that both China and Russia are trying to project power in a 19th-century colonial style. China is building a blue-water navy, copying the British imperial model, an expensive and ultimately useless strategy in the rapidly changing world of the 21st century. Putin's strategy is also very 19th century, copying General Paskevich's warning: "to keep the land you grabbed today, you will have to grab more land tomorrow."
Land-grabbing may have been profitable or at least not so costly when the Berlin Conference colonial empires were running the show. These days, however, the lands that Putin has annexed in Crimea, Donetsk, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, not to mention de facto glacises imposed in Syria, Transcaucasia, and Central Asia, are a growing financial burden for Russia's fragile economy.
To make matters more complicated it is clear that the G7 or the still elusive D-10 won't be able to tackle other problems without the support, or at least the neutrality of China or Russia, or in some cases, both.
The London conference discussed North Korea, Myanmar, and the Islamic Republic in Iran. Does anyone believe that, short of a shock-and-awe operation, Kim Jung-on could be leashed in without help from China? And could the G7's habitual cat-and-mouse game with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran produce positive results while Russia plays cheerleader for the mullahs?
As for Myanmar, it is clear that without at least tacit support from China, the military regime won't be able to crush that nation's fragile democratic movement.
To make things more complicated, China and Russia also have conflicting interests in a number of places including Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and Myanmar. The current G7 position could only persuade Beijing and Moscow to set their differences aside and promote a low-intensity global war against the democratic world.
Neither China nor Russia is capable of winning such a contest, while both can do much mischief in many domains. In their different ways, both have succeeded in creating powerful state structures in weak short-term societies, a model that, although capable of making an impression in a 100-meter stint, cannot win against the democratic model in a marathon contest.
Henry Kissinger, a leading lobbyist for Beijing, portrays China as the inevitable future "superpower". A similar claim is made by Russia's European, mostly German apologists.
Such claims have persuaded the G7 to overestimate China and Russia as challengers, competitors, rivals, or even enemies in strategic terms while appearing negligent about them at the tactical level. That analysis needs be stood on its head: Despise the enemy strategically but take him seriously tactically.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.