From Shabu Shabu to Jaw-Jaw: Why G7 summits are always better in-person
International Media Centre, Hiroshima Summit - Gregory Stiles and Hugo Dobson
The history of the G7 is one of interpersonal relationships. The idea of a ‘fireside chat’ between leaders who share a common purpose and common interests is the narrative that has shaped almost fifty years of global summitry.
An example of how personal chemistry can influence outcomes can be seen in the infamous early-morning gym meeting between UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W. Bush at the 2002 Kananaskis Summit that shaped the future US and UK actions in Iraq.
This narrative is as much about failure as it is about success. Recent examples can be seen in the intransigence of the Trump administration and the personal animosity between Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that scuppered the outcome of the 2018 Charlevoix Summit. There are also past examples of the lack of personal chemistry between leaders such as US President Ronald Reagan and French President Francois Mitterand that leached into the ability of the G7 to demonstrate a unified approach to global issues.
During the Covid-19 pandemic it was nigh on impossible to forge these personal bonds. As Tristan Naylor has demonstrated, the shift to online summits lost the personal touch that has been a key factor in shaping the outcomes of a summit. This means that although the much trailed inclusion of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the 2023 Hiroshima Summit was hailed as evidence of the G7’s unity over the war, it was always going to be just another Zoom call.
Zelenskyy’s online attendance would have also meant losing the opportunities afforded by gastrodiplomacy to make his case to the G7 leaders over dinner and steer the conversation towards key outcomes in Ukraine’s favour. With journalists only allowed into the room for photos before dinner begins and a limited number of advisers roaming the room, summit banquets enable the leaders to speak openly, push their own political agendas and build interpersonal relationships.
Zelenskyy’s surprise in-person attendance today, in what will be his first trip to East Asia since the war began, has upended the expectations of both the media and the hosts as to how this will influence the outcome of the summit. Having Zelenskyy in the room with the G7 leaders will put a significant amount of pressure on those leaders who had been reluctant to agree to a US-driven expansion of un-targeted economic sanctions on Russia. In essence, the question that now hovers over the summit is whether certain European leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, can resist the pressure to widen the scope of economic sanctions that would impact their export industries.
While Zelenskyy’s recent tour of Europe no doubt allowed him to put personal pressure on these leaders, it has not resulted in a shift in their positions on the export-driven liabilities that continue to see Russia evade sanctions and access technology that underpins its continued military campaign. The pressure of being sat cheek by jowl around the summit table makes it increasingly difficult for certain European leaders to excuse themselves from the appearance of unity on stronger economic sanctions advocated by Ukraine and the US. For Zelenskyy, the ability to put his case in-person for more support to all of the G7 leaders is a potential game-changer in shaping the future of the conflict.
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Photo by Ricky Esquivel