A dispute over inviting Russia to the G-7 highlights the importance of maintaining solidarity among democracies
The U.S. did more than any other country to build the web of international institutions through which it and its democratic allies have exercised influence since World War II. So it might be surprising to hear that America is on the wrong side of a fight about adapting those institutions to a new age of great-power rivalry. Yet this is the inescapable conclusion from a recent dust-up over who should be included in an expanded Group of Seven.
The U.K.'s prime minister, Boris Johnson, is pushing to use that group as the nucleus of an effort to hold the democratic world together amid intense technological competition with China. Unfortunately, President Donald Trump seems set on diluting the G-7's democratic nature and geopolitical cohesion.
The British proposal was part of a remarkable turnaround in foreign policy under Johnson. In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron had declared a "golden era" in ties with Beijing. Britain had agreed, more recently, to allow Huawei Technologies Co. to build part of its national 5G network despite strong U.S. protests.
Yet Johnson has now committed, under sharp pressure from his Conservative Party colleagues, to reducing and ultimately eliminating British dependence on Chinese 5G technology. He has mooted a plan by which the world's leading democracies — the G-7 countries plus Australia, India and South Korea — would cooperate to invest in alternatives to Huawei or other authoritarian 5G providers.
Johnson's initiative is really just an idea at this point. But it's a smart one, in several respects. It may help answer the biggest objection the U.S. receives when it pushes allies and partners to exclude Huawei from their 5G networks: the relative dearth of economically sensible and strategically safe options. It represents an effort to prevent Beijing from employing a divide-and-conquer strategy that involves pressuring or cutting deals with key democratic nations individually.
The proposal — along with Britain's offer of residency and a path to citizenship for up to 3 million inhabitants of Hong Kong — begins to position the U.K. as a leader in the response to a disruptive China, rather than a potential weak link. Not least, it's a good start in putting together the worldwide coalition of democracies — including developed and developing countries from Europe, North America and the Indo-Pacific — that will be required to defend the liberal international order from the aggressive authoritarian states seeking to undermine it.
The problem is that U.S. President Donald Trump has a very different idea of how to build on the G-7. He proposed inviting Russia — which was expelled from what was then the G-8 after its invasion of Ukraine in 2014 — to the group's next meeting.
This was, unfortunately, a fairly predictable Trumpian maneuver. The president has wanted to release Russia from its economic and diplomatic isolation since he took office. He probably calculated that it was a good way of trolling America's allies, particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, after she declined to travel to the U.S. for an in-person G-7 summit this month. (That meeting, twice postponed because of Covid-19, is now scheduled for the fall.)
Trump's initiative probably won't ultimately add up to much: Again to its credit, the U.K. government announced that it would veto Russia's formal readmission to the G-7. Yet the Trump proposal is more than an arcane dispute over who gets to attend an international conference. It reminds us that while allies such as Johnson understand the importance of democratic solidarity, the putative leader of the free world does not.
Many of Trump's subordinates have done their best to tend to America's democratic alliances and partnerships, but the president's utterly transactional worldview makes little distinction between liberal and illiberal regimes. If anything, the president has shown a preference for dealing with dictators, seemingly based on admiration for their ability to act decisively and a perception that it is easier to get things done with them.
The American-led international order was built on the idea that the deepest and most enduring bonds would be forged between the democratic powers, because their relationship was rooted not simply in common interests but in a shared approach to the world's most important issue: whether governments should rest on the consent of their people. Trump has never much identified with this tradition, which is one reason why G-7 meetings have been the stage for some of his biggest diplomatic debacles. And this makes him particularly ill-suited to the moment.
True, in an ideal world, it would be better to have Russia as a friend than a rival. There are areas where interests overlap, such as counterterrorism and, perhaps, coping with an increasingly powerful China.
But over the past several years, Russia has made a crusade of attacking the strength and cohesion of the democratic nations that oppose President Vladimir Putin's geopolitical agenda. Bringing Moscow back into the G-7 would give him another opportunity to play the spoiler, weakening one of the few meaningful institutions that brings together democracies from multiple continents. It would be especially crippling at a time when the ability of the democratic world to overcome the many challenges it faces — from authoritarian revisionism to the dislocations caused by Covid-19 — will hinge on whether it can tackle those problems collectively.
We're seeing a tug-of-war over how the world's most important club of democracies should be adapted for the future. The U.K. under Boris Johnson is digging in hard, while the U.S. under President Trump is pulling in the wrong direction.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg and is published by special syndication arrangement.