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Point of no return

Thorsten BennerJune 2, 2015

Even if Russia changes its behavior in Ukraine, there should be no reverting to the G8, argues Thorsten Benner. Instead, G7 countries should invest in improving coordination on global issues among liberal democracies.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K.-J. Hildenbrand

As the G7 leaders prepare to gather at the Elmau mountain retreat on Sunday, Russia's absence is fueling debate. Eckhard Cordes, chairman of the German business association representing companies with significant investments in Russia, recently said that barring Russia from the summit was a missed opportunity: "A G7 meeting with Russia could contribute to solving crises."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier quickly made it clear that current Russian actions in Ukraine preclude Russia from joining the Elmau summit. But they left the door wide open for Russia to come back once it is on better behavior: "I am convinced that we can improve the conditions for global problem-solving if Russia returned to the G8," Steinmeier said recently.

This, however, is an illusion. Reverting to a G8 format with Russia would do nothing to improve the conditions for addressing global problems. The only thing it would do is turn the G8 into the format to deal with the problems Russia itself is causing in Europe's neighborhood. But the G8 was never intended as a format to exclusively deal with the problem of Russia (and from the OSCE to the Security Council there are many fora to do that). As an extension of the G7, it was meant to tackle global issues from financial stability, development policy and health to climate. And on these a format with Russia but without the other big players is pointless.

Falling short

photo of man Copyright: GPPI
Thorsten BennerImage: GPPI

Today, any G-x type of gathering without China and India, the big emerging powers that are home to over one-third of the world's population, falls short of being able to effectively tackle global challenges.

At the same time, reverting to the G8 would destroy the one key function left for the G7: strategy development and policy coordination among like-minded liberal democracies. As Chancellor Merkel put it very well in a recent interview, the grouping has one very precious common trait: "The G7, these are seven democratic nations, united by their advocacy for freedom and human rights." Even if Russia stopped annexing territories or sending its troops into civil wars in neighboring countries, it would fall well short of fitting in with the seven democracies.

Indeed, having Russia at the table as the odd non-liberal member of the club would prevent the G7 from fulfilling its role as a coordination mechanism. To be sure, the times are long gone when a G7 meeting could expect to call the shots and singlehandedly devise rules the whole world would then follow. Given the messier and more competitive nature of today's multilateralism with new fora such as BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it is all the more important that liberal democracies coordinate their strategies on key issues of global concern.

The reason for that is not an "Us vs. them" logic of the "West against the rest." Rather, it is the fact the liberal democratic values the current G7 members share stand a much better chance in global governance if the US, Europe and Japan coordinate their strategies and policies.

Lack of coordination

Even without Russia at the table, the G7 has fallen way short of this in recent years. The G7 position on the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a case in point. Here G7 leaders did not invest in a true strategic coordination on whether, when and with which goals to join this new Chinese multilateral development institution. The result was a messy and bemusing one-by-one joining of the UK, Germany, France and Italy with Japan and the US staying out for the time being. If the G7 focused on continuous policy coordination at the highest level rather than on just preparing flashy summits this may have been avoided. This is where G7 countries should make urgent investments in a more effective club rather than discussing whether Russia should be invited back in if it stops some of its worst actions in the neighborhood.

What to do if - against the current odds - Russia became a liberal democracy? That would be a cause for popping champagne but still no reason to return to the G8 with just Russia. If one thinks about a G7+ democracies format, one would have to add other major democracies such as India, Brazil, Indonesia and South Africa. And maybe reduce the EU to a single seat rather than having the odd "old Europe" combo of Italy, Germany, the UK and France at the table all with a separate seat. A G8 with Russia though is an idea whose time has long passed.

Thorsten Benner (@thorstenbenner) is director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.