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Embiggen the G7!
Why bringing Australia and South Korea into the coalition of industrial democracies can lend Biden's foreign policy greater coherence—and give it a narrative backbone
A little over a week ago, President Biden attended the annual G7 summit in Japan—the latest in a series of yearly conclaves that have brought together the leaders of the world’s seven leading industrial democracies since the mid-1970s. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s surprise appearance stole the show, and the assembled G7 leaders recommitted their nation’s to Ukraine’s cause. Perhaps the most noteworthy result of the meeting was President Biden’s announcement that the United States would support allied efforts to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets.
Overall, the G7 summit remains one of the few regular gatherings of high-level leaders that has the potential to make a real difference in global politics. Other meetings like the G20 or the Summit for Democracy that usually include too many participants with too many divergent interests and values to get anything done beyond the lowest common denominator. With broadly shared interests and values among its member nations, the G7 has the potential to evolve into the steering committee for the free world—and give President Biden’s foreign policy a narrative backbone it’s so far lacked.
That’s partly what makes this recent G7 summit disappointing: for all the talk about a shift in focus to the geopolitical challenges posed by China and Russia, it resulted in the same old interminable and jargon-riddled statements as always. Rather than outline a relatively small set of top priorities, G7 leaders and their top foreign policy advisors felt compelled to address just about every major worldwide problem in excessive detail. It’s hard to discern any real sense of priorities in this document, which bears the deep imprint of the technocratic and managerial “global governance” mindset that’s dominated international diplomacy since the end of the Cold War.
For all its flaws, however, the G7 still offers the Biden administration the best way to coordinate strategy and policy with other advanced industrial democracies while presenting an opportunity to assemble a coherent narrative for its own foreign policy. It can start to seize that opportunity by expanding the G7 to include two more critical American allies and fellow democracies in the Pacific: Australia and South Korea.
This new G9 would be a club of advanced industrial democracies, one that stretches across both the Atlantic and the Pacific. It would focus on areas of shared interest and common values, like industrial policy and de-risking in the face of economic dependence on autocratic powers like China and Russia. Unlike NATO or America’s mutual defense pacts with Japan, South Korea, and Australia, the G9 would not confine itself primarily to security questions or limit its concerns to one specific geographic area.
At the same time, however, the G9 would not entail any additional formal obligations from its members—like, say, collective defense arrangements that might require America’s European allies to come to the aid of its Pacific ones in the event of armed conflict. Overall, the G9 would be less about the sort of technocratic and managerial “global governance” that’s been historically part of the G7’s remit—a task that in any case has increasingly fallen to the G20—and more about strengthening the political and practical policy ties that bind the Atlantic and Pacific together via the United States.
If nothing else, the first two years of the Biden administration has shown the desperate need for such policy and strategy coordination machinery. The AUKUS submarine deal, the international reaction to the Inflation Reduction Act, and French President Macron’s apparent freelancing on China policy all paint the picture of a free world that doesn’t seem to have its strategic act together—or at least one that’s got a major failure to communicate. These issues and disputes need to be raised and addressed in a more regular and coherent fashion, not left to blow up and require jury-rigged fixes after the fact. Indeed, the Biden administration has devoted far too much time and energy to cleaning up diplomatic messes that could have been avoided—or at least abated—with a modicum of coordination beforehand.
As things stand right now, however, the Biden administration’s foreign policy comes across as reactive and ad hoc in the face of the challenges the United States faces on the global stage. That doesn’t mean its policies toward, say, China or its response to the war in Ukraine are wrong or deficient in some way. But it does mean that it has yet to find a way to tie them together into a compelling narrative, a story that the Biden administration can tell itself, America, and the world about what the United States hopes to achieve with its foreign policy and national security strategy. An expansion of the G7 to include two new worthy members would provide a narrative backbone that can connect what now seem to be a series of disparate, loosely coordinated policy moves at home and abroad.
Why limit this expansion to just two nations, though?
First and foremost, Australia and South Korea are formal U.S. allies and democracies with advanced industrial economies. Whatever their own internal faults or divergences with the United States, they share values and interests with America and the other six nations that currently comprise the G7—not to mention the critical role of South Korean electronics and Australian minerals in the international economy. They’re natural fits for a revamped G9 in just about every way that counts.
It's also a way to keep the membership manageable—and keep the G9 effective. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel of the G20 or create an all-inclusive but ineffectual club like the Summit for Democracy. Too many voices with too divergent interests and values will not yield a terribly constructive or focused organization, and the last thing the world needs is another talking shop. Imposing clear numerical as well as political limits on membership will keep the G9 from devolving into impotence.
Take the G20: founded to help manage the global fallout of the 2008 financial crash, this group remains useful to hash out differences between countries as different as the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, India, and Mexico. Beyond that, the G20’s primary value rests in the opportunity it gives countries like India and Indonesia to call attention to global priorities of their own choosing, such as India’s current push to relieve poorer countries of their unsustainable post-COVID debts. But when it comes to fundamental and fundamentally intertwined American interests in freedom, democracy, and industrial policy, however, the G20 leaves much to be desired.
For its part, the Biden administration’s own Summit for Democracy raises more questions than it answers. Which governments, for instance, should receive invitations and why—Does democratic backsliding in India, Mexico, and Israel mean they shouldn’t be invited? What about elected autocracies like Turkey or illiberal democracies like Hungary? Nor does it yield much in the way of concrete policies or diplomatic deals outside some minor technocratic programs that reflect passing fads like disinformation. It’s enough to cast severe doubt on the strategic purpose and geopolitical benefits of these summits, at least beyond trolling autocrats in Beijing or Moscow.
Nor is there any good reason to add countries like India, Brazil, or South Africa to the current G7 roster. While American and Indian interests have increasingly coincided in recent years, for instance, they remain far from fully aligned on strategic issues—New Delhi retains a lingering Cold War-era attachment to its relations with Russia, making it less willing to come out against Moscow’s war against Ukraine. The United States and India have less a full partnership than a “friends with strategic benefits” arrangement. Moreover, India’s hard and fast backsliding on liberal democracy under Prime Minister Modi puts a firm limit on just how far relations between the two countries can go. In any event, the United States and two of its main Pacific allies already have a way to engage with India on strategic questions—the Quad coalition.
Much the same can be said for South Africa and Brazil. Despite its self-proclaimed non-alignment, South Africa has seemingly thrown its lot in with Moscow and its war against Ukraine, conducting naval exerciseswith Russia and China, sending high-ranking military officers to Moscow for consultations, and surreptitiously supplying Russia with arms and ammunition. Brazilian President Lula da Silva likewise has aligned himself with both Xi and Putin despite critical U.S. support for him amid Trump-style attempts to contest his electoral victory last year. Old-fashioned left-wing crackpot thinking on foreign policy dies hard, apparently.
What about the so-called Global South?
For starters, the G9 should not be an all-inclusive organization dedicated to global governance in the same way the G7 still imagines itself to be. It should first and foremost be a club of advanced industrial democracies, one that has certain rules and conditions for membership. Other institutions and arrangements like the G20already exist to address more managerial issues surrounding the world economy, and they should be left to that task—especially as the divide between industrial democracies and authoritarian capitalist states like China become both deeper and much more apparent. Indeed, there’s a whole menagerie of formal and informal international institutions, organizations, and groups out there to help make global politics run at least a little more smoothly. It’s not up to the G9—or anyone else for that matter—to run the world.
Born out of the old G7, this larger assembly should in turn become the primary way for industrial democracies to coordinate strategy and policy in a world increasingly hostile to their values and interests. America and its allies should view this enlarged G9 as the steering committee for the free world—and act accordingly.