Democracy under scrutiny

Those who argued that last month’s summit of the world’s seven richest democracies would mark the start of a new era have not been proved wrong.

But the weekend meeting against the backdrop of Britain’s Atlantic coastline in Cornwall has shattered some myths and brought home a series of realities.

Western powers would be wise to take note, listen to those outside their ideological silos and learn. Yes, it is a new era. Yet it is also unchartered territory.

By the G7s own admission, democracy itself is at a stage when it has to prove its benefits to the rest of the world.

President Biden laid out the task in his January inauguration speech.  This G7 summit was the first time that democracy’s most powerful advocates had gathered to discuss key areas where they could show the attraction of their political system, whether it be with climate change, Covid or aid and infrastructure.

Such a challenge is familiar among Asian countries, but it is alien to much of the Western mindset, where democracy is hailed as an unassailable mechanism that defeated fascism in the 1940s and communism in the 1980s.

Gathered in Cornwall were leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Invited as observers were Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa, in an attempt to show shared values around the area of both potential and concern known as the Indo-Pacific. 

The G7 final statement attempted to present a unified front of values and purpose. But it papered over crucial differences and failed to land an overriding democratic punch.

In many respects, it brought to mind the compromises facing ASEAN and other Asian institutions, where ideological clarity is blurred, and the focus is on what can be achieved without breaking consensus.

The US wanted firmer wording against China over Taiwan.  Others insisted it be toned down. On Xinjiang, there was condemnation, but little concrete such as a ban on participation in projects that benefited from forced labour.

On climate change, no agreement was reached on a timeline to eliminate the use of coal for generating electrical power.

Far from showing original thinking and initiative, there was a sense, too, that the G7 was merely playing catch-up with China.

A new infrastructure aid programme, to be called Build Back Better for the World, or B3W, is designed to counter Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, but there were scant details.

And while there is a G7 pledge to supply a billion doses of Covid vaccine by next summer, the World Health Organisation says 11 billion are needed.  China, meanwhile, has inoculated a billion of its own people and its vaccine diplomacy has sent some 250 million doses around the world.

Internal historical grievances also raised their heads.

British headlines were devoted to an unresolved Brexit dispute with the European Union over the Irish border and the risk of re-igniting the insurgency in Northern Ireland.

President Biden, who has close personal Irish links, had a private word with British Premier Boris Johnson, who went on to openly reprimand French President Emmanuel Macron for his stance, and showed his resolve by stating, ‘We will do whatever it takes to protect the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.’

Far from reflecting a collegiate position of shared purpose, Johnson’s assertiveness more resembled rhetoric from President Xi Jinping over Taiwan, whereby the protection of national sovereignty is paramount and overrides all other issues.

Another historical grievance between South Korea and Japan remained untouched when there might have been a chance to break deadlock. Both Japan’s Yoshihide Suga and South Korea’s Moon Jae-in were in Cornwall and did have a brief and seemingly courteous conversation.

But it needed the Americans with them and others, possibly France and Germany, to show how to move from conflict to alliance, and that did not happen.

Mr Biden travelled from Cornwall to Brussels, where his talks touched upon whether NATO should have an institutional role in Asia as it has in Afghanistan.

Here, again, came a worrying lack of clarity. 

We need to remind ourselves that NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe was a key catalyst towards the downturn of the West’s relationship with Russia. If the debate on a NATO Asian role gathers pace, China will inevitably pre-empt and buckle down for confrontation. 

President Biden is right to challenge democracy to prove itself. Having won the hot and cold wars of last century, there is now a struggle underway to win a long-term peace.

The G7 showed there is much homework to be done, details to be decided and mindsets to be changed.