Italy hosts on Monday and Tuesday a key meeting of G7 foreign ministers in advance of the annual flagship summit of presidents and prime ministers in May. Next month’s session, which will be US President Donald Trump’s first scheduled visit to Europe, has potential to be a flashpoint between the United States and the Italian hosts who are promoting multiple agenda items at odds with Trump, including “fighting all forms of protectionism” and tackling climate change.
This year’s foreign minister meeting is particularly important because Italy’s preparation for next month’s leadership summit has been hampered by the slow nature of the Trump administration’s transition in Washington. For instance, key roles like US ambassador to Italy and the two deputy US secretary of state roles have not yet been filled, and the State Department’s regional bureaus are being led by acting, rather than permanent, officials.
There is therefore much coordination work to do at the April meeting to prepare for next month’s big event. Moreover, the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is also planning to fly to Washington to meet with Trump to discuss preparations too.
One area of discussion is likely to be the pending Trump administration’s decision, expected in May, on whether to support the Paris climate change agreement. If Washington decides to try to leave the accord, it will spark diplomatic fireworks with other G7 leaders.
For the fourth year running, it will be only the G7 (Japan, United States, Canada, Germany, France, United Kingdom and Italy) rather than the G8 (which includes Russia) which meets. Russia joined the summits from 1997 to 2013, but following the annexation of Crimea, Moscow has been told it can only rejoin if “it changes course and an environment is once again created in which it is possible for the G8 to hold reasonable discussions”.
As discussion at the G7 of the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine will exemplify, the prominence of geopolitical and security issues in G7 meetings continues to be striking. In recent years, the G7 has for instance played a significant orchestration role in the West’s response to the crisis there, and the leaders will probably use the summit next month to reiterate support for the Kiev government.
What this underlines is the G7’s often under-appreciated importance as an international security lynchpin. This is despite the fact that the group was originally conceived in the 1970s to monitor developments in the world economy and assess macroeconomic policies.
Outside of Ukraine, most, if not all, G7 foreign ministers are likely to echo Nato’s warnings that the security of Europe is continuing to be undermined by turbulence in North Africa and the Middle East, and the recent US missile strikes in Syria will also be discussed. This year’s hosts, Italy, want to make a particular push to foster stability in Libya, which split into a patchwork of rival fiefdoms after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.
Migration from Libya to Italy is a pressing issue, driven by post-Gaddafi instability. A key reason for urgency is not just the numbers of migrants, but also the fact that the death rate on this sea route is much higher than between Greece and Turkey.
This Middle East discussion follows the debate at the Japan G7 last year when the region was also a key area of dialogue — from Iran, to Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Ahead of that summit, Japan pledged $6 billion (Dh22.04 billion) in aid between 2016 and 2018 to help tackle violent extremism and bring greater stability to the region.
Following the debate over North Korea at last year’s summit in Japan, it is also probable that the nuclear stand-off there will also be discussed. This is especially likely given the priority with which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears to be paying to this issue.
The G7’s involvement in this multitude of geopolitical dialogues, from Asia to the Middle East and Europe, has met with some international criticism. For instance, China strongly objected to discussion of maritime security in Asia, especially the South China Sea, at last year’s Japan summit.
Last year, G7 foreign ministers warned of “any intimidating coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions” in both the South and East China Seas given the territorial disputes over several archipelagos there involving countries such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. China, which claims much of the South China Sea, asserted in response that that the G7 should focus instead on its founding mandate of global economic cooperation against what was in 2016 the backdrop of sub-par performance of the international economy.
It is also sometimes asserted, especially by developing countries, that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the UN to engage in these geopolitical and security issues, and/or is a historical artefact given the rise of new powers, including China and India. However, it is not the case that the international security role of the G7 is new.
An early example of the lynchpin function the body has played here was in the 1970s and 1980s when it helped coordinate western strategy towards the then-Soviet Union. Moreover, following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the then-G8 (including Russia) assumed a key role in the US-led ‘campaign against terrorism’. This began with coordinated activities helping to tackle sources of terrorism finance and, later, a ‘Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction’.
Another key security role came over Kosovo in 1999. Following unsuccessful efforts to resolve the crisis in the UN Security Council, compromise was reached between the West and Russia in the G8. Foreign ministers then drew up a resolution that was agreed at the UN.
Taken overall, the Italian-hosted G7 will have a significant geopolitical dialogue, despite criticism of its actions in this area. The body’s long-standing track record as a security actor underlines this role is not only likely to continue but could yet grow in significance.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics