A Ukrainian serviceman stands near a destroyed Russian tank in the northeastern city of Trostyanets on March 29. Photo: AFP
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond

Ukraine war highlights G7’s role as geopolitical linchpin

  • Despite criticism from some quarters that it should stick to economics, the G7 has often been at its best during turbulent geopolitical times
  • The grouping’s long-standing engagement with security issues and the uncertainty in Ukraine suggest its geopolitical role will only continue to grow
The Group of 7 might appear ill-suited to tackling the overlapping challenges facing the world, from the Ukraine war to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it has often been at its best in turbulent crises.
Many forget the grouping of seven major advanced economies was founded in the 1970s in the aftermath of geopolitical and economic shocks when the United States pulled out of the gold standard during the Vietnam conflict. Back then, Richard Nixon also resigned as US president and there was a clear danger of currency wars and wider turmoil.

Yet, the Western club proved fit for purpose, playing a key role in the management of the most important exchange rates. It also brought Japan into the Western policymaking community; a similar farsighted, strategic approach is needed today.

In the aftermath of Russia’s latest geopolitical gambit and after the schisms of Donald Trump’s presidency in the US, the G7 should now take an important step back and try to concentrate again on unity and the big strategic questions facing the West and the wider world.

There is no bigger short-term challenge than the impact of the Ukraine crisis, which comes in the midst of the continuing Covid-19 crisis. While the G7 was created in the instability of the 1970s to monitor developments in the world economy and assess macroeconomic policies, Ukraine has brought its role as a geopolitical linchpin to the fore.


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100 days of war: What has happened in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion?
In recent weeks, the G7 – the US, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, with the European Union as a “non-enumerated” member – has helped spearhead the massive international package of sanctions against Russia. It pledged never to recognise any redrawn boundaries for Ukraine, provided billions in aid and assistance, is looking at reconstruction plans for the nation and is attempting to ameliorate a mounting food and energy security calamity that could make for an exceptionally difficult period to come.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, relations are now so poor between the G7 and Russia that Moscow might never be readmitted and the club return to being the Group of 8 so long as Russian President Vladimir Putin remains in power. Russia joined the summits from 1997 to 2013, but following the annexation of Crimea, Moscow was told it could 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”.

While Russia is excluded, leaders from India, Indonesia, Argentina, Senegal and South Africa have been invited to give greater international perspective. Moreover, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will join by video and is likely to again prove the star of the show.

This year’s G7 discussions on Ukraine are only the latest example of the prominence of geopolitical and security issues in the club’s meetings. In recent years, the body has played a significant orchestration role in the West’s policies towards Libya, North Korea and the South China Sea.

The Italian G7 presidency in 2017, for instance, placed strong emphasis on the turbulence in North Africa and the Middle East, including Iraq, Libya and Syria. This included a push towards fostering stability in Libya following the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.

Another example was the discussion on the South China Sea during Japan’s presidency in 2016. The G7 then warned against “any intimidating coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions” given the territorial disputes over several archipelagos there involving countries such as China, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

G7 leaders vow to send ‘clear signal’ over South China Sea row after Beijing warns it against ‘double standards’

This prompted objections from Beijing, which claims much of the South China Sea. Beijing demanded that the G7 should focus its time on its founding mandate of global economic cooperation. As this reaction indicates, the G7’s involvement in geopolitical issues has met with international criticism from time to time.

Building on this, it is also sometimes claimed that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the United Nations to engage in these geopolitical and security issues, or that it is a historical artefact given the rise of new powers, including the BRICS grouping comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. However, it is not the case that the international security role of the G7 is new.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attends a virtual meeting of foreign ministers of the BRICS countries in Guiyang, capital of southwest China’s Guizhou province on June 1, 2021. Photo: Xinhua

An early example of the linchpin function the body has played here was in the 1970s and 1980s, when it helped coordinate Western strategy towards the Soviet Union. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the then-G8, which included Russia, assumed a key role in the US-led “war on terror”.

Fast forward to 2022 and it is the Ukraine crisis gripping the world, so the meeting will be dominated by geopolitics again despite criticism of the G7’s actions in this area. The body’s long-standing track record as a security actor and the continuing uncertainty over Ukraine suggest this geopolitical 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