By Simon Tisdall

The G7 summit in Biarritz, now thankfully concluded, told us a lot about the world we live in. Unfortunately, very little of it was useful or vaguely hopeful. As the presidents and premiers of the world’s wealthiest countries posed for back-slapping group photos, and their partners sampled croissants at a charming “traditional Basque bakery”, fierce fires raged untended and unquenched across the international landscape – not to mention in the Amazon rainforest. It was a low-yield meeting whose main achievement was avoiding a repeat of last year’s bust-up.

It was as though these summiteers, conflabbing while the world burned, belonged to a different, distant era when the US president, for example, was a figure commanding instant respect; when multilateral diplomacy worked; when the postwar internationalist vision was not obscured by nationalist demagoguery; when, if the western democracies decided to do something together, it actually had a good chance of getting done. But those times have passed.

The summit told us about leadership – or what passes for it these days. For Emmanuel Macron, the understandably frazzled maitre d’, concentrating the minds of so many inflated political egos was more challenging than taming the domestic challenge of les gilets jaunes (yellow vests). France’s president abandoned the usual practice of issuing a joint communiqué. After Donald Trump trashed the last one in Quebec, insulting his hosts, that was probably wise.

Yet Trump is not the only black hole where a leader should be. It’s true Angela Merkel is counting down to retirement in 2021. But any hopes that she would pick up the baton where American leadership has failed since 2016, at least as a champion for Europe, have proved ill-founded. Her cautious, money-minded approach has too often focused instead on reining in Macron’s grander reformist ideas.

A German chancellor might at one time have confidently looked to Britain to add weight and mettle to Europe’s views on, say, Vladimir Putin’s war on domestic political opponents and unchecked disregard for international law in Ukraine and Syria. But Boris Johnson, while agreeing Russia’s president should not be readmitted to the G7, exhibits scant interest in, let alone leadership on, such difficult issues. His “keep Trump happy” policy shows how low, and how quickly, Britain is sinking.

Others gathered round the table at Biarritz are not much better. Where is the leader who will stand up and tell Trump, to his face, that his incendiary bid to bring Iran to its knees will not work – and cannot be supported? Who will tell Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, whose forces attacked no fewer than three regional neighbours – Iraq, Lebanon and Syria – at the weekend, to stop stoking regional fires in the hope of winning re-election next month?

What has the G7 got to say about the reduction of the UN security council to a state of feeble impotence, where Russian and Chinese (and sometimes US) vetoes prevent effective action to mitigate humanitarian disasters such as the Saudi-led war in Yemen or the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar? What about the atrocities daily visited upon besieged Syrian civilians in Idlib? And where is the G7 clubbers’ masterplan for rescuing the global economy from a trade war-driven recession? No China, no comment – while Trump shifts shiftily almost by the hour.

The shaming list of roads not travelled, of issues not tackled, of calamities ignored or dodged, is all but endless. To this must be added the accelerating US-China-Russia nuclear arms race and the environmental impact of great power rivalries in the Arctic. To his credit, and to the annoyance of Trump officials who deemed it a “niche issue”, Macron gained support for collective action on the Amazon. As with previous G7 pledges, follow-through is what matters now. Having outwardly responded to the public clamour, what will actually be done? The $20m aid package announced today to help Amazon countries fight wildfires appears, frankly, on the low side.

The summit inadvertently told us, too, about multilateralism and the fabled rules-based international order – and how these always flawed systems of global governance, symbolised by the G7 since the 1970s, may be on their last legs. That’s due in large part to the refusal of emerging 21st-century powers, principally China but also lesser states, to abide by other people’s rules ill-suited to their purposes.

It’s due to a broad upsurge, in Europe and elsewhere, of rightwing, populist nationalism that has shaken the centrist consensus and is typified by the rise and rise of Matteo Salvini in Italy – and by Brexit. It is due to a failure of confidence among post-2008 western democracies which are beset by austerity and widening wealth and trust gaps. Multilateralism’s atrophy is due, too, to multiple betrayals by Trump’s America.

Yet if the Biarritz summit told us fairly conclusively that the G7 is no longer fit for purpose, what if anything can replace it? The paradox of our age is that the world has never been more connected, yet the political tools for acting collectively in pursuit of common purposes are increasingly ineffective. Scrap the G7 and expand the G20, making it a more genuinely inclusive forum? Reboot the UN, either by reforming the security council or making the general assembly its primary decision-making body? Or start again from scratch?

A fundamental rethink may be unavoidable, given that the US will host next year’s G7. Trump is certain to manipulate the meeting for political and personal advantage, reducing other leaders to walk-on extras in his noxious re-election drama. It’s time to think again about who rules the world, and how – while there’s still a world left to rule.

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