Since the mid-1970s, the leaders of some of the world’s largest economies have met annually to discuss global problems. After every one of the meetings, these world leaders have released a communique signed by those present.
As these meetings became semi-formalized over the years into what is now known as the G-7, so has the communique. The document starts with an introduction that suggests unity — often beginning “We, the leaders of the G-7″ — before moving on to lengthy discussions of the shared outcomes of their meetings.
But this year, as G-7 leaders gather in Biarritz, France, on Saturday, it looks like this storied tradition may come to an end. Officials have suggested that unless there is an unexpected level of agreement among the guests, there will be no official communique released after the meeting.
Host Emmanuel Macron downplayed the suggestion at a news conference this week. “No one reads the communiques, let’s be honest,” the French president quipped. “And in recent times you read the communiques only to detect disagreements.”
Macron’s decision is not really based on concerns about the communique’s readership, but instead on its authorship. The process of writing the communique has evolved into a long, involved process that starts well before the G-7 summit happens, with representatives of each nation trying to find a reasonable consensus.
But the past two years have seen fractious G-7 meetings, with major redraftings of the communique and unprecedented language in the final document that undermined its very purpose. And there’s one person responsible: President Trump.
In 2017, the new U.S. leader pushed back on trade and climate change at the G-7 event in Italy, resulting in the addition of a passage in the statement that said “the United States of America is in the process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris agreement and thus is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics.”
Only days later, the United States unilaterally pulled out of the Paris agreement on climate change.
Things were even worse the next year in Canada, with entirely separate sections on climate change for the United States, and for the rest of the G-7. Later after feuding with his host, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, about trade, Trump left the summit early and later withdrew his support for the communique via a tweet.
There has been no improvement in relations since last June, and with G-7 unity at a nadir, Macron hopes to dodge a bullet. The lack of unity is uncharted water for the gathering, and it could imperil more than just a document.
Even when Russian President Vladimir Putin skipped the 2012 summit at Camp David in the United States, the communique did not mention his absence or hint at disagreement. Two years later, when Russia had its membership suspended after the annexation of Crimea, the communique was actually united in condemnation of Russia (Trump, incidentally, has repeated his calls for Putin to be reinvited to the G-7).
Macron is arguably right that the document itself draws little interest. Though the G-7 was initially formed as a forum to discuss economics, its meetings have become sprawling affairs — as have their communiques, which often last thousands of words (the 2013 leaders’ communique issued from Lough Erne in Northern Ireland ran to over 10,000 words), not including the numerous side documents that are released every year.
The G-7 is not necessarily the place where concrete action happens. An informal grouping by design, the communique is at best only a statement of intent, rather than a binding document. The group’s economic purpose has now been completely overshadowed by the larger G-20, which includes behemoth economies such as China and India.
That does not mean the G-7 could not help move the needle in smaller ways. From its early years, the communiques have mentioned serious environmental issues — as early as 1985, G-7 leaders were talking about “climatic change,” more than three decades before the Paris agreement on climate change was actually signed. The G-7 has also helped launch initiatives on financial restructuring and public health.
There is certainly no shortage of issues that would benefit from a united front among G-7 members. Climate change remains a problem, as seen in the raging fires in the Amazon, while the issues created by a trade war with China could give a purpose for the G-7, which describes itself now as a gathering of “like-minded” democracies.
The G-7 communique may have been a dull document, but what it represented will not be easy to replace.