The major democratic powers remain united and swift—even as new partnerships emerge.
The Group of Seven (G7) major democratic powers is the smallest, swiftest ship with the most commonly committed and closely coordinated crew on the global governance seas today. In a world afflicted by military conflict, terrorism, and other security threats, it is the most ambitious and effective in addressing and achieving the goals that the global community now needs to meet.
At their first summit in Rambouillet, France, in November 1975, leaders defined its distinctive mission: to protect democracy within its members, and promote open democracy, individual liberty, and social advance globally.
The G7’s greatest failure began in 2014 when it lost Russia as a G8 member.
Since then, at the annual summit of its leaders—the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, soon Canada, and then an ever-expanding European Union—it has increasingly achieved this mission, producing the global democratic revolution after 1989, and defending the much-expanded community of democracies to this day.
Achievements in global security governance include combatting new non-state security threats (such as terrorism) since 1978, winning the Cold War in 1989, authorizing combat to prevent genocide in Kosovo in 1999, and countering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022. It has now become the center of global security governance. In doing so, the G7 has expanded its own institutional capacity. Acting as a pilot boat, it guided the big, slow, hard-to-turn tankers—propelled by polluting fuel from the 1940s—led by the United Nations and its Security Council to greater performance.
G7 Actions and Achievements
The G7 was designed, created, and acted as an informal alliance from the start. At its first two summits, which took place in France in 1975 and the US in 1976, it successfully defended democracy in Spain and Italy. In Tokyo in 1979, it acted to permanently end the oil shocks coming from the Middle East, then sparked by the fundamentalist Islamic revolution in Iran. In Ottawa in 1981, it overtly became a broad security club, issuing its first authoritative statement on many global political issues. The permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—also known as the UNSC P5, each with a veto and nuclear weapons of their own (and two non-democracies) now had a potential competitor. Unlike the UNSC P5, the G7 summit was produced by the major power leaders, all from democracies, and with a majority (Japan, Germany, Italy and Canada) being non-nuclear weapons states.
From 1982 to 1985, as the Cold War deepened, the G7 agreed to build its nuclear and conventional arms for deterrence, and to start a dialogue and arms control with the Soviet Union to foster détente. Then on July 16, 1989, at the suggestion of the French president as G7 host, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev sent a letter to the G7 leaders at their Paris summit, saying he wanted into the economic and political system of the democratic West. By sending his letter to the G7 there, rather than to the UN in New York or to Washington, DC, Gorbachev showed he knew where to find the center of global security governance.
By 1998, the G7 added a now-democratically reformed Russia to make the G7 alliance the G8. A year later the G7 members decided, with Russia’s acquiescence, to direct the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to go to war in Kosovo and prevent a genocide from Serbia.
In a world afflicted by military conflict, terrorism, and other security threats, it is the most ambitious and effective in addressing and achieving the goals that the global community now needs to meet.
In 2002, from Kananaskis, Canada, G8 leaders acted forcefully against Al Qaeda’s mega terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center that had killed more than 3,000 people on September 11, 2001. They quickly defeated the Afghan-based Al Qaeda and prevented any more mega-terrorist attacks on G8 states—even if they did not ultimately win the war against the Taliban-governed Afghanistan. In Kananaskis, they also produced the Global Partnership on Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which had G7 members enter Russia’s previously closed military facilities to disarm and destroy the Soviet-era weapons.
The G7’s greatest failure began in 2014 when it lost Russia as a G8 member. G7 leaders suspended Russia that March when it invaded and annexed the Crimea region of a democratic Ukraine. Swiftly reverting to the G7 for its Brussels summit that June, they responded with sanctions against Russia and were in dialogue with Putin in Normandy the next day. But these moves merely delayed the much bigger, broader Russian invasion of all of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. They responded much more swiftly with more severe sanctions and major financial, military, and diplomatic support for Ukraine, which helped reverse the initial Russian military gains and liberated some, but not all, of the Ukrainian territory.
The G7’s June 2023 Hiroshima summit and its special December summit focused on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, had Ukrainian President Zelensky participate and made many more commitments to sanction Russia and support Ukraine. As the forthcoming host of the G7’s 2024 summit in Apulia, Italy has indicated that Ukraine is its first priority, with the October 2023 Hamas attack on Israel as its second. It added the first meeting for G7 defense ministers. As of today, G7 members have complied with their leaders’ overall summit commitments at an average of 77%, with weapons nonproliferation and regional security commitments met 80% of the time or greater.
Evolution Amidst Emerging Alliances
G7 leaders have long worked together within larger alliances to meet their expanding security goals. The number of references that guided, supported, or noted other international institutions soared from only four to the economic bodies of the International Monetary Fund, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade at Rambouillet in 1975, to 73 references (led by the United Nations, then the G20, and the International Atomic Energy Agency) at Hiroshima in 2023.
G7 members designed and created the G20 in 1999, hosted and chaired its first few annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors, and its first four summits. Successfully launching this new plurilateral summit institution, they led its early accomplishments in restoring strong, sustainable, and balanced growth and financial stability, and those related to development and climate change. They later led the G20’s work on combatting crime and corruption, terrorism and proliferation finance, and affirming the value of human rights.
In June 2013, G8 leaders agreed that to stop his use of prohibited chemical weapons to kill his own people, Syrian President Bashir Assad must go. At the G20’s St. Petersburg summit in September 2013, they halted Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. In November 2022 they led the G20’s Bali summit—which included Russia—to publicly condemn Russian aggression against Ukraine, as the UN had done before. They did so similarly at the New Delhi summit in September 2023, where they also supported adding the African Union as a full G20 member.
A full 35 years after the 1989 democratic G7’s Cold War victory, it remains a permanent achievement.
In NATO, G7 members continue to be at its core, even with its current 31 members. Both bodies have largely the same membership, are dedicated to protecting their democratic members, promote global democracy and social advance, and thereby win the new cold war. But unlike the dedicated warship that is NATO, the G7 as a dual purpose, multi-functional mega-ship is explicitly global in its governance and membership. This remains true—even as NATO has become more like the G7 by waging its long war in Afghanistan and by recently involving Japan at NATO summits, now held together with G7 ones.
All the other more recently emerging or expanding plurilateral summit institutions, led by the BRICS, which now has ten members (the original Brazil, Russia, India, and China; South Africa, which joined next; and the recently added Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates, which were added in January), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), are either too small in membership, internally diverse and divided, or regionally and economically focused to challenge or replace the G7’s central global security role. And a reformed, expanded UN Security Council remains a distant dream.
Looking ahead, the G7 will be best able to navigate and lead on today’s complex challenges by intensifying its recent institutional innovations and adding new ones. It will host more summits each year with more of them focused on central and urgent security and military concerns. Its new meeting of members’ defense ministers, should it take place, could become an institutionalized, increasingly influential part of the process. Summit guests will continue to prominently include the leaders of democratic Ukraine and India, with India even becoming a full member, as it is now a major power and a democratic one. Eventually, a reformed and re-democratized Russia could and should return, after the G7 democracies win the war in Ukraine and resume their needed partnership with Russia to address the existential climate security threat that all now confront.
A full 35 years after the 1989 democratic G7’s Cold War victory, it remains a permanent achievement. Apart from a recidivist Russia, not a single one of the newly sovereign, now democratic countries liberated from the USSR has reverted to dictatorship. Nor have the few non-democratic remnants recreated a new collective, organized, ongoing alliance like the dissolved Soviet-led Warsaw Pact or COMECON to confront the all-democratic, ever-expanding NATO and OECD in the military and economic field. As the G7 leaders accurately proclaimed at their 1990 summit in Houston: “When people are free to choose, they choose freedom.” It is a phrase that still rings and sings—and remains true today.
John Kirton is director and founder of the Global Governance Program, which includes the G7 Research Group, the G20 Research Group, the BRICS Research Group and the Global Health Diplomacy Program, based at the University of Toronto, where he is a professor emeritus of political science, a fellow of Trinity College and a senior fellow of the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History. He has led a team of analysts at every G7 summit since 1988, and at every G20 summit since the first in Washington in 2008. He is coauthor of Reconfiguring the Global Governance of Climate Change (with Ella Kokotsis and Brittaney Warren) and Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (with Ella Kokotsis), and author of Canadian Foreign Policy in a Changing World, China’s G20 Governance and G20 Governance for a Globalized World. He coedits a series of publications on the G7 and G20, most recently G20 India: The 2023 New Delhi Summit and G7 Japan: The 2023 Hiroshima Summit, and a series on global health diplomacy, including Health: A Political Choice – From Fragmentation to Integration. Follow him on X/Twitter at @jjkirton.
Cover photo: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joins G7 world leaders at a working session on the final day of the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Sunday, May 21, 2023. Photo courtesy G7.