JUNE 11, 2021
ST. IVES, England — The tableau on a windy Cornish beach on Friday was both odd — smiling world leaders in tailored suits standing on a makeshift platform above the blowing sand — and arrestingly normal.
If not for the elbow bumps instead of handshakes and hugs, the scene at the opening of the Group of Seven economic meeting here could have been mistaken for a time before the global pandemic and before Donald Trump.
It was less clear whether the world’s wealthy democracies can return to normal in more substantive ways — with the sort of cooperation that was once routine but unraveled in the Trump era — given that populism and nationalism remain powerful in many countries, including the United States.
The leaders did their best Friday to signal that a page had turned. The United States and the other G-7 nations pledged to donate 1 billion vaccines to poorer nations as they kicked off their first meeting since before covid-19 killed 3.7 million people and ravaged the world’s economies.
President Biden took his place beside British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host, for a traditional “family photo” before the start of what Johnson said was a “fireside chat” among the leaders on economic policy. Biden spoke amiably with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom the White House announced Friday will meet with Biden at the White House next month.
The leaders sought to convey a fresh start in visible ways. None wore masks, the ubiquitous accessory of the pandemic age. Macron tweeted a video of himself speaking with Biden so closely that they clasped arms.
“Now that we are together, united, determined to make a difference, it’s time to deliver. I’m sure we will, @JoeBiden!” he wrote in English.
Biden offered his own endorsement of the theme that a renewed global alliance was ready to prove itself capable. “I’m looking forward to reinforcing our commitment to multilateralism and working with our allies and partners to build a more fair and inclusive global economy,” he tweeted. “Let’s get to work.”
The three-day meeting, described by one senior European diplomat as the “vaccine summit,” brought together the leaders of the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan for the first time since Trump’s turbulent four-year tenure, when he undermined the G-7’s collective decision-making and dismissed it as irrelevant.
The very dullness of events like the welcoming remarks and the group photograph seemed calculated to show that the coalition had moved beyond events like Trump’s angry denunciation in 2018 of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “dishonest” and “weak,” apparently because of Trudeau’s comments on tariffs at that year’s G-7 summit.
Trump had been scheduled to host the annual G-7 meeting last year before it was canceled due to the pandemic.
Trump’s closest partner among the leaders had been the U.K.’s Johnson, a fellow populist who was a leader of the successful effort to take Britain out of the European Union — and who, like Trump, was infected and hospitalized with the coronavirus early in the pandemic. But Johnson appeared to go out of his way to be a team player Friday.
Opening the first session, Johnson grumbled about the brief presence of the press as the seven leaders, plus two representatives of the European Union, took seats close together around a round table.
The big economies must ensure that the world recovers from this crisis in a more equitable way than after the financial crisis of 2008, Johnson said, with an eye to sustainability and a “more gender-neutral” approach.
“We need to make sure that we learn the lessons from the pandemic,” he added, even borrowing a Biden campaign slogan by stressing the need to “build back better.”
Johnson’s government, along with those of the United States and several other participants, had been criticized for hoarding vaccines and squeezing out poorer nations, a perception that Friday’s vaccine announcement was intended to counter.
U.N. Secretary General António Guterres welcomed the pledge but warned that the world is still “at war with the virus,” and said the contribution is not enough.
“This is very much welcome, and where we were a few weeks ago we couldn’t imagine that this would materialize,” Guterres said. Still, he added, “We need more than that.”
Biden inaugurated the vaccine donation effort Thursday, when he announced that the United States will purchase 500 million Pfizer-BioNTech doses, making up half of the G-7’s total commitment.
The Biden administration will also help global health systems — including those in Africa, Asia and Latin America — develop necessary plans and infrastructure to ensure that the vaccines reach the intended recipients, White House officials said.
The vaccination effort represents Biden’s attempt to launch America back into its global problem-solving role. Biden and his team have repeatedly argued that when it comes to confronting the most vexing challenges of the 21st century — from the coronavirus to climate change — the world’s democracies have better answers than autocracies.
Speaking Thursday from Tregenna Castle Resort in Cornwall, Biden cast the vaccination initiative as both a moral responsibility and “in America’s self-interest.”
“We know that raging covid-19 in other countries holds back global growth, raises instability and weakens governments,” Biden said. “And as we’ve seen in the United States, with the evidence clearer day by the day, the key to reopening and growing economies is to vaccinate your people.”
Some health experts, however, warned that the initiative will be insufficient for a global population of more than 7.7 billion.
“The G-7 commitment to share 1 billion vaccine doses in the next year is a good step forward, but by itself will not be nearly enough,” said Krishna Udayakumar, director of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.
“While the donation pledges are the biggest to date, which we should acknowledge, what we need is a comprehensive global vaccination strategy, not piecemeal pledges,” Udayakumar said. “We will continue to see humanitarian disasters like in India and Brazil until we get more aggressive in our global vaccination strategy.”
But in taking the lead in the global vaccine effort, Biden sought to assuage some of the concerns about the reliability and stability of the United States as a global partner and ally, concerns that had long been building but had accelerated under Trump.
“What President Biden needs to do is show consistency, credibility in U.S. promises,” Heather A. Conley, senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a phone call with reporters.
Conley noted that alliances with the United States “were fraying for quite some time under previous American presidents,” and said Biden’s challenge is now to tangibly demonstrate to other nations that the United States understands the benefit of working together.
“That is something that has to be proven to them,” she said. “They will not accept any promises of that. It has to be proven.”
The seven leaders Friday also endorsed a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15 percent, formalizing an agreement by their finance ministers last weekend and hoping to reverse a four-decade decline in the taxes paid by large multinational corporations. The announcement marked a victory for the Biden administration, which has pushed for such a tax to help pay for the president’s ambitious domestic agenda.
In a statement Friday, the White House praised the agreement as key to building an “equitable” tax system that helps end the “race to the bottom,” in which countries compete to woo multinational corporations with increasingly lower tax rates, often at the expense of workers and the middle class.
Adding to the sense of a return to tradition was the reemergence of protesters demanding that rich nations do more to combat climate change, global poverty and more. As in past years, the leaders were kept far away from the noisy demonstrations.
Friday was a short day of business for the group, which convened about 2 p.m. and wrapped up by 5, allowing them to prepare for a seaside dinner attended by much of the British royal family.
Earlier in the day, first lady Jill Biden toured a local school alongside Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton. The two women seemed friendly and relaxed as they navigated the close quarters.
That scene, like Biden’s intimate huddles, embodied the familiar, personal brand of diplomacy Biden had been forced to forgo until now. The G-7 is the first stop on Biden’s maiden foreign trip as president, and he is scheduled to continue on to gatherings of the NATO alliance and the E.U. leadership in Brussels next week, followed by a one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.
James Carafano, vice president of foreign and security policy at the Heritage Foundation, described Biden’s trip as “a bit of a nothingburger,” with few significant policy announcements.
“Presidents take overseas trips at some point after they get their administrations settled,” Carafano said. “American leadership matters in the world. Everybody gets that. There doesn’t seem to be anything particularly remarkable about where he’s going.”
But in some ways, unremarkable was the point, with Biden performing the pre-Trump role of a traditional American president, conferring with counterparts and reassuring allies on a trip designed not to make waves.
During Trump’s presidency, he rarely went a day at such events without making waves or at least finding a way to address the press.
Biden did neither Friday.
“Everybody in the water,” he joked as photographers swarmed at the beachside gathering. It was one of about four sentences he spoke within earshot of reporters all day.