‘The world’s changed quite a bit,’ was Domic Raab’s fitting, if somewhat understated, opening remark at the G7 meeting of foreign secretaries this week. The first in-person meeting of the alliance in two years saw masked dignitaries, elbow bumps and distanced discussions behind plexiglass screens. But two members of the Indian delegation still ended up testing positive for Covid.
Beyond the immediate challenges of the current crisis, Raab’s words seemed prescient. Quite a bit has changed since the G7 last met in France in 2019. Britain has left the EU and is no longer paralysed by parliamentary deadlock. President Biden has replaced Donald Trump in the White House. German and French elections this year and next cast a fog of uncertainty over the direction of European policy. The return of some form of face-to-face diplomacy is therefore much more than just a symbolic step on the road to normality.
With so much of the international power constellation in flux, there is a chance for Britain to find a new role for itself in the field of diplomacy. At Lancaster House on Tuesday, Dominic Raab was keen to cut an assertive and confident figure, attempting to flesh out the much-trumpeted ‘Global Britain’ agenda with talk of closer relationships with Asian and Commonwealth nations. Perhaps the clearest manifestation of this new policy was the invitation of India, Australia, South Africa and South Korea to the G7 meeting. The £1 billion UK-India trade deal, announced on the same day, is yet another example of the new eastward orientation. Asian markets play a huge role in Global Britain policy documents, far outweighing the sparse references to Europe, which seems to feature mainly as a defensive ally.
The other pillar for Britain is its relationship with the US. Fears that the Biden administration would be less welcoming seemed unfounded as Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured the hosts that the ‘special relationship is enduring’. Raab and Blinken were keen to present a united front at the G7 meeting, and the former spoke for both as he challenged the other states to help build ‘dynamic, agile new partnerships with like-minded countries’ in the face of threats from authoritarian states.
The German foreign minister Heiko Maas agreed — despite his country’s ambiguous relationship with Putin. But the Social Democrat had all the vigour and enthusiasm of a man about to leave office. His SPD party is currently polling at around 15 per cent, making it unlikely that Maas will return to his office in the autumn.
Germany will play a critical role in the defence of the western ‘values community’, as Maas put it. As the fourth largest economy in the world and as Europe’s financial and geopolitical backbone, the country faces increasing demands to fulfil a role befitting its size and potential. While Germany’s Nato defence spending has now risen to a record €53 billion (£46 billion), it still falls short of the target of 2 per cent of GDP.
Blinken was also keen to bring up another sore issue that has long tainted Germany’s relationship with its western allies: Nord Stream 2. The controversial gas pipeline running directly to Germany from Russia underneath the Baltic Sea, thereby bypassing Ukraine, is built by a subsidiary of the Russian company Gazprom and is now nearly complete. Blinken has repeatedly threatened sanctions against Germany should Berlin refuse to pull support for the project.
The German foreign minister had little new to say. Asked about pressure from Biden’s top diplomat, he lamely responded that ‘the well known positions were once again exchanged.’ Maas was keen to add that there was, however, agreement that Beijing required a collective response to hem in its expanding economic and political tentacles. The situation is unlikely to be resolved until it is clear who will lead Germany into 2022 and beyond. A Green administration would not be averse to cancelling the Nord Stream 2 project while the conservatives have elected a continuity candidate who is unlikely to break with Merkel’s course.
The G7 meeting of foreign ministers was a tantalising foretaste of the summit itself, which is scheduled to be held in St Ives in June. With the Biden and Johnson administrations relatively firm in the saddle — while their key European allies are in a state of political limbo — Britain has every opportunity to build a new role for itself in the world. On the outermost tip of the island and facing the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, St Ives seems an appropriate place to talk about an outward-looking Global Britain.