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G7 Foreign Policy from Hiroshima to Ise-Shima and Beyond

John Kirton, Director, G7 Research Group
April 10, 2016

On April 10–11, 2016, G7 foreign ministers assemble in Hiroshima under Japan's presidency for their annual meeting. Led by Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida, their task is to review of the broad global foreign policy and security agenda, agree on issues that can be solved at their level, prepare recommendations to be endorsed by their leaders at the Ise-Shima Summit in late May, and leave the most difficult ones for the leaders to decide by themselves. At Hiroshima, much attention will focus on the few issues attracting headlines. Will the foreig n ministers pronounce on maritime law and security in the South China Sea in the face of China's warnings not to do so? Will they seek Russia's return to the G7, as sought by German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, from the junior party in Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition? And will Barack Obama become the first U.S. president to visit Hiroshima when he comes to Japan in May, just as the G7 made John Kerry the first secretary of state to do so?

While these questions are important, two larger ones loom behind the scenes. How well does the Hiroshima and prospective Ise-Shima foreign policy agenda compare with what the G7 has done in the past in this field? And how much are G7 leaders likely to comply with any agreements they make, given their track record of compliance with G7 summit foreign policy and security commitments in the past?

The Hiroshima agenda centres on nuclear non-proliferation, given the location and the Nuclear Safety Summit that President Obama just hosted in Washington ten days earlier. It features the South China Sea, which G7 leaders innovatively and boldly pronounced on — at Japan's initiative — at last year's summit in Elmau, Germany. It embraces North Korea, terrorism, Syria, the Middle East, refugees and migration, and Ukraine. It might also address Afghanistan, where Kerry flew in from and where the war against al Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban has not yet been won 15 years after the Twin Towers and the Pentagon in the U.S. homeland were struck.

This is largely a familiar agenda, as G7 ministers wisely stick with the toughest issues, such as terrorism. Even when they are successfully addressed, these issues can and do soon reappear in a new form. Yet missing are some of the familiar, still unsolved issues from past G7 foreign ministers' meetings, notably issues related to Africa, where deadly civil war and civil strife remain. Also absent are innovative, proactive issues that connect security to other areas of G7 concern, notably women in conflict, and conflict prevention, which featured in 2000 when Japan hosted the G8 (including Russia) foreign ministers at Miyazaki and leaders at Okinawa.

The Hiroshima agenda includes all four issues that Japan announced at the end of March as items for the leaders' foreign policy agenda, which itself was only one of the seven subjects on the list. The foreign policy issues listed were terrorism, the Middle East, Ukraine and North Korea. As that list excluded the South China Sea some will wonder if Japan has left this issue to the foreign ministers, deeming it not wise to deal with it at the leaders' level as the G7 summit at Elmau did last year. Also missing from the list for Ise-Shima was nuclear non-proliferation beyond the specific case of North Korea. During the eight years from 2006 to 2013, the G8 summit made 141 commitments on non-proliferation, 106 on terrorism, 88 on regional security, 17 on nuclear safety, and 109 on crime and corruption. Perhaps G7 leaders concluded that non-proliferation and nuclear safety were fully taken care of by the U.S.-led Nuclear Safety Summit in Washington, and thus would need little help from them at their summit in Japan. If so, the pressure is on the Hiroshima foreign ministers to make more and increasingly ambitious decisions than G7 foreign ministers traditionally have. Having the G7 leaders shrink their security agenda seems paradoxical, given the clear and present global dangers and the fact that the newer G20 summit deals with security subjects in only a very partial way.

This is all the more curious, given that G7/8 leaders have a good record of complying with their foreign policy and security summit commitments to a strong degree. Since the start of G7 summitry, compliance with the many regional security and terrorism commitments assessed for compliance has averaged +0.60 (80%) in each case. In the areas of conflict prevention, non-proliferation and crime/corruption, they average +0.51 (75.5%) for each issue. In all cases, this is above the G7/8 compliance average of +0.50 (75%) for all subjects. In foreign policy and security, the G7/8 summit is a club that that can be counted on to keep its word.

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John KirtonJohn J. Kirton, is director of the G7 and G8 Research Group, and co-director of the G20 Research Group, the Global Health Diplomacy Program and the BRICS Research Group. He is also a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at China's Renmin University. A professor of political science, he teaches global governance and international relations and Canadian foreign policy. He has advised the Canadian and Russian governments, the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization on G7/8 and G20 participation and summitry, international trade and sustainable development, and has written widely on G7/8 and G20 summitry. Kirton is the author of many chapters and articles on the G7, G8 and G20. His most recent books include G20 Governance for a Globalized World (Ashgate, 2012) and (with Ella Kokotsis), The Global Governance of Climate Change: G7, G20 and UN Leadership (Ashgate, 2015), as well as The G8-G20 Relationship in Global Governance, co-edited with Marina Larionova (Ashgate, 2015). Kirton is also co-editor of several publications on the G8, the G20 and the BRICS published by Newsdesk Media, including G20 Turkey: The Antalya Summit 2015 and G7 Germany: The Schloss Elmau Summit 2015.


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