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Munk School of Global Affairs

The Roles of G7 and G20 Foreign Ministers

Alexandre T. Gingras
June 2, 2018

On April 22 and 23, 2018, G7 foreign ministers gathered under Canadian auspices to exchange views and coordinate actions on ongoing global security matters. Their communiqué reiterated the usual concerns of western countries, with a section devoted to the April 7 Douma chemical attack in Syria and the military response by the United States, the United Kingdom and France. It echoed the G7 leaders' April 13 statement by expressing unanimous ministerial support for the retaliatory strikes against the Assad regime in Syria.

Approximately one month later, on May 20 and 21, Argentinian head diplomat Jorge Faurie hosted a G20 foreign ministers' meeting at the San Martín Palace in Buenos Aires. Here the ministers discussed global governance and sustainable development, building momentum for the G20 leaders' summit scheduled for November 30. It was the third such official meeting of the top diplomats since the one in Los Cabos, Mexico, in 2012 and the one in Bonn, Germany, in 2017. The United States, France, Russia, Turkey and Korea sent ministerial deputies to represent their interests.

In Argentina, just as at previous gatherings, the G20 foreign ministers kept to a loose format. It is an informal opportunity for free and candid discussions that are not bound to an official, negotiated communiqué. There was no predefined agenda in Buenos Aires, and the head diplomats were free to bring their own concerns to the table. Indeed, German foreign minister Heiko Maas asked his counterparts to maintain support for the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in the wake of U.S. withdrawal from the agreement, while Korean second vice foreign minister Cho Hyun sought out support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, ahead of the Donald Trump-Kim Jong Un summit scheduled for June 12 in Singapore.

The G7 foreign ministers' meeting has been the premier forum for global security issues, while its G20 counterpart has mostly tackled global issues with a focus on economic matters, governance and development. However, with the many fires burning along the fault line running from the Baltic Sea to the Persian Gulf, in Central Asia and in and around the Korean Peninsula, mission creep is all but inevitable for the G20.

Simply put, the G7 and its foreign ministers no longer have the breadth of membership necessary to effectively address critical global tensions such as the ones with Russia over Ukraine, the three-way fight in Syria, mixed with chemical weapons, the escalation between Israel and Iran, Saudi involvement in the Yemeni Civil War, and the diplomatic waltz over the border separating the two Koreas. Locking out countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India and South Korea from discussions and potential solutions pertaining to the security of their very own neighbourhoods is clearly counterintuitive and counterproductive at this juncture in time.

In a press conference with his G20 troika partners of 2017 host Germany and 2018 host Argentina after the Buenos Aires meeting, Japanese foreign minister Taro Kono showed openness to change. While announcing that his country would hold its own G20 foreign ministers' meeting in Nagoya on November 22 and 23, 2019, at the end of his country's presidency, Kono also mentioned that "in the future, the G20 may be utilized as a good forum for the security discussion."

Perhaps that future could be as early as next year.

When Japan assumes the G20 presidency by the end of 2018, and considering its G7 membership as well as its stake in the North Korea situation, it can establish a precedent by officially making global security a G20 foreign ministers' issue. There may be resistance from the G7 club to opening up discussions with countries that openly challenge its shared interests, but holding official yet informal discussions that include a full slate of ministers presents a unique opportunity to frankly discuss and address troublesome deadlocks and potentially pave the way for solutions. Moreover, the G20 foreign ministers' have historically not produced a public outcome document. The absence of pressure at G20 foreign ministers' meetings to produce a politically binding, negotiated consensus communiqué among countries that have a broader range of interests than the G7 may allow for more frank and thus productive discussions on contentious issues.

As the G20 is nearing the 20th anniversary of its founding at the finance ministers' level and the 10th anniversary of the leaders' level summit, it must recognize that global security is on par with economic matters when it comes to the purview and interest of its members. The G20 was created out of crises, and has evolved to avoid crises. It was necessary for countries to come together to coordinate orderly responses to global financial meltdowns. Now, the G20 leadership can help steer big and regional powers in the same direction to address the many global security challenges of our times.

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Alexandre GingrasAlexandre T. Gingras holds a master's degree in peace and conflict studies from the University of Uppsala and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Ottawa. He has worked in the House of Commons, the Senate and Leader of the Official Opposition's Office at the Parliament of Canada and has served as Executive Assistant to the Right Honourable Paul Martin, where he seconded the former Prime Minister in his activities regarding the G20 and the protection of the Congo Basin Rainforest. In his 2010 thesis, Pre-emptive Peace: Collective Security and Rogue States in the 21st Century, he advocated for the creation of a G20 foreign ministers' group to deal with global security matters.


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