Defending the World Order in Hiroshima: The 2023 G7 Summit in Context


With the war in Ukraine in its second year, the Group of Seven gathered in Hiroshima last May to reaffirm its unshakable commitment to the rules-based international order. The author discusses the historical significance of the G7 Hiroshima Summit.

The leaders of the Group of Seven, or some variation thereof, have been meeting each year since 1975. While some critics have questioned the substance and relevance of this annual event, I believe the G7 Hiroshima Summit will be remembered as an important milepost in the forum’s history.

Rebuilding the Economic Order

The Group of Seven traces its beginnings to the first half of the 1970s. Faced with the biggest economic crisis since the end of World War II, the leaders of the West’s largest industrial powers gathered informally to coordinate policy free from bureaucratic constraints.

Unilateral action by the US administration of President Richard Nixon had led to the collapse of the Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange, and oil prices were soaring. With the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the oil-producing Arab states had begun wielding their petroleum exports as a weapon of economic diplomacy, and the success of their strategy was fueling a larger movement by the Third World (a Cold War umbrella term for the world’s diverse developing nations) to push for changes in the international economic order that had supported the capitalist world since the end of World War II. There was an urgent need for concerted action.

The framework began as an American and European initiative, but it soon opened up to include Japan. The reason was simple: Japan already boasted the world’s second largest economy, and it was a major oil-importing country. If the aim was to rebuild the international economic regime that supported the capitalist world, Japan’s participation was crucial. Present at the group’s first summit, held in 1975 at the Château de Rambouillet in France, were the top leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United States. The forum became the Group of Seven when Canada joined in 1976.

For Japan, which was excluded from the UN Security Council and from such multilateral frameworks as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, membership in this club provided a valuable opportunity for regular diplomatic interaction with the leaders of “core” industrialized countries besides the United States.

Launched as an ad hoc forum, the framework has no basis in any treaty or charter, nor does it have a permanent secretariat. Nonetheless, its annual summits have continued for almost half a century as the leaders of the industrial world have cleared their schedules in order to meet face to face each year.

Substance and Relevance in Question

As time went on, the summit took on the character of an institution, and its agenda steadily expanded. The annual meetings demanded increasingly extensive preparation at the working level, including long hours drafting and vetting the leaders’ joint communiqué. From the 12-paragraph statement issued at the Rambouillet Summit, the communiqué has ballooned, embracing an ever-wider range of topics. The Hiroshima communiqué goes on for 66 paragraphs, covering everything from the war in Ukraine to energy, supply chain resilience, vaccines, and artificial intelligence.

From 1998 on, regular meetings of the group’s foreign ministers and finance ministers were convened in conjunction with the annual summit. Nowadays, there are ministerial meetings devoted to every major policy area (agriculture, healthcare, education, transportation, and so forth), with each issuing its own outcome document. In addition, every summit features “outreach sessions” that a number of nonmembers are invited to attend. As a consequence, the summit draws media representatives from around the world.

Conceived as a relaxed, intimate gathering where world leaders could engage in candid discussions to forge a political consensus, the G7 summit morphed into the ceremonial culmination of a yearlong bureaucratic undertaking. As such, it was often dismissed as a meaningless pageant, more style than substance.

Meanwhile, there were mounting questions about the relevance of this elite club, which represented a steadily dwindling share of the global economy. The exclusion of Russia and China in particular seemed like an anachronism after the end of the Cold War. (In fact, from 1997 to 2014, Russia was a member of what was then known as the Group of Eight. Russia even hosted the 2006 G8 summit in Saint Petersburg, with President Vladimir Putin as chair, but it was expelled in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea.)

When the 2008 Wall Street meltdown triggered a global recession, a growing chorus of voices attacked the forum as outmoded and ill-equipped to address global economic problems, while heralding the rise of the Group of 20, which included China, Russia, and other emerging economic powers.

Defending International Norms

But the G7 Hiroshima Summit has helped counter those criticisms by shifting the focus away from immediate economic challenges and narrow Euro-American concerns. Meeting face to face, the leaders of the world’s biggest industrial democracies reaffirmed the solidarity that had been badly eroded during the twenty-first century (and particularly during the administration of US President Donald Trump), while pledging to work as one to address global problems. Herein lies the summit’s overarching significance.

The situation in Ukraine was bound to loom large on the 2023 summit’s agenda. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, beginning in 2022, shattered any lingering illusions about Moscow. But Russia has benefited from its “friendship without limits” with mighty China, which has refused to condemn the invasion. China, meanwhile, has shown its true colors by breaking its pledge to honor Hong Kong’s autonomy and by repeatedly subjecting its neighbors, including Japan, to military intimidation and economic pressure. If Russia succeeds in Ukraine, the risks of Chinese coercion will escalate. Taiwan could easily suffer the same fate as Ukraine, while Japan could become a client state, like Finland and Poland during the Cold War. The global consequences could be immense.

In this sense, the Russian and Chinese challenges are closely interconnected, and a recognition of this linkage was one of the major outcomes of the Hiroshima Summit. It has been remarkable to see that understanding dawning on the leaders of Europe, which has tended to view East Asia solely as a source of economic profit, while leaving security concerns to others. This understanding, in turn, has given rise to a clear recognition of the risks inherent in economic dependence on China, leading to an agreement to coordinate on “de-risking” and diversifying supply chains to enhance economic resilience. This, too, was an important outcome of the Hiroshima Summit.

In short, the war in Ukraine raised issues that go far beyond the security of Ukraine, Russia, or even Europe as a whole. Russia’s actions have challenged one of the most basic norms underpinning the existing international order: the principle that nation-states must not impose border changes through the use of force. The G7 leaders demonstrated their commitment to that principle in dramatic fashion as they welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy—who had pulled off a last-minute appearance—into the conference room and pledged their support to him in person.

Rejecting Nuclear Intimidation

The decision to hold the summit in Hiroshima, known above all for the nuclear attack that destroyed most of the city in August 1945, had genuine significance. The lack of any concrete progress toward denuclearization was a disappointment to some in Japan, where the abolition of nuclear weapons is a popular cause. But nuclear weapons cannot be abolished until all governments of the world first disavow their use.

Meanwhile, the G7 leaders made an important political statement through their participation in a wreath-laying ceremony at the cenotaph in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. In addition to mourning the more than 100,000 citizens killed by the atomic bomb, they were sending the message that even the threat of a nuclear attack—especially against nonnuclear countries—is unacceptable. Their message was directed not just toward Russia, which has hinted at the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but toward all nuclear-armed states. That includes North Korea, which has repeatedly conducted nuclear tests in defiance of UN resolutions, and China, which is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal.

Engaging the Global South

Another focus of the Hiroshima Summit was the question of how best to engage with developing and newly industrialized countries that have adopted a more conciliatory stance toward China and Russia. Prime Minister Kishida Fumio responded to the challenge by inviting the leaders of Brazil, the Comoros, the Cook Islands, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam (in addition to quasi-allies like Australia and South Korea) and using the Hiroshima Summit as an opportunity for active bilateral diplomacy. The summit was also the scene of a historic meeting between President Zelenskyy and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has maintained relatively cordial ties with Moscow in the midst of the war in Ukraine.

As for outcomes, the leaders’ communiqué reaches out to the so-called Global South (an umbrella term encompassing a wide variety of countries) with references to the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment and reform of the Multilateral Development Banks, but there is no denying that the content lacks weight and specificity. On the other hand, one can say without reservation that the G7 made progress in its engagement with the developing world by focusing on the latter’s needs instead of preaching to them about human rights, the environment, gender issues, and other value-laden topics dear to the industrialized world. Ultimately, if we want to win over the developing countries, we will need to work to make the liberal international order, and our own liberal democratic societies, more attractive to the Global South.

The G7 summit is a forum where leaders of the international community gather to build or reaffirm political consensus and announce their collective commitments. It is up to each individual country to translate the summit’s outcomes into concrete action and lend credibility to the G7. Such credibility is essential to deter our adversaries, strengthen solidarity with our partners, and win over countries that remain “on the fence.” For the agreements reached at the G7 Hiroshima Summit to have any practical effect, each country must strive continuously, taking resolute steps to shoulder its share of the burdens and dangers of deterrence, while working steadfastly to “de-risk” its economic relationships and build resistance to coercion and domination.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Participants at the G7 Hiroshima Summit in a group photo taken on May 21, 2023: from left, Italian Ambassador to Japan Gianluigi Benedetti, European Council President Charles Michel, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, US President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. © Jiji.)

Hiroshima diplomacy Kishida Fumio G7 G7 Summit