Global summits like next week’s Group of Seven in Cornwall, England, are seldom notable for what happens at them (though it was revealing when the leaders of Canada, France and the United Kingdom were caught cheerfully mocking then-President Donald Trump at the 2019 NATO summit). If done properly, summits are as carefully choreographed as a ballet—if ballets consisted mainly of symbolic handshakes, tedious press availabilities and awkward class photos.
But when I worked at the White House, I saw how summits can be useful before they begin as action-forcing events. Any self-respecting summit host wants to be seen as setting a visionary, proactive agenda. Any self-respecting American president wants to be seen as offering bold, practical leadership on pressing challenges. In the run-up to a summit, this creates pressure within participating governments to produce policy initiatives that seem equal to the moment. And this gives supporters of such policies a chance to push for them.
An illustration: When I worked as a policy adviser for President George W. Bush, the 2005 Group of Eight summit at Gleneagles in Scotland was focused by its host, Prime Minister Tony Blair, on the needs of the African continent. Months before that meeting, I realized that the president would, at some point, ask for proposals to put on the table. So I worked with experts at the National Security Council and the U.S. Agency for International Development to prepare a major initiative to fight malaria—a vicious killer of African children. On cue, Bush asked during a pre-summit briefing, “Well, what am I going to propose?” We were ready with the President’s Malaria Initiative, which has helped save 7 million lives.
The context for the 2021 Cornwall G-7 is a five-alarm global health emergency that has already taken 3.7 million lives. COVID-19 is rampant in the developing world and throwing off scary new variants that could eventually reduce the effectiveness of vaccines for everyone. Fewer than 1% of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated. Many front-line health workers are still uncovered. Meanwhile, European Union countries and six other wealthy nations have 2.9 billion excess vaccine doses, including half a billion in the United States alone.
This state of affairs is a security threat and a moral scandal.
The host of the Cornwall summit, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has provided leadership on the COVID-19 crisis ranging from inspired to incoherent. On one hand, he intends to ask his fellow G-7 leaders to endorse the common goal of vaccinating the entire world by the end of 2022—what he says would be “the single greatest feat in medical history”—to which one can only reply, “Huzzah!” But Johnson has not announced or endorsed a specific plan to meet this goal, nor estimated how much it might cost. Meanwhile, he is in the process of slashing U.K. foreign aid from 0.7% of national income to 0.5%—a cut equivalent to $5.6 billion, which would gut programs for girls’ education, health, clean water and humanitarian assistance. The United Kingdom is, in fact, the only G-7 country cutting foreign aid this year. To which one can only respond: “What the hell?”
This was evidently done to appease the populist, nativist right wing of Johnson’s Conservative Party—the Brexit right. But it has provoked a loud rebellion from dozens of Conservative members of Parliament, led by former international development secretary Andrew Mitchell and joined by former prime minister Theresa May. The group is looking for opportunities to debate and vote on Johnson’s cut.
President Biden heads toward Cornwall with a record on the global pandemic far better than Trump’s, which is crossing a bar barely above the floor. Biden has rejoined the World Health Organization and enlisted in the Covax program. He has backed a temporary waiver on intellectual property rights for coronavirus vaccines, which might increase production down the road. He has committed to sharing 80 million vaccine doses with countries in need. All this deserves a rousing “meh.” It is useful and welcome, but also two-and-a-half gallons in an ocean of need.
I assume that someone in the bowels of the West Wing or the Old Executive Office Building is pushing Biden to embrace a far more ambitious effort to end the COVID-19 emergency—an initiative in the grand tradition of the Marshall Plan or the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. I assume they’re hoping this will be announced before the G-7. And I assume there are others within the administration arguing that foreign aid isn’t popular in some crucial House districts in Pennsylvania or Colorado or wherever. There always are.
This is one case, Mr. President, when you need to act on your best instincts and trust in history’s favorable verdict.