Was Cornwall summit a turning point?

The past year has been full of uncertainty and anxiety due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the escalating confrontation between the U.S. and China. Yet, a ray of hope is now shining on us. Democracies are reuniting to lead global efforts to bring a new order to the post-COVID-19 world. The dawn of this new order seems to have come.

The Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, southwest England, on June 11-13 created an air of hope. It drew an unprecedented level of attention for three main reasons.

To start, it was the first G7 summit to be attended by U.S. President Joe Biden, who wanted to use the occasion to demonstrate the resumption of international cooperation.

Despite holding the annual G7 presidency in 2020, the United States did not hold a summit with the leaders of the other six member countries that year, as then U.S. President Donald Trump had no interest in the G7 framework and all the countries were busy with their domestic responses to the pandemic. With the advent of the Biden administration, the United States has begun returning to internationalism.

Second, amid the intensified U.S.-China confrontation, it became increasingly clear that the United States and the United Kingdom, which this year assumed the presidency of the G7, were taking the lead in showing the world that democracies had made a comeback.

In this connection, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apparently wanted to promote to the world the launch of a “D10” club of democracies, adding three Indo-Pacific countries — Australia, South Korea and India — to the G7 nations. His idea was based on a policy suggestion by John Bew, a history professor at King’s College London and a member of Johnson’s policy advisory unit.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had to address outreach sessions of the G7 summit virtually, due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic in his country. Ultimately, the leaders of 11 democracies, including South Africa, and the European Union, held talks. Their aim was to reshape the G7 as a forum of democracies to counter the rise of the China-led club of authoritarian countries amid the pandemic. One manifestation of their resolve was the announcement of a joint commitment to provide 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine to developing countries.

Third, the Cornwall summit became the first major international summit after months of leaders being forced by the pandemic to have no multilateral summits that required overseas travel.

To attend the first in-person G7 summit held in two years, all the relevant leaders traveled to Cornwall, a warm resort destination in June in England. I could sense their happiness over chatting in person with one another and breathing in fresh air as they took a walk along the beach.

In other words, the leaders gathering at Cornwall had the joyous opportunity to meet in person, as if they had gone through a long tunnel called the COVID-19 pandemic and were finally soaking up new rays of sunlight.

Almost all the leaders and their spouses had already been vaccinated. The Cornwall summit was possible only because the host and participants believed that gathering together posed little threat to their health.

The G7 summit was held just as COVID-19 vaccination programs were rapidly progressing in developed democracies, to the extent that they began gradually easing their lockdowns.

The spread of the highly contagious delta variant, which was first detected in India, is of course worrisome. It is likely to take considerable time for developing countries to receive their portions of the 1 billion vaccine doses the G7 pledged to provide. Nevertheless, it seems that mankind is moving forward in its fight against COVID-19 with the powerful weapon of vaccines.

In their communique, the G7 leaders said they “determined to beat COVID-19 and build back better.” They added they shared a G7 agenda for global action to “end the pandemic and prepare for the future” by “getting as many safe vaccines to as many people as possible as fast as possible.”

The G7 leaders declared they “set a collective goal of ending the pandemic in 2022.” If their goal is achieved, the Cornwall G7 summit perhaps will be remembered as a historical turning point in winning the fight against COVID-19.

Likewise, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, scheduled to be held shortly, may be engraved in history as an event embodying the determination to make further progress in overcoming the pandemic.

Japan began vaccinating its population in April and has so far administered more than 50 million shots, including both first and second doses. Although Japan was very late in launching a nationwide vaccination campaign, it has outpaced almost every other country in terms of vaccination speed since its campaign began.

The fast catchup in nationwide vaccinations is the result of efforts by health care workers who have been prioritizing inoculating as many people as possible, rather than worrying about fatigue and their own infection risk.

The G7 leaders said they “reiterate our support for the holding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.” Needless to say, the holding of the Games must not be allowed to lead to a new wave of the pandemic in Japan.

The Japanese people are looking forward to seeing rays of hope. People in Japan and elsewhere in the world will likely feel so moved by the performance of top athletes at the Games, after years of hard training, that they may again feel happy and hopeful — feelings that have been almost forgotten since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Prior to the Cornwall summit, Johnson strongly hoped it would be an opportunity for him to alter the tide of history. In keeping with that hope, on June 10, he held a bilateral summit with Biden to jointly announce the new Atlantic Charter, which was reported to have been drafted by Prof. Bew.

Exactly 80 years ago, in 1941, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the Atlantic Charter, outlining their goals for after World War II. Biden and Johnson likely wanted to show the new Atlantic Charter to autocratic countries as proof of the resilience and superiority of democracy.

Looking back on history, the Allied forces faced a series of uphill battles following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. But the situation reversed in the second Battle of El Alamein in North Africa in 1942, when the Allies defeated the Nazi forces led by General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, paving the way toward their ultimate victory in World War II. Churchill later recalled: “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”

In the early months of the pandemic, many democracies faced an uphill struggle, whereas autocratic China succeeded in its response to COVID-19 by imposing across-the-board restrictions and comprehensive surveillance of people’s everyday activities.

But democracies got the weapon of vaccines at last. Will the Tokyo Games become a march toward victory for the international community in its fight against COVID-19? It depends on the Japanese government’s measures to prevent further infections and the Japanese people’s behavior.

Speaking about the second Battle of El Alamein, Churchill said: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” He was already confident that the Allied forces would eventually prevail.

I want the Tokyo Games to make me feel hopeful that the fight against COVID-19 has entered the “end-of-the-beginning” phase at least, and that we are definitely on the path toward victory, even if there are still difficulties ahead.

Yuichi Hosoya

Hosoya is a professor of international politics at Keio University and the author of numerous books on British, European and Japanese politics and foreign affairs.