G-7 summit heralds the return of in-person diplomacy

Seven leaders from the world's richest nations are meeting - face-to-face - in Cornwall. PHOTO: REUTERS

PLYMOUTH (NYTIMES) - Call it the much-welcomed death of Zoom diplomacy.

Seven leaders from the world's richest nations are meeting - face-to-face - in a picturesque, seaside resort in Cornwall, on England's south-western shore.

It is the first in-person global summit meeting since the coronavirus pandemic shut down travel and forced presidents and prime ministers to reach for the "raise hand" button, just like everyone else.

So far, proximity appears to be working in favour of cooperation.

Summit meetings are always full of pre-packaged "deliverables", but stage management always works better when there is an actual stage.

So as Friday's (June 11) summit opened, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is not only hosting the gathering but lured most of the royal family to a formal dinner, announced that the Group of 7 (G-7) nations would collectively donate one billion doses of the coronavirus vaccine to the developing world.

It was a very conscious effort to show that the world's richest democracies can catch up with China's moves to establish itself as a leader in the fight against the coronavirus. The G-7 pledge includes United States President Joe Biden's promise to deliver 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

But as the leaders gathered in hastily built meeting rooms just metres from a sandy shore, they were acutely aware that beyond the humanitarian gesture lay a big geopolitical move, coming as more than 260 million doses of China's Covid-19 vaccines have been sent to 95 countries, according to Bridge Consulting, a Beijing-based consultancy.

The leaders gathered in Carbis Bay in Cornwall have also agreed, at least in concept, to Mr Biden's proposal for a 15 per cent minimum global tax to keep corporations from engaging in a race to the tax-burden bottom. And the group appears poised to issue a unanimous embrace of tougher emissions goals ahead of a major climate change summit this year.

But the real sign that in-person diplomacy is back was Friday's dinner, with plenty of royalty, from Britain's Queen Elizabeth II to her son Prince Charles to her grandson Prince William and his wife Kate, who earlier in the day met with US First Lady Jill Biden at a British school. They dined at the Eden Project, an environmental charity that features rainforests capped by several large biomes along Cornwell's shores.

It was balm for Mr Biden, who loved nothing more than jetting around the world as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then as vice-president - a man who actually enjoyed roaming the halls of the famed Hotel Bayerischer Hof, where the Munich Security Conference is held each year. He could be seen, two hands on a diplomat's shoulder, making his point, persuading, posing for pictures.

Then such travel all came to a crashing stop. He campaigned from his basement. Once elected, his aides had strict rules that no more than five people could be in a White House office at a time.

Four months ago, Mr Biden held his first work-from-home meeting with a world leader, conferring with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the only viable way during a pandemic: a video call from the Roosevelt Room in the White House.

More Zoom calls followed: A virtual meeting of a group known as the Quad, which includes the President, along with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan; and then a global climate summit "hosted" by Mr Biden but conducted "Brady Bunch" style, with leaders stacked in video squares on big screens.

He tiptoed into real, human visits, inviting Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and then South Korean President Moon Jae-in to the White House for brief visits. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is next, the White House said on Friday, coming for a farewell visit on July 15, just before she leaves office.

This week, the one-at-a-time meetings ended.

Mr Biden jetted across the Atlantic for an eight-day in-person round of global backslapping and private confrontations. On Friday, he attended the first day of a G-7 meeting. Next comes a full meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation leaders, and of the European Union, before the trip's main event: a one-on-one face-off with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I don't think it's possible to overstate the importance of face-to-face diplomacy," said Mrs Madeleine Albright, who served as secretary of state under former US president Bill Clinton.

"On Zoom, you have no kind of sense of their movements and how they sit and various things that show what kind of person you are dealing with," she said. "You can't judge what's going through their minds."

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