China and Russia believe they can behave as they want and have impunity to crush dissent because Western states are at odds with themselves and have lost confidence in their ability to shape the world around them, warn analysts.
"There is a danger that we in the West are becoming bystanders to the great events swirling around the globe. Our inability to articulate a clear response that generates a change in behavior means a sense of impunity dominates," argued Rafaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at Britain's Royal United Services Institute.
Writing in Britain's The Times newspaper, Pantucci said, "Our responses to the current protests going on in Hong Kong and Moscow are the clearest articulations of this problem. Beijing and Moscow have largely behaved as they would like."
Western diplomats and analysts fear this week's three-day G-7 summit in the French resort town of Biarritz will demonstrate again the lack of unity among Western leaders over a series of issues, including climate change, relations with Russia, rising nationalism, and the trade war between the United States and China, whose fallout is hurting Europe far more than America. The G-7 comprises the world's largest advanced democracies.
In order to try to reduce a display of disunity, the summit host, French President Emmanuel Macron, is lobbying for the gathering not to issue a joint communique for the first time in the G-7's history. He hopes to avoid a repeat of last year when U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew his endorsement of the joint statement 10 minutes after it was released. Macron wants instead to replace the communique by delivering as G-7 chairman a summary of the main discussions.
Whether that papers over disputes remains in doubt. Some analysts say the summit risks becoming explosive.
"There is huge scope for the Western world to look more divided by the end of the meeting than it did at the beginning," said William Hague, a former British foreign secretary. He says the G-7 leaders are "desperately short of ideas around which they can coalesce," ones they need in order "to address the main threats that will overcome them unless they look far enough ahead now."
On the eve of the meeting, Macron set out an ambitious plan to challenge fellow leaders to rethink their approach to global leadership. He will urge them to rescue democracy from nationalist populists, to temper capitalism, to lessen social inequality and to boost biodiversity, and to re-embrace multilateralism — all of which risks strong pushback from Trump.
The U.S. leader is skeptical of multilateralism and frustrated with the lack of European support for his "maximum pressure" aggressive stance toward Iran. He is also pressing the Europeans to back his trade confrontation with China, arguing that short-term pain is necessary in order to "take on" Beijing, otherwise the West, in the long term, will be the losers.
Blaming China, Russia
Some Western commentators blame Trump and other nationalist populists for Western disunity, but others see the fraying of Western-shaped global leadership as a consequence of a deeper, historical malaise amid the rise of an aggressive China, which uses commerce as a tool of statecraft and diplomacy, and an assertive Russia that increasingly voices disdain for the West and is eager to develop a partnership with China.
Asked whether he would welcome Moscow being readmitted to the G-7, Russian President Vladmir Putin scoffed at the idea, saying, "The G-7 doesn't exist. How can I come back to an organization that doesn't exist?" Putin said he prefers the G-20 format because it includes countries like India and China. The G-20 refers to the group of 20 major economies.
Investing heavily in the West and the developing world, Beijing isn't shy about demanding a political quid pro quo and the Hong Kong protests have placed the Europeans, especially the British, in a dilemma. Should they champion the rights and freedoms the people of Hong Kong enshrined in a joint declaration signed with Beijing before the British handed the territory back to the Chinese in 1997, or muffle their complaints about Chinese heavy-handedness in order to ingratiate themselves with Beijing and reap commercial benefits?
That dilemma is only going to become sharper as anti-government protests in Hong Kong continue, risking Chinese military intervention in the former British colony. Beijing has made it clear, with thinly-disguised threats, that British criticism needs to be tempered, otherwise London, which is desperate to boost its trade with China post-Brexit, will lose out financially.
Hague argues that the G-7 "should be restating the case for freedom." He says that the end of the Cold War "has deprived democratic nations of their automatic unity, and the global financial crisis has rocked their self-confidence."
The financial shock came amid a longer-term trend: the hollowing out of the West's industrial base with manufacturing shifting eastward, prompting the anger of the working classes in the West, who resent losing out on the benefits of globalism, making them question the whole basis of multilateralism.
According to Antonio Barroso, an analyst with the geostrategic risk consulting group Teneo, "We have passed from a world that was certainly much more multilateral than the one that we have now."