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The G7 and the limits of Russia’s ‘political isolation’

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama delivered the major address of his weeklong trip toEurope, focusing on the Russian incursions into Ukraine and the coordinated Western retaliation. “Together, we have isolated Russia politically, suspending it from the G8 nations,” Obama said. For annexing Crimea, Russia was punished with temporary exile from this coalition of advanced industrial democracies, a group of Western countries that collectively act on their shared values.

There is just one problem: Russia never shared these values, and the G7 has neither represented global interests nor driven the international agenda for quite some time.

There are a few reasons why that’s the case. Even among countries with similar values and political systems, it can be difficult to align interests, as we’ve seen with the varied Western response to Crimea. Second, as new players have emerged in recent decades, the global power balance has shifted, leaving the G7 representative of a smaller piece of the pie. Any organization that does not include China, for example, is not truly global.

Where we see global political coordination, it is largely ineffectual. Take the March 27 United Nations General Assembly resolution, a vote on the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum. At first glance, the result looks like an international rebuke of Russia’s behavior. One hundred countries voted in favor of Ukraine’s denouncement of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Only 11 countries voted against the resolution, including Russia, with its only support coming from neighbors it can bully (Armenia, Belarus) and rogue states with grudges against the established order (Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela).

But this rare example of global coordination comes with many asterisks. Powerful emerging players like China, Brazil and India were among the 58 countries that abstained from the vote, and many more of the 193-country assembly did not participate at all. Russia was not mentioned by name in the resolution. And the vote comes with no enforcement power or actionable outcome. It is purely symbolic, and not even legally binding like United Nations Security Council resolutions — where Russia enjoys veto power.

In order to get practical outcomes, the group of players must be more limited, and aligned. Even in Europe, many nations have been skittish about the recent sanctions. That’s because member states’ interests in Russia vary too widely. For example, with massive exposure to the Russian banking sector, Cyprus cannot afford the sting that sweeping sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy would have. Greece and Austria are reluctant to implement sanctions, since they receive a disproportionately high volume of Russian natural gas, compared to their European neighbors.

That is why, after Russia annexed Crimea, Europe’s sanctions were more muted than America’s. The Obama administration included a Russian bank and several oligarchs who are close with Putin; the Europeans stopped short of these steps. The Kremlin was aware of the distinction, instantly responding with reciprocal countermoves to American sanctions, but not to the Europeans.

It is no surprise that the joint statement threatening further sanctions came at a G7 level — it was limited enough to allow for aligned policy. It is clear that the G7 is sufficiently like-minded to exhibit true leadership and project its core values like human rights, democracy and rule of law. In Obama’s speech on Wednesday, he explained his view that “these ideals that we affirm are true. These ideals are universal.”

But while they may be universal for the United States, they are not for China, Russia or Saudi Arabia. These nations have conflicting ideals of their own that they won’t water down — and in today’s world, they are sufficiently powerful that the West cannot convince or force them to do so.

In this context, Western powers can either cling to their values within a global framework — with little success. Or they can cling to their values in a narrower coalition of the like-minded, although it’s much harder to bring about a global result.

But when it comes down to the choice of doing “global and ineffectual,” or “limited with coherent leadership,” the latter is the lesser of two evils. We need to learn that lesson, both in terms of how we organize coalitions of countries with aligned interests and ideals, and in terms of how we brace for global shocks.

It was aspirational to ever invite Russia into the G7. It is aspirational to expect global climate summits to achieve breakthroughs, or the G20 to operate cohesively. The consequences for continuing to try (and fail) to solve problems primarily through global political frameworks are growing larger. The sooner we acknowledge this and focus on more exclusive partnerships, the more effective we will be.

PHOTOS: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque 

U.S. President Barack Obama poses with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy (R) and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso (L) upon his arrival at the European Council in Brussels March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir 

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