On Wednesday, President Barack Obama delivered the major address of his weeklong trip to Europe, 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.