G20: What is at Stake

In the light of Brexit, the ongoing financial crisis regarding Greece, and the rise of populism and right-wing parties in many 'core' countries, the European Union is facing a deep crisis of trust and legitimacy. The United States under President Trump's 'America first'-doctrine are step by step withdrawing from their role as a patron saint in the international community of states and their related responsibilities, not at least expressed by their withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. At the same time, emerging economies like China, India or South Africa have established themselves as new donors and thus providing an alternative to the dusty international aid system.

Think tanks face a special challenge these days. They provide recommendations from which narratives and wordings are generated for the discourse on urgent planetary problems and they will be of cause happy, if individual and even joint statements during the summit resonate their attempts and reflect the topics raised.

They must be happy the more, if the almost institutionalized split between brain (think tank) and hand (state and non-state actors) is not further complicated by a split between voice and hand, between what is conceptualized and strategically pursued and what is communicated to the citizen, the public, the media.

Did we talk in an appropriate way about global cooperation? About win-win situations and we-identities, about visions transcending national borders and emerging groupings of (non-state) actors with global aspirations and horizons? Not least about fundamental challenges for the liberal world order?

Having a look at the G20 summit and at the accompanying Think20 dialogue process, may help us to understand which topics fit the performance of the summit design more or less. In general, three levels of purpose may be identified that the G20 summit probably will serve.

  1. More on its sidelines, the summit provides a platform for polycentric governance: attempts to mitigate the trouble spots of North-Korea, Qatar and Syria will take place during consecutive talks in a variety of small rounds.
  2. The summit also serves to identify and name major regional challenges: the future relations between the European Union and Africa or the delicate balance of spheres of influence in the South China Sea. Not least the European Union itself will be put to test. The performance of identitarian discourse is most likely on this level.
  3. Finally the summit deals with global challenges in the proper sense, with climate, energy resources and the financial system (its primary purpose). Will the summit show maturity with respect to the global dimension? Or will vanity and touchiness of leaders dominate perception and discourse? Then, the memory of the Paris Declaration 2015 may disenchant the format basically. That, in our understanding, is at stake.

On all these three levels the G20 format has its merits. But it became also clear that shortcomings are to a considerable extent systemic in nature. The composition of the 'club' was incidential to a certain extent, a step in the right direction but far from an inclusiveness that one might wish. That kind of discrepancy is at the base of what we will see also in Hamburg: a gala grouping of so designed world leaders and all sorts of protests, from sophisticated to rude.

The summit organizers, aware of the all to seclusive design of the event, introduced dialogue partners to counsel the summit process with input from civil society and the private sector, from science and business. These partners condense statements and recommendations in the upstream of the summit and enrich the communiqués for sure. They have also a priviledged chance to raise awareness for the issues they lobby in the media coverage of the summit, thereby broadening and enriching the overal discourse considerably.

By doing so they treasure also themselves. The study and application of scientific knowledge is not at all distributed in any fairness worldwide. Think tanks themselves, pretending to be first movers, will face the challenge to design the landscape of experts and institutions with more inclusive ambition and that is true for the field of science and humanities in general. The brain itself should be understood as a
globally distributed polycentricity that succeeds, if variations are not reduced but cherished and contribute to the shared knowledge.

T20 present proposals for G20 to German government

T20 Engagement Group