Twilight of hegemony: The T20 and the defensive re-imagining of global order

 “One ignorant of the plans of neighbouring states cannot prepare alliances in good time; if ignorant of the conditions of mountains, forests, dangerous defiles, swamps and marshes he cannot conduct the march of an army; if he fails to make use of native guides he cannot gain the advantages of the ground. A general ignorant of even one of these three matters is unfit to command the armies of a Hegemonic King”.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War



Regarding to ‘hegemonic strategies’ in modern world politics, this paper will focus on discursive strategies to shore up an increasingly fragile and challenged liberal hegemonic global order. Our argument assumes, first, that there is such an order, and second, that it is fragile and challenged. Without rehearsing the entire international relations literature, there is ample support for the first assumption: with the collapse of the Soviet Union, even with challenges and disjunctures, there emerged a liberal world order aligned with American geo-political, military, and economic dominance.

As Ikenberry describes it: “It was a distinctive type of order – organised around American hegemonic authority, open markets, cooperative security, multilateral institutions, social bargains, and democratic community” (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 193). In support of the second assumption, he claims that the “liberal hegemonic order is now in crisis,” though he sees it as a crisis of authority (who runs or ‘owns’ the order) rather than fundamental principles. Others agree about the crisis, but think it is more fundamental (Acharya, 2014), and they include some of the contributors to the Warsaw meeting of this symposium (for example, papers by Pabst, Silver, and Zhang). This pessimism is now a matter of routine punditry. In a 12 July 2018 column in the Washington Post, Robert Kagan, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and no friend of the current US administration, wrote:

“The democratic alliance that has been the bedrock of the American-led liberal world order is unravelling. At some point, and probably sooner than we expect, the global peace that that alliance and that order undergirded will unravel, too. Despite our human desire to hope for the best, things will not be okay. The world crisis is upon us (Kagan, 2018)”.

Hegemonies in crisis do not go gentle into that good night. The ‘Hegemonic King’ may rage and flail against the dying of light, using force and raw power, but hegemony consists of more than might. It relies on a web of discursive rationales, in this case in support of a ‘liberal world order’ consisting, as Ikenberry summarised it above, of “open markets, cooperative security, multilateral institutions, social bargains, and democratic community” (Ikenberry, 2011, p. 193). When hegemony is at its zenith, these discursive rationales appear as affirmations of the system’s obvious and unassailable logic, as with the ‘Washington consensus’ (Rodrik, 2006; Williamson, 1990). When hegemony is fragile and threatened, the discursive rationales have to be reconstituted, adjusted, revised, and renovated in order to defend, not simply affirm. The question we address in this paper is the nature of these defensive strategies in support of the hegemonic liberal world order. How are they organised, what is their content, and how effective are they likely to be? What is their potential, and what tensions do they expose?

A truly hegemonic world order, even a fragile one, will be supported by a deep and extensive ‘neural network’ of experts and analysts in traditional media (e.g., The New York Times), academe, think tanks, and foundations, supplemented by platoons of like-minded NGOs and foundations.  We use this metaphor deliberately, in that it captures the distributed nature of ideas and how they flow and are shaped in support of a regime, with endless iterations and inconsistencies and debates and resolutions, producing not a single coherent ideological system of beliefs, but a synaptic flaring of ideas and concepts that create a conceptual justificatory space. A good example is the global reaction to US President Trump’s 16 July 2018 Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. If one Googles “Trump Summit Helsinki” the top hits on the first page of results (out of 36 million) include: CNN, CBS, Fox, Guardian News, CNN, The New Yorker, Vox, USA Today, and the Washington Post. Every item (even Fox) was critical. The New Yorker headline: “‘No Way to Run a Superpower’: Trump-Putin Summit and the Death of American Foreign Policy”. The President’s maladroit press comments sparked the sharp tone and scale of this global negative response, comments that were consistent with his criticisms of the G7, NATO, and the EU: all pillars of the global hegemonic order.

We think the notion of a ‘neural network’ is a useful rendering of how these discursive spaces function, but at the same time makes it difficult to isolate any uniquely influential quadrants or pathways – a neural network is complex, distributed, and layered. An input like a Trump summit or tweet will have the network firing and processing responses in cyclical, cascading, and kaleidoscopic waves, usually first through media and internet, and then subsequently among research centres, institutes, and other ‘expert’ opinion. But like the human brain, the global neural network has concentrated locations that perform higher-order thinking functions, particularly the ‘sense of self’. If we may push the metaphor slightly further, we suggest that the global neural network has what in the cognitive sciences is called the ‘default mode network’, considered responsible for key aspects of memory, thinking about the future, and autobiographical memory (Andrews-Hanna, 2012). In human beings, the default network (its hubs and subsystems) provide introspection about mental states (e.g., moral decision making, social narrative comprehension, social reasons), as well as memory-based construction (e.g., episodic/autobiographical memory, episodic future thinking, retrieval of contextual associations, imagery/imagination). We believe that we have found a plausible candidate for what is in effect the ‘default network’ within the global neural network of ideas, concepts, and arguments that support the liberal global order. It is the Think20 (T20) an ‘engagement group’ of the G20, the body that has emerged “in practice as well as proclamation, the centre of global economic governance for a globalized world” (Kirton, 2013, p. 373).

The next section provides background on the development of the T20 since its formalisation in 2012. It is followed by a discussion of the most recent global meeting of the network in May 2018 in Berlin at the ‘Global Solutions Summit’, subtitled ‘The World Policy Forum’. 

The T20: Origins and development

The G20 was established in 1999, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, initially as a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors of the “19 most systematically significant countries and the European Union” (Kirton, 2013, p. 3). Initially conceived by Paul Martin (at the time, Canadian Minister of Finance), and Larry Summers (US Treasury Secretary), it was meant to be broader and more inclusive than the G7 (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, UK, US) or G8 clubs (the current G7 members plus Russia, which was then excluded after the 2014 events in Ukraine), and theoretically more capable of responding to global financial turbulence. The 2008 financial crisis was its watershed moment, a global shock that required a high-level global response. The 14-15 November 2008 G20 summit in Washington was therefore the first with heads of government attending, though its emergence as a regular summit to steer the global economy was contested at the time (Kirton, 2013, pp. 243-52). The second summit was held only four months later on 1-2 April 2009 (starting in 2010 the G20 meetings became annual rather than biannual), with the UK as president. Part of the debate in London was how to stimulate the global economy, and an ‘Anglo-alliance’ of representatives of leading think tanks – Brookings Institution, Peterson Institute, CIGI (Centre for International Governance Innovation) – went to London to argue for an increase of $250 billion in IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs – an international reserve asset). The final G20 announcement contained a global stimulus package consisting of $1.1 trillion, including the additional $250 billion in SDRs.

This injection of high-powered, international think-tank advice in 2009 was a key step towards a more formalised G20 advisory function (or engagement group), but had been building for several years due in large part CIGI’s efforts.  CIGI was established in 2001 with a $30 million donation by the two Blackberry founders, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. Its first executive director was John English, a professor of history at the University of Waterloo with close ties to the federal Liberal government. In 2003, just as Paul Martin became Prime Minister of a Liberal government in Ottawa, that government donated $30 million to CIGI as well. Though CIGI’s remit was global governance, its early focus was on the G20. As a new kid on block, in its early years CIGI worked to establish connections and credibility with leading think tanks around the world. It launched a Brookings-CIGI seminar series that ran in 2003-2004 as a discussion forum for G20 officials at embassies in Washington, as well the World Bank and IMF. Canada’s role in establishing the G20 probably gave CIGI a special patina of credibility on the G20 file, in addition to funding and connections to a government headed by a G20 founder. The ‘Anglo-alliance’ of think tanks that went to London in 2009 included CIGI. And it was CIGI that organised, in 2011, a meeting in Canada to prepare for the Mexico summit in 2012. One of the senior CIGI fellows at the time was Andrés Rozental, a senior Mexican diplomat and founder of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, as well as a board member of several leading multinational firms. As a result, the first T20 meeting was hosted under the Mexican G20 Presidency, in collaboration with the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations in February 2012 to support the G20 meetings that would be held in Los Cabos, Mexico later that year.  This first meeting involved representatives from 17 well-established think tanks and academic institutions from 14 different G20 countries (Table 1).  The participants were invited by the presidency to “discuss the priorities proposed by the Mexican Presidency of the G20…[and] generate practical and specific proposals with a view to the G20 Summit [translated from Spanish]” (interview with Colin Bradford, 18 June 2018).

Table 1: T20 Attendees, Mexico City, Mexico, 27 February 2012

Twilight of hegemony: The T20 and the defensive re-imagining of global order 1The T20 would become the third of the G20 ‘engagement groups’ – the first was the Business20 (B20) in 2010 during the Canadian G20 presidency, and the second was the Labour20 (L20), established in 2011 under the French presidency. The T20 was followed by: Civil20 (C20, established in 2013 under the Russian presidency); Science20 (S20, established in 2017 under the German presidency); Women20 (W20, established in 2015 under the Turkish presidency), and Youth20 (Y20, established in 2017 under the German presidency). The logic of the sequencing, particularly after the establishment of the B20 and L20, was to channel ‘non-partisan’ advice into the G20 deliberations, and this is how T20 leaders have positioned their engagement group.

The G20 presidency passed to Russia in 2013, which gave the T20 a brief, single, opportunity to address the agenda in a one-day meeting on 11 December 2012 (the B20 and C20 met that day as well). By convention, the president of the G20 designates the ‘leads’ for the respective engagement groups, and in the Russian case the organisers for the T20 were: the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), the Higher School of Economics, the Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, and the New Economic School. Representatives from eight of the 17 organisations that participated in the Mexican T20 event were present at the Russian meeting. They were joined by representatives from 15 new organisations, including the arrival of the Brookings Institute and the South African Institute of International Affairs that would become regular fixtures in T20 events. Overall, 23 organisations from 17 G20 countries participated. The T20 group at this point was small, certainly compared to what it would become by the German presidency in 2017.

In preparation for the G20 presidency in 2014, Australia’s Prime Minister Rudd was sympathetic to a more systematic canvassing of ideas, and was ready to provide resources. The Lowy Institute for International Policy (Sydney) was designated as the lead, and in 2012 it created a G20 Studies Centre (closed in 2016). Mike Callaghan from the Australian Treasury was appointed as the Program Director, and he drew on his connections from his former role as Australia’s G20 Finance Deputy and member of the Financial Stability Board. He also was the designated coordinator for the T20. The Australian T20 meeting included 40 participants from 33 different organisations and think tank or academic representation from all G20 countries except Indonesia and Saudi Arabia (although the Gulf region was represented by the Gulf Research Centre). Notably, this was the first meeting where the World Bank participated.

The Australians tried to encourage more focused input from the T20, inviting papers on four policy themes (economic/finance policy, infrastructure, trade, and development), discussed at its meeting on 11 December 2013. Nonetheless, no consensus emerged, and there was no single set of recommendations; instead, policy papers were submitted to the G20 sherpas (Callaghan, Burrow, Costello, & Milliner, 2014).

The Turkish-led T20 in 2015 involved a major shift in approach from a small meeting of scholarly peers focused on providing advice to G20 leaders to a series of thematic summits that spanned five days and included keynote speakers, moderated panels, and press interviews.  Some of the sessions were by invitation only, but the event also had many public sessions that were geared toward “T20 scholars, business executives, policy-makers from national delegations and international organizations, [and] media correspondents” (Turkish T20 web site). For the first time, the Turkish organisers also organised joint sessions with other G20 engagements groups – in particular the C20 and B20.

Germany assumed the presidency of the G20 for 2017, and delegated two German think tanks to coordinate the T20: the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik or (DIE, and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (Kieler Institut für Weltwirtschaftsforschung) (IfW), and their directors (Dennis Snower – IfW; Dirk Messner – DIE), co-chaired the T20 for the year. Snower had attended the T20 Summit in 2015 (under the Turkish presidency), knowing that his institute would be involved in 2017, and came away impressed with the potential of the group. He also recognised that the T20 was relatively unstructured when compared to the more powerful and visible B20 group. The B20, for example, organised itself into Task Forces, an idea that the Germans adopted in 2017. During China’s presidency in 2016, the T20 had three collective workshops, and produced a compendium of its members’ pet ideas and recommendations, but with little if no impact. As a consequence, the German Chancellory did not take the T20 seriously, certainly not in comparison to the other G20 engagement groups that had better organisation and presence.

The German T20 chairs decided to do it differently. They knew, in broad terms, what the German Chancellery’s priorities were, and so structured the T20 Task Forces in part around them. They also consulted the T20 members on what they thought the topics should be. The chairs also wanted tangible and specific outputs and recommendations, and so insisted that each Task Force produce policy papers or briefs. Further, they designed the Task Forces to have four chairs – a German member, one from an emerging country (to balance the G20 developed country bias), and two others. The first T20 conference, ‘Cohesion in Diversity’, was held on 1-2 December 2016. The conference brought together the T20 think tanks, but also experts and government officials, and so was more multi-stakeholder from the start than previous T20 exercises. Again, this was driven by a concern among the T20 chairs for relevance and impact, and an insistence that the Task Forces engage in some manner with other stakeholders as they did their work. Apart from these constraints, the Task Forces worked on their own over the next months. Some elected to review each policy brief collectively, others just farmed out topics and left it up to the members themselves to develop the papers. Some produced small sets of papers (as few as one or three), others many more (as many as 13).

 The T20 Task Forces under the German G20 Presidency were (with the number of policy briefs eventually developed by each):

  • Future of Work (9)
  • Climate Action and Infrastructure for Development (8)
  • 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (13)
  • Social Cohesion, Global Governance and the Future of Politics (8)
  • Migration (6)
  • An International Financial Architecture for Stability and Development (6)
  • Trade, Investment and Tax Cooperation (8)
  • Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture (5)
  • Circular Economy (3)
  • Cooperation with Africa (2)
  • Gender Economic Equity (1)
  • Digital Infrastructure and Security (6)

The 2017 German presidency was unusual in that the government asked that the G20 leaders meeting earlier than usual, in July rather than October or November, because of impending German elections that September. Normally, the various G20 groups would have had about eight months to develop their recommendations, but in 2017 they had to complete their work by May or June, just before the leaders’ meeting. The T20 Summit was held on 29-30 May 2017, and had over 1,000 attendees. Once again, the German chairs decided to organise a multi-stakeholder event, with presentations by the Task Forces balanced with feedback and discussion. The Summit was the culmination of the work of 12 Task Forces assembling 170 think tanks from around the world, yielding 75 policy briefs by over 300 authors. In principle, this all fed into the summary of recommendations submitted by the T20 chairs to the G20, entitled 20 Solution Proposals to the G20 from the T20 Engagement Group (T20 Engagement Group, 2017). In fact, the recommendations had been drafted before the summit, due to time pressures. However, a poll was conducted of the Task Forces, asking them to rate the quality of all the policy briefs, and the German institutes reviewed them as well. From these, a number were selected to inform the recommendations.

These recommendations were framed within a ‘new global vision’ consisting of three elements: 1) Learning to stabilise and manage the global commons (climate systems, interconnected financial systems, but also universal access to education, health, and housing); 2) Investments in social innovations leading to collaborative collection action; and 3) Globalisation and global governance that is people-centred, focused on delivering global well-being, human flourishing and empowerment. Table 2 lists the five broad themes and the recommendations under each theme. We have cited the titles of the themes exactly, as we have the recommendations. Note that almost all recommendations had supplementary points or elaborations, which we do not re-produce below, and so are more complex than might appear (in fact, the total number of recommendations – major and supplementary – came to 89).

 Table 2: T20 Recommendations to G20, 2017

Twilight of hegemony: The T20 and the defensive re-imagining of global order 2Source: T20 Engagement Group, 2017

These 20 recommendations were competing with those of the other G20 engagement groups, so it is somewhat hazardous to try to gauge impact. According to the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto, about 26% of the total of 89 recommendations found themselves somehow reflected in the final G20 communiqué and its 531 commitments, but of course its recommendations overlapped with and echoed those of other G20 engagement groups (Kirton & Warren, 2017). According to some observers, the impact of the T20 was more on the ‘narrative’ or framing of the final G20 communiqué, the highlighting of a de-coupling of social and economic progress. Certainly, many of the more detailed elaborations of each of these recommendations were tilted in the social justice direction, emphasising fairness, equity, redistribution, or service and support to lower-income groups and countries. Given the importance of this narrative ‘re-framing’, we cite the relevant passage from the report at length. It clearly positions the G20’s core priorities in terms of social discontent with globalisation, and the manifestations of that discontent in populism and electoral backlash:

The fundamental mission of the G20 should be to promote the creation of a global framework of institutions, policies and norms that meet human needs. In particular, the G20 should support a world order in which evolving human needs – beginning with the most basic and urgent ones – are satisfied adequately through the workings of the world economy. In times when the success of well-managed economies is closely tied to societal success, it is appropriate for the G20 to focus on global economic management. When economic and social progress diverge, the G20 agenda needs to extend beyond purely economic concerns.

Nowadays, however, such circumstances no longer prevail. Driven by the interlocking forces of globalisation, technological advance and financialisation, economic success is no longer in lockstep with social success. Evidence abounds. In many advanced industrialised countries, the growth in aggregate real income has been accompanied by rising inequalities and stagnant living standards for the common folk. The space for civil society has shrunk in some parts of the world and is being transformed in others. Social protests regularly surrounding the G20 summits give voice to a popular discontent with the globalisation process in developed and developing countries. This perceived decoupling of economic and social performance also helped generate the discontent that influenced recent the US election outcome and the UK’s decision to leave the EU. (T20 Engagement Group, 2017: 4)

Argentina assumed the presidency of the G20 in 2018, and so in October 2017 there was a formal handover of the chairmanship of the T20 from the DIE and IfW to two Argentinian (Buenos Aires-based) think tanks: Consejo Argentino para las Relaciones Internacionales (CARI) and Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (CIPPEC). They decided to keep the Task Force format, but dropped the one on the Circular Economy, and combined the ‘Future of Work’ Task Force with the one on ‘Digital Infrastructure and Security’ into the ‘Future of Work and Education for the Digital Age’, yielding a total of ten Task Forces.

This short history of the T20 until 2018 shows a network in rapid formation, with evolving and often quite plastic structures, seeking a toehold amidst the scrabble of other G20 affiliated groups, in a process with many moving parts and ultimately determined by one actor, the G20 president that year. Moreover, the formalisation of the network continued in 2017-2018. After the successful T20 Summit in Berlin in 2017, the Kiel Institute decided to provide some institutional backbone to the T20 by creating an annual event – the Global Solutions Summit (GSS) – that will be independent of the T20 but have many of the same players and provide what it calls a “new, permanent supportive, advisory structure to the G20 and G7”. The first GSS was held on 28-29 May 2018 in Berlin, with the sponsorship of the Council for Global Problem-Solving (CGP). The CGP itself is anchored in the Kiel Institute, and was established in 2015, growing out of another annual event held by the Institute since 2008, its Global Economic Symposium. The CGP was designed to run an annual GSS and to support the T20 process, but is distinct from it. It is a members-only group of 28 of the world’s top think tanks (this is how it bills itself, though the membership includes research institutes, international organisations like the OECD and the Central Bank of Turkey, and academic programs such as Renmin University and the Hertie School).

The CGP and the GSS are both embedded in the Global Solutions Initiative (GSI).  It builds on four ‘interlocking innovations’: 1) Global research contribution: a global network of research institutions centred around the CGP. 2) Implementation-oriented contribution: a focus on solutions, bridging research and decision makers. 3) Organisational continuity (we quote at length): “Many global problem-solving processes have discontinuities across time (rotating Presidencies of the G20 and G7), across countries (national contributions to global targets) and across organisations (proposals from the G20, G7, UN, OECD, ILO, etc.). The GSI provides a permanent, transnational, trans-organisational structure that is adjusted year by year on a stable platform to provide continuity and policy coherence”. 4) Narrative contribution: developing a joint understanding across stakeholders motivating solutions. The work of the GSI is to be channelled through Task Forces and Policy Briefs, which will be presented on the G20 Insights Platform ( This feature demonstrates the close entanglement between GSI, CGP, the GSS, and the T20/G20 process, since the Task Forces of the GSI will mirror (largely if not exactly) the T20 Task Forces.

The four innovations are identified as having originated during the German G20 process, but with continuing development during the Argentinian G20. To coordinate all of this activity, a GSI Secretariat has been created and will be hosted at the Hertie School of Governance (starting in September 2018). It will be funded by the Global Solutions Initiative Foundation, which is sponsored by the Mercator, Bosch, and Hertie Foundations, as well as the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit – a private company but essentially the German development agency).

The GSI is an early experiment, and the T20 has challenges of coherence and impact, but their joint evolution in just a few years has been remarkable. The aspiration (sotto voce) clearly has been to create a sort of ‘brains trust’ for the G20, and perhaps more ambitiously, as a generator and repository of ideas in defence of the best achievements of the liberal hegemonic global order (as described by Ikenberry above). Its ambition is to be truly global – its members are deliberately drawn from around the world, though anchored in the core of the CGP. It is not sector specific, and intentionally tries to weave together recommendations on economic policy with social and political advice as well. Most intriguingly, from the perspective of the emergence of a ‘default mode’ neural network, the effort has been framed within the development of a ‘global vision’ and a ‘narrative’ of decoupling between social cohesion and economic prosperity. In much the same way that the human default mode network provides a ‘sense of self’, we would argue that the T20 and associated networks strive to provide the introspection, autobiographical memory, imagery, imagination, and future projections for the hegemonic actors in the G20, and by extension, the global system’ itself. An excellent opportunity to observe the network in action came with the Global Solutions Summit/T20 meetings in May 2018 in Berlin.

Global Solutions Summit, May 2018

The GSS (Global Solutions Summit, with the sub-title of ‘The World Policy Forum’) is part of an organisational origami that takes some effort to unfold. As noted above, it is sponsored by the CGP (Counsel on Global Problem-Solving), that was established in 2015 in anticipation of supporting the T20 process, and which in turn then established the GSI (Global Solutions Initiative) at the T20 summit in Berlin in May 2017. But the May 2018 Berlin GSS was at the same time billed as an ‘Associated Event of the Argentinian G20 Presidency’, with numerous T20 panel sessions, reports from Task Forces, presentations by the Argentinian T20 organisers, working meetings with those organisers and the CGP, reports from the Japanese T20 organisers (Japan assumes the presidency of the G20 in 2019), and participation by members from other engagement groups. There were also some almost purely academic panels, reporting on research relevant to key T20 topics, but not part of the formal T20 Task Force process. About 1,100 people attended and participated in over 40 sessions across two days. We offer some observations on organisational format and objectives, and on content and themes.

 Organisational Format and Objectives

A reasonable question about the Summit is what was the point? Who was the target audience? It was billed as a global ‘solutions’ conference, but of course with 1,100 people and over 40 sessions, there was never going to be a grand consensus around a focused set of recommendations that would then feed directly into the G20. The rationale for the GSI provides some clues. The T20 process itself is episodic and disjointed. The entire exercise (in a formal sense) only started in 2012, and then rolled out each year in very different styles of G20 presidency – Mexico (2012), Russia (2013), Australia (2014), Turkey (2015), China (2016), Germany (2017), and Argentina (2018). As noted, the German think tanks leading the T20 exercise in 2017 understood this, and were determined to provide a better scaffolding for the process, and the GSI and the GSS provide that support. For that reason, many of the same organisations show up under the different banners – T20, GSI, GSS, CGP. That said, one rationale for the Summit was to provide the T20 Task Forces a collective opportunity to share ideas, compare, and discuss. Otherwise the Task Forces operate more or less on their own, organising their own research activities and side events, all culminating in (what is now the conventional) T20 Summit shortly before the actual leaders’ G20 Summit.

Given this rationale, a good part of the GSS was devoted to presenting the first results of T20 Task Force work and even some recommendations. At least 12 sessions were labelled as ‘Think 20’ sessions, where early Task Force results were aired and debated. A document was released at the Summit entitled ‘Key Policy Recommendations: Presented at the Global Solutions Summit 2018’. The four logos on the front cover were: T20 Argentina 2018, CARI, CIPPEC, and CGP. Accompanying this was another document entitled ‘T20 Argentina Concept Note: Proposals for a Productive, Inclusive and Sustainable World’. It contained 13 proposals, and so it did not mirror the Task Force format exactly (there are 10 Task Forces), but did echo most of the key recommendations from the other document. There were several sessions where the Argentinian and Japanese T20 leaders spoke about their coming summits, format, and content (from the Japanese, some indication of the re-structuring of the Task Forces). There was a special meeting of the CGP at which the Argentinians and Japanese gave updates. The day after the GSS, there was a full morning meeting of the Task Force chairs, sponsored by the CGP but chaired by the Argentinian T20 chairs. All of this points to the fact that the Summit was in large part a T20 event, though framed more broadly as a ‘World Policy Summit’ that operates on its own track and is distinct from the T20 (though, again, all the key players are identical). Interestingly, there was not a single Saudi Arabian representative in Berlin (Saudi Arabi assumes the presidency of the G20 in 2020).

But the question remains, if the Summit was primarily a T20 exercise, could it have been organised very differently, on a smaller and more focused scale? Why the wider ambition? The Summit served the larger purposes of legitimation, validation, and amplification. The T20 is one engagement group among seven, and while there never was any mention of competition among the groups (only cooperation), there was a sense that the G20 process is a pressure cooker of time and attention. Breaking through, mobilising knowledge and research, and having it reflected in the final leaders’ deliberations is challenging. If the T20 members had simply talked to each other, it would have been just another academic conference. Moreover, as we note below, this meeting of experts took place under the shadow of political factors. Panelists repeatedly noted that continued inequality and systemic shocks had generated political backlash against ‘global elites’. But this of course was a meeting of those same elites. A larger forum, even if it was still a forum of elites, gave some sense of representational legitimacy. Chancellor Merkel appeared and gave an address, and the organisers took pains to underscore the event’s uniqueness and breadth to her. Other German ministers attended, as did some foreign ambassadors (most prominently, Argentina’s and Japan’s).

A large summit of this sort can also serve as an idea aggregator, and give more force and legitimacy to the T20 when it meets with the G20 sherpas. Policy advice on global economic steering, when the global economy is under political threat from populists, has to balance technical validity with political legitimacy. For expert venues like the Summit, the closest it can come to political legitimacy is the demonstration of strength in numbers, of geographical and social representation (much was made of the number of countries represented, but also of the under-representation of women), and ultimately of consensus on key issues and recommendations (though this has to be handled carefully, since too much consensus can appear like group think or echo chambers, and there was also at least a rhetorical premium placed on ‘alternative perspectives’).

The wider ambition also served the objective of network building. This was explicit in the design of the CGP and in the promotion of the conference as well, but we can add several less obvious dimensions to this. First, the network of T20 think tanks and research institutions is strengthened and extended through this exercise, but so is the strategic advantage and influence of the key players, as represented in the CGP. Ultimately, one can imagine a variable T20 process, shape-shifting year-by-year under different G20 presidencies, but with a continuous cast of key characters who are anchored in the annual Summit.

Second, the Summit can attract a periphery of networked actors who are outside of the think tank world, but engaged in global issues and linked to other institutions. This can include members from the other G20 engagement groups, for example, PriceWaterhouseCoopers had 20 representatives at the Summit. Include are networks like Southern Voice (a coalition of think tanks from the global south that monitor progress on the SDGs). One Summit ambition was to create and reinforce a ‘global network of problem solvers’.

Third, the Summit does serve as an echo chamber, as well as an amplifier. Policy networks (in this case of the like-minded – there can be networks of interactions of proponents and opponents) are networks of ideas as well as of actors. While at the policy level, there were of course ten different Task Forces, and dozens of specific recommendations in fields as different as the future of work and of climate change, there was also a common discourse among the participants. As an example (more below), there was an unquestioned support for multilateralism and free trade, and a universal repugnance for populism and nationalism. There was also a mutually reinforcing catechism of social concern for the poor and the excluded. The format of the panels (with short presentations by speakers, followed by orchestrated contributions and exchanges among panelists) and even of audience participation, was structured in way to muffle any real dissent, had any been lurking in the hall. The evening keynote by Jeffrey Sachs, from a sociological and communicative point of view, was more of a sermon to believers than a policy speech.

Linking to our previous point on legitimation, this echo chamber effect helps amplify the Summit message – there is consensus on the virtues of multilateralism, the evils of nationalism, the decoupling of social and economic progress and the need for ‘re-coupling’. This consensus is the frame within which specific recommendations are then channelled to the G20 leaders. This network-building function will continue, whatever the fortunes of the T20 under subsequent presidencies. The Japanese, for example, are less likely to embrace social inclusion than did the Germans or even the Argentinians (except for aging of the population), and it is an open question how Saudi Arabia will organise the T20, given the absence of a think tank ecosystem in that country.

Content and Themes

The substantive content of the Summit consisted primarily of the Task Force reports (‘Key Policy Recommendations: Presented at the Global Solutions Summit 2018’) and the T20 Concept Note (‘T20 Argentina Concept Note: Proposals for a Productive, Inclusive and Sustainable World’). The Task Force sessions took up over half the Summit, and consisted of presentations on policy briefs to date, and some tentative recommendations. These were reflected in the Concept Note, with preliminary proposals. It is impossible to summarise the lengthy list of detailed recommendations, but we can note their dual character. On the one hand, many of them were entirely conventional and uncontroversial. In the Concept Note, for example, under Recommendation #1 on ‘Policies and commitments to promote equal opportunities for quality education’, G20 leaders were urged to “implement a set of comprehensive policies addressing curriculum, such as the implementation of teacher training and administering educational resources to develop labour and democratic skills.” On the other hand, there were signals and tonalities that were less ‘conventional’ and obvious, and registered in a key that spoke to anxieties about disruptions to globalisation and disruptions as a result of globalisation. Table 3 lists some of these.

Table 3: T20 Argentina Proposals

Twilight of hegemony: The T20 and the defensive re-imagining of global order 3Source: T20 Argentina Concept Note: Proposals for a Productive, Inclusive and Sustainable World

We identify these as ‘conventional’ in the sense that they emanate from a conventional globalist, cosmopolitan, and broadly social democratic world view. We would not characterise these as ‘neoliberal’ as the more left-wing critics of the G20 would – there is too much genuine concern about inequality, gender (though almost exclusively about women), job loss, adjustment costs, education and other social services, unpaid labour, and climate change. At the same time, there is a firm commitment to freer trade and deeper global economic integration. This is to be managed with various regulatory regimes, under the watchful eye of the G20 and other global institutions. More state action and spending are required in areas like infrastructure and climate change mitigation. Taxes on fossil fuels should be increased; green energy encouraged. Adjustments and policy interventions will be painful, but must be democratically inserted into existing polities, not by subterfuge, but through democratic engagement and persuasion. If a label is needed for this world view, it might be ‘technocratic inclusive liberal globalism’.

This world view suffused the Summit proceedings, providing a subterranean and consensual foundation that could then support any incidental disagreements over details. Some other core, if unspoken, ingredients of this world view were:

  • Strong emphasis on a global commons, on global public policy challenges that affect all or most countries. The most pressing was climate change, taken as a given but also as a clear and imminent crisis that requires immediate, coordinated, and extensive government action. Food and energy were directly connected to climate change, but so was infrastructure investment. Other pressing global issues were the global trading system, digital technologies, and the global financial system. Coupled with this was the negative externalities of global integration, and how to mitigate them.
  • Importance of rules-based and institutionalised multilateralism. This could be expected in a meeting of this nature, but its corollary was extreme antipathy to ‘nationalism’, which was equated with unilateralism and populism (obviously, the shadow of President Trump loomed over these reactions).
  • Angst, but also some incomprehension, about rising populism (the Summit took place as a populist coalition government was being formed in Italy), which is connected to disturbing trends in the decline of democracy, the impact of social media, and rising authoritarianism. The overarching sentiment or assumption was that these trends were the poisoned fruit of real, if localised, negative effects of globalisation such as job loss and inequality, combined with nativism and misinformation. The logical consequence in terms of policy responses was two-fold: (1) real, redistributive and supportive interventions to ‘recouple’ social and economic prosperity, and (2) some form of enlightenment of the general electorate (e.g., calls for education in ‘democratic skills’, regulation of social media).
  • ‘Recoupling’ of social and economic prosperity. The theme of ‘de-coupling’ had been key to the 2017 T20 recommendations, and was mentioned in the G20 communiqué, and Dennis Snower, the president of the Kiel Institute, made it a theme of his opening address and informally of the Summit as a whole.

Another theme emerged in the Summit discussions over the two days, though it does not qualify as an element of the world view described above. It was an assertion made by Dennis Snower in the first keynote, and then several times over the next days, and had its effect no doubt because of his prominence as president of the organisation behind the Summit, and behind the CGP as well, in addition to his personal stature in Germany and Europe. Snower argued that beyond technical solutions to global problems, what was needed was a new ‘narrative’. In addition to the keynote, a session was devoted to the theme (‘Identity, Norms and Narratives: Creating the Social Foundations for Economic Cooperation’). The argument was that ‘recoupling’ would require, in part, a renewed popular social engagement and identification with multilateralism. To the extent that electorates and populations identify with localities, with nations, with their ethnic groups or religions, they are susceptible to nationalist and populist appeals. Counter-appeals have to be mobilised on the same terrain, a terrain that is not entirely or purely technical. In this sense, a global meeting of technocrats seemed to agree that technocratic solutions would not be enough – that hearts and minds need to be changed, and that technocratic solutions need to be framed in ways that resonate with popular feelings.


Each of the elements of the hegemonic global order (if we take Ikenberry again as our guide), has been challenged. American authority has declined, and perhaps is wilfully being eroded by the current administration. Open markets are being reversed in tariff wars. Cooperative security is cracking in the face of both Russian and Chinese manoeuvres, as well as NATO divisions. Social bargains have been broken, and democratic communities are behaving in anything by ‘liberal-democratic’ ways. The global order has not been overturned, but it is fragile, assaulted from all sides (even from within, with some leaders and electorates openly attacking its foundations), and perhaps in twilight until its sun can rise again.

In the meantime, it has to be defended and re-imagined. But how does a hegemonic global order do this, when its leader, the United States in the person of Mr. Trump, turns on that order? The key point is of course that the order – the leading members of that global order – consist of vast and distributed networks of complicit leaders across multiple sectors. If one member defaults, others can be expected to step up. Angel Merkel, for example, has been celebrated for her leadership of the EU and consequently for upholding the values of a liberal democratic and open global system. For every Trumpian tweet, there will be waves of reflexive rebuttals from political leaders, leading organs of conventional wisdom, media stars, pundits, NGOs, CEOs, and others. But these are all reflexive, like an amoeba recoiling instinctively from negative stimuli. A sophisticated defence of the hegemonic order requires deeper and more deliberate strategies and articulations. Again, one could look to conventional thought leaders (e.g., Paul Krugman, Thomas Freidman), but there is the problem here of random selection. Why not select someone like Dani Rodrik, who has questioned some of the shibboleths of international trade theory and globalisation (see his Straight Talk on Trade, 2018), but speaks from an impeccable pulpit (Kennedy School of Government, Harvard)?

Our approach in this paper has been to focus on a newly emerged ‘neural network’ of think tanks in the T20, CGP, and GSI nexus. It has the advantage of being directly connected to the leading instrument of global hegemonic leadership, the G20, and of being self-consciously designed to marshal deep and informed research to deal with global problems. In only five years, but especially energised in the last two years by the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik) (DIE), and the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (Kieler Institut für Weltwirtschaftsforschung) (IfW), and their directors (Dennis Snower – IfW; Dirk Messner – DIE), the nexus has grown into what we characterised as a global default neural network. The network was certainly constructed by design. Its leading members (now the members of the CGP) felt strongly that the 2008 global economic crisis needed a coordinated, and policy informed, response. They successfully mobilised and leveraged advice in the 2008-2010 period. As the G20 evolved and became more institutionalised, so did the think tanks, eventually congealing in the T20 in 2012. In only five years, by the time of the 2018 Global Solutions Summit, that small membership had exploded into a global network of almost 200 think tanks, institutes, and universities, not to mention associated NGOs, and business observers.

The process of iterative meetings, slaloming through Task Force tracks and summits, culminating in the final T20 meeting before the leaders’ summit and producing (as the Germans did), a short list of recommendations, creates the mirage of some single, coherent voice. That in fact is not the real point, and several T20 participants remarked on the incoherence and fragmentation of the exercise if that exercise is seen as one intended to influence the G20 agenda. From our perspective, the T20 nexus of processes is better conceived as a global neural network of discursive contributions to a broader defence and re-imagining of the hegemonic order, a defence and re-imagining that will only, initially, find muted echoes in G20 communiqués. The network is struggling to produce a fresh narrative of globalisation with a human face, of a re-coupling of social and economic progress, of inclusion, and of measured response to the impending disruptions of digitalisation, AI, and climate change.

The fortunes of the T20 process are unclear. The Argentinians have embraced the German model (with some trimming and re-focusing to accommodate the Argentinian government’s G20 priorities) with impressive vigour and organisation. Japan assumes the presidency in 2019, and its T20 players (as noted above) are already participating and observing the Argentinian round and preparing their own tracks and Task Forces. Saudi Arabia is next, and given the almost absence of a think tank ecosystem in that country, the T20 (and the other engagement groups) may become theatrical displays without substance or effect.

However, the infrastructure of the CGP and the GSI was established in 2018 precisely to deal with these possible discontinuities. The synaptic pathways now exist and can function alongside the T20; indeed, if the T20 process does stall in 2020, it is entirely conceivable that the nexus of GSI members and activities will continue unabated. Moreover, that nexus will connect with other hubs and subsystems (e.g., the World Economic Forum, the UNDP’s SDG review process, the Global Happiness Council, the World Government Summit, the OECD Global Forums) to provide what cognitive scientists inelegantly term the ‘mentation’ of the global system.

The author would like to give special thanks to Dr. Jennifer Spence, post-doctoral fellow at the School of Public Policy and Administration Carleton University Ottawa, Canada.



Acharya, A. (2014). The End of American World Order (Vol. Polity Press). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Andrews-Hanna, J. R. (2012). The brain’s default network and its adaptive role in internal mentation. The Neuroscientist, 18(3), 251-270. doi:10.1177/1073858411403316

Callaghan, M., Burrow, S., Costello, T., & Milliner, R. (2014). G20 2014: Perspectives from Business, Civil Society, Labour, Think Tanks and Youth. Sydney, Australia: Lowy Institute for International Policy. Available at:

Ikenberry, G. J. (2011). Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis and Transformation of the American World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kirton, J., & Warren, B. (2017). G20 Insights: T20 Recommendations Realized. G20 Research Group: Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto. Available at:

Kirton, J. J. (2013). G20 Governance for a Globalized World. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

Rodrik, D. (2006). Goodbye Washington consensus, hello Washington confusion? A review of the World Bank’s Economic Growth in the 1990s: Learning from a Decade of Reform. Journal of Economic Literature, 44(4), 973-987.

T20 Engagement Group. (2017). 20 Solution Proposals for the G20 from the T20 Engagement Group: T20 Germany. Available at:

Williamson, J. (1990). What Washington means by policy reform. In Latin American Adjustment: How Much Has Happened? Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics.

This paper was prepared for the ‘(Re)Conceptualising Hegemonies’ Workshop, Berlin, Germany, August 2018.This paper is part of a larger project supported by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), grant no. 435-2017-0927. Please do not cite or quote without permission.