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I am being interviewed this afternoon as part of a public engagement exercise ahead of the G20. So I was interested to read Philip Stephens’ piece in this morning’s FT. Maybe Stephens knows more than he is letting on because the piece gives great many reasons to be pessimistic about the G20 before ending up on a positive note.

The issues Stephens raises are pretty difficult; not least the fact that there is no consensus on what the G20 is and, even, who is in it.

Beyond these challenges what kind of ambition do the G20 leaders have for the process itself? I don’t mean by this what specific outcomes do they want, more what are their commitments and hopes for the G20 as a process of leadership decision making.

I am sure there are other better established typologies than this (if so please tell me) but it is possible to distinguish four levels of ambition for engagements between leaders of different organisations.

The least ambitious level is where the parties have fixed predetermined positions and are hoping, at best, to find a way of packaging these so they look like a more concerted international effort.  This has in general been the limit of most previous G7 or G8 summits

The next level up is where the parties are willing to negotiate around their fixed interests. Through a process of negotiation it may be possible to achieve some progress simply because the interests become better aligned.

The third level is where the leaders are committed to exploring new solutions which go beyond the aggregation or horse-trading of existing resources and strategies. This is the ideal captured in the famous cartoon of two donkeys straining at either end of rope, neither of them to eat from the bush just out of their reach. In cartoon two the donkeys come together and in cartoon three they take it in turns to walk together to each bush and eat their fill (I searched the internet for this cartoon but couldn’t find it – can anyone help?).

The fourth level is transformative. This is the level at which the distinction between my interests, your interests and shared interests breaks down, indeed the inadequacy of the very idea of clear and definable interests in a situation of challenge and complexity becomes apparent.         

To have any chance of level four there needs to be, first, an over-riding urgency and ethical commitment. Second, someone has to start the process of giving up the idea of fixed interests to be traded. Third the group has to achieve a ‘gestalt’ moment when the sum is greater that the total of the parts.

One example I heard of concerned a Local Strategic Partnership in a Northern town. The LSP agreed that unless the town could establish a higher education presence it would continue to lose all its brightest young people and this in turn meant the place would be confirmed in its status as an old industrial town with no future. At this point the FE College Principal, who chaired the LSP, offered to give up the small number of HE courses at his college as part of a package to attract an existing University to put a campus in the town. There was no way it could be shown that this would be in the FE college’s interest yet the Principal won support and the campus duly arrived.

The G20 has one key ingredient for transformational change: a clear and present economic crisis, not to mention an ever more urgent environmental emergency. But for response to match challenge will require an act of real, disinterested, leadership from one of the big leaders and the emergence of a powerful synergy between the leaders themselves.

I don’t know how the summit is structured, but if I had anything to do with it I would start with a powerful and globally respected figure (Mandela maybe) calling, first, on the leaders to aspire to transformation and, second, on the people of the world to judge their leaders not by their ability to defend national interest but on their willingness to be part of a profound demonstration of global leadership.


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