Think Tank
Light Breathing Before the G20

“Light breathing” is not the story by the Nobel Prize winner Ivan Bunin, but rather a free translation of the name of Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires. Soon it will host the G20 summit. And prior to that there was a meeting of representatives of the leading G20 intellectual organizations – universities, think tanks, etc. – in order to determine what is worth discussing for the political leaders of the most developed countries in the world. The meeting was called the T20 summit.

It is worth saying that the lineup of participants was very impressive. Experts from as many as 65 countries took part. And these experts, numbering in hundreds, conducted countless discussions, seminars, all sorts of panels, where countless issues were discussed. By the way, there were only a few people from Russia, including yours truly.

I once had occasion to write about think tanks after discussing their role in Brussels, at the famous BRUEGEL research center. And after the meeting in Buenos Aires I can say again that there is a very serious challenge for the global intellectual community. The nature of this challenge is to understand the role of intellectuals in the modern world.

The Splendors and Miseries of Modern Think Tanks
Andrey Bystritskiy
The fate of modern think tanks is a graphic illustration of our world’s crisis, namely, the lack of a future plan or even a responsible discussion thereof. So, for all their diversity and intellectual refinement, the think tanks’ real role in decision-making is quite arguable, for many reasons. On the one hand, think-tanking is a lucrative business. The number of more or less recognized think tanks alone is approaching 8,000.
Message from the Chairman

On the very first evening of the T20, there was a traditional reception for participants, and the highest representatives of the Argentine authorities also attended, in particular, the country’s minister of foreign affairs. Naturally, he quite complementarily spoke about the role of thinking people and their communities. And the thinking people beside me very sarcastically noticed that they had a lot of ideas, but the distance from these ideas to the thoughts that are born in the offices of politicians is very long. There is little hope that experts will be used in real politics.

True, one of the participants said that we should not be too pessimistic. After all, even politicians are guided by some ideas, implement some plans. And someone who comes up with these ideas and plans can develop them. So why not try and reach out to political figures, especially since the T20 format is very representative, it was especially created in order to develop – at the very least – considerations for the G20. Moreover, the expert said that in case of the T20 we know channels to use to make the ideas formulated at the conference reach the people engaged in the direct preparation of the summit.

Well, maybe this will work.

Naturally, I could not attend all of 50 or 60 T20 discussions. Incidentally, they covered the majority of significant issues for the development of the world. The topics for discussion included the general political architecture of the world, financial instruments, inexorable and mystical digitalization – up to the notorious artificial intelligence, changes in education and the nature of labour in the modern world, and even fake news. It is clear that I have not even listed a tenth of the issues raised.

But one point is interesting. In many debates there was a constant refrain – politicians should listen to experts, it is possible to regulate the modern, hyper-complex, hyper-technical world, but this cannot be done without those who created and uses all of these wonderful technologies. It is clear that this refrain is largely caused by the experts’ desire to attract attention, to take grants and get closer to the world elite. But the experts were not only motivated by these intelligible, quite human motives. Many of them really look with horror at the amazingly powerful tools in the hands of political elites. And these elites are, alas, often ignorant, aggressive and far more egoistic than ordinary people.

In general, it seems to me that there is a problem of the use of competent knowledge in the modern world. Several factors contribute to this.

First, modern political elites have multiplied enormously. The number of states is only growing, the number of presidents, prime ministers, generals and so on is growing accordingly. And the level of communication in their environment clearly does not match the complexity of the modern world.

Second, the number of think tanks and their experts is also multiplying. I have already noticed that the number of employees of the mentioned think tanks and universities totals millions and is comparable with the population of an average European country. In theory, these specialists must produce terabytes of useful and accurate information. But it is obviously not the case and, as with the political elites, the level of communication does not match either the technological level or the complexity of the world. It’s hard to say whether artificial intelligence will be the only solution to this communication complexity. Judging by street traffic, automatic traffic control systems are better than policemen in gaiters with striped sticks.

Third, the institutional role of think tanks is not clear. I would say that there are two poles, two extreme models of understanding of the role of think tanks. The first one was described by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft was, according to the author, the brain of Whitehall. He was in the shadows, personally known to a narrow circle of politicians and specialists, but he could foresee the development of world processes and give effective advice. What is important, Mycroft was blood of blood, flesh of flesh of the British political elite. On the other pole, you can put a “canary,” a police informant, who either tells the detectives the plans of the underworld, or “rats out” prisoners to the prison authorities. And this “canary” is a pitiful and despised creature, unless, of course, it is not a provocateur like Yevno Azef.

It is clear that these are extremes, but I am personally convinced that the role of knowledge in political decision-making must change, that global governance or regulation requires a new level of competence.

Coming back to the meetings in Buenos Aires, to its “Light Breathing”, I want to say that such meetings as the T20 are really useful, if only because they create a space of communication, which is the most rare thing in our time. And if even 5% of the proposals formulated in the T20 find their application, then this can be considered an excellent result, and the work done was worth its while.