TCS Daily

Brain Power

By Alexandros Petersen - April 19, 2006 12:00 AM

At a dinner in London some months ago, I sat next to a bright university student who, when informed that I worked at a think tank, remarked, "Foreign policy decisions are really made in think tanks, aren't they?" I gave her the best explanation I could about the foreign policy-making process, and the different role think tanks play in the United States and United Kingdom. However, from her experience, she was convinced that think tanks such as the Project for a New American Century in the US, plan foreign policy initiatives for the administration, and that publications such as the Strategic Dossiers of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the UK, provide the government's information on countries like Iraq and Iran.

It is true that of late, especially in regards to American and British endeavors in Iraq, think tanks have been in the news more than ever. Perhaps because of this, there seems to be an overriding feeling amongst the public in the US and UK that think tanks play some kind of shadowy, even sinister role behind foreign policy decision-making. What role do think tanks, or more correctly research institutes, play in the foreign policy-making process and how does it affect democratic governance?

In his book, The Idea Brokers, James A. Smith argues that think tanks undermine democracy by interposing themselves between the government and the electorate. To bolster this view, critics point to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff's apparent use of a Washington think tank as a front for funneling money from his Choctaw Indian clients, not to mention his outright payment of think tank scholars to write favorable op-ed pieces. However, to make general determinations about the role of think tanks based on these isolated cases would be to miss the overall picture.

Washington has become a hotbed for think tank development. As The Economist recently pointed out, think tanks have played a key role in shifting the intellectual center of the world from Europe to the US. The 501(c)(3) tax status under which think tanks operate, not present in the UK system, makes it profitable to think for a living, and allows the ideas industry to thrive in a competitive environment. Although the foreign policy sphere is still dominated by venerable institutions such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations, the multiplicity of voices emanating from think tanks in Washington makes for lively debate.

Not only has think tank work been linked to the major foreign policy issues of the day, but think tank scholars increasingly provide commentary and analysis in newspapers and as 'talking-heads' on television. Think tank journals, such as Foreign Policy, have been made more accessible and many think tank websites have become rich sources of information on international affairs. Even many invitation-only think tank meetings, presumed to be secretive gatherings, are regularly broadcast on C-SPAN or available to download online. Taking this into account, think tanks bolster democratic governance by facilitating debate and making Washington policy discussions more available to the public.

Jack Spence, a former director of studies at the Chatham House think tank, phrased it well. "If you have a lot of [think tanks], and they're all competing with each other and arguing with each other, coming up with different views about what should be done, that's tremendous," he told me. "That shows intellectual vitality, intellectual life of a very significant kind. More than that, it's an expression of a vibrant, vigorous civil society.... because what they do is to give the intellectual world of the society voice, and give the politicians a good going over."

In the US, unlike in the UK, the political appointee system allows think tank scholars to take decision-making positions in government, allowing for fresh ideas -- informed by the democratic debate facilitated by think tanks -- to rejuvenate American foreign policy. Although opponents of the Bush administration point to precisely this phenomenon as the cause of what they see as the foreign policy woes of the past six years, they fail to remember that it is this system that will allow for their desired change in the future. It is precisely the possibility that a think tank scholar may be the next National Security Advisor that lends consequence to the democratic debate of ideas in the US.

Although the UK system does not lend itself to think tank growth -- there is not the same philanthropy-encouraging tax law and the parliamentary system is less open to outside input -- British think tanks do facilitate a vibrant debate. The UK does not have a tradition of political appointees, but that may be changing as the Tony Blair and his cabinet have expanded their corps of foreign policy advisors. As new, controversial think tanks, such as the Henry Jackson Society challenge the old order, the perception that the government favors only certain sources will lessen, and the understanding of think tanks as enablers of democratic governance will grow.

The author is a military and international affairs analyst based in London and Washington, DC.



Our Own Think Tanks
As a general rule ordinary people are more interested in home policy, of which they have direct experience, than foreign policy. As a consequence the rich & powerful (for unsurprisingly it is they who tend to be able to finance lobbyist & think tanks) tend to have more influence there. Thus politicians, (eg Blair) who support welfarism & multiculturalism at home also tend to support bombing, as a persuasive argument against socialism, abroad.

I would like to think that the net may give more people experience of foreign issues. It certainly allows us all to be part of our own "think tanks".

The trouble with think tanks
The trouble with think tanks is either we ignore them making them a waste of resources or if we listen to them then we have rule by the elites.

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