A policy-maker’s perspective
Think tanks and US foreign policy
Richard N Haass
Today’s think tanks offer five principal benefits. They generate “new thinking” among US decision-makers, provide experts to serve in the administration and Congress, give policy-makers a venue in which to build shared understanding on policy options, educate US citizens about the world, and provide third-party mediation for parties in conflict
Of the many influences on US foreign policy formulation, the role of think tanks is among the most important and least appreciated. A distinctively American phenomenon, the independent policy research institution has shaped US global engagement for nearly 100 years. But because think tanks conduct much of their work outside the media spotlight, they garner less attention than other sources of US policy — like the jostling of interest groups, the manoeuvring between political parties, and the rivalry among branches of government. Despite this relatively low profile, think tanks affect American foreign policy-makers in five distinct ways: by generating original ideas and options for policy, by supplying a ready pool of experts for employment in government, by offering venues for high-level discussions, by educating US citizens about the world, and by supplementing official efforts to mediate and resolve conflict.
Origin and evolution
Think tanks are independent institutions organised to conduct research and produce independent, policy-relevant knowledge. They fill a critical void between the academic world, on the one hand, and the realm of government, on the other. Within universities, research is frequently driven by arcane theoretical and methodological debates only distantly related to real policy dilemmas. Within government, meanwhile, officials immersed in the concrete demands of day-to-day policy-making are often too busy to take a step back and reconsider the broader trajectory of US policy. Think tanks’ primary contribution, therefore, is to help bridge this gap between the worlds of ideas and action.
The rise of modern think tanks parallels the rise of the United States to global leadership. They first emerged a century ago, during the progressive era, as part of a movement to professionalise government. For the most part, their mandate was avowedly apolitical: to advance the public interest by providing government officials with impartial, policy-relevant advice. Early examples included the Institute for Government Research (1916), the forerunner of the Brookings Institution (1927). The first think tank devoted solely to foreign affairs was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, founded in 1910 to investigate the causes of war and promote the pacific settlement of disputes. These tasks assumed urgency with the outbreak of World War I, which generated passionate debate over America’s proper global role. During the winter of 1917-1918, Colonel Edward House, an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson, discretely assembled prominent scholars to explore options for the post war peace. Known as “The Inquiry,” this group advised the U.S. delegation at the Paris Peace Conference and, in 1921, joined with prominent New York bankers, lawyers, and academics to form the Council on Foreign Relations. The first generation of think tanks helped build and maintain an informed domestic constituency for global engagement, keeping the internationalist flame flickering during the years between the American repudiation of the League of Nations and the coming of the Second World War.
A second wave of think tanks arose after 1945, when the United States assumed the mantle of superpower and (with the outbreak of the Cold War) defender of the free world. Many such institutions received direct support from the US government, which devoted massive resources to defence scientists and researchers. The RAND Corporation, initially established as an independent non-profit institution with Air Force funding in 1948, launched pioneering studies of systems analysis, game theory, and strategic bargaining that continue to shape the way we analyse defence policy and deterrence decades later.
Over the last three decades, a third wave of think tanks has crested. These institutions focus as much on advocacy as research, aiming to generate timely advice that can compete in a crowded marketplace of ideas and influence policy decisions. The prototype advocacy think tank is the conservative Heritage Foundation, established in 1973. The liberal Institute for Policy Studies plays a similar role.
At the dawn of the 21st century, more than 1,200 think tanks dot the American political landscape. They are a heterogeneous lot, varying in scope, funding, mandate, and location. Some, like the Institute for International Economics (IIE), the Inter-American Dialogue, or the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, focus on particular functional areas or regions. Others, like the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), cover the foreign policy waterfront. A few think tanks, like Brookings, have large endowments and accept little or no official funding; others, like RAND, receive most of their income from contract work, whether from the government or private sector clients; and a few, like the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), are maintained almost entirely by government funds. In some instances, think tanks double as activist non-governmental organisations. The International Crisis Group, for example, deploys a network of analysts in hot spots around the world to monitor volatile political situations, formulating original, independent recommendations to build global pressure for their peaceful resolution.
The idea factory
From the perspective of US policy-makers, today’s think tanks offer five principal benefits. Their greatest impact (as befits their name) is in generating “new thinking” that changes the way that US decision-makers perceive and respond to the world. Original insights can alter conceptions of US national interests, influence the ranking of priorities, provide roadmaps for action, mobilise political and bureaucratic coalitions, and shape the design of lasting institutions. It is not easy, however, to grab the attention of busy policy-makers already immersed in information. To do so, think tanks need to exploit multiple channels and marketing strategies — publishing articles, books, and occasional papers; appearing regularly on television, op-ed-pages, and in newspaper interviews; and producing reader-friendly issue briefs, fact-sheets, and web pages. Congressional hearings provide another opportunity to influence policy choices. Unencumbered by official positions, think tank scholars can afford to give candid assessments of pressing global challenges and the quality of government responses.
Certain historical junctures present exceptional opportunities to inject new thinking into the foreign policy arena. World War II offered one such instance. Following the war’s outbreak, the Council on Foreign Relations launched a massive War and Peace Studies project to explore the desirable foundations of post war peace. The participants in this effort ultimately produced 682 memoranda for the State Department on topics ranging from the occupation of Germany to the creation of the United Nations. Two years after the end of the war, the Council’s marquee journal, Foreign Affairs, published an anonymous article on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” The article, which was in fact authored by US diplomat George Kennan, helped establish the intellectual foundation for the containment policy the United States would pursue for the next four decades. Then in 1993 Foreign Affairs published Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations,” a seminal contribution to the debate surrounding American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. Since September 11, 2001, studies by CSIS, Heritage, and Brookings have all contributed to the discussions within the government over the proper strategies and organisations needed to confront the terrorist threat at home and abroad.
Presidential campaigns and transitions are ideal occasions to set the foreign policy agenda. As Martin Anderson of the Hoover Institution explains, “It is during these times that presidential candidates solicit the advice of a vast number of intellectuals in order to establish policy positions on a host of domestic and foreign policy issues. Presidential candidates exchange ideas with policy experts and test them out on the campaign trail. It’s like a national test-marketing strategy.” The most celebrated case occurred after the 1980 election, when the Reagan administration adopted the Heritage Foundation’s publication, “Mandate for Change,” as a blueprint for governing. A more recent instance was a 1992 report by IIE and the Carnegie Endowment proposing an “economic security council.” The incoming Clinton administration implemented this proposal in creating a National Economic Council (a body that continues today).
Richard Haass is Director of Policy and Planning US Department of State and was formerly vice-president and director of foreign policy studies, The Brookings Institution. This article was originally published in the “U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda.” This is the first of a two-part series