The Centers Cannot Hold: What’s the Next Step for Think Tanks?

February 14, 2019 Opinion , OPINION/NEWS

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Anton Tsvetov



In November 2018, the International Affairs journal published an article by the Director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) Robin Niblett titled Rediscovering a Sense of Purpose: The Challenge for Western Think-Tanks. The head of one of the oldest and most revered policy institutions is concerned that Western think tanks have lost their points of reference and need to become more vigorous about protecting the values of liberal internationalism. Niblett sets forth crucial questions that every think-tanker must answer, but the solution the author offers seems to lack ambition — basically to do more of the same. Yet, as it has been duly noted, if we want things to change, we have to start doing things differently.



A Long Century


Niblett’s piece celebrates the centenary of a number of influential think tanks — Chatham House itself, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Brookings Institution and Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The author connects the emergence of first-wave think tanks to inter-war idealism and the belief that a better world could be built upon the principle of liberal internationalism.


The end of the Second World War allowed Western think tanks to continue along the international line, including through their contribution to imagining the UN architecture. However, this was done with more attention to national interest and a somewhat narrower interpretation of the international — the Cold War, with its bloc alignments, had begun. This competition needed intellectual underpinnings, hence the appearance of most American and European policy institutes that compete today for the top lines of the Global Go-To Think Tank Index — including the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), RAND, the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the EastWest Institute (EWI) and the Atlantic Council [1].


At the same time, the emergence of the Second World and ensuing decolonialization meant that think tanks started to appear in non-Western contexts. Niblett notes that outside the United Kingdom and the United States these organizations are heavily dependent on government funding and, subsequently, on whatever political group happens to be in charge.


The golden age of think tanks was crowned by the end of the Cold War and the onset of big-time globalization. The amount of money available for funding research programmes was growing in most countries. At the same time, the scope of research areas to cover widened as well, including global trade, economic integration, cybersecurity, climate change, etc. All of this means that think tanks grew in size, as smaller and more focused institutions started to pop up all over the place.


Think tanks found themselves in a multi-actor global environment. Transnational corporations, NGOs, foundations and consulting firms all seek to weigh in on the policymaking process. They are the same time the object for think tank analysis and stakeholders whose views need to be taken into account, andcompetitors in intellectual production. Think tanks themselves are also becoming global, bringing in foreign researchers and opening offices abroad: there are now Carnegie Centers in Brussels, Beirut, Moscow, Beijing and New Delhi.





Finally, Robin Niblett brings us this uncertain moment we are in and provides a list of trends that are troubling the thinking community. He singles out three trends in particular:


First, the explosive development of communication technologies has thrown think tanks in the same playing field as the media. Research consumers in government build their understanding of the quality of work carried out by think tanks, among other things, on their reputation among the general public, which makes think tanks fight for mentions and coverage my media outlets. I would add to this that policy institutes happily use website traffic and mentions in the media as a proxy metric for influence, since these are easily measurable and could be used for reporting to customers and donors.


Second, the growth of financial resources available to think tanks raises questions about their impartiality and intellectual integrity. In the case of government funding, the limitations are obvious. The problem is no less serious for those think tanks that are lucky enough to have diversified sources of funding — suffice it to recall the scandals in the United States involving Middle Eastern and Chinese financing of major policy organizations [2].


Third, the nascent wave of populism and anti-elitist attitudes could not but hit think tanks as well. Most policy institutes in the West constitute the so-called “globalized elites,” not only in terms of class affiliation, but also in terms of ideology [3]. Niblett does not spare himself or his colleagues, chastising western think tanks for supporting economic globalization and supranationalization while ignoring both the disruptive consequences for the lives of certain sections of the population in their own countries and the uneven distribution of the globalization spoils worldwide. The waning trust in traditional institutions — the government and international organizations, as well as the media — manifests in phenomenon of post-truth. All this creates grounds for criticizing professional opinions from both the left and the right, and this criticism manifests itself in the well-discussed anti-expert sentiment.



To Define Is to Limit


In an attempt to counter the feeling of disorientation that has afflicted the think tank community, Niblett offers five things that think tanks could do to adapt to the new conditions and thus preserve their relevance to society:


1 – Not lose sight of the initial mission of think tanks — that is, to saturate discussions on public policy with facts and research, not opinions;


2 – Generate “big ideas” that help us to step outside of forms of thinking based on narrow national and group interests;


3 – Serve as a source of positive change, opening up the path to progress;


4 – Adopt new working methods and tackling issues that have not been looked at before, promoting interaction between the “new actors” — NPOs, corporations, cities, etc.;


5 – Introduce a variety of voices into their work, involving women, young people and minorities in discussions at all levels.



A reminder for think tanks to focus on their core mission is certainly appear useful. However, it seems that the inflation of the think tank world caused confusion with regards to the term itself. A extremely wide range of organizations now refer to themselves as think tanks and their respective raisons d’etrecould differ greatly: from defending a specific position on a fairly narrow issue to simply making money, from creating safe landing zones for former government officials to the entertaining those still in office, but seeing themselves as having an agenda beyond their official position. Even policy planning departments in foreign ministries often designate themselves as internal think tanks.


Robin Niblett certainly has the classic Anglo-American think tank in mind here — the kind that exist in ‘penetrated’ democracies with their competition of ideas and developed lobbying markets, an abundance of private money, “revolving doors” and a free and impartial press. Nevertheless, the challenges that listed are relevant for all other types of intellectual organizations too, organizations that continue to be united by a common vision of what their mission should be: to develop ideas about government policy and influence that very policy, thereby estavlishing themselves as the Fifth Estate (more on that later).



Demand the Impossible


Against the background of dramatic change that is upon think tanks, Niblett’s programme for them thus seems somewhat conservative. But what would more ambitious one look like? It would seem that we should look at what think tanks can do that ‘neghborging’ institutions — governments, universities and the media — cannot.


First. The complexity of the current political, social and economic environment places entirely new requirements on the level of understanding of nonlinearity and the interconnectedness of processes around us. Societies in which this understanding is not developed and integrated will be vulnerable to growing internal conflicts. And such societies will be in conflict with each other. It is policy institutes that should occupy this niche today and formulate understandings of reality that take the uncertainty and complexity of the world into account while at the same time not pushing towards relativism and the paralysis that often comes with it.


To do this, think tanks will have to find a way to reach a new level of empathy, which in this case should be expressed in the recognition of other people’s perceptions of reality, even if we deem them utterly distorted. In terms of foreign policy, this will help think tanks avoid the pitfalls of “great-power autism,” when complexities at home, coupled with long imperial histories deprive the political class of the ability to imagine independent thinking on behalf of the Other and forces them to see other countries merely as an object of policy, delegitimizing their interests and aspirations.


At home, only empathy will allow think tanks as elite institutions to adequately represent — and, when necessary, not represent — the interests of larger social groups. The accusations levelled against “experts” and “non-elected elites” should on the whole be taken very seriously, while at the same time not rejecting the burden of responsibility. This only highlights the importance of the work of the intellectual community to understand their own societies (Yekaterina Malofeyeva set this task very succinctly in a recent article for [4].


Second. Technological progress in the fields of communications, artificial intelligence, medicine and biotechnology, alongside the changes in the structure of the global economy and politics in the next few decades, will create a huge number of new moral and ethical questions for humanity. And the only way to tackle these questions is by refocusing on humanitarian knowledge, practically applicable notions about being human in the new technological, political and economic context.


Philosophers, science fiction writers and, in some cases, academics have long been struggling with a number of these issues, but, as a rule, policymakers usually fall behind. Think tanks should occupy the space between power and intellect and work to develop concrete political solutions in the field of new ethics, or at least serve as a catalyst for discussions about them. The integration of knowledge is a vital task today, and think tanks are well placed to use their convening power for interdisciplinary and interclass dialogue.


Third. The populist wave and the questions posed by social media about the existing models of democracy only heighten the significance of think tanks as the Fifth Estate. Unlike the media, which receives the majority of its income through advertising, non-profit think tanks are well positioned to ensure the most important condition for democratic governance — the basic political awareness and literacy of voters. More importantly, in a society that is polarized and fragmented into echo chambers, it is clear that, strictly speaking, “public opinion” does not exist [5]. The “voice of the people” cannot be heard on social media, in opinion polls, or at rallies. The idea that we could accurately measure real sentiment, one existing before the measurement even began, turned out to be an illusion, as the observed results could be a result of disinformation, human error or even the measurement itself.


Public opinion on any given issue does not exist until at least one approach to the problem has been submitted for judgement. As the father of modern public relations Edward Bernays aptly put in, public opinion “crystallizes” around a specific thesis, like a pearl around a speck of dust [6]. Academic researchers do not often engage in such things, but for think tanks, the transfer of ideas based on methods and principles to the field of public policy is becoming a vital task. Provided, of course, that policy institutes can declare, to themselves at least, that they base their approaches on some principles of knowledge production.


Fourth. Robin Niblett notes in passing that think tanks tend to focus on risks and negative scenarios. We would add that that it is not just think tanks that do this. This can be explained: in his book Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? Philip Tetlock points out that analysts often predict the worst outcome just to be on the safe side, and if they turn out to be wrong, they can put it down to being “overly cautious.” [7] It is always better to appear vigilant rather than naïve. In these conditions, an important and interesting task for think tanks could be the formation of positive scenarios — serious and detailed reflections on how things might actually go well.


The effects of this work could be immediate and quite powerful. At the very least, it will expand the scope of possible outcomes in the minds of policymakers, who often do not have the courage to imagine that the situation could be changed for the better. It would be fitting here to recall Ray Bradbury’s short story The Toynbee Convector, in which the main protagonist pulls the wool over the eyes of the entire planet by declaring that he had travelled to the future in a time machine and saw that the future was beautiful. Describing in detail how humanity managed to solve all of its problems, he set off a self-fulfilling prophecy, which we know happens not only in fiction, but also in real life.


Five. Niblett says very little about the work of think tanks on Track II. He calls on western policy institutes to rally in an attempt to defend the liberal world order, yet barely mentions the mundane themed or bilateral contacts. If the reader of this belongs to the world of international think tanks, would likely point out that they actually interact with each other quite a lot. It would be fair to say that the heads of the top 100 think tanks travel overseas at least four times a month; even the conferences worth going to are counted in dozens; experts meet up at forums all the time and write articles for each other’s websites and journals; and, of course, regularly tag each other on Twitter. Even the aforementioned think tank index is compiled on the basis of think-tankers’ opinions about each other.


The weak link here is not the ties between think tanks themselves, but rather the links that they have with their own governments and people, especially when it comes to confrontational contexts. As a rule, at such moments, bureaucrats stop looking for solutions outside the official channels, and in many cases NGOs are expected to perform what essentially amounts to propaganda functions (which for some reason is often called “public diplomacy”). Any hint of flexibility in the positions taken by think tanks is almost seen as betrayal. And in a heated domestic situation, with periodic outbreaks of “dense jingoism” (as Vladimir Putin called it), a think tank does not to joke with such things, especially when it is practically impossible to diversify sources of financing.




Robin Niblett’s article is a must-read for those who want to understand the current state of mind in mainstream western think tanks. They seem to have recovered from the shock caused by the onset of the populist wave and are starting to look for ways to adapt to the new realities. The difficulty, of course, is that the change does not stop here. On the contrary, it has only just begun. It is pointless to try and take a snapshot of the current environment — by the time think tanks have adapted to it, the environment will have changed once again and the process will have to start over. This appears to be the fate of many traditional institutions.


However, this makes it all the more important to understand the fundamental mission of think tanks and how it is refracted today. It would seem that the sense of lost purpose comes from some of the excessive optimism and an underestimation of the amount of work that still needs to be done in order to understand what it is really going on. The key task of think tanks remains the same — to develop a deep and empathic understanding of the motivations of people and institutions within our societies and beyond, as well as to refine the ability to articulate the significance of this understanding for public policy.





This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission





Anton Tsvetov

Expert in the Foreign Policy and Security division at the Center for Strategic Research.





2 – See, for example, one of the large-scale investigations carried out by The New York Times:


3 – Interestingly, the very existence of voluntary donations determines the ideological orientation of most think tanks. Left-wing anti-establishmentarians are unlikely to have free money to throw at think tanks.




5 – Yuri Norstein made a reference to this in a recent interview:






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