Better Think Tanks, Better Foreign Policy

Canada's international affairs think tanks are in trouble, but a renaissance is within reach. By Taylor Owen and Robert Muggah.
By: , /
October 16, 2013

Last week, the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre announced that it was closing its doors. The decision is but the latest in a disturbing trend in Canada’s small but historically vibrant think tank sector: The shuttering of venerable foreign policy organizations. More than a half a dozen prominent organizations were closed over the past 24 months, including Montreal-based Rights and Democracy as well as FOCAL, Canada’s largest Americas-focused foundation, to name only two. Now the future of Ottawa’s esteemed North-South Institute is in jeopardy. Non-government institutions from across the political spectrum are finding themselves strapped for cash, with little choice but to drift into irrelevance or cut their losses and try to shut down with dignity.

The decline in Canada's think tanks could not come at a worse time given global transformations underway. Until recently, national and multilateral entities and processes were what got things done. But as power and influence shifts away from governments and toward private and non-profit sectors, large firms such as Google, private philanthropic groups like the Gates Foundation, and established think tanks including the Brookings Institution wield more clout than ever. The silence from Canada’s non-governmental sector carries serious implications for our international standing.

Today, Canada's contributions to international debates on security, development and the environment are one-sided. In the past month alone, Canada refused to join more than 110 countries signing an arms trade treaty and our prime minister publicly berated an American president for not approving the Keystone pipeline. Last year, Canada officially opted out of Kyoto — the only country of 191 signatories to do so. Yet few domestic think tanks offered serious rebuttal. While university-based institutes are filling some gaps, their voices are seldom heard outside Ottawa. Consequently, our foreign policy agenda is hollowing-out, appearing to hinge on extractives, all-out support for Israel, and narrow values-driven priorities.

Some liberal critics blame the demise of Canadian international affairs think tanks on the government's intolerance of dissent. They argue that left-leaning organizations are being squeezed out of existence. The recent proliferation of right-wing advocacy groups across Canada feeds their fears. And while there is some truth to this, the real origins of Canada’s think tank malaise extend well before the present government. They can be summed up as a lack of fiscal and policy innovation.

Fiscally, the quiet extinction of Canada’s think tanks is due to a culture of dependence. For decades Canada’s non-governmental sector was weaned on public funds. Despite repeated warning signs, not least the 2008 financial crisis, many were unable to diversify their sources of income or build lasting public-private partnerships. In the absence of a robust philanthropic sector for public policy — as in the United States — thinks tanks were unable to adapt.

On the policy front, many think tank survivors appear tired and worn-out. Their programs are often anchored in 20th-century debates, find little purchase in government circles and have yet to take full advantage of 21st-century social and technological innovation. While no one doubts the passion and commitment they bring to their work, their outputs feel oddly out of step with today´s global conversations.

This lack of innovation has resulted in a loss of talent. Generations of Canada’s best and brightest have opted for well-resourced think tanks abroad, moving in droves to Geneva, London, New York and Washington to tap fresh ideas and resources, leaving the insulated world of Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver behind. With the exception of a handful of public policy research institutes, there is simply too little action to keep Canadian talent in the country.

Think tanks amplify Canada's voice in the world. With so few Canadian groups contributing to decision-making in the United Nations or involved in public and private discussions underway in the Americas, Africa and Asia, we're out of the loop. A recent global assessment of the top 150 think tanks from around the world includes just two Canadian entities, the Fraser Institute (25) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (41). Meanwhile, the Canadian government is free to do as it pleases on everything from arms control and human rights to climate change and energy politics.

While a golden age for Canadian think tanks never existed, there are reasons to believe that the future can be different. There’s never been a more exciting time for engaging in global debate; creative, nimble, digitally-savvy organizations can and do generate real impact. At a minimum, the government must create the enabling conditions for innovative non-governmental groups to thrive. This means reaching out to think tanks and creating channels for meaningful exchange. And Canadian think tanks themselves must evolve and diversify in order to shape and direct the defining issues of our time.

It has undoubtedly been a bruising decade for Canada’s international think tanks. While the government certainly bears some responsibility – it’s been quick to pull the chair out from under more than a few institutions – blame for the closures cannot be laid wholly at the administration’s doorstep. The steady demise of many of Canada’s international non-governmental organizations is also a result of years of dependency and a lack of policy innovation. And the impacts of their gradual extinction are already being felt in domestic and international circuits.

Domestically, without a robust think tank sector, the debates on global concerns – from energy and climate change to overseas assistance and arms control – turn partisan. As a result, foreign policy directives are informed more by ideology than evidence. With important exceptions, there are just a handful of Canadian think tanks putting forward substantial intellectual contributions that bridge political divides. Notwithstanding real difficulties in interpreting the priorities of Canada´s heterogeneous population, few think tanks have found a way to positively capitalize on their diversity.

Internationally, the evisceration of Canada’s premier think tanks at home risks hollowing-out Canadian foreign policy abroad. Once known for championing global debates on peace and security, the environment, and development, we have suddenly gone quiet. Instead of championing the fight against illegal arms trafficking, anti-personnel landmine use, child soldiering, or fairer trading systems as Canada once did, there’s been a black-out. And with think tanks on the ropes, Canada has become the country with neither bark nor bite.

There are reasons to believe that the future can be different. Canada has all the necessary tools for a think tank renaissance. These include some of the world’s most highly-rated universities; one of the best educated populations; a lively technology sector nurturing a new generation of entrepreneurs and researchers; and a robust private sector that has successfully weathered global economic crises. These are some of the hallmarks of a perfect storm for think tank innovation.

There are at least five ways to spur innovation among Canada’s foreign policy think tanks.

First, think tanks can start thinking more like new media companies. At a minimum, they need to get on top of the possibilities afforded by social media, new communication tools, and dynamic forms of outreach. The ascendance of digital media is generating a dynamic ecosystem of media content, one where think tanks can add a valuable voice. This isn’t just a new means of content distribution, it actually changes the methods and nature of research itself. At OpenCanada.org, the CIC’s digital magazine, we have merged our media and research efforts, and use a dynamic publishing platform to inject Canadian research and multimedia content into global debates. The era of static websites and policy briefings is fading. Instead, Canada’s think tanks need to immerse themselves in the digital conversation. But to be effective, they need to make this a priority and build up the requisite skills.

Second, think tanks can borrow organizational models from the technology sector. In a world where horizontal information sharing is the norm and scaling-up is easier than ever, the vertical institutional architecture of many think tanks is becoming obsolete. Canadian think tanks need to create more innovative and dynamic environments that support risk-taking and new ideas. This means also accepting failure and learning from it. At minimum, Canadian think tanks can start experimenting with new forms of organization, built-in technology platforms to improve connectivity, and explore “sharing” arrangements with technology start-ups to nurture skills in both directions.

Third, think tanks need to start co-operating with one another. It is easy for foreign policy institutes to lose sight of the big picture and become immersed in petty competition. This is hardly unique to Canada. But to overcome this dilemma, incentives need to be structured to encourage more collaboration and co-operation between think tanks, not less. In a world of more diverse funding streams, we need to move away from zero-sum thinking. Partnership with fresh voices in and outside of Canada will be key. To get the ball rolling, more established Canadian think tanks could consider “twinning” with newer kids on the block to share valuable experience and expertise.

Fourth, think tanks need to move beyond just thinking. Some of the most innovative think tanks in the world are shaping policy not just through reports, but by becoming activists, entrepreneurs, and laboratories of innovation. To take just one example, the SecDev Foundation does field research, but also works to help human rights groups in Syria and Central Asia by providing them with access to encrypted communication, information about online security, and a help hotline for activists are wrongly arrested or detained. The Foundation leverages advanced communication tech built by Canadian commercial companies – like Psiphon and SecDev Analytics – which it acquires at discounted rates to service the public good. Canadian think tanks must become experimental, in ideas, methods and funding models, if they are going to rank among the world’s best.

Finally, Canadian foreign policy think tanks need to be international. We are often stuck in our own parochial backyard conversations. If Canada is to usefully contribute to international debate, we will need to initiate new ideas, not just react to them. This means moving beyond the production of reports based on secondary information and getting “out there” to generate analysis based on front-line experience. We did this reasonably well in the 1990s, but we've fallen off the wagon. Our think tanks cannot restrict themselves to domestic priorities, but must start working with global networks and anticipating the defining issues of our era.

The good news is that the means to do all of this are within our grasp. We have talent and know-how. We live in a time when just a few digitally savvy programmers anywhere can start a revolution. Surely our think tanks are up the task. It is time for us not just to think, but to do.

This essay is based on two op-eds published in the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail respectively.