The rise and influence of the foreign policy think tank

A look at the contributions made by think tanks, the link between their reach and a country’s standing in global affairs and their future in Canada.

By: , /
November 27, 2015
Federal Reserve Governor Jerome Powell speaks at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Aug. 3, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

President of the Centre for International Governance Innovation

The following conversation between Rohinton Medhora, President of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), and John de Boer, senior policy adviser at the United Nations University, is excerpted from a longer interview featured in the December issue of the International Journal. The interview was conducted before the Oct. 19 federal election; therefore references to the Canadian government refer to that under Stephen Harper.

de Boer: The ostensible goal of think tanks is to contribute with ideas and analysis to debates concerning public policy. Think tanks have been in existence for over 100 years now. What would you consider to be the most remarkable contribution that think tanks have made in the area of foreign policy and international affairs?

Medhora: You ask about remarkable contributions made by think tanks in international affairs. It is generally accepted that the world’s first “think tank” (although this phrase did not come into common use until much later) was the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in 1831. This in itself is a remarkable contribution, for it set the ball rolling in what has now become an industry ingrained in the policy culture the world over.

A key problem in describing success is attribution. When something, say a policy, changes, it is difficult verging on dishonest to attribute the change to the work of a single person or organization, much less a scholarly article. One of the cleanest lineages that is generally accepted has to do with the design and implementation of the Advanced Market Commitments (AMC) initiative, the idea being to create a fund that guarantees innovators a proper price and sales volume for products destined for poor people who would not be able to afford them with their own means alone.

The story goes something like this. Building on the work of Harvard development economist Michael Kremer in the early 2000s, the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington, DC, commissioned an expert panel to report on how his ideas might be operationalized. This was in 2005. After two years of diligent promotion by CGD and others, five countries (Canada, Italy, Norway, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation joined forces to launch an AMC for vaccines that tackle pneumococcal disease. The first vaccines were rolled out in 2010, and immunization now continues apace. The concept itself is being promoted by the Center for Global Development in other areas such as agriculture, with some success.

But even here, the ingredients for success are many. CGD played a catalytic role—but so it might be said of others including Michael Kremer and the funders. The point here isn’t to diminish the role of the CGD, but to highlight the complexity that characterizes evidence-based policy change.

A more nuanced example of think tanks influencing international policy might be the development of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Here, the genesis of the idea was more amorphous than the case of AMCs, and the process itself more multinomial; no single institution took up the cudgel in this case. Instead, a global task force, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS)—which included scholars, practitioners, and think tankers—was critical in bringing the concept from idea to initiative. ICISS itself might be seen, to use today’s lingo, as a “virtual” one-off think tank, tasked as it was to marshal the power of ideas into something approaching international policy.

"Foreign affairs think tanks are what keep the foreign policy community connected in many countries."

For contemporary discourse, I would cite the database that the New America Foundation has created about drone attacks, which has greatly helped scholars and practitioners understand this new facet of warfare. And stay tuned for the concept of the D10—a collection of like-minded democracies to work jointly to resolve global deadlocks—which is currently being explored by a group of think tanks and governments to assess if there is any merit in operationalizing the proposal.

Without ascribing specific contributions to them, I would suggest that foreign affairs think tanks are what keep the foreign policy community connected in many countries. Ministries, university departments and schools, and non-governmental organizations are each good at doing so within their particular audiences, but think tanks are best placed to make the connection between them.

de Boer: Notwithstanding the contributions that you note, think tanks have also come under increasing scrutiny as of late and have been accused of “influence peddling” by major media outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian and the Wall Street Journal. What is your take on this notion of think tanks as influence peddlers?

Medhora: Point taken! My own view is that “influence peddling” has a desirable side and an undesirable side. More often than not, the phrase is associated with the undesirable connotation of exerting presumably undue or unwarranted pressure to effect change that is motivated for parochial reasons rather than for the public good.

Consider an alternate take on influence peddling, the one implicit in the examples I cite in the previous response. Think tanks exist to influence (actions, policies, or opinions). Many actors in society exist for this purpose. The best think tanks will develop their activities based on the evidence. This still leaves room for think tanks to differ on their recommendations even when working with the same body of evidence. But it does speak to the importance of starting with a set of values, analyzing the available evidence, and then contributing to the public discussion.

It is important to scrutinize the funding, motivations, and work of think tanks just as we must for all public institutions. The September 2014 New York Times piece, “Foreign powers buy influence at think tanks,” did an important service by exposing the extent to which think tanks (in this case American, but surely the issue goes beyond that country) rely on a range of funders to finance their activities. The response of the Center for Global Development, one of the targets of the New York Times piece, is instructive. True, it received funding from the Government of Norway to influence US aid policy on deforestation in Indonesia. But, according to the CGD, the causality was the other way around—it received the funding to support a policy position it had already taken in past work and to amplify it further, not to create a stance where none existed.

What is important here are transparency and the protocols that govern the fundraising activities of think tanks. So long as the internal processes of a think tank ensure that a funder cannot influence the work that is being funded, I am not convinced there is much of a story here. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of like-minded funders and think tanks being drawn to each other. But this is the point. The philosophical orientation of think tanks is widely known from their history, staffing, and publications. In most (but—alas—not all) cases, so is the identity of their funders. Governments, the media, and the public thus have all the information they need to arrive at a judgment about the validity of the work of a particular think tank.

I am concerned, however, by instances where funders are not identified by a think tank. I understand the reasons here: funders might wish to remain anonymous so that they are not contacted by other potential grantees, or they might simply wish to be modest; think tanks might not wish to publicly portray their funding sources for competitive reasons; the law might not require full disclosure of funders; disclosing funders could needlessly distract from the import of a think tank’s research. My own sense is that while there is a case to be made for each of these reasons, the greater public good that comes with full disclosure trumps them.

 de Boer: Foreign policy think tanks are most synonymous with the United States and particularly with the US capital, Washington. Think tanks in the US fulfill a number of roles: they are important catalysts for ideas and action; they provoke public debate and help set the policy agenda; they act as watchdogs and apply pressure on governments; and also serve as training grounds to groom expert cadres for political office (in other words—act as employment agencies for US presidents). In Canada the story seems very different. How would you describe the role of foreign policy think tanks in Canada?

 Medhora: Even though the world’s first think tank was British, I agree with the premise of your question. Some years ago, the International Development Research Centre (where I then worked) created the Think Tank Initiative, still the only one of its kind—a large, multi-donor funded program to provide long-term support to think tanks in developing countries. Being a federal Crown agency, we had to translate all program materials into French. After searching long and hard, we came to the conclusion that the best translation for “think tank” was … “think tank”! This is how they are mostly known in France and francophone countries, and this is how it is in bilingual Canada. The think tank is a mainly (though not uniquely) American concept.

 But there are two reasons why I say mainly, not uniquely. The first is somewhat imperialistic. What happens in the US is bound to happen elsewhere, and so it is with le think tank. The power of demonstration—and funding—from the US concept has created a think tank culture almost the world over. As mentioned previously, in recent years US-based think tanks have established branches and sister organizations, and made alliances with local organizations, to quite literally extend the US model into other parts of the world.

 The second reason is more semantic. Even though the complete embodiment of what a think tank does, as correctly described in your question, is quite American, the broader notion of self-standing institutions operating in the policy world is known and understood in many countries. It is a step or two, thereafter, to compare such institutions that operate in a variety of research and policy cultures to the US-centric think tank model. As like-minded institutions the world over learn from each other, I am not surprised that a global think tank environment is being created. This probably explains the figures you cite above, about there being close to 4,500 think tanks globally.

 As regards differences between the US and Canada when it comes to the environment in which think tanks operate, I would signal three features.

 An important institutional difference between the US and many countries in the world, including and especially Canada, is the nature of the bureaucracy. Here, as in many countries of the Commonwealth and la Francophonie, we have a distinct and mostly permanent bureaucracy that works for the elected government of the day but also in important ways independently from it. There isn’t the wholesale change in the ranks of senior and even middle cadres of officials the way there is when an administration changes in the US. We often underestimate how much the US think tank culture is driven and animated by these periodic waves of persons into and out of government. There is no equivalent in Canada.

 The extent to which the political and bureaucratic machinery relies on think tanks, then, depends on the interest that key individuals in government might have to solicit external views. Think tanks in Canada are neither the breeding ground for future politicians and officials nor places where those out of power might go to recuperate and recharge. So how Canadian think tanks choose to influence policy has to be different than is the case in the US.

 A second important difference between the US and Canada has to do with resourcing. Unlike the US, where there is a grand and old tradition of private philanthropy in support of think tanks, in Canada—with some exceptions like CIGI—think tanks do not have significant endowments. In the foreign policy world, this is even more the case. Unfortunately, there are no hard figures on this score, but I have the strong impression that the magnitude of private philanthropy directed at public policy development and discussion is higher in the US than in Canada even accounting for differences in country size. But I do not want to overplay the point. The reason the New York Times ran a story is precisely because US think tanks are constantly seeking funds for their work.

 Finally, as a small country with a non-colonialist history, foreign policy looms less large here than it does in, say, the US or the UK and France. This feeds back into the domestic research and policy environment. We have many good institutes working on international issues embedded in the university system. But there are precious few outside it. To pursue the full range of think tank activity effectively, it is important to be outside the academic milieu.

 In all these features—nature of policy establishment, degree of private support for research, and history of engagement with the rest of the world—Canada is not alone, but rather finds itself in a situation that is characteristic of the majority of countries in the world.

de Boer: What is your take on the future of foreign policy think tanks in Canada? What are some of the most promising areas where Canadian think tanks can make a contribution? What are some of the most pressing challenges that Canadian foreign policy think tanks face? Do you see Canadian think tanks evolving in any particular direction in the future and, if so, why?

Medhora: There appears to be a light correlation between a country’s standing in global affairs and the reach of its think tanks. So a part of the answer to the question “Wither Canada’s foreign policy think tanks?” depends on how Canada’s position in the world evolves. Plainly put, however good it might be on an objective scale of quality of research, a think tank in, say, Ghana or the Netherlands is going to have to work harder to achieve impact than one in, say, South Africa or the UK.

Thus far, Canada has done quite well in the punching-above-its-weight category. I am aware of the angst in some circles currently about the foreign policy positions of the current federal government and its attitude to our diplomatic service, and what this might mean for perceptions about Canada globally. But the long view would still hold that for its size, Canada is a key player in many facets of global affairs, particularly in the G20 and economic issues more broadly. Canada’s foreign policy think tanks will roughly mirror such trends.

"Canada has done quite well in the punching-above-its-weight category."

It is difficult to ascribe a particular role or set of issues to our think tanks. If they are mainly concerned with Canada’s foreign policy, then their priorities will be set by its contemporary features and, in some cases, by foresight on future events. Those that have more of a globalist bent (such as CIGI) might deviate from purely Canadian foreign policy preoccupations to cover global public goods and bads where a Canadian interest exists but is not central (internet governance is an example of this.)

The challenges that Canada’s foreign policy think tanks will face will be in areas over which they have varying amounts of control to influence context or outcomes. I have already alluded to the influence of think tanks being a function of the country where they are based. But one cannot let this turn into fatalism either. To use but one example—Canada was a leader in the creation of the G20. The confluence of interest in the concept at the highest political levels and capacity among think tanks here to generate some of the work around it made for a robust Canadian contribution to a signal shift in global governance. There are important issues ranging from trade and finance to climate change and security where a strong Canadian voice manifest through its think tanks did, can, and will matter.

The other challenges are more standard but no less important: access to adequate and sustained resources in an era of strained public budgets and still modest private philanthropy for international issues; attracting staff in the face of alternate career options at home and abroad for suitably qualified professionals; and finding a niche that balances the imperatives of focus with the risk of becoming boxed into a rigid program frame.

One area in which I expect our think tanks to evolve has to do with the increasingly technical nature of foreign policy challenges. If one thinks of the principal areas that are likely to preoccupy global issues scholars and practitioners—nuclear containment of emerging powers; financial instability; promoting and managing new technologies (say in health or communications); sound environmental management—they all have a high science and technology component. To do full justice to these issues, think tanks are going to have to augment their complement of capable former diplomats and international relations analysts with persons whose profile includes specialized knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the topic at hand. The era of the smart generalist trained in the social sciences who “also” understood science may be giving way to the trained scientist who “also” understands policy and governance. We need both sets of competencies, but I do think there is an important nuance that must shift to successfully understand, analyze, and—yes—influence peddle on the gamut of current and future global issues.

A final thought on challenges and the future revolves around the blurring boundaries between what constitutes “foreign” and “domestic.” The boundaries were never well defined but with globalization have become even less so. I expect the work of think tanks primarily concerned with domestic policy in Canada reflects a keen awareness of implications of Canadian policy for other countries, and of Canada’s international commitments that might support or circumscribe the range of policy options. Similarly, it is difficult to conceive of any area of foreign policy today where a strong sense of the domestic context does not matter. In a world of increasing spillover effects, the leading foreign policy think tank of the future might look a lot like a leading domestic policy think tank.