Do think tanks matter?

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Yesterday a group of researchers from the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a large publicly financed think tank, visited FGV-CPDOC to speak about several of their research projects and possibilities to collaborate. One particularly interesting idea discussed was a project that seeks to gain a better understanding of the role think tanks play in the process of foreign policy making. Do think tanks matter? And if so, how do they influence foreign policy?

I often argue that the lack of regional specialists among the IR community in Brazil puts the government at a disadvantage vis-à-vis countries that can count on a large group of IR scholars. While the Chinese Academy of Social Science (CASS), for example, boasts 20 Brazil specialists (most of whom are fluent in Portuguese and frequently travel to Brazil), the Brazilian government largely depends on in-house expertise, drawing on diplomats who have spent time in Beijing. Yet there is little doubt that while Brazilian diplomats are intellectually sophisticated and shrewd analysts, their profession makes it difficult for them to immerse in another society in a way an independent scholar can. In addition, Brazil's foreign ministry is simply too small to hold the quantity of analysts necessary to guide what will soon be the world's fifth largest economy with complex strategic interests around the world.

At the same time, more foreign policy think tanks and scholars cannot guarantee better foreign policy (the Iraq War in 2003 comes to mind). Yet at least think tanks can help governments conduct a more informed foreign policy, act as laboratories to test new ideas, serve as platforms to bring together different interest groups in society, and help bridge the gap between government and society, for example by explaining foreign policy-related issues in the media. They can provide governments with specialists who act as advisors, write reports, or serve as agents to introduce new ideas into the public discourse. In some countries such as the United States think tanks form an integral part of the policy making apparatus, and individuals often move between positions in think tanks and in government.

2003 02 17 Bush think tank on Iraq 1
 

Yet since there are so many types of think tanks, and because every society thinks about them differently, it is very difficult to make any broad statements about their influence. Some institutes in the United States focus on advocacy, have a clear position and are essentially pressure groups. They are difficult to compare with Germany's Stiftungen (foundations), which act on a global scale and often focus on specific issues such as the environment. Think tanks are ranked and evaluated frequently, usually by the number of times their scholars have been cited in the media – but there are think tanks which may have little interest in appearing in the media, as they seek to directly influence government policy.

In Brazil, the concept of the 'think tank' is not very widely known. Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) is Latin America's leading think tank, but also a university, and most Brazilians think of it as the latter. FGV works with the Brazilian governments on many issues (for example, it elaborates the official inflation index), but its scholars also act as public opinion makers, similar to the Brookings Institution, the world's oldest think tank (founded in 1916). Yet it would be hard to separate the two or decide which has a greater influence on Brazil’s government.

As David Ricci points out in "The Transformation of American Politics: The New Washington and the Rise of Think Tanks":

“When institutes like Brookings and AEI promote ideas, they can never be sure what effect those intangible entities will have on other Washingtonians, no matter how suggestible. While investigating the subject, I looked closely at what think tanks are doing, from books to seminars to briefings to breakfast meetings. I also asked fellows and managers to tell me what results they thought their activities would produce. The more I saw and heard, the more I understood that no one can know precisely what is happening in this drama.”

Elite theory would argue that think tanks are the ideal organizations to influence policy at the highest level, but pluralist theory sees think tanks compete directly will all sorts of groups, ranging from trade unions, NGOs, lobbyists and so on. Again, country specifics play a role: While the US political system with its multiple branches of power may incentivize and value the work think tanks do (for example, a presidential candidate almost always engages with think tanks as he or she crafts foreign policy positions), other countries may have less use for them. Think tanks in general are too recent a phenomenon to make any big conclusions, but research on the matter is likely to produce some interesting results on if and when they influence foreign policy making. This, in turn, may help think tanks become more effective agents of change.

Read also:

On the US-American hegemony over ideas that change the world

FGV ranks among World’s Top Thirty Think Tanks

How should universities train Brazil’s future political leaders?
 

Image credit: Nicholson