A Century of Think Tanks

Monday, May 6, 2019
Ajay Verma/Reuters
Thierry de Montbrial

Executive Chairman, French Institute of International Relations (France)

President, Council on Foreign Relations; @RichardHaass

Robin Niblett

Director, Chatham House (United Kingdom)

Carlos I. Simonsen Leal

President, Getulio Vargas Foundation (Brazil)

Karen Donfried

President, German Marshall Fund of the United States

DONFRIED: Good afternoon, and a very warm welcome to all of you to this Council on Foreign Relations meeting entitled, “A Century of Think Tanks.” This special event is part of the 2019 Council of Councils Annual Conference. And I am Karen Donfried, of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. And I have the privilege of presiding over today’s discussion. And I do indeed feel very privileged to be on this stage with these four think tank leaders. You have their full bios, so I am just going to share with you their current affiliations and you will be aware of the deep expertise they bring to this conversation.

First we have Dr. Carlos Leal, who is president of the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Brazil. Then we have Dr. Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House in the United Kingdom. We have Dr. Richard Haass, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations and our host today. Thank you, Richard.

HAASS: Home team advantage. (Laughter.)

DONFRIED: And we have Dr. Thierry de Montbrial, who is the executive chairman of the French Institute of International Relations in France.

And I was struck, as probably many of you were, in reading the invitation to the event, because I had not appreciated that Chatham House and the Council on Foreign Relations grew out of the Paris peace conference. So we are very much celebrating the century of think tanks. And so I wanted first to turn to Robin and Richard and hear about how that history of their organizations relates to the role they see think tanks playing today. So, Robin, let me start with you, and then I’ll go to Richard.

NIBLETT: Well, thank you very much, Karen. And great to be part of this panel at this particular time, as you said, with a very interesting setting. Great to be at CFR doing it with Richard and all of his colleagues.

You know, I’ve looked into some of the history of Chatham House. There’s a lot of it. And where various groups that milled around prior to the Paris peace conference tried to build up almost what you’d call a kind of—today we’d call civil society, a nongovernmental group of principally academics who felt that international affairs should be interpreted in a less transactional kind of traditional diplomacy way. And once the First World War took place, broke out, and the Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations got together, the governments reached out to a lot of academics to bring them into their delegations to help sort through what was an incredibly complex negotiation. You’ll remember all the national self-determination, border rewriting that was going on at that time. And they felt that they couldn’t just rely, the governments thought, on their own diplomats. They wanted some expertise.

And the diplomats obviously—sorry—the experts were happy to be included. But they gathered, as I understand it, for a dinner on May the 30th in the Hotel Majestic in Paris to have a conversation about how to keep this process going. How could you develop some institutions that would take a more historical, more detached, more fact-based assessment of international affairs, and make sure that the kind of terrible conflict that led to the First World War did not happen again. Traditional diplomacy left to its own devices leads potentially to bad outcomes. And certainly that was one of the instincts that helped create Chatham House.

There was also a slightly imperial dimension, because the British delegation was the British and dominions delegation. And some of the big funders at the beginning were—some of the big supporters, I mean, Jan Smuts and others were involved in the creation of Chatham House. And that was probably a little bit—not just the money side and the fundraising, which even in those days I think when each side got back to their respective headquarters they realized the idea of creating an Anglo-American institution—which I think had been, as I understand it, Richard, one of the ideas—sort of fell by the wayside and the Americans went their track and we went ours.

Now, your question was how does that link into—there’s a lot more one could say—but how does this link into today? Well, the idea that you do not leave policy simply to governments, and especially in a more competitive international environment of the sort we face today, I would say continues to have some very important currency. The idea that you want to pull together different viewpoints based on facts, based on evidence, based on deep knowledge of issues, or regions, or countries, which was an important element then, remains as important today.

Second key point I would say this was a community that distrusted the balance of power as a way of running international affairs. The diplomats might be more comfortable with a balance of power kind of world, but they as academics felt if you look through the historical examples there may have been periods of concepts of stability, but ultimately you needed to privilege international cooperation and structures and even institutions like League of Nations, which was the first crack, that would be better for the future.

So those are probably two of the key elements that were there, fact-based analysis and international cooperation. And without wanting to kind of kick off the whole conversation we’ll have here, I would say those two elements remain central to the work we do, and I think most think tanks undertake today.

DONFRIED: Richard, let me turn to you. Are those the same ideas, values that—

HAASS: To some extent. Let me admit at the beginning that I have institutional envy, since they call them Chatham House rules and not Council on Foreign Relations rules. (Laughter.) And I’ve never quite understood how that—how that happened. And I’ve failed, try as I may, to turn that around. (Laughter.)

Look, I think there’s two origins—

DONFRIED: But this is an on-the-record session, actually, just on that point. So feel free to tease that out.

NIBLETT: Yeah, we’re not even going to use. We’re not even going to use the rule.

HAASS: Just to be clear on that.

Quite similar. Two things were happening at roughly, you know, we’re talking about end of the second beginning of the third decade of the previous century. One was in the United States a debate about America’s relationship with the world. It was by no means a foregone conclusion. Indeed, a subsequent history—even preceding history demonstrated it. American entry into World War I was hotly debated, was not inevitable or automatic. Even afterwards, no clarity as to exactly why or how it came about—whether it was shipping, Zimmerman Telegram, you name it. But it broke a pattern of—you know, the whole idea was to focus on the building of this new country, the development of the continent. This was only half a century since the end of our Civil War.

And the idea that the United States would pay a large and continuous role in the world—to say it was not in our DNA would be an understatement. And indeed, it would not become part of our DNA, in some ways, until World War II and the aftermath—though I would say, at the risk of getting ahead of myself, it’s not clear it’s in our DNA even now. And that actually leads me to something Karen mentioned, which is there’s fascinating parallels between the creation of the Council on Foreign Relations, at the time essentially roughly co-terminus with the League of Nations debate in the United States, resurgence of isolationism, the fundamental questions of this country’s role or relationship with the world. Indeed, the whole idea was to have—I think the phrase used by the founders, who were essentially a bunch of northeastern men—basically bankers and lawyers, male. This was the Acela corridor before the Acela existed. (Laughter.) But the technology now is reminiscent of then, but I digress. (Laughter.)

And the idea was to have a continuing conversation. That was the phrase—a continuing conversation within this country’s elite about this country’s role in the world. And the Council on Foreign Relations was one of the institutions that was created for that express purpose. The magazine Foreign Affairs was created a year later. So that was one thing. And what the bias, even though we’re very careful not to take institutional positions, but I would say the expressed bias or orientation was one towards internationalism. The idea was to try to be a place where that—the conversation about the value of this country being involved in the world, for some it was more before it would help the world. For some, it was more because it would help the United States. But either way, that was—that was in some ways a principle rationale, if not the principal rationale.

Secondly, this came at a time where, in the early twentieth century, you had a whole movement to improve the quality of governance. Brookings was founded at roughly the same time. There was pushback against the spoil system. The whole idea in in the—government was going to play, as we saw in succeeding decades, a much larger role in American life. New Deal being, in some ways, what ushered a lot of that in. But the idea was that we needed strong institutions in our society to help improve the—or raise the quality of governance. And to some extent, it would from within, but also it would come from outside. And whether it was a place to generate ideas, whether it was a place to generate—to develop talent. And, you know, we’d probably call it some version of a public-private partnership, but again the idea was part of this—what then was the progressive movement, good government movement, the goo-goos, but this was a powerful idea in early twentieth century America—essentially part of the professionalization of government, which was going to take on an ever-larger role in America economic life, in American political life, and in America’s foreign policy.

DONFRIED: So it’s fascinating to think about both of your organizations, in many ways, as an example, perhaps, also of the Anglo-American special relationship.

So that’s 1919. Then 1944, Carlos, is when your foundation is founded. Very different moment in history. Help us understand what were the spurs to creating your organization then, and how did that original mission translate over time in terms of your role today.

LEAL: In terms of mission, our mission starts in the nineteenth century. In fact, if you’ll believe that there is a genealogy of people teaching people, we can trace back our origin in 1840. And the people that created FGV were involved in government in 1944. And they were the descendants of a people that had moved Brazil through two or three very series crises. Brazil failed in the nineteenth century. In 1870, it won a very costly war against Paraguay. We won the war, but we lost the economy. And we had a long stagnation process. Then Brazil failed again after the First World War to introduce itself into the Western world. And during the time of the dictatorship of Getulio Vargas, in the beginning Brazil was closer to Germany than to the United States.

Fortunately, later Brazil switched to the United States. Brazilians are very pragmatic. (Laughter.) And but there are actually two parties there. The man that created FGV had been chief of staff of Getulio Vargas. But he was not pro-dictatorship. This is a very interesting story. I’ll make it short. FGV has the name of the dictator, but all the liberals were inside, OK? (Laughter.) Both liberal in terms of economics, and liberal in the American sense of the word. So they were brought to FGV. And the mission is how do we think Brazil—how do you stimulate socioeconomic development of a country? How do we avoid these failures? That was the idea.

And the first step was, look, we have to improve the quality of our public management. We have to work in order to have institutions. So FGV did it for many years, and still does. It words towards improving institutions in Brazil, which may be something very difficult. Right now we are discussing how do we improve our budgetary process—something that Anglo-Saxons tend to take for granted, but it’s not true for us that we have the same quality and budget process—that our budgetary process has the same quality as the German, or the British, or the Americans.

HAASS: We’re catching up with you. (Laughter.)

LEAL: Surely you are, but—(inaudible)—it’s a different story.

So the mission of FGV was to bring the rationality in terms of public management, economics discussion, sociology, and nowadays law, OK, into a Brazilian discussion. That is a very difficult thing. When we were born, we received a gift—God’s gift. Every official document in Brazil had to have a stamp. And this stamp was sold, and the revenues were sent to FGV. It’s, of course, that is a very anti-liberal thing. (Laughter.) And so the first time that FGV had a minister of finance this guy finished with the stamp thing, OK? (Laughter.) And from then on, we have been expelled from paradise and we have to take care of our own budget. (Laughter.)

DONFRIED: So you’d like to go back to that stamped chapter? (Laughs.)

LEAL: The temptation is there. The temptation is there. But see the path to hell is always the soft one. (Laughter.)

DONFRIED: So, Thierry, you are unique on this stage in that you are the founder of the think tank you represent, IFRI. Much newer than the others. 1979. Different period of history. I’d love you to do the something, the mission as you defined it now and how IFRI has developed over the intervening decades.

DE MONTBRIAL: Well, first, you know, it’s so pleasant here to be the baby. (Laughter.) And, yes, I just turned forty. (Laughter.) Looking at you, I think you’re all a bit old. (Laughter.) And that’s a quite pleasant feeling.

Now, let me make two remarks before answering precisely your question. The first one is that we use today commonly the word “think tank.” But think tank, in fact, is a very recent expression to cover a great variety of organizations. For instance, Carlos Ivan’s organization is totally different from what we tried to represent, the Council, Chatham House, or even IFRI. And in the Council of Councils, you know, we have a number of organizations who are actually very, very different from one another. And at IFRI, founded in 1979, I just checked that the first time we used the word “think tank” for ourselves was in 1990—that is eleven years after. That’s interesting.

Now, on the origin of IFRI, there are a number of things. Let me say that I am very moved to see in this room some people who haven’t seen for many years. And thinking of Andru Pierre (ph), who—just here across the table, and who knows almost—almost—everything about the creation of IFRI. Actually, I happen to be the founder also of the policy planning staff in the French Foreign Ministry. I’m a strange animal because I’m essentially mathematician originally, but let’s forget these things. And that was in 1973. And something else happened when I was one, that is 1974, which was the death of Georges Pompidou and the election of Giscard d’Estaing. And at the—at the time, that was the slow beginning of the end of the Gaullist approach to foreign affairs in the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

And I, myself, you know, I had a Ph.D. in mathematical economics from Berkeley. I was very much attracted to the United States. And I started, you know, as the director of the policy planning staff, so under my recent position, to visit the United States a lot. And for instance, I see also Fred Bergsten. And I think the first time, Fred, we met, you were at the Treasury. You were assistant secretary of the Treasury. I, at the time, went very often to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and I started to develop lot of friends. I used to go four, five, six times a year to the United States. And because of the previous Gaullist era, that was a totally new thing. You know, I was the only Frenchman who was so often—(laughter)—who was—within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But so at that time I was quite popular in Washington. (Laughter.) Now—

HAASS: Times have changed. (Laughter.)

DE MONTBRIAL: Times have changed. Now I am almost considered to be a quasi-Marxist because I think we have it all wrong with—vis-à-vis Russia. But that’s another story.

But so during those years I became also acquainted with Chatham House. I started to—but I also started to visit nondemocratic countries. That is, for instance, the Soviet Union. I started to realize the existence of big institutions, such as EMAO (ph), MGIMO, and many others—not China yet; China, because it started a little later. And I realized that we had nothing like that in France. And so to make a long story short—and people, like, I think Andrew (sp) and Fred knows about it because I had many discussions with them in the ’70s, I started to think of creating something like that in France.

My model, as I must say, although I knew the RAND Corporate quite a little bit—the RAND Corporation, in fact, is the real think tank. Because I think the expression, “think tank” was actually designed from the military and people like that, who also were very much associated with mathematical economics and people who were closer to my own intellectual origin. But soon, my real role model was actually very soon became Chatham House and the CFR, with the unique combination, I think, of intellectual expertise with people who are real experts, but who are interested in policy-related issue—which is, I think, the key word. Not abstract academics, you know, that I think was the key here—the key difference.

Plus, debates. And not only debates among experts, but also the unique ability that both the Council and Chatham House had to welcome politicians, head of states, government, et cetera, and organize special debates in their respective places. So my goal was to do something like that in Paris. I won’t go into the details, but I think the climate at the end of the ’70s was relatively favorable to create something like that in France. Plus, my last point, which was also quite unique, and to some extent still is, in France, which is to involve the business community. Because, you know, until General de Gaulle, the regalian activity of the state was total separate from business. You know, the foreign affairs was the responsibility of the state. The business, they were subject, not rulers.

So what we could do at this time, which was I think a great revolution, was to involve the business as partners in this creation without the opposition of the state, which would probably have not been possible under de Gaulle. And also, the business was starting to internationalize. So these people, they needed to have good expertise, as non-ideological as possible. Maybe we shall return to these sort of things later on in our debate. But they needed—they thought that the institution—like, if we could help them to have a better understanding of the reality of the—of the world, and also a little bit more personal understanding of the main actors of the international world.

So to sum up, what we have tried to do, I think with some success, is to introduce this fundamentally Anglo-Saxon profession, even though, I must say, I was very much influenced progressively by the Soviet and Chinese, maybe we’ll discuss that a little later on, experience. One of the most difficulties for us is that, unlike the United States, you know, the systems of or foundations does not exist in a country like France. So the funding of an institution like IFRI is something extremely difficult, and probably a little different from the U.S. But I should say thanks also to the United States and to some of you here, because at least initially for the first years we had a lot of support—for instance, from the Ford Foundation and from the German Marshall Fund, my dear Karen, which was very different from what it is now, because—(laughter)—actually now we’re in competition with you, because you’re no longer—

DONFRIED: It started well.

HAASS: You’re no longer dear Karen. (Laughs.)

DE MONTBRIAL: Yeah. (Laughter.) But, please, you are welcome to—(inaudible).

So I stop—I stop here, but it’s a beautiful (segue ?). And even if today, I must say, I might be, as a good French friend should be, very critical of everybody, but particularly the United States—(laughter)—and France, I am very grateful to the U.S., which inspired the creation of IFRI in many ways, who helped us. And the U.S., I am happy to say, if only once today, is a great world country.

DONFRIED: Great. And I’m going to ask a couple more questions, but we’re going to come to all of you in about five minutes. And, Richard, I wanted to pick up on your comment about the times have changed. And there is lots of evidence that certainly we in the United States are living in a singular time. And, you know, when Robin was talking about what Chatham House stands for, this idea of different viewpoints based on facts and knowledge, and that think tanks are producing evidence-based analysis, we’re now living in a moment where there’s a lot of fake news, and alternative facts. So what are the challenges you feel, leading an organization like CFR at this moment?

 HAASS: Well, there’s challenges, but there’s also some opportunities. But let me highlight one opportunity. And Thierry was getting at it. Which is, the universities, with very few exceptions, have largely taken themselves out of the conversation about what you might call policy-relevant analysis and prescription. And so think tanks, there are as many as there are in no small part because there’s a large space in this country and in other countries to do that. And I think that’s the opportunity and the obligation of organizations like this, to help fill that space in a considered way—to be serious, to be analytical, to be nonpartisan, and, again, be policy-applied or policy-relevant.

The challenges are several. One is one that’s not that talked about. Again, I think it’s more challenge than opportunity but it’s both, which is when organizations like these were founded, they were very much elite. And now, we’re operating in context in which there’s been the popularization, to some extent, of debate and policymaking. And part of the challenge then is how does one continue to be a voice that’s listened to, and respected, and valued by the elites at the same time you have a broader reach. And it’s more than simply a distribution, or dissemination, or marketing challenge. And indeed, increasingly we have multiple products and services which either assume or don’t assume a degree of knowledge and familiarity with the field. So that’s one thing.

Second of all, for all of us, I think related to that, is the challenge of not assuming anything. I mean, you can get up in the morning and assume that NATO, and alliance, and free trade are all good things. But then you have to realize that you’re operating in a political environment now where many people do not. So I think for a lot of us in this business, part of the challenge of this time is question, not embrace or assume, first-order issues. And that things that we thought were settled, one of the lessons I take of the last few years—that’s accelerated in the last two years—is that much less is settled, much less can be assumed. And rather than simply saying: This should be our policy towards this or that agreement, you may have to take a step back and explain the fundamentals about why that is—why that is so.

You got added then problems of suspicion of facts and competition for facts. And some of the things competing with facts are not facts. You’ve got essentially the internet, which among—you know, is an—it’s an unregulated medium. There’s wonderful stuff there and there’s terrible stuff there. There’s no one who—you know, on Twitter you get your little checkmark from Jack if you’re basically you. But on the internet there’s no checkmark saying this is a responsible place that actually does serious research. So it’s up to the individual who’s swimming in that sea in many cases to figure out what is accurate, what is—what is serious, what is—what, in a sense, is worthy of being taken seriously, and which is not. So we’re operating in that environment. We’re competing with a lot of things.

I also think, and here think tanks and organizations have become part of the problem, many of them have intellectually committed themselves before they do their research. In many places, you can only get hired or you can only get published if you tow a certain line. And I think that is unfortunate, but again it politicizes the conversation. And, you know, I know it’s something that we fight, and we sort of feel that the analysis ought to lead to the prescription rather than vice-versa. But I would say that is not universally shared.

So I would just say this is a much more politically polarized, heightened moment. Much more competition. Much less can be assumed. In some ways, less discriminating and less regulated space. I think it’s—so it’s at one and the same time—and I’ll stop here—it’s a much more important time for organizations like these. And I also think it’s a much more difficult time for the same reason.

DONFRIED: So given everything that Richard just said, Robin, give us a soundbite on how does Chatham House, how do think tanks measure impact given the environment in which they’re operating?

NIBLETT: Well, the way I think we’ve traditionally measured impact, I’ve used this metaphor before, is like being limpets around the source of policy. I mean, we—

HAASS: You may want to define a limpet. (Laughter.)

NIBLETT: A little—one of those little sticky animals that sits there in the water around a particular source and might get the fresh water out. So right by the source, the idea is you can be very small. Policy was made in a very targeted, direct way. And as that jet of water came out the source of the water, if you just got your idea into the river right at the beginning, it would have influence all the way down. And you didn’t have to be too big. If you swum amongst the elites, you’ve kept your networks really carefully identified, you could have impact.

I think what we’ve realized today is that policymakers in particular—and that’s—we are policy institutes. We’re interested in making better policy, better debate about policy—in a way, they don’t always care if you’re right. The question is, do you have resonance, does your idea engage with people, do they know that if they pick up your idea and even go with it, it will already have a bit of a following. So part of the challenge for us—I think all us think tanks—is to be operating a little bit further down the river. That comes in all sorts of things like communications strategies. We’re not going to be media organizations reaching millions, I don’t think. Maybe CFR and Getulio Vargas and some others are. But you’ve got to go beyond the 1,000 or the 2,000 to the 100,000 or the 200,000 at the very least and be sure that your ideas have a certain amount of resonance down the way.

Now, influence and impact, to me, are these two risky words. I’ve always, I have to say, been extremely cautious about saying that think tanks have impact. It’s rare that I think you will find a think tank to say that issue is the one that we changed to that particular point, policy changed and went this way. And examples, I think, out of Chatham House, they often tend to be more process and technical. Helping the World Health Organization define what a counterfeit medicine is helped, then, the World Health Organization deal with counterfeit medicine. If you couldn’t define it, you couldn’t act on it. So sometimes your impact could be incredibly limited, whereas your influence could extensive—along with others, at the right time, and being able to do it.

So you got to be a little bit careful about overusing the word “impact” today, because you could end up, I think, holding yourself to too high a standard. A lot of funders these days demand impact. In the U.K., if you want to get a grant from DFID, the Department for International Development, they will actually pay for a third party to come in and have you define whether you had impact or not. And you’ll go through all the usual metrics. Who attended the meetings? So we at least we think we may have been having influence. Did the media pick up on it, and therefore has it gone out into—down the river to the broader story?

And then you start to get into the anecdotal world. Can you find an evidence that a policymaker said: That was a really good idea? You’re not sure if you went into the process. And sometimes it’s coincidence. You see something come out and say, hey, that’s what we recommend. I mean, sure I can draw a line to the impact, but in the end if we had to prove impact to be successful, I don’t think we would be as successful. I think the value of all of our institutions is helping policymakers and those interested in policy think a bit beyond the time horizon of the absolute now, which becomes ever narrower. It is providing a space for debate, where you can get different viewpoints around the table, but curated in a way that isn’t a battle zone and a polarized—which is the world we’re in today.

And it is, I think, being constructively critical. Richard mentioned think tanks that have become in essence advocacy organizations. If you can offer policy ideas, I think, as a policy institute, you want to take people with you, if you can. Be critical, but be constructively critical rather than planting the flag at the top of the hill and say: Wouldn’t it be nice if the world was like this? So, yeah, we try to play that through all the various areas that we work.

DONFRIED: Great. So over to all of you. I’d like to invite you to join the conversation.

DE MONTBRIAL: Would you allow me to make one remarks on this question you raised?

DONFRIED: OK, two finger, very brief, yes, because I want to hear from—

DE MONTBRIAL: No, on this question of impact I thought you were asking to all of us.

DONFRIED: Well, it’s just that we’re short on time.

DE MONTBRIAL: Well, shortly. I think impact is, first, to be listened to, so to have access. But also the press, the media. For instance, a phenomenon we observe in Europe is that the media is less and less rich. And they more and more asked think tanks for comments, explanations and so forth, and so on. And also, very briefly, I think personally that the number-one mission of think tanks today in this highly complex world is trying to analyze in an objective way as non-ideological as possible the reality. We have to be realists, that is in terms of analyze these issues correctly.

DONFRIED: Super. Thanks, Thierry.

So, just to remind, this is on the record. And just wait for the mic and then stand, and please tell us your name and affiliation. And I’ll try to get in as many as I can.

The first hand I saw was, well, right there. (Laughs.)

HAASS: Ray, there’s a microphone.

Q: Yes, the microphone. Yes. I’m Raymond Tanter, the American Committee on Human Rights.

Mr. Montbrial mentioned the RAND Corporation as the think tank. I was at RAND right after the missile age. That states my age, doesn’t it? (Laughter.) And one of the things that RAND was able to do was to say once missiles came about the idea of manned aircraft became less important. And that had a tremendous impact on the way we started thinking about things. So when I was at IFRI I spoke with Dominique Moisi and others about this particular point. So I would like you to address it as well.

DONFRIED: And thank you for addressing that question to one particular person.

DE MONTBRIAL: Well, I think that the RAND Corporation issue is totally unique. I was lucky enough, for instance, to know very well Albert Wohlstetter. You know, I had many, many—lots of interaction with him. People like that, and Harry Rowen, and many others had a real conceptual impact on American nuclear strategy. And I think that historically this is undeniable, that people at RAND Corporation have fundamentally shaped or contributed in a major way to shape American nuclear policy. But that was an exceptional period. After, for instance, Jim Thomson became president of the RAND Corporation, and he was so for twenty-five years or so, I think they started to move away to wider subjects. And I think that very unique historical situation has, to some extent, disappeared. So I think that the context which you have yourself played a role is something which no longer exists, I would say today.

HAASS: Can I disagree slightly? I think there’s actually a lesson in that for think tanks. RAND was willing to do conceptual work. And there’s conceptual work to be done today. I mean, if anything, there’s more conceptual work to be done today than in recent decades, simply because the international system, I would argue, is in such fluidity, with new forces, new technologies, new powers emerging. This is ought to be an incredibly rich moment of intellectual work in the realm of policy-relevant work. And for the most part, it’s not happening. So I actually think that a little bit of physician heal thyself. I think there’s a real challenge to organizations like this, four of ours and thousands of others, to basically—I mean, if universities are guilty of doing too much theoretical quantitative work, which is irrelevant, OK. Then think tanks have to be careful about getting too close to policy, which can politicize or get too small.

I think there is an in-between space, a kind of sweet spot for organizations like this. We can talk about it in terms of the size of the issue, the timeline, where are doing work—the big idea work. Because you—look, several of us have worked in government. You’re too busy in government. I’ve never been in a meeting, basically, where someone said, ah, I read that, you know, thing, and if it’s about immediate policy, because you operate at a level of detail and immediacy in government, which outsiders can’t keep up with up. But you can be six months ahead, two years ahead in terms of framing debates, framing issues, shaping the next generation of policymakers, getting ahead of it. And that, I think, is our challenge. It’s less the day-to-day and more the month-to-month or year-to-year. And that’s where the conceptual work I believe, if anything now, needs to be done as much as ever.

NIBLETT: Just to piggyback a bit, very short, completely agree about the need for conceptual work, big ideas. If there’s ever a time to do it, it would be one. There’s just one challenge for doing conceptual work now for many think tanks, which is that it’s hard to get funded. Of all the foundations, and companies and individuals have gone towards more targeted outcomes. And in many cases, outcomes on the ground. You want to affect climate change or poverty alleviation. So actually the space has narrowed. Unless you have the benefit of having some significant discretionary resources—

HAASS: And I want to thank you all for doing that.

NIBLETT: Exactly what I was going to say. (Laughter.) That is part of the challenge. So that was just my little two-finger intervention. The need is definitely there. People aren’t always willing.

DONFRIED: OK, thirty seconds.

LEAL: Thirty seconds? RAND in the beginning was all about military applications. Then when it started switching to social sciences, it had some successes, but then it failed up to a certain degree. It failed to sustain the same level of impact that it had before. So this is a very important thing, because think tanks nowadays they have to stress the social science issues.

DONFRIED: OK. So seven of you have already caught my eye and are on the list. Volker is next.

Q: Thank you, Karen. Volker Perthes.

HAASS: Volker, do you have the microphone?

DONFRIED: Just grab the mic, yeah.

Q: Thank you. Volker Perthes. I’m heading SWP, which is a German think tank, only fifty-seven years old. (Laughter.) Which is still older than Thierry’s.

HAASS: Middle aged.

DONFRIED: Oh, that Franco-Germany rivalry.

Q: Interestingly, also at the time it was—it was set up in particular political circumstances of the Cold War, also modeled a bit after RAND at that time.

But I don’t want to speak about that. So what I found interesting, I appreciated that both Richard and Robin said that the foundation of these two think tanks they represent took place on a certain value basis, which is commitment at the same time national interest and to international peace and security. I think today in our world a lot of people think that there is a contradiction. And I guess it’s our task to say it is not. That is actually the value basis of internationalist think tanks that do look at the world from certain capitals or from certain domains. You look at the world, Richard, from the U.S. We look at the world from Berlin. So of course, it has to be a national interest aspect, also because we have to cater for policymakers in our own countries, but at the same there is this commitment to international peace and security.

And I think that should be the common basis for this special brand of think tanks. But we are not, Richard, just part of 15,000 think tanks, as this think tank evaluating project sometimes claims. I mean, we are a smaller group with a special mission, which is giving inputs into a foreign policy, international policy debate in our own countries. And I think the task which we all haven’t fulfilled yet is to actually reach out—I think, Robin, you actually—and Richard also—to a wider public that is seeing a difference between national interest and international peace and security. And sort of make clear to them, as someone said this morning, that internationalism matters for you. It makes you more secure in your own country. It’s good for you.

And here is a fine line to advocacy, because I also appreciated very much, Richard, that you said we should distinguish ourselves from think tanks that have given—or, found their answers before they even ask the questions, or did the research. And I think we need to keep that distinction. Why am I speaking about distinctions? Because we are seeing a—I think enervating or annoying business of people or institutions, so-called rating agencies for think tanks, who are trying to throw everything together. And then they would tell me that in comparison to the Algerian Institute for International Relations, I am two places ahead or something like that. That doesn’t help us very much.

I mean, it’s totally irrelevant. It’s irrelevant for the task I have towards policymakers or towards the public in my country. It’s not important whether I am three places ahead or three places behind you, Thierry, or you, Richard. It’s important what I can do for my community. And I think we have to sort of launch probably a counter-discourse here to say: What is the real value of our job? It is not being ranked like a bank or some financial institutions. It’s about what we actually contribute to our community. It’s part of us sort of us being, I would say, a public good.

DONFRIED: I think that was more of a comment. (Applause.)

HAASS: Same. Yeah, I think we just go one.

DONFRIED: Well said.

So, Kim, you were next on my list.

Q: Kim Dozier with The Daily Beast.

Along the lines of impact and asking the right questions, a lightning round question for all of you. As you know I love lightning round questions. How often do you pulse policymakers either in government or on Capitol Hill—congressmen who have tiny staffs, lots of questions, and not enough people to try to get answers to those questions. How often do you pulse them to drive your research, versus letting your research be driven by your people on staff?

HAASS: Well, I’ll answer that. We do it every day, but not quite in the way you say. We have an entire team here. Look, you need to produce things and you need to market them. You don’t want to be the proverbial tree that falls in the forest that nobody hears. Congress, executive branch, but also mayors, governors, students, teachers, journalists, religious leaders, there’s multiple constituencies here. The only thing I would take objection to is the idea of driving our agenda. I want to know what people are interested in, but at the end of the day one of the reasons to be an independent institution is you drive your own agenda.

So, yeah, I’m interested in knowing what other people care about, but if I think something important, it’s a little bit of Steve Jobs. You want to—you want to—you want to not skate where the puck is. You want to skate where the puck’s going to go. And just because policymakers may not be interested in a certain issue, the idea that I wouldn’t work on it—it’s the same reason I want to have independent funding. I don’t want funders to determine our agenda. I’ll listen, and I think that’s useful to get their feedback, but I want to be truly intellectually independent so we can work on what we want and conclude what we think is the accurate conclusion regardless, or as they like to say in this town, irregardless—(laughter)—of what people on the Hill may want to—may want to hear.

NIBLETT: I think as a policy institution we—yeah. Is it daily, is it—it’s frequently. In our case, being in London, a lot of the policy interests take place internationally as well, just the way the U.K. government works. It’s much less interactive with the policy institutes, given the way our parliament works and the way the foreign office works. And I think the point is you’re trying to get a taste all the time of what are people working on, so you can spot what is missing. And if you can come back with what’s missing, then that is appealing. And the fact that you were able to spot it because they were so focused on the near term is what gives you the value.

So but pulsing out and being relevant is essential. That’s our role. Certainly the way I think about Chatham House is we’re public policy institute. We should be knowing where the public policy has the gaps or the challenges.

DONFRIED: Did you want to comment? You’re good? OK. Did you want to comment?

DE MONTBRIAL: Yeah. One word, yes. First, yes. One of the aspects of independence is to be able to find our own agenda. The problem being, of course, that sometimes you think that certain subjects should be covered but do not find the funding for that that could give you examples.

As for—as the for the audience, marketing and all that, normally, you know, in a good think tank, we should know who are the people who are involved in certain questions? And I think in the case of IFRI, we know exactly, for instance, in France, who are the few hundred people who are really engaged in the main subjects. And we deal directly with them. And then, of course, you have the wider audience that you try to touch, to hit through the media essentially.

LEAL: Yes, I think that to try to put together, in a word, impact many ideas—too many ideas. Impact for what? Is it impact when a law is drafted by your institution—you helped draft a law? Is it impact when you have a minister of finance that was a student of yours? Is it impact when you have the equivalent of a billion dollars of advertisement in newspaper articles every year? What is impact and what is its purpose? I think that this is a main question.

My main problem is not to have impact. It’s to control is what should not be an impact. Like, for example, I have eight hundred divas, my researchers, and they like to speak. And once a journalist listens to them—and I’m not going to say to them, don’t speak—once a journalist speaks to them, it never comes out professor such-and-such has this opinion. It comes out, FGV has this opinion. And every month I have horrible problems with that, so. (Laughter.)

NIBLETT: Too many researchers.

LEAL: Too many researchers. Too many researchers. And sometimes, people pretending to be so. (Laughter.)

DONFRIED: You’re on the list, but the gentleman behind you was ahead of you, yeah. Sorry.

Q: I’m Gilead Sher from the Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv.

Forty-two years old, the institute not me. (Laughter.) We spoke about impacting and influencing the elites, actually. You know, Thierry, you spoke about a couple of hundreds in France that you’ve identified. And, Robert (sic), you spoke about curating the analysis to, you know, politicians, government, decisionmakers, et cetera. And I’m interested in taking this conversation a bit to the masses now, to the mass audiences. Are you at all—I mean, there is this tension between targeting an audience that would be attentive to what we produce, et cetera, and shaping or affecting the public discourse of the constituencies, not just the elites. How interested are you in pursuing this as well? Thank you.

HAASS: I’d like to answer that. For us, the Council on Foreign Relations, that’s the fastest-growing part of the Council. We continue—look, for the first ninety years of this organization, I would say it had what you might call an elite or establishment focus. And that continues. And we continue to produce products and services for people in the—in positions of power, positions of influence, and so forth. But around ten years ago we make the institutional commitment to reach a much broader swath of Americans. And, again, what we did is we thought about, well, what are the agents in a society who have, what you might call, a multiplier effect? Teachers, journalists, people who give sermons in houses of worship, local political leaders. So what we did is we targeted all of them.

And we produced whether services or materials specifically designed for them. So we have workshops for teachers and professors, for religious leaders. We’re now in—we’re now in high schools and colleges in all fifty states. We’re in 120 countries around the world. We have produced—we are producing an entire curriculum—a basic curriculum about how the world works and why it matters called World 101. We have simulations that are out there to teach people about policymaking, as well as the basics of a liberal arts education. And I think the challenge is, we’ve got to do all that at the same time we do the traditional sort of stuff, and hopefully do that better.

And I think, you know, it’s multitasking. But I think one of the lessons of the last couple years, if war is too important to be left to the generals, foreign policy is too important to be left to the foreign policy establishment. And there’s going to be a broader conversation. And I believe institutions like these need to figure out a way, how do we become a resource for that larger conversations in our respective societies?

NIBLETT: So, a couple of brief comments on that, because I think it’s such a critical question. I think for a place like Chatham House, two things. One, we’re not just—or, we’re not principally trying to influence the U.K. So many policy institutes, but not that many, don’t have this national mission. So I would see ourselves having a different role in the U.K. to the one Richard was describing for the CFR in the U.S., which I think has always been at the core of it.

You also then have to work out the resources that you have to do something of that scale, OK? So resources become incredibly important in terms of what you’re capable of doing. My read for a place like Chatham House is we can influence the influencers. But the idea that we can change the country’s view, or any country’s view more globally, or even within the United Kingdom, is probably beyond our resources. But what you can do today much more effectively is partner. Some of the big media organizations are looking for partnerships that bring content, credibility to be frank, and so on. So whether it’s the BBC or even local newspapers, and so on.

And you can also provide—it’s not just a platform, but a venue in which influencers within particularly countries can get together under your brand and help drive a debate in their own country differently. I’ll just give you one example: I think all the common futures conversations underway at Chatham House right now, African—young African leaders from fifteen African countries, fifteen Europeans from European countries, each of them have a network within their country. We’re helping them design surveys in their countries about what matters most to their—to them from an international perspective. Is it climate change, migration? Blend them together, give them space in which to have a platform electronically, media.

You know, so in other words, we’re not doing it. We can’t—we don’t have the resources to be out there. But it doesn’t stop you, as Richard said, from having to go down the river, have that broader influence, not just trying to do it all through the policy elites.

DONFRIED: Should we try to get in one more question, because we have about two minutes left. And maybe you can speak to that in answering that. But there was a gentleman way in the back who has been trying to get in.

Q: Hi. My name’s Anthony du Plessis. I run the Institute for Security Studies. We are Africa’s largest think tank on human security.

A quick comment on Richard’s point about being close to policy or too close to policy, and a question to Robin on independence. So being too close to policy, one of the issues that’s come up in Africa a lot for us is that we—because of the capacity constraints in government, we end up being co-opted by government to write policy directly. So obviously you try and do that through an evidence base, but it is something which we increasingly do to deliver impact. And it’s a changing nature of think tanks in Africa, that you sort of fill those capacity gaps in government. And it’s not always just policy development, it’s sometimes capacity development. So we’re seeing a changing nature of the work we do, but also the kind of people we hire.

And just a quick question to Robin on the question of independence. So of course, it’s not only funding that’s becoming trickier. The nature of funding to think tanks is also changing. I mean, the role of the private sector, the role of big endowments. How do you—just one example perhaps from your side—how would you be able to—what is the best way to retain your independence when the nature of funding is becoming more restrictive, more targeted, and a little more difficult for think tanks, particularly like ours, that rely completely on foreign donors, to retain independence? Thank you.

NIBLETT: As we’ve got very limited time, I would say for those who have to rely on funding, diversity. Diversification both in sectors and quantity. It’s more transactional. It takes more time. But essential for independence. I’d say culture. Culture of the organization needs to be such that you know what you say no to, and you know the types of work you say no to. And that has to be communicated and lived and represented from the top, from the bottom. And third I’d say is governance. You need to have a governance structure that is—that protects that independence. Now, some governors can end up being the funders. So, you know, how you blend that. In our case, where our members—still, in our case, and maybe the same as yours, Richard—our governance is our members, selected by members from our members. Our members are mostly not very big donors, either. And so it is an interesting dimension. So I think governance structure, your board, commitment to the mission, and the transparency that goes around that, diversity and culture.


LEAL: I think it’s very important, although we want to reach people, that we do it in an ethical way. OK, because nowadays there is enough technology, for example, for you to do the following: You are reading an article at the New York Times. Then at the time that you switch from one page to the next of the New York Times, forty milliseconds, you identify what was of interest of a person and you put an advertisement on the next page of a think tank proposing an article that suits the interests of the person that was reading and tries to direct its ideas. So I think that’s a very unethical, if it’s badly used. I think that one should pay a lot of attention. So we want to have an impact, but not at any cost. This is very important.

DONFRIED: Thierry.

DE MONTBRIAL: Yes. Well, that question takes us back to the beginning, that is there are many kinds of think tanks. Can you be a think tank if you are a consultant? Well, that can be discussed. But if you are a consultant, you have clients. So it’s a totally different relationship. At IFRI, we do not have clients. We are not consultants. So if we are not consultants, that means that we have a certain public good—we are a public good supplier. If you take SWP, Volker, he has no real problem, as far as I know, because SWP is actually funded by the German government. So with a great degree of independence, but it is paid by the government. So but for us, we have to find money. So the question is, how do you get public goods of this kind of funded? So it seems, Karen is—I know that she’s looking at me to say that I have spoken enough. I pose the question. I do not give the answer. (Laughter.)

DONFRIED: Talk to Thierry after. But really, the important rule at the Council is we have to end on time. That’s my most important job. (Laughter.) So with apologies to the five of you that were still on the list, please join me in thanking so much our four panelists. (Applause.)


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