What do think tanks do?
Readers of the JoongAng Ilbo and Korea JoongAng Daily will frequently see columns or commentary by experts from research institutes - or think tanks - regarding North Korea, the economy and pretty much anything that is in the news regarding international affairs. Joongang Ilbo itself hosts a high-level symposium in Seoul every year with my own think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Members of the audience and readers of the newspaper must occasionally ask themselves: Who are these guys?
The Think Tanks and Civil Society Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania tracks more than 6,000 think tanks in the world. Ranked first overall internationally by TTCSP is the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., which covers everything from domestic housing policy to international economics. CSIS is ranked #1 in the world for national security research. The top Korean think tank at #54 is the Korean Institute for Economic Policy (KIEP)
The city with the largest concentration of the most influential think tanks in the world by far is Washington, D.C. Three of the world’s top four think tanks are in Washington and there are 400 independent think tanks in the city in addition to dozens more associated with the U.S. government and Congress. But what do they do?
All think tanks conduct research on public policy problems and produce analysis and recommendations in the form of books, reports, briefings, Congressional testimony, social media and conferences. But there are also many distinctions among think tanks in Washington. The largest and most influential think tanks, such as CSIS, Carnegie or Brookings, are independent (not funded by the government), non-partisan, and non-ideological (meaning they do not support any particular agenda).
Typically, the presidents of these think tanks are former deputy secretaries of state or defense and the top ranking experts are a mix of academics with policy experience or former policy makers with a strong academic background. When there is a change of government, a number of these senior experts move into the State Department or White House as political appointees and are often replaced by senior officials leaving the previous government. The flavor of the independent think tanks therefore tends to shift slightly depending on which party is in power. At the next level down, the senior experts are usually supported by research assistants with master’s degrees and by interns pursuing their degrees.
Some think tanks are more closely associated with a particular ideology, such as the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation on the right and the Center for American Progress on the left. Their research and recommendations can be highly influential with one political party, but are rarely embraced by the other. In addition, there are think tanks that are affiliated with the Department of Defense, like RAND, or the Department of State, like the U.S. Institute of Peace. They also can produce independent research, but are funded and often tasked to do work for the government.
The big independent think tanks all rely primarily on non-government funding to retain their independence. Brookings and CSIS are supported by a mix of charitable donations, foundation grants and corporate sponsorships with government-related funds representing only a small fraction of the total. A small minority of anti-establishment critics have argued that the U.S. government should regulate think tanks more, but this proposal has no traction in the Congress because it would violate the integrity of civil society.
Washington-based think tanks have an impact because they have the intellectual freedom to tackle hard policy challenges that the government or Congress cannot manage - either because of a lack of expertise, partisan bickering or bureaucratic intransigence. Most think tank work does not directly impact policy, but provides information for a more informed public debate. Sometimes think tanks do directly impact policy. For example, when the Blue House proposed a U.S.-ROK-China trilateral to discuss North Korea and the Japanese government expressed concern at being excluded, the dialogue was begun at the “1.5 track” level, meaning that CSIS, IFANS and the Chinese Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) ran the process, but officials from all three governments participated.
Think tanks can be an exciting place to work. Doctoral students who find international relations theory too abstract and irrelevant are increasingly seeking positions at think tanks.
Think tanks offer young professionals and university graduates a unique opportunity to apply their studies directly to policy problems and to interact with senior policy officials and hear their views. However, think tanks require an entrepreneurial spirit. Researchers must constantly be thinking of the next challenge and the next solution. If they wait for ideas to be proposed to them, they will fall behind.
Korea has only 25 major independent think tanks, but several - like KDI, ASAN and KIEP - have first rate international reputations. These institutions represent a force multiplier for Korean soft power and influence and an important linkage with their counterparts in the United States and around the world.
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
By Michael Green