Battered by the financial crisis, American think tanks are facing strong competition from new institutes from Asia to Europe.
By Rory Medcalf
America enjoys—or suffers—a surfeit of self-reflection about its place in the international order. It basically invented the foreign policy thinktank tradition, and still has a third of the world’s approximately 6300 research institutes, with hundreds of these odd beasts surviving in Washington DC alone.
But America’s busy wonks share an increasingly crowded global stage, even if the global financial crisis has dented a little of the enlightened private-sector generosity that underwrites a truly independent thinktank. As Asia’s wealth and strategic weight rises, many distinctly Asian policy voices are becoming prominent. Meanwhile, welcome efforts are afoot to revitalise some venerable European institutes with a global focus.
This column will trawl the world’s international policy waters for new ideas and projects. It will offer selective judgements about what is original and what matters, as America redefines its place in an Asian century.
Here are some spaces to watch.
Established more than three years ago, in part as a marshalling ground for pragmatic, security-oriented Democrats, the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) has become a fixture in the Washington policy world. The movement of its founders to important posts within the Obama Administration has not dulled the CNAS edge: it continues to look critically and constructively at how the US might best manage its fiendishly busy security agenda.
Thankfully CNAS is moving beyond its earlier reputation as ‘counterinsurgency central’, looking for instance at the risks of globalising the US defence industry as well as more traditional concerns. I highly recommend the CNAS project on US diplomacy and development, and in particular its January 2010 report, Engaging the Private Sector for the Public Good: The Power of Network Diplomacy, which looks at the prospects for creatively enlisting the private sector in the more flexible, fleet-footed style of foreign policy advocacy essential for traction in a globalised environment. Mercenaries may bring all sorts of negative baggage when they fight America’s wars, but a very different type of contractor may be just the ticket for influencing foreign public opinion—something too many old-school diplomats never liked sullying their fingers with anyway.
Moving to a more familiar and conservative spot, some of the freshest open-source analysis on the case for the United States to stand up militarily to a rising China is coming from the curiously-named Project 2049 Institute. This outfit—boutique by Washington DC standards—was set up in 2008, in its own words, “to guide decision makers toward a more secure Asia by the century’s mid-point”.
There is an accent on the defence of Taiwan—the title of the institute hinting, after all, at the goal of ensuring peace across the strait a century after the end of the Chinese civil war. Regardless of where you stand, there is fascinating research here on the challenges posed by new People’s Liberation Army (PLA) capabilities, the new ‘great game’ in anti-satellite warfare, and the potential for Southeast Asia to offer new points of influence in the region.
The more established thinktank brands have no shortage of media oxygen, but they deserve mention when they innovate to unpack new challenges—and Brookings’ Managing Global Insecurity (MGI) project is a case in point. With partners at New York and Stanford universities, global advisory groups and funding from, among other places, the British government, the focus is on how to renovate the failing institutional infrastructure—in economics, security and diplomacy more broadly—of a globalised world.
Their December 2009 report, Confronting the Long Crisis of Globalisation, identifies the need for nothing less than new attitudes to international cooperation: the priority needs to be management of shared risk, instead of national interest. Good luck, one might say after Copenhagen. Yet the quest rightly goes on: a key theme for MGI in the period ahead is dialogue with emerging powers on global stability and transnational threats. The limits of cooperation are real, but it is ludicrous to assume they have been reached with China, India and other powers that still have far to go in realising the global nature of their interests.
Turning to the thinktank scene in Asia, a truly large and inclusive enterprise in security analysis and policy advice is underway, with the MacArthur Foundation’s Asia Security Initiative, funded to the tune of US$68 million over seven years. The John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, provided for by its late founders’ insurance and property fortune, remains a leviathan of philanthropy, with assets of US$5.1 billion even after the global financial storm.
The keyword to its Asia initiative is cooperation. The logic is that the world’s most economically promising region is also frighteningly vulnerable to conflict. Independent American money is therefore underwriting an ambitious effort to build up institutes across the Asia-Pacific, foster a new generation of practically minded scholars and forge policy-shaping networks among them. Already, no fewer than 27 institutions are taking part, with core bodies in China, South Korea and Singapore. The broad subject areas are cultivating regional cooperation, reducing tensions in Northeast Asia and managing internal challenges.
In its first year, the initiative’s achievements include starting the region’s most inclusive security forum: a widely read blog that carries everything from nonconformist Chinese perspectives on North Korea, Indian views on how to reassure Pakistan about Afghanistan, realist Australians’ antidotes to their prime minister’s vague version of regionalism, insights into the enigma of Japan’s new government, and a window on unrest in Burma, Bangladesh and beyond. (Let me confess that my own intellectual home, Sydney’s Lowy Institute, is a MacArthur grantee: our three-year project will aim to identify realistic ways to minimise risks of war among Asian powers once they have reached their limits of cooperation, in the maritime, nuclear, cyber, space and energy domains.)
Finally, from the new world to the old: some of the most genuinely strategic thought in Europe is coming from what some would consider an unlikely place—long-neutral Sweden. The Swedish Defence Research Agency (Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut or FOI) has long been the quiet achiever of the global open-source intelligence scene—and its hard-to-navigate website remains a great place to go if you want to understand, say, the future of Russia’s military or what global warming means for submarine-based nuclear deterrence, though it inconveniently lacks high-level US clearances. But the new prophet in town is an old one rearmed. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is finding new life under the dynamic Bates Gill. It still publishes the trusty annual red book, collating global defence spending and the like, but is branching into wider and more contemporary sorts of analysis.
The SIPRI China and Global Security Project, in particular, is shaping up to be Europe’s best source of understanding on how China’s military power and awareness of its global vulnerabilities might affect the world, for worse but for better too. Set up by China expert Linda Jakobson, this program looks set to craft an unusually broad and impartial view of what Beijing’s rise means for global security—a far cry from the threat-centric assessments of many United States thinktanks, or the filtered stuff from China’s own vast policy mills.
And we can thank the new SIPRI for commencing what one hopes will be a multi-stage facelift to what was becoming the dullest website in all of deepest, earnest thinktankdom. Bravo, and more please.