Thinking The Unthinkable: US Foreign Policy And Think Tanks


The foreign policy of the USA moulds events in almost all corners of the world. It is difficult to understand contemporary international politics without considering the dynamics of US foreign policy. In order to understand the decisions taken by US internationally, it is important to assess the features of its foreign policy-making process. Notably, the process of policymaking involves numerous actors, activities and functions, making it a complex affair. The US foreign policy-making process is influenced by many domestic entities to a large extent. Each entity bears its own sphere of influence, moulding the final product of process.

Out of multiple domestic actors involved, the essay will focus on the importance of ‘think tanks’ in the policy-making process. Think tanks have essentially been an important part of the US foreign policy-making process. Interestingly, as compared to other western democracies, there are comparatively higher numbers of think tanks in US and are relatively more influential in the policymaking process. Hence, it is important to trace the importance, role and reasons for influence of these entities in the American political set-up.

In simple terms, a ‘think tanks’ can be defined as “public policy research, analysis and engagement institutions that generate policy-oriented research, analysis and advice on domestic and international issues that enables policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy issues.”

The advent of modern think tanks in the USA was at a time when it assumed worldwide leadership. The role of these ‘thinking cells’ was to provide the government with impartial advice on policy related matters. Institute for Government Research, the precursor of Brookings Institution (1927) was one of the earliest think tanks. The end of World War I and II marked the period of America’s vital involvement in world politics, escalating the importance of independent foreign policy advice. The pressures of establishing itself as a hegemonic power in a bipolar world made it essential for the government to consider expert advice on foreign policy and national security. By 1948, RAND Corporation was created to develop and protect the American security interests in a nuclear era.

American history is dotted with instances that evidently reflect the influence of think tanks on US’s foreign policy. One such illustration was after the end of World War II. Council on Foreign Relations published an article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” written by U.S diplomat George Kennan. This article created the base for the containment policy, which was relentlessly employed by the US till the end of Cold War.

During the 1990’s, U.S think tanks highlighted their informal yet central role in foreign policy formulation. Ironing out the differences between diplomats, they were seen as an unbiased third party in political discussions. An example of this was the debate of NATO enlargement. The conflict between the diplomats was minimised by the involvement of think tanks, thus building support for NATO enlargement. The NATO enlargement debate was imperative to surpass the Cold War’s divide and build a peaceful Europe.

As mentioned before, the degree of influence enjoyed by think tanks is limited to the American system of governance. The political landscape of USA is different from conventional political models and relatively far more decentralised. This primarily provides an environment where think tanks thrive. US governance possesses some attributes that remain exclusive to its domain. These attributes makes it easier for think tanks to influence the policy-making procedure through various techniques. The following segment will address some prominent characteristics of the American system and how think tanks utilise it to their advantage.

The most distinguishing is the clear division between legislative and executive sectors of the government. This implies that the powers of the President and the Congress are divided, allowing room for other actors to influence. Congress remains a very strong force in American politics and is also subject to external influences. As noted by Peter Gowan, Congress holds an extraordinary power over the US foreign policy. This tendency still prevails despite continuous efforts of the executive to affirm institutionalised control over the external policy (since 1945).The Congress remains sensitive to external forces like business corporations and think tanks.

Secondly, weak and reasonably non-ideological political parties are instrumental in further augmenting the role of think tanks. Parties do not get involved in the major part of policymaking by creating policy research branches of their own. Conversely, they rely on think tanks to fill this gap thus providing them a reasonable degree of power in the policymaking process. Think tanks continuously generate innovative ideas, evaluate government programmes and analyse policies. At times, experts provide immediate policy consultations to the government on policy problems and issues of pressing concern. In times of conflict between parties, these institutions act as a third party mediator and help break deadlocks and facilitate a comprehensive dialogue between them.

Another special attribute of the US political system is the selection of cabinet ministers. Contrary to conventional parliamentary system practices, cabinet ministers are not selected solely from parliamentary factions, and senior officials not primarily chosen from the public service. There are multiple ways of coming to such positions. With a change in administration, people hailing from various spheres are chosen through different means. This offers a level of permeability, giving opportunities to outside actors in the process.

The most exclusive function enjoyed only in the American system is the ‘revolving door’. This refers to the arrangement of supplying experts for new administrations and becoming centres for retiring officials who do not want to get divorced from foreign affairs. This helps the researchers to experience the real world politics and apply the theoretical models to practical situations. Furthermore, think tanks offer places for ex-administration officials who can share their experiences and remain involved with the domain of global affairs. This facilitates entities like think tanks to be continuously engaged in the policy processes.

This practice is liberally applied by many governments who have appointed researchers/experts for governmental positions. Additionally, retiring government officials enjoy opportunities of employment in renowned think tanks. The ‘revolving door’ clearly blurs the distinction between government official and external analysts. For example, the previous Bush administration gave several positions to experts in foreign policy affairs.

Besides this, think tanks are extremely active during the campaigning periods and transitional phases of governments. These opportunities are best utilised for setting foreign policy agendas. The first and probably most influential channel think tanks use play out in presidential elections.

Candidates usually approve a ‘blueprint’ on internal and external policies and are greatly influenced by them or sometimes simply use it as their own. As Martin Anderson of the Hoover Institution explains, “It is during these times that presidential candidates solicit the advice of a vast number of intellectuals in order to establish policy positions on a host of domestic and foreign policy issues. Candidates test these issues on the campaign trail.

It’s like a national test marketing strategy.” Besides hardcore political involvement, think tanks are instrumental in enhancing public understanding by interpreting complex policies and gaining support for policy initiatives. This is done through electronic and print media. Simultaneously, they publish books; arrange seminars, rotary meetings for public and government officials.

Additionally, supplementary aspects exist that are equally instrumental in establishing the highly influential role of think tanks. The capabilities of US think tanks to contribute directly or indirectly and, the eagerness of diplomats to consider their advice are significant. It is believed that US being a superpower owes responsibility to the international arena and has a range of challenges of various degrees. In order to undertake these responsibilities and combat challenges, think tanks are important to assist the policymakers with expert advice and long-term schemes.

Apart from the political angle, the social system supports this kind of arrangement. The traditions of philanthropy, corporate or individual funding helps think tanks to sustain. It is important to note that the above mentioned reasons are not solely responsible for enhancing the role of think tanks, but it is their confluence that makes it them prominent.

In statistical terms, a research was conducted by Lawrence and Benjamin on “epistemic communities”. The work highlights that the rising complexities and improbability of international problems has “led policy makers to turn to new and different channels of advice” and particularly to innovative “networks of knowledge-based experts” in think tanks with the aim of articulating the objective causes of international issues, the “real” risks or security of regions affected by those problems, and appropriate policy remedies. Calculations reflect that experts are the second most influential entities in the policymaking process, business corporations preceding them.

Undoubtedly, it is important to appreciate the role of think tanks in the foreign-policy making process. Keeping this in mind, it is also essential to see the other side of the coin. Primarily, the main goal of these institutions is to influence government policy and public opinion. While in the process, they employ numerous that attract criticism in various degrees.

Unlike business corporations, a think tank’s success is gauged by the influence is has on the public and the policymakers (not in monetary terms, because the instituted are non-profit organizations). Also, when formulating policies, policymakers consider many aspects including public opinion. Majorly, perceptions of policymakers and public opinion are shaped by news and broadcast media. Therefore, influencing the media becomes increasingly important for think tanks.

Think tanks today operate in a market of heavy competition, where it is important for each to gain media attention in order to gain publicity. Think tanks experts disseminate their ideas and views through interviews, public briefings, opinion articles in newspapers, scholastic journals for academicians etc. For example, Brookings went to the extent of building its own TV and radio to facilitate media interviews. This makes it clear that think tanks extensively exercise marketing techniques to direct the content and direction of policies. This practice thus eventually places them in the same category as interest/pressure groups and other NGO’s. Albeit distinct differences, the distinctions between interest groups and think tanks is getting blurred.

These blurring distinctions have further heightened with the advent of advocacy think tanks. Advocacy think tanks establish strong policies reflecting a particular ideology and mix them with extensive marketing to manipulate policy debates. As observed by Richard Fly, some of the institutions like heritage Foundation are highly driven by ideology, while some like AARP, Public Policy Institute and the Economic Policy Institute are funded by an association of labor unions. Another technique of ensuring influence is to establish close ties with particular agency. This is reflected particularly in the case of RAND Corporation, which is a contractual research for the Depart of Defense.

Think tanks as registered under Non-profitable organizations rely on endowment and donations from organizations and individuals. AEI raises almost between $20 million to $25 million a year. At times, the sources of funding are not revealed. Most of the donors include huge business and financial corporations. As simple as it may seem, these donations are instrumental in directing the content of the research undertaken by these ‘idea brokers’.

Not surprisingly, the policymakers get influenced by the agenda-driven think tanks. This gives rise to domination of a particular ideology which gets reflected in American foreign policies. US has almost twice conservative think tanks than liberal ones. The elite theory holds that “the political system is dominated by select group of individuals and organizations with common goals like an interventionist foreign policy”. Even the media citations enjoyed by conservatives is higher that the centrists or leftists.

Some think tanks attempt to stretch their ideological sphere to other countries by establishing overseas affiliations, namely, The Urban Institute, Carnegie Endowment. Even though some regard this as a step to enhance policy analysis abroad, it can also be criticised for endorsing ideologies to countries where the think tank sector is at an infant stage. This also shows that more and more think tanks use the media to propagate their ideas and perspectives.

The ‘revolving door’ no matter how useful can be viewed as a negative aspect of the American foreign policy process. After every change in the government, there are a high number of government positions. In order to fill that void, think tanks offer experts. Even though, this gives an opportunity for experts to offer researched opinions, this practice easily opens door for think tanks to embed their ideological stance in actually policies. The main goal of these ‘idea brokers’ is to influence the government, but the ‘revolving door’ gives them direct access to the government.

Also, there are times when the experts do not get places in areas of their expertise. Thus, such experts often have inadequate knowledge about the program assigned. Some have also criticised this practice by terming it as “government in exile”. The Center for Strategic and International Studies, for example, has so many top ex-government officials that it has gained the nickname “National Security Advisors Stud Farm. Consequently, the whole network of think tanks is not just a simple arena of scholarly research to enhance understanding, as it may seem.

To sum up, US foreign policy is not purely a creation of the executive and legislative branches of the government, but external actors. As noted above, think tanks thrive due to the setting offered by the political system making it exclusively an American affair. The reliance of policymakers on think tanks for advice on foreign policy marks the importance of external actors and public in the process.

Nevertheless, it is also important to realise that extreme reliance on private entities for foreign policymaking may result in policies that are lopsided and bias. Private entities like think tanks may possess ulterior motives and may even be sensitive to other actors like business corporations and lobbyists. A foreign policy of a country reflects it domestic political landscape and perceptions. Privatising the policymaking process is not wise decision, especially when the foreign policy of a powerful country like US shapes the affairs of the globe today.


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Aditi Malhotra

Aditi Malhotra is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. Her areas of interest include South Asian security, nuclear proliferation and changing trends in conflict. She holds a BA in Media and Communications from Manipal University, Dubai, UAE and a MA in International Studies from University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. She maintains a blog at and is active on twitter at @aditi_malhotra_ Email: [email protected]

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