How Think Tanks Think
The crisis in Ukraine, advancing ISIS radical Islamic terrorists, spreading of the Ebola virus, possible consequences of sanctions against Russia for the economy: The current list of foreign policy challenges is long. It requires smart measures and concrete actions. Decision-makers have to familiarize themselves with highly complex subject matters, form an opinion, and take a position in ever shorter time spans. Apart from expertise, this also requires appropriate support from outside. Here, an ever-growing number of consultants and consulting institutions offer their services. Not only politics itself, but also the political environment and forms of political consulting are changing. More and more initiatives and actors compete for access to decision-makers, power, and resources. While politicians have access to more sources of information, this also raises the pressure to choose the right advisor from a variety of options. The public perceives exertion of influence critically and tends to over- or underestimate the role of political advisors. Here, it is important to know all the actors and their offers, to distinguish between them, and to assess their additional value for politics.
Think tanks play an important part in foreign policy consulting. However, they have to face numerous allegations, which are founded on an alarming lack of knowledge about their role. They are accused of lobbying under the guise of science and being henchmen for their sponsors. Renowned American institutions, such as the Brookings Institution or the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), are currently on the radar. Here, critics claim that these institutions adjusted their findings to their sponsors’ interests or, even more problematic, that they enabled foreign governments to influence policymaking processes in the United States. The claim is that scientists would not be independent in their research, but would conduct contract research with predetermined outcomes. If they did not deliver the wanted results, they would lose their funding or even their jobs. Do foreign powers buy influence at think tanks?
Comparable institutions in Germany are also facing similar accusations, even though they have an entirely different role in the German political system than their American counterparts, for instance, when the U.S. government changes, their top people often become fellows at U.S. think tanks and prepare for their next term in office. This “revolving door principle” is not a feature of the German political system.
Charges of unchecked political influence and doubts concerning the funding from external sponsors affect both publicly and state funded institutions, as well as privately funded think tanks. But how do think tanks work and what role do they play in foreign policy decision-making processes?
Thesis 1: Policy and Policy Consulting Need to Adjust to a Changing Environment
The number of policy consulting institutions and think tanks in Germany is manageable compared to the United States. With approximately 190 institutions and numbers varying, Germany ranks number five worldwide with regard to the number of think tanks. These are mostly academic think tanks without partisan alignment that differ greatly in their size, equipment, methods, and objectives. The “Research Office of the Bundestag” (Wissenschaftlicher Dienst) and other research institutes, such as the state-funded German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP Berlin) and the Social Science Research Center (WZB Berlin), offer scholarly policy consulting that adheres to specific academic standards and criteria. Apart from policymakers, these institutions also cooperate with other academic experts and institutions and are embedded into a vast network of international think tanks and research institutes.
Certain public authorities such as Experts Councils (Sachverständigenrat), university institutions, and political foundations are also considered think tanks. Moreover, the number of not-publicly-funded institutions, such as private or corporate foundations, is steadily increasing. A vast number of public relations and lobbying agencies, which make use of the terms “policy consultants” or “advisors” as well, adds up to this. Within the scope of their possibilities, they aim mainly at contributing to the wording of legal texts and at influencing the political agenda.
Private initiatives and new actors change the policy consulting market, challenge established institutions, and gain influence. In the field of foundations and advisors, one can discern a new focus on operational or project work. Foundations and private corporations that used to fund external projects or simply made use of general support are now starting their own projects or even in-house think tanks. This trend—a stronger focus on operational work and the increase in think tanks—is a global phenomenon that is especially visible in other European countries, but also in the Middle East or in Asia. Here, decision-makers are able to choose from a greater range of ideas, concepts, and insights to develop new sources for their decisions. At the same time, they face the challenge of familiarizing themselves with new topics in ever-shorter amounts of time. And they often attempt to not only address the media effectively, but also to represent a clear standpoint in political issues.
Thesis 2: Politics and Policy Consulting Need Trust, a Long-Term Approach, and Resources
New think tanks need to prove themselves and established institutions need to adjust themselves to this changing field if they want to stay relevant. Scholarly think tanks must take into account that the requirements of political daily routines are subject to a different time and decision-making pressure. At the same time, they should not forget the scholarly aspects of their work. This includes time and space for research, development of ideas, and exchange with other experts in their field.
Policy consulting needs trust and a long-term approach. As decision-makers often face a choice between “a rock and a hard place” in foreign policy, their options to influence policies are somewhat limited. The consequences of actions, such as military support, but also the costs of non-intervention are hard to estimate. Decision-makers must be able to trust think tanks that their first thoughts, ideas, considerations at the very beginning of the decision-making process are not published without their knowledge or are not published at all. Simulating scenarios, testing different measures, and asking critical questions are important offers that think tanks can make. Ideally, their experts have decades of national or regional expertise. Think tanks can provide space for questions that would be highly unpopular to ask in public—or that may not even be fully developed for publication. Consequently, decision-makers should be able to trust the consulting agency or think tank to provide substantiated expertise, but to also treat ideas confidentially and with respect.
This also entails that the decision-makers support the supply of such expertise—not only financially. Apart from public funds for researchers, this can be provided through external funds—also from private sponsors—that enable scholars to deal with certain issues. Expert knowledge is built through a long and steady process; in foreign policy this includes traveling, overseas research, and exchange with local actors, as well as embedding in the scholarly discourse. This costs time, patience, and money. It is important that think tanks have a firm place in the political decision-making process—and that they are seen as needed, as an asset, and as important actors in the democratic process.
Against the backdrop of global changes, new fields of studies have to be developed to classify interdependencies. Oftentimes, there is a gap that can only be filled by new projects that require enhanced external funding. For a long time, Germans believed that think tanks would be better off being funded by public funds only. This guaranteed and symbolized their independence, also from private influences. In the United States, however, independent research meant that private sponsors would protect think tanks from state influence. This formula does not exist in its purest form anymore, since particularly Germans have become more open to private or corporate funding. Here, not only partners or sponsors of non-university research institutions or think tanks need to accept the independence of research and policy consulting, but also their audience of political decision-makers needs to be aware of this requirement.
External sponsors can definitely develop ideas for areas where there is a lack of knowledge and where there are economic, political, and social problems. Researchers can take all these considerations into their formulation of questions. This is what money can be provided for. However, independent scholarly policy consulting will never deliver desired outcomes, nor will it tolerate influence by sponsors. In practice, this entails temporary disgruntlements and occasionally results will not be published. Or they will be edited to the extent that the authors will distance themselves from such a study or report. Whether an institution or an individual researcher will accept a deal with external sponsors is a matter of assessing every single offer. To categorically reject offers from private actors or foreign governments would result in missing important opportunities. Why shouldn’t a think tank let external sources finance its library if the scholars can thereby obtain optimum working conditions? It only becomes dubious if the sponsors choose which books are allowed to be on the shelves. And even more doubtful if the cost-benefit analysis is conducted at the price of intolerable political conditions, particularly with regard to funding offers from autocratic states. For instance, is a think tank well-advised to accept money from Qatar even though its treatment of foreign workers on its construction sites is highly problematic? Rather not. But there are no reasons why Qatar should not be engaged in a critical exchange about this issue, after which a decision about possible funding could be possibly explored again. Norway, as another example, can also cooperate with a think tank to conduct a study on the use of resource development if the government concedes to the fact that the findings could advise against certain plans.
Thesis 3: Only the Recipients of Consultation Bear Political Responsibility, Not the Advisors Themselves
The idea that only those who face elections carry political responsibility, with experts and scholars being exempt, is ambiguous and does not go far enough. As experts, scholars contribute to public opinions that ultimately influence the voting behavior. And of course, even if it is not for votes, scholars find themselves in a competition as well. As different as political advisors may be, they have to be measured in the light of certain criteria. Here, political relevance is most prominent:
- How intensively is their expertise required/in demand?
- What reputation do they have on a national and international level?
- Do their studies and analyses serve as reference?
- Do their recommendations find their way into politics?
The last point is the most controversial one, since every kind of influencing public opinion is observed critically. Where does one-sided lobbying start and where does independent consulting end? In this case, think tanks are accused of influencing political decisions or, like Brookings and CSIS in the United States, of compiling courtesy reports for certain foreign governments. Hence, we need to differentiate: First, why should clever thoughts and well-researched ideas not find their way into political papers and eventually well-grounded laws? Second, the high number of external sponsors limits the options of siding with one foreign government and is certainly not in the interests of serious research and consulting institutions.
Things get problematic if the process becomes obscure and decision-makers vote on the basis of wrong or poorly researched information. In the worst case, their decision is solely based on a single source of information. Even if recommendations can find their way to decision-makers in different ways, the political and media resonance remains most visible. If the consulting is conducted discreetly and is not subject to the attention of several multipliers, their efficacy is even harder to measure.
Think tanks need to expand their early warning capacities and, if necessary, occasionally irritate politics. This is why it is good and important that the policy consulting market offers a great variety of excellent institutions that cover the range of foreign policy challenges. Scholarly policy consulting should be about providing the best knowledge for those who have a political mandate or particular responsibilities, so that they can base their decisions on these insights. Long-term developments will reveal if this knowledge proves to be effective and relevant.
Dr. Nicole Renvert is an AICGS Non-Resident Fellow and a political scientist with a special focus on the analysis of think tanks, foundations, and Non-Governmental Institutions. Translated from German by Jens Schulz. Some views and reflections of this text also appear in: Nicole Renvert, “Gegen den Strich: Think Tanks”, Internationale Politik 6/2014
 Josef Braml. `Think-Tanks´ versus `Denkfabriken´, U.S. and German policy research institutes’ Coping with and influencing their environments (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2004).
 See Martin Thunert, “Think Tanks in Germany,” in Think Tanks in in Policy-Making: Do they matter? FES Briefing Paper, Special Issue (Shanghai: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, September 2011), p.43-54.