Exploring the Role of Think Tanks in Washington

On June 16, Meridian hosted a virtual discussion on, “Exploring the Role of Think Tanks in Washington”, the latest program in our Diplocraft series. Moderated by Will Bohlen, Managing Director of Cogent Strategies this program also featured Lisel Loy, Senior Vice President of the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) and Enrique Mendizabal, Founder and Director of On Think Tanks.

Top takeaways from the conversation:

1. THE HISTORY AND EMERGENCE OF THINK TANKS. There is a long history of think tanks playing an important role in the formulation of domestic and foreign policy. Whether formed in the early 1900s or later in the 2000s, the era in which they were established plays a role in their principles and affects their mission to this day. Often think tanks emerge during catalyst events. The stock market crash of 1929, the fall of the Soviet Union, the surprise of the 2016 U.S. presidential election as well as Brexit are all moments in history that have caused think tanks to form and rise in importance as leading thinkers scrambled to make sense of these policy developments.

2. THE ROLE OF THINK TANKS. The role and influence of think tanks varies from organization to organization, but generally their primary functions are to generate and advocate for certain ideas, policy recommendations or proposals. Other functions include providing legitimacy to policies; act as auditors of policy actors (private or public); and create and nurture spaces for debate and deliberation. They also train and provide cadres of experts and policymakers for political parties and governments. This is often referred to as the “revolving door” phenomenon in which high-level employees move from think tank roles to government jobs and vice versa.

3. THE STRUCTURE OF THINK TANKS. Think tanks vary by ideological perspectives, sources of funding, and topical emphases. As for the structural make up of think tanks, most are non-profit organizations that generate public policy research, analysis, and activity. However, some also have an advocacy arm that allows them the ability to lobby for the policy recommendations they generate. For America-based think tanks, the advocacy activity can include a visit to Capitol Hill where they can explain their policy recommendation, to an increased role in drafting legislation, an activity traditionally developed in Congressional committees. While think tank funding often comes from philanthropy, many also receive corporate and individual support that enables them to do this advocacy work.

4. HOW THINK TANKS CAN SUPPORT EMBASSIES. Traditional diplomatic visits often entail meetings through official government channels, however, meetings with think tank experts provide a valuable opportunity for government officials and diplomats to engage and learn about relevant policy issues without being constrained by hearing only the official government lines. This can allow for a more comprehensive and multifaceted understanding of policy. Additionally, think tanks are well known for welcoming foreign heads of state and other diplomatic officials to participate in an official event that allows them the opportunity to share their perspective and advance their own platform on a policy issue. With over 2,000 think tanks in the United States as mentioned in the 2020 Global Go Think Tank Index Report the possibilities for engagement are abundant and it would be most useful to engage with a range of think tanks from different ideologies and areas of focus.

5. A LOOK AHEAD: THE FUTURE OF THINK TANKS. As think tanks continue to evolve, technology is and will continue to play a transformative role, a view detailed in this Technology Annual Review published by On Think Tanks. As mentioned in the report, technology has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from the way we communicate with each other to the way we learn, work, and participate in social and political life. From planning more innovative events that reach a larger global audience to increased access to data to how they communicate, technology will undoubtedly change the way in which think tanks deliver their work and mission.  Additionally, for think tanks to be effective, it is important that they focus on expanding their workforce to better reflect greater racial and socioeconomic diversity.

Project summary

Exploring the Role of Think Tanks in Washington | June 2021
Regions: Africa, Europe and Eurasia, Western Hemisphere
Countries: United Kingdom, Peru, Romania, United States, Libya
Impact Areas: Education, Foreign Policy, Public Diplomacy
Program Areas: Diplomatic Engagement