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Think Tanks and the Obama Administration

FPC Briefing
James McGann
Director, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania
Scott Bates, Vice President and Senior Fellow, Center for National Policy; and Matthew Duss, Center for American Progress
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
April 23, 2009

James McGann at the FPC
2:00 P.M. EDT
Video - James McGann

Video - Scott Bates and Matthew Duss

MODERATOR: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center today. My name is Pam Zai and I have the honor of introducing our first speaker. Welcome to the second in a series, Inside Washington. We’ll be talking about think tanks and the Obama Administration today.

With us, our first speaker is Professor James McGann. He is the assistant director of the IR program over at the University of Pennsylvania, and also the director of Think Tanks and Civil Societies program over there. He has worked with several organizations and consulted for them as well, including the World Bank, the UN, and USAID. He has several publications, such as Competition for Dollars, Scholars and Influence in the Public Policy Research Industry, Think Tanks and Civil Societies, and Comparative Think Tanks, Politics, and Public Policy.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. McGann. (Applause.)

DR. MCGANN: Is the PowerPoint on?

MODERATOR: One moment.

DR. MCGANN: One moment while we get my PowerPoint. Otherwise, I’ll – I can do it without it, but I – this is off, so --


DR. MCGANN: Or at least it looks like it. There we go.

What I’m going to talk about is the role that think tanks play in the United States with a particular emphasis on the role that they have played in the Obama campaign and continue to play, and hopefully provide some insight into how President Obama will shape policy.

This is – nothing’s happening on this screen. I just – do we have someone who can help with that? Well, I mean, there’s no presentation.

So I’ll, you know, get started and basically give you a sense of what think tanks are, and we’ll explain how prominent they are in the United States and why there are more think tanks in the United States than in other countries. And that largely has to do with the political culture in the United States, which is distinctly different than political cultures in other countries, even those in Europe. And part of the reason that there is a distinct difference in terms of the number and type of think tanks – I’m going to get my notes since this – can we get my notes since we’re not going to --


DR. MCGANN: I either have to do one thing. I either have to have the notes or – they’re in my bag or someone needs to get – there’s nothing on here.

MODERATOR: Sure. Hold on just a moment.

DR. MCGANN: Why don’t I – while I’m waiting for this, if you have questions about think tanks, I’ll take those because I know you – some of you have to leave. Do you have questions about U.S. think tanks and the policymaking process, Obama Administration?

QUESTION: Yeah, how much influence do you have on the (inaudible)?

MODERATOR: Oh, please wait for the – please wait for the microphone.

DR. MCGANN: They have significant – I mean, in – relative to other countries, they have significant influence. And part of that has to do with the fact that in the U.S. context, we tend to rely on experts outside of government relative to those in other countries where there is a reliance on the civil service and the bureaucracy to essentially provide the research and analysis. For whatever – and it really goes back to the inception of the American Republic, where there was a distinct and cautionary approach to centralizing power in a single institution of government, or it – in government in its entirety.

So we have created a highly decentralized system where the branches of government are separated; where the government at the federal, state, and local level is highly decentralized and therefore not concentrated in a single – at the national level, as is the case in many governments. So that there are a whole range of reasons for it. But basically, the – that affects the reliance that Americans have on advice that is outside of government to help run government and advise government on key policy issues.

And there is – and further manifestation of that is the fact that there are 1,777 think tanks, most of which – and in that number, I am counting think tanks outside of both government and universities, so that they are truly independent of – in a way that, in other countries, it is not the case.

The really distinguishing characteristics – I’m going to have to get my notes if we’re – it’s in the bag because I can’t talk without having some frame (inaudible). It’s in your colleague’s office.

MODERATOR: Okay. I’ll go get it.

DR. MCGANN: It’s in a brown bag. If you could just bring the small black bag – yes. Is the PowerPoint loaded on this system?

MODERATOR: Yes, I guess. He just came in. You going to stand right here?

DR. MCGANN: I’m just doing a dance while I’m trying to sort this out. Yeah, if you need me to have this – yes. There’s a question in the back? Yes.

QUESTION: My name is Kanish Kabacha (ph) and I come from Afghanistan. My question is: Do you have any think tank branches in the other countries? And what kind of support do you provide for the other countries’ think tank? For instance, we have one in Kabul, Afghanistan which is quite good about advising on policymaking issues in the country. Thank you.

DR. MCGANN: The – I mean, me, personally, I do not have any sort of – I mean, it’s just myself and a few other research assistants. So it’s not as if we have global operations. Many think tanks are increasingly opening branch offices abroad or essentially becoming truly global institutions. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has seven institutions that it’s created outside of the U.S in Beirut, Brussels, Beijing as illustrations, where they’re truly – they are truly international institutions.

And increasingly, the second and more direct response to your question, is the partnerships increasingly between think tanks beyond just simply an exchange of scholars. There is a major partnership with institutions that are looking to connect in a very demonstrable way with institutions outside of the U.S. and in the context of Europe. So – and certainly, in terms of your institution, there are other bodies in terms of networks that are working to provide capacity building and sharing of research in a whole range of policy areas that might be of interest and of assistance to you as you sort of develop.

And it is not simply a one-way exchange. There is – having institutions that are in country and on the ground and can essentially provide informed analysis of what really is going on benefits think tanks in the U.S. and elsewhere. So you would certainly potentially find institutions that would be interested in partnering with you on, you know, this area.

QUESTION: Thank you.

DR. MCGANN: All right. This quote – and I’ll just read it. It’ll be the only thing that I really read. And it really captures the sort of unique characteristic of think tanks and their role in the United States.

“Big, pluralistic America, it is the noisiest political debating society in the world, a babble of voices airing contrary opinions on how this country should be run. For this democracy, where every view is permissible, and each faction seeks to persuade Republicans, Democrats, left, right, and centrist, lobbyists, journalists, scholars, religionists, and think tanks. And think tanks are the dissonant protean – they are all dissonant, protean and cacophonist. They are the yeast in this ever-fermenting discussion.”

That captures the sort of noisy, at times, and certainly for those outside the U.S., it appears chaotic, but it is how our system works. And the diversity and the cacophony of voices on every possible issue at times can be deafening, but it does essentially result in a very interactive process. And for those, often when I speak abroad and for groups who visit the United States and I am talking to, they – it is very hard to understand the sort of messiness of the American foreign policy and domestic policy process because one day it seems like we’re in this direction and the next day we’re in a different direction, and an influential voice says one thing and then another influential voice says yet another. And all of these things are very much a part of the policymaking process in the U.S., and think tanks are central to that.

Think tanks, or public policy research, analysis, and engagement organizations, are institutions that generate policy-oriented – not academic, but policy-oriented research, analysis, and advice on domestic and international issues that enables policymakers and the public to make informed decisions about public policy. The key elements here, in terms of think tanks and the role that they play in the United States, is that they are not academically oriented. Some are, but it is – there is a clear policy orientation.

The second element that is very key in this definition that I developed is engagement, that in the U.S. context and increasingly around the world, think tanks cannot be effective unless they effectively engage not only policy makers, but the media and the public. And every institution in Washington that seeks to have an influence on Congress and the President has to have an effective dissemination and engagement strategy where they’re on the media. And for those of you – I don’t know how long you’ve been in the States, but turn on any channel on any morning and there are a series of – or in the afternoon, for that matter, of scholars from think tanks, researchers from think tanks who are commenting on various either ongoing issues or breaking news. So they are relied on not only by government, but by the media for commentary and insight on key policy issues.

I won’t spend much time on this, but clearly, both in the U.S. and globally, the growth of think tanks as institutions are directly related to key domestic or international upheaval. And once the – and that requires often a paradigm shift or a rethink of policy. And that requirement, that demand, results in a increase in the number of think tanks, or the creation, I should say, of new think tanks to essentially articulate and define, or define and articulate that new paradigm that has taken place.

Think tanks in the U.S. are funded by a diverse set of sources: individuals, corporations, foundations, government contracts and endowment. Outside of the U.S. and in Europe, for instance, the principal funders in the European context or in developed country contexts are governments, central governments or regional governments, i.e. the EU, and corporations. And the U.S., as you can see here, is very diversified. In the developing countries, the principal sources of funding are the national government and international public and private donors, and that influences the nature of the think tank.

In the U.S. and in this context, there are different types, so it’s not just, you know, a think tank as a single type of institution. They come in various forms. And on the left are the types of think tanks in terms of categories, and on the right are examples of them. And I could go through those if you have questions, but this is just to give you a flavor that it is a highly differentiated set of institutions that have different structures, different strategies, and different tactics on how to influence policy. These are just some categories that appeared in an article that I prepared for Foreign Policy magazine, which you can look at online if you go to

There is a clear philosophical political orientation to the think tanks that are – that exist in the United States. Running from the left to the right, there’s various gradations in this, but these are the major categories. So – and think tanks don’t necessarily like to be put in these boxes. But those who know these institutions – members of Congress and the White House – know the political orientation and the philosophical orientation of the think tanks. And that influences the advice that they provide.

What are the exceptional characteristics of U.S. think tanks relative to other countries? There are four basic areas that I would point out. One is that there are more of them. There are 5,550 think tanks in the world. Of that number, 1,777 of them are in the United States, 374 of that 1,777 are located in Washington. So there’s an understandable and significant concentration in Washington. However, there are one or more think tanks in virtually every state in the union. So this whole decentralization that I talked about that is a part of American public policy is reflected in the nature that think tanks are widely distributed throughout the United States.

Think tanks in the U.S. have larger budgets and staffs. Heritage Foundation, the budget is $48 million. The Brookings Institution is $60 million. Institutions in Europe are one-fifth of that total, so that the amount of money that goes into these institutions year in and year out from diverse sources of funding – it’s not a single corporation, it’s not a single individual, it’s not a single foundation – it’s a highly diversified base of support that allows these institutions to be truly independent.

These institutions in the U.S., relative to other countries, have greater visibility and influence, to answer the question that was posed at the outset. Part of that has to do with what I’ll demonstrate, specifically in the case of Obama, is the revolving door. This is where individuals who are in government, when they are out of power, go into a think tank and then circulate back into government. And that is directly related to the fact that in the U.S., we look to external sources for advice to help government think. They provide testimony to Congress and the White House, and they are used, as I have illustrated earlier, extensively by the electronic and print media. Pick up any paper and often on the editorial page, the editorials are written by staff at think tanks.

And then finally, they have significant independence financially because they are not getting their funding from government. That gives them financial independence. And they are not formally tied in any way, shape, or form to government or to political parties. In the European context and in other parliamentary democracies in other countries, think tanks are closely tied to the political party. There is virtually no connection between – formal connection between think tanks and political parties in the United States. There’s one example, which is the Progressive Policy Institute, which was started by Bill Clinton, but that is the exception to the rule.

In understanding why there are so many think tanks in the United States – and I’ve gone through some of this, so I won’t repeat it – is directly related to the political culture in the United States. We have a highly porous and decentralized system which provides many points of access for think tanks, which enables think tanks to have influence. If there were not – if we did not have a decentralized system and there weren’t many points of access, it would close off the points of entry and therefore the need for or interest in having think tanks, and that’s certainly not the case.

As I’ve alluded to, we have a weak bureaucracy. When I talk about this relative to, say, you know, Japan or France, if you are going into the bureaucracy, you go to the best schools in France and in Japan; you are seen as the sort of elite class in the country. In the U.S., and with all due respect to the hardworking people here who work for the State Department, we do not hold our bureaucrats in great reverence. In many respects, we rate them one rung above a used car salesperson. It is not – and it is not – it has nothing to do with the bureaucrats themselves. It has to do with the fact that we have a distrust of government, and it goes – it is not a Republican mantra. It is a general belief that is deeply imbued in the American political culture that the government that governs best governs least. And we – that translates into institutions that are outside of government.

We are a hyper-pluralistic society. And then finally, there’s a lot of money that’s independent. So Bill Gates and George Soros have money to essentially start think tanks. And I’ll provide an example of the role of Soros in terms of the Obama Administration.

Just to give you a breakdown quickly, this is the global breakdown of think tanks around the world. So the highest concentration of think tanks is in the United States and – or I would say broadly in OECD countries. The regions that you’re from, you can see, basically, the proliferation of think tanks regionally took place in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989. And now in Africa, there’s been a proliferation and, to a degree, in Southeast Asia. But there has been a broad continual growth in think tanks around the world, so that it is now a global phenomenon.

I’m just going to give a couple illustrations to answer the question about influence. In January of this year, Obama is in office. The U.S. House of Representatives voted to include a buy-American provision requiring that all iron and steel used under the fiscal stimulus program be processed in the United States. The basic piece of legislation was that if we’re going to provide funding for rebuilding the infrastructure in the United States, it should be built with American steel.

The Peterson Institute understood, from an historical perspective, because they are an institute of international economics, that that would be disastrous and would lead to a international trade war. They – this legislation was approved. But in the intervening period, within days – and I’m talking seven to ten days – the Peterson Institute brought together key members of its staff to critique the legislation, to develop a strategy for how to neutralize this very potentially damaging insertion into the legislation, and made contact with key members in the Obama Administration. Within two weeks, they had essentially neutralized the buy-American provision in the legislation. And they did it by essentially inserting language that said that this piece of – that the buy-American provision could not violate any international agreement. Well, essentially, it violated international trade agreements and therefore was rendered neutral. The Peterson Institute of International Economics had a very direct influence on changing the course of that piece of legislation.

I’ll cite one more example, and then I’m going to go to the revolving door in the Obama Administration. The 9/11 Commission, one of the most important issues that faced the United States at the time, and a commission was established and it graphically illustrates the profound influence that think tanks have. The chairman – or the co-chairman of the commission, Lee Hamilton, is the head of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, former congressman in a think tank. Tim Roemer is the president – former member of Congress and president of the Center for National for Policy. John Lehman was on the board – is on the board and was chairman at one point of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The person who drafted the report was – and was a staffer was from the Mercatus Institute. So that there is a – and the reason why I use this is that there was significant reliance on the accumulated knowledge and expertise at think tanks for one of the most critical issues facing the United States at the time. They didn’t go to the bureaucracy. They didn’t go to creating a congressional committee. They brought in experts from outside. I will not go through these other cases just for the sake of time.

Think tanks in the Obama Administration, these charts illustrate the --

MODERATOR: (Off-mike) please wait for the mike (inaudible).

QUESTION: Yes, of course, thank you. My name is Arshad Mahmoud (ph) and I’m the Washington correspondent for, which is an online paper in Bangladesh. You characterize Heritage Foundation as the – one of the centrist --

MR. MCGANN: No, I don’t – no, I do not. I don’t think I did.

QUESTION: That’s what I thought, but maybe –

MR. MCGANN: I wouldn’t have done that. (Inaudible) something that – Heritage is right.

QUESTION: It’s – anyway. And CATO is --

MR. MCGANN: All of these are right of center.

QUESTION: Okay. No, the point that I’m trying to make is you said that they’re independent and, you know, but when they write an op-ed or come on television to speak, they mostly toe the party line that we have observed, like for instance, American Enterprise Institute. And my question is, I guess, what is the – how can you characterize these institutes or the think tanks?

MR. MCGANN: As independent.


MR. MCGANN: Well, the reason I can do it – I mean, and it’s hard for people outside of the United States to understand, because it’s – you know, there are so many institutions, I don’t have concern when these institutions speak because there are, as you can see, many off-setting voices. So they may be in – speaking in accord with Republican members or conservative members of Congress or the President, but there’s so many other opposing voice that it’s not like there’s one or two institutions. There’s enough diversity in opinion that covers the political spectrum and interests that I’m not concerned as I would be in other countries where there’s only one or two --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) that’s my question, actually. My question is that when I hear that, you know, they’re independent and they’re not connected with the government, but often we saw during the Republican administration that they always toed the Republican line.

MR. MCGANN: There’s nothing wrong with that.

QUESTION: No, no, I’m not saying it’s right or wrong.

MR. MCGANN: But they’re not – but they’re independent. It doesn’t have any – it doesn’t – they’re not a part of the formal – in any way, shape, or form, a part of the formal structure of the Republican Party. They may share the views of the Republican Party, but they’re independent institutions.

QUESTION: And the other point is – you just saw the New York Times got a Pulitzer award on this investigative reporting, which basically the story was the Pentagon paid some former top-ranking military officers to speak on behalf of the government during the Iraq war and painting them as kind of independent. And that’s the reason why they got the Pulitzer award for this.

MR. MCGANN: Well, let me first say that, you know, in terms of the last administration, I see that as a aberration and not, you know, a characterization and a defining aspect of the American political system or the think tank landscape. So I mean, that is – and the point I’m making is unique to that administration, that there was insular group think that was highly prevalent in the administration that I don’t see as a general characteristic of the American political --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)


QUESTION: Okay. Well, you answered my question.

MR. MCGANN: Okay. All right.

This is just to illustrate the government-in-waiting and the fluidity in terms of revolving doors in the American political landscape. John Bolton was at the American Enterprise Institute. He became under secretary of – at the State Department, permanent U.S. representative to the United Nations, and now is back at AEI. So there’s this sort of seamless circulation. Kim Holmes was at Heritage, assistant secretary of state, and is now back at Heritage. Our former ambassador to Afghanistan was at Rand, went and became ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, and is now not back at Rand, which is another section, and there’s this sort of seamless dimension between institutions, he’s now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In terms of the Obama Administration, Richard Holbrooke, who was ambassador to Germany and principal architect for the Dayton Peace Accords, went to the Council on Foreign Relations. Also in a highly specific case that illustrates the role that these institutions play, he had a whole think tank that he created at the Asia Society in New York, which had – he created three study – or two study groups on Afghanistan and Iraq, positioning himself, while out of office, regardless of what Democrat was elected, that he would be the point person on Iraq and Afghanistan. And that came, obviously, to fruition and he essentially successfully negotiated some kind of special advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan. James Steinberg, deputy national security advisor at Brookings, now deputy secretary of state.

I tracked for some time the Obama and McCain campaigns, looking early on back in last – in January of 2008, and followed the campaign throughout to sort of see who was advising Obama in a formal way, and who was advising McCain and all of the other candidates. It was very telling and very revealing in terms of those who were formally either surrogates or formal advisors for both campaigns.

There’s a little interesting dynamic that in the early days when Obama was present, which was corrected for going into the fall elections, and that was that there was – given the questions about his foreign policy and security knowledge in that area, he did not have in the early stages of his campaign significant transfer of credibility from key institutions in those areas. It changed over time, but in the early stages it was not the case.

And McCain was interesting because he had a fairly diverse set, even though there was clearly a conservative dynamic, but it was much more diversified than some of the other candidates. Mitt Romney’s was – had such a conservative tilt to it that, you know, I didn’t even know half of the institutions that he had advising him, but they were very, very right of center.

I asked a series of questions which you really, you know, can’t read on this – I was going to do a handout. But let me just lay out that there were – I wanted to track what think tanks saw as the major issues for the Obama Administration, what were the major issues that they would – felt that their institution would contribute to the Obama Administration, how would the election of Obama influence the war of ideas. And then in terms of the future of think tanks, the final question is how does Obama being a techie affect the think tanks and how they will interact with him?

This is just the responses we got from – virtually every major think tank in Washington participated in the survey. I see some – there’s some – well, not – actually, you guys are not the list, not by – and these are the areas that the think tanks saw would be the top issues for the Obama Administration. I did this – I did this presentation in Europe. Unfortunately, the think tanks did not identify Europe as a key issue, which the – which I then had to sort of do a dance and explain why to the Europeans that we were – it was because we don’t have to worry about Europe and, you know, and therefore, we took – you know, take it for granted to a certain degree. But these are the issues that the think tanks consider to be the top issues for the Administration.

These are the areas where the think tanks thought that their institution would make a contribution to the new Administration. And this is largely defined by their areas of expertise. It doesn’t track with what they thought as the key issues would be. But it’s interesting to see the issues that they feel are critical.

These are the response of the impact of the new Administration on the war of ideas. And there was a divide here in terms of liberal and conservative, some who, I think – and some of this took place before there were major decisions involving the Obama Administration that were voted on and where there was a clear partisanship continuing. There was, I think, tremendous optimism in terms of that it would be easier to work with the Obama Administration as there would be a reaching across the aisle in a number of key policy issues. That proved not to be the case in the early going. Whether he continues to reach out and whether there is a diminution in the partisan rancor between Republicans and Democrats, left and right, is yet to be seen.

In terms of the style of governing, I saw in Obama two distinct personalities. One, and it’s reflected in the institutions that he has gone to for advice. One is centrist, pragmatic, and technocratic, and the other is progressive, idealist, and activist. So these are two of the same distinctly different approaches to governing that are, I think, very much reflected in Obama and how he governs and is reflected in the institutions that he has gone to for advice. And the two institutions that we have thoroughly documented in terms of the largest number of both advisors, surrogates, and then into the Administration, are Brookings and the Center for American Progress. And Brookings would be on the centrist, pragmatic, and technocratic, and CAP, Center for American Progress, would be on the progressive side.

These are a few comments from institutions about how they see things changing or not
changing. Already we are seeing conservative think tanks working with partners like Brookings New America that might not have – that may have been ignored years ago. The center-right think tanks have been liberated from defending an intellectual – an ineffectual administration and the programs of an inarticulate president. More creatively – more creativity will arise on the right in the years – coming years. I’ve screwed that up.

It doesn’t really matter who’s up and who’s down politically. We don’t consider ourselves in the opposition just because of partisan change in Washington. So I ask the question: Who wrote the first comment? Left, right, center think tank. Anyone?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. MCGANN: Yeah, it is a think tank that is clearly defined as a – as solidly in – on the right. But it does essentially capture, and it’s a surprising and revealing comment from a conservative think tank in terms of – and in some respects, not terribly surprising in terms of the Administration. But I have found in my discussions with think tanks on the right how candid they are about their dissatisfaction with the Bush Administration. Now that, of course, he’s out, they’re not supporting him so much as, you know, blaming him for everything that happened.

This is a more extensive assessment of individuals and – who have gone into the Administration and their affiliations with think tanks. And this is all to sort of demonstrate how significant the revolving door is in the U.S. context.

And these are the top think tanks in the United States. First 10, 11 to 20, and then the top 30 think tanks in the U.S. The reality is in the United States most of the think tanks, the top think tanks – there may be 1,777, but these are really the movers and shakers. They’re the ones that have the most influence. And there’s a great divide between these institutions and their budgets, and the rest of the think tanks in Washington just simply in terms of there’s a great fall-off in terms of the $60, $40, $25, $15 million, and then it drops down to, on average, the vast majority of the 1,770 think tanks in the United States is that their budgets are well under a million dollars or just at a million dollars. So there is a significant – in terms of level of activity and resources available – significant drop, once you get beyond these top 30 think tanks.

All right. I’ll just take questions at this point.

MODERATOR: I’d like to remind everyone to state your name and organization and wait for the microphone before asking questions. Thanks.

QUESTION: My name is (inaudible) Deutsche Welle Radio. I’m since three and a half years in Washington and I couldn’t see any structures of political parties until now. So I’m wondering if these parties do have anybody which are doing policy research for themselves, or do they rely totally on the think tanks?

DR. MCGANN: Now, in terms of – in the European context, our political parties are very weak and very much focused on individuals, and the party label does not have the same value or same significance, I should say, as it does in most countries around the world. They do have a – you know, a staff that has helped with platform and policy on an ongoing basis. But you know, the think tanks have a significant influence on that in an indirect way so that, you know, many of the ideas that come out of think tanks are adopted by a party and there is, in a certain degree, a reliance. But there’s no formal connection as there is in the European context where, you know, for most of the history of Europe, it was, as you well know, you know, political parties that had significant research analysis capacity that supported the political parties. There’s really nothing equal to that in the United States.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) with Czech daily paper (inaudible). I believe it was in Washington Post there was a piece about it. Fewer academics are coming to government. I wonder whether that would be true as well about think tanks or, you know --

DR. MCGANN: No. Academia has its own set of severe problems that are – there’s a great gap and a bigger gap in the United States, but generally between the world of ideas in terms of academia and the world of policy. And they’re unfortunately, in the foreign policy area in the piece that you are specifically referring to by Joe Nye, which has – you know, has tremendous influence in terms of his understanding, because he is an academic and also policy, spoke to how far the social sciences and particularly international relations have drifted from reality in terms of what really has significance for most people in the world, as opposed to small academic circles in terms of the research and analysis that they are doing.

But in terms of think tanks, they’re much closer, they’re much more policy relevant. And therefore, as illustrated by the revolving door, there’s a significant reliance, not an exclusive but a significant reliance on think tanks for policy advice.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) American (inaudible) and the other colleague. I forgot his name. They were really, you know, responsible for the surge, Iraq surge and they came (inaudible).

DR. MCGANN: Right.

QUESTION: Would you have any other example specifically to war conflicts and think tanks or particular (inaudible) influential as American Enterprise Institute was in that case?

DR. MCGANN: Well, there are a whole host of examples. I mean, one which is a broad set of coalitions is on Darfur, although it didn’t result in, you know, U.S. intervention, but there’s – there were a number of institutions and, you know, specifically which is not exclusively a U.S. institution. The international institute for – not – the International Crisis Group had, I think, in terms of the media and in terms of placing a higher degree of emphasis and pressure on U.S. policy makers because of their use of, one, being on the ground in the country and having very reliable data on the atrocities that were being committed, and then an effective use of the media, which generated a response, albeit a not sufficient one to deal with what was going on, as an example.

Another example would be the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. You know, leading up to the war in Iraq, they essentially laid out all of the reasons why it was a bad idea. Those ideas that were laid out were essentially – and criticisms – were pretty much those that essentially became manifest once we had invaded Iraq. So that there are both in term – and that is the case where, you know, the analysis was correct. They had significant influence, but it did not in any way impact on the policy that was taken. So it goes in both directions.

QUESTION: Hi. My name is Zared Hassanov (ph) of – and I am a journalist from Azerbaijan. It’s former Soviet Union. You know, I like your presentation. First of all, thanks a lot. It was great background information for a foreign journalist.

But you know what I want to ask you, have you ever analyzed the efficiency of the people who come from think tanks to the government, how they – how efficient in their positions? Because why I’m asking – why I’m asking it because (inaudible) my friends from Russia, particularly from Russia, they say that, you know, in the United States they have a lot of experts about who deals with Russia. They know what’s going on in Russia. They know figures, statistics, everything. But they don’t feel the country. They don’t understand this state of mind of the Putins, the Medvedevs. They don’t understand the mentality of people, Russian people, and that’s very important. So if you look at it from this perspective, how effective and efficient in their positions?

MR. MCGANN: Well, I mean, I think that goes back to increasingly in order to be an effective – understand effectively what’s going on in the country, there’s a general increasing sense, certainly in the international arena, that you have to have – have to be on the ground and in the country. And certainly, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace now has 44 staff, all of whom are Russian who are the analysts. So they’re understanding and informing policy in the United States, and also providing effective analysis for Russians and understanding the Russian mentality. Most of the generals and other key members of the Russian duma, and in terms of the ministries attend meetings at Carnegie. So – and those people, you know, may end up in Washington and providing advice and informing our policy toward Russia. I mean, I don’t think that –

QUESTION: Do you have other examples? For example, think tanks dealing with – like Carnegie deals with Russia. For China, with Brazil, or something like that?

MR. MCGANN: Well, it really – it depends on. I don’t – you know, I would say that those analysts who have lived in the country, learned the language, and are not just simply armchair analysts, are the most effective when they go into government. And they are the ones who are most usually sought. So I think that there is a very – you know, in terms of think tanks, they may not want to go into government. But those who have those skills tend to be obviously much more effective because they can, as you say, step into the mind and the shoes of a Putin and have a greater understanding. I mean, one, in terms of fluency and language certainly helps with that. But living in the country and, you know, for myself when I first went to Russia, you know, I had read about Russian politics. And until I was there, it made a very fundamental difference in terms of my understanding of, you know, Russia and its people, and more importantly, the politics.

QUESTION: And would you say that the level of deputy assistant is the ceiling, or could somebody from a think tank become a secretary?

MR. MCGANN: Oh, absolutely. I don’t think there’s any – I mean, and there have been examples where that’s the case. I mean – and I would suggest George Schultz is an example. He came from Hoover and then was secretary of state and is now back at Hoover.

All right. Great.

MODERATOR: Anymore questions? If not, thank you, Dr. McGann, for coming. And just reminding you we have an intermission with some refreshments for a half an hour until our next two speakers will be coming up, starting at 3:30. So thank you for coming. (Applause.)


MODERATOR: Hi everyone. Welcome back to the second part of Inside Washington: Think Tanks in the Obama Administration. I have the honor of introducing two great speakers from the Center for National Policy and the Center for American Progress. Scott Bates is the VP of Center for National Policy. He’ll be speaking first. And Matt Duss -- Matt Duss, right? Matt Duss will be speaking for Center for American Progress. Thank you.

MR. BATES: Thank you very much. And I’ll be relatively brief so I can take your questions. I’m Scott Bates with the Center for National Policy. And I think we had an excellent presentation just before this about think tanks and their influence in Washington. Maybe I can give you an inside view of a think tank in Washington.

I work for the Center for National Policy, which was founded in 1981. And to the previous question about can anybody rise above a DAS level coming from a think tank, Madeleine Albright was our president. So she did all right for herself. And in addition to that, we had Cyrus Vance and Ed Muskie, who were the co-founders of our think tank back in 1981, two former secretaries of state. Terry Sanford was a chairman. He was an esteemed governor of North Carolina. And currently, our president is Timothy Roemer, who was a member of Congress and a member of the 9/11 Commission and the WMD Commission as well. He did the WMD Commission while he was at CNP, and if I’m not mistaken, he was on the 9/11 Commission as well while he was at CNP. I think that might be the case.

So, you know, what we try to do is provide information that is relevant to decision makers on a bipartisan and a nonpartisan basis: nonpartisan meaning that there’s, you know, no party interest at stake; and bipartisan that we try to work with both political parties that are in the United States Congress by providing educational materials.

So I’d like to talk about three areas very briefly. The first is nuclear security, for example. We’ve been working in the fields for about four years, and our focus has been the U.S. Congress. We began by taking President Bush and John Kerry at their word. During the presidential debates, they said the largest national security challenge to the United States was nuclear proliferation and the potential for nuclear terrorism. So we reached out to Capitol Hill and met with 40 members of Congress and seven U.S. senators, including Senator Barack Obama at the time, and posed this question: What do you think the largest national security challenge is? Indeed, that was confirmed that it’s nuclear proliferation. But on Capitol Hill, there’s a limited time and attention on the issue.

So what we were able to do, and what I think think tanks can be value added for, is we brought together members of both parties to meet with experts in the field from many think tanks in Washington, D.C., and in agencies and academia. We brought them to a place where members of Congress and their staffs could access this information and focus for a certain time period on the paramount national security issue out there.

On Capitol Hill now, some of the members of our first Nuclear Security Study Group have created the Nuclear Security Caucus. So now this issue is embedded in the policy environment on Capitol Hill, and we’re very proud to have been associated with those developments.

Secondly, we do work on Asian security issues. And again, we’re very close to Capitol Hill in physical proximity, so we’re able to do programming on the Hill or at our place, and we often get congressional staff, academics, and people from around K Street together around the same table to discuss issues on – about Asian security. And now, some of the people that are populating the new Administration, and the previous one, they’ve spoken at our think tank as well. And we’ve been pleased to be able to bring together Capitol Hill decision makers with these policy thinkers and ultimate officials.

And in the final area that we’ve really focused on is defense reform. And in fact, we put out in December this report, which I encourage you to find online, which is Agility Across the Spectrum: A Future Force Blueprint. And for a year, we talked with some of the brightest minds around Washington, not just in our think tank, but we knew that the best repository of ideas was out there in the congressional committees but also in all the other think tanks. And we assembled recommendations for what we believe the Defense Department should do to win today’s wars, to support the troops today that are in the field, to prevent future conflicts, and build a force capable of winning future conflicts.

And I have to say, you know, some of the actions of the current Administration, let’s just say that some of the recommendations we’re pleased that they’re being acted on. Others we’re waiting to see, and we’ll hope to push our ideas out there in the marketplace of ideas, which is Capitol Hill.

Now, to give another perspective before I’ll turn it over to my colleague, is for many years I was a staff person on Capitol Hill. I was the senior policy advisor on the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee. And I’ve been a chief of staff on Capitol Hill and a legislative director. So I can tell you from that perspective that what think tanks do is incredibly valuable for decision makers on Capitol Hill, because you don’t have much time to do policy analysis. You’ve got a thousand different issues to act on. The United States has interests globally. That’s just in foreign policy. And the Defense Department is so gigantic in its operations, it’s very hard to focus on any one thing at any one time when you’re working on Capitol Hill.

So I know from firsthand experience that decision makers and those that work for them, staff on Capitol Hill, do turn to think tanks. That’s why in my second career life I have joined a think tank, because I wanted to be part of the policy debate, generating new ideas and looking at the field of ideas, and trying to form coherent policy options that might be approachable by decision makers. By that, I mean if we put out a tome this big, I know what I did with those when I worked on Capitol Hill. Those are valuable. They’re research documents and they’re the foundation of important policies. But when you’re on Capitol Hill, you don’t have a lot of time to delve into that kind of reading. So quite often, we tailor our product into one-page memos or digestible reports with executive summaries that these decision makers can act on.

So I’m happy to answer any and all questions that you have on think tanks or anything at all that you’re interested in. But I should turn over the mike to Mr. Duss as well. Thank you.

MR. DUSS: Thanks very much. I’m happy to be here. My remarks will be even more brief. I’m filling in at the last minute for my colleague, Reuben Brigety, who sends his regrets. As was said, my name is Matthew Duss. I am at the Center for American Progress, where I work with the national security team. The Center for American Progress was founded in 2005 under the leadership of John Podesta, who remains our director today. Mr. Podesta worked as the co-chair of President Obama’s transition team.

And just to describe briefly a number of the different policy items which we’ve helped to introduce into the conversation specifically on the foreign policy/national security front, just to back up a little ways, in the wake of the 2004 defeat of John Kerry, I think Mr. Podesta came together with a number of other Democratic and liberal progressive leaders and understood that policy was being created, good policy was being done, but you can create all the good policy in the world, but if you don’t – if you’re not putting it out there in a way that’s appealing and that fits into broader narratives, then you’re going to have much less success. I should stress that part of the Center for American Progress’s mission has been in developing ways to kind of develop narratives within which to place a broader policy agenda.

So I’ll just speak to you of one item that Reuben probably would have talked about, because he directs the Sustainable Security Program at the Center for American Progress, and that is this idea of sustainable security. It’s a re-envisioning and a re-defining of America’s national security in a way that recognizes that it’s not just about guns, it’s not just about bombs, but it involves issues of real governance and real human security.

I think we’re seeing this in President Obama’s policy review of Afghanistan. Secretary Gates has said things over the last few months that flow very closely with some of these ideas which have been developed at the center, and also among other progressive and left-leaning groups, and that as we go forward in Afghanistan, it has – it’s not just about killing enemies, it has to do with creating structures, meeting human needs, and actually creating real security for these people. And this is something that requires the use of the full range of America’s power, not just the Defense Department but also the State Department working closely with various NGOs.

So that’s one example that I was able to jot down as I sat here listening to my friend here. So I guess I’ll just go ahead and take questions. Thank you.

MODERATOR: So both of our panel will be standing up here at the podium. I’d like to remind everyone to state your name and organization before asking questions, and wait for the microphone. Thank you.

QUESTION: Hi, my name is Zared Hassanov (ph) and I’m student – sorry – I was student back in California, sir. I’m a reporter from Azerbaijan, former Soviet Union. I want to ask this because I looked at your bio and you have been in Kosovo, you know. It maybe has nothing to do with think tanks, but still I want to use this opportunity to ask a question about Kosovo.

It’s a very serious case in my country because we have problem with separatists, and 20 percentage of my – our land is occupied by Armenians. So do you know what was the main idea or what was the (inaudible) idea for recognition of Kosovo that United States so pushed on this issue? Because in our part of the world, we still don’t get the sense why it was necessary to destroy this system of international law, law which existed for 50 years after the creation of United Nations.

MR. DUSS: Well, you know, I’m not in the U.S. Government, so I can’t comment officially, but I can give you my opinion as a think tank person, I suppose. I was in Kosovo working with National Democratic Institute, actually, which is a nonprofit organization. I was the country director in 2001 and 2002, which was the time of the first parliamentary elections for the multiethnic Kosovar entity when the UN was there. And I’ve tried to keep abreast of the issues.

So on the point that you’re talking about, I would say that what the U.S. Government has said, which is that this is a unique case, that I think when we think in terms of the duty to protect, which is the United Nations’ recognized duty, that duty was disregarded by Slobodan Milosevic and the former Yugoslav Government and Serbian Government. So what has happened is, in effect, sovereignty was forfeited because of the attempted suppression in a very brutal way of the Kosovar people.

So that’s my own personal opinion, and I try to study it where I can. And I’ve enjoyed talking with Russian scholars and others about this issue because it gets complicated, as you said. If you go – the other hat I wear is I taught international law at Indiana University. And sure enough, I mean, if you take a black-letter reading, there could be – the Kosovar example could be problematic to maintaining the integrity of states. However, I would suggest there’s a new corollary in international law, and that is that states have the duty to protect their citizens. And that was not followed in 1999, and therefore sovereignty was, in effect, forfeited.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) had to push on the independence. I know that it happens in many countries that some other states in which the countries’ authoritarian government push on people. This happens in many countries. We know that. But it doesn't mean that they should push on (inaudible).

MR. DUSS: I can tell you from personal experience I never used the word “independence” in the full year I was in Kosovo. And that was because I was, in a way, perceived as representing the U.S., and we’re very, you know, careful about that. I believe independence was pushed by the Kosovar majority, and recognition occurs when certain facts on the ground occur. And I think it’s about 40, 45 states now recognize Kosovo. As of yesterday, I think Saudi Arabia as well. So it’s not just the U.S. kind of pushing something, in my estimation. But thank you for the question.

MR. BATES: And we’ll continue our discussion later, maybe.

MODERATOR: Any other questions for anyone?

MR. DUSS: If there are no other questions, I know I speak for my colleague that we would love to be sources of information for you at any time, and to let your colleagues know that as well. So that we’d be happy to share our experiences with you.

QUESTION: Hi, I’m Thomas Firuget (ph) from the Austrian daily Die Presse. I’m wondering how helpful it is that John Podesta is the chief of the Center of American Progress to get into contact with the government. How does this relation work? Do they contact you? Do you bring your analysis to the Obama team? How is this access working?

MR. DUSS: Well, on the question of does it help, it certainly doesn't hurt. But I think that, you know, he is someone who has worked in government for a number of years. He has friends, as many other leaders of think tanks do, in various places around government. But again, I mean, the access that he enjoys – I mean, there are certain legal procedures that need to be followed as far as communications. But as far as getting our products in front of people in the Administration, I mean, certainly it’s much easier.

You want a deeper answer on how this exactly works?

QUESTION: Yeah, how is it working? Do they come to you and ask for your analysis, or is it the other way around?

MR. DUSS: I think it’s both these things at different times. I mean, if there’s an ongoing policy review process, then people from the center may contact people in the Administration or on the Hill to do a briefing, to discuss some of the issues and put some of our products in front of them. And you know, sometimes people from either the Hill or in the White House will reach out to get expertise or take a briefing about a particular issue.

Would you like to speak to that question?

MR. BATES: Sure. I think John Podesta is great, and CAP has had a phenomenal start. There are two other institutes to watch, I would say, in Washington, the Center for a New American Security and Center for American Progress, both of which do great policy work that is looked at seriously by people on Capitol Hill and the Administration. And both of those entities have been created in the last five years. I think there was a recognition in the American center, center-left that, you know, there needed to be new and compelling ideas in front of the American people and presented in a way that was understandable, as was said.

And I think that that’s beginning to happen. In fact, our think tank was created at the beginning of the Reagan revolution. It was created by two former Democratic secretaries of state in 1981, and the idea was to present policy alternatives and initiatives at the beginning of the Reagan Administration because, as you may be familiar, the Heritage Foundation really provided the intellectual capital for the Reagan revolution. So quite often, if you want to see what policies there are going to be two and five years down the road, you can often get an early signal from some of the think tanks in Washington, D.C.

In our case, we really have focused on ties with Capitol Hill. And remember, in the American system of government – and I was very proud to have worked in the U.S. Congress – you know, Congress considers itself a co-equal branch of government with the President. So we really focus on our audience being the United States Congress as well.

MODERATOR: In the back.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Oslo. You are a kind of center-left, center liberal think tanks. Do you scan your people before you hire them in some way politically?

MR. DUSS: Scan? For microchips? Well, that’s a fair question. Yeah, certainly a fair question, I think. I mean, I know that in – I had a series of interviews, you know, when I was brought on over a year ago that, you know, seem – you know, I was sympathetic certainly to the center’s mission. I’m not aware personally of anyone who – actually, I do know someone who did apply for a job who’s now a very, very conservative journalist who basically applied because he thought it would be fun. And over the course of his interviews, it became apparent to everyone that he was, you know, not really going to work out at the center. So I do know one case where that happened. But I think he really was not very serious. I think he was actually writing a story.

MR. BATES: That’s a good question. I met Mr. Roemer, president of our think tank, while he was on the 9/11 Commission, and we got to know each other in the capacity of I was on the Homeland Security staff and we were discussing issues about – in the wake of 9/11. We didn’t speak about politics at all. It was on that basis that we formed our professional relationship. And, you know, I don’t know the politics of most of my coworkers. I have a general idea. But it’s always best, I think, in a workplace, to try and not talk about particular candidates. You never know where people are going to be.

Is there a general approach to issues? I think that that’s true. But that said, we at the Center for National Policy have worked together – I’ve done panels with the Heritage Foundation on homeland security issues, and I’ve served on commissions with CSIS and Heritage as well. So, you know, our approach is to look for good ideas wherever we may find them, and not pay too much attention to a label. We have our convictions, but we’re happy to work with anyone across the spectrum.

And I should also say that I’m a graduate of the University of Oslo summer school, so thank you for much. I love Oslo.

MODERATOR: Any other questions? We have two more.

QUESTION: Probably it’s too early to say the influence think tanks have on the Administration, the new Administration. But do you recognize any (inaudible) of any think tanks of the influence, of the rising of influence on the Administration yet, after not even a hundred days?

MR. DUSS: Well, I think you can see that some of the personnel from different think tanks are actually entering the Administration, so that’s an indication. Another is ideas. And I think we’re working on a chart to see which ideas we proposed have now been forwarded by the Defense Department. And, you know, I ask my wife this question. I don’t know if what I’m doing is actually a new idea or if it was in the zeitgeist out there in the first place. And I’d guess that about 80-90 percent of it is in the air, and you put these down on paper, maybe 10 percent original thinking. And that’s the hope, and that’s, I know, why we work at these things is to try and develop some interesting policy alternatives that decision makers might look at.

So I think just as the previous speaker stated, you can see the path where, you know, people are in and out of government. And, you know, I was in the legislative branch and now a think tank, and I don’t know, you know, in 20 years what I’ll be doing. There’s a commitment, a general commitment to the public good and the public welfare, and that – so, yeah, now I’m making a speech, and that’s not the point of your question. But I think the previous speaker really outlined, and you can see it in black and white. Are we seeing that now? Indeed. I think already a lot of the appointments you see for deputy assistant secretaries and such, they’re coming from some of these places.

QUESTION: You know, I asked this question of first speaker, like before. I will ask you one more time, you guys, what do you think. You know, when you do expertise in think tanks, it’s good, you know, but in the case if someone from think tanks goes to the government, he should make concrete decisions. He should take responsibility for the decisions. But how efficient the people who comes from think tanks when they go to the government, how – one case when your expert is good. You know, if you’re (inaudible) expert, it doesn't (inaudible) have a good leadership position, right? So you can’t make a concrete, precise decision. So have you ever measured the efficiency of the people who goes from think tanks to the government, and how good they are in the decision making? That’s very important, because in third world where I’m from, we feel how the United States powerful and how my country and countries around it depends on the decision of the people who sit in Capitol Hill, in State Department. It’s really (inaudible).

MR. DUSS: Yeah, I think that’s an excellent question, especially in the wake – or not the wake yet, still in the midst of what is still a violent Iraq war, though thankfully less violent than it has been over the last few years. Questions of accountability are very important. And at the risk of, you know, biting the hand that feeds, I’ll say that I do identify a problem in the American foreign policy community and the think tank world among national security and foreign policy experts that these questions of accountability are very tough. You can look at some claims that were made by scholars and policy experts and analysts about Iraq and about all the good – the benefits that would flow from the invasion of Iraq that simply have not come to pass and, in fact, were completely wrong.

As to the question of accountability, you know, I think there’s kind of this sense that, you know, people make mistakes. There’s far too little of a real understanding that these mistakes have drastic and disastrous consequences for human beings. So I don’t know if that’s a satisfactory answer to your question, but I, you know, just repeat that, I mean, that’s a problem that I struggle with myself.

MR. BATES: Ultimately, it’s the decision makers that take the decision that are going to be held accountable. You’re right about that. Personally, I like to try to be engaged on the issues and see it with my own eyes. I’ve been to Iraq three times in the last seven or eight months. It doesn't make me an expert, but the more that we can get outside the beltway and see what’s really going on in the United States if we’re talking about domestic policy or internationally, it’s vital. And I would suggest that, I mean, you’re here today. That’s good because we learn from you as well, frankly. So I’m thinking of a think tank in the 1990s that developed the whole idea about going into Iraq and trying to transform it and all of that. And as you said, that didn’t work out too well. Those policies have been judged by the American people in elections. Those officials have been, I think, held accountable. So, you know, the people are the ultimate judge in a democracy. And are some think tankers unaccountable? They are. It would be interesting to tally up all the proposals we write on and see how many of them are absolutely wrong. But, you know, maybe we come up with two good ideas out of ten. It’s up to the decision makers to figure out which two are the good ones.

MODERATOR: All right. Any more questions? If not, then I want to thank our speakers for coming and – oh, you have one. Sorry.

QUESTION: This is Elisa Colichia (ph). I’m from Italian Embassy. And I’m just arrived in this country, so I’m very interested in knowing more about this variety of think tanks as we’ve seen in Washington, D.C. And I want to ask you if you have any indication, a document (inaudible), whatever, describing these think tanks and their orientations. Thank you.

MR. BATES: We can direct you to the websites of our organizations. And we try to put most of our documents online so that we don’t, you know, kill a lot of trees with big reports. So we’ll be sure to give you that information. And there are, I think, dozens, if not hundreds of these organizations, dozens in Washington, perhaps hundreds around the United States. So, you know, a lot of them do a lot of great work. And they also have free seminars around Washington. It’s the best way to get schooled on the issues of the day.

MR. DUSS: There was also – Dr. McGann, I believe, had a printout of some of the – you know, the top-ranked think tanks and their influence. And Foreign Policy Magazine – I believe it was a few months ago – actually had rated, like, I think the top 20-25 think tanks specifically in regard to their effectiveness on policy, on foreign policy issues.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. BATES: Foreign Policy Magazine, so you could probably find that pretty easily.

MODERATOR: All right. With that, I think we can wrap it up. Thank you, everyone, for coming. And thank our speakers for coming as well. (Applause.)

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