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Debating Foreign Policy: Do think tanks have a role to play?

It is the patriotic duty of the present management of the Council on Foreign Relations and of its ‘Foreign Affairs’ publication, as well as of management in the many lesser but still important think tanks and university institutes operating in the international relations discipline to hand in their resignations now

Debating Foreign Policy:  Do think tanks have a role to play?

by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

 

Today’s online edition of The Washington Post carries an op-ed article by columnist Josh Rogin entitled “Trump could cause ‘the death of thinks tanks as we know them.”  The piquant heading leads into some very relevant observations about whom Donald Trump is bringing into positions of power in his administration (successful businessmen) and whom he is excluding (academics). 

 

The author takes Donald at his word, namely that think tanks are repellant to the new administration because they have sold their souls to the highest bidders and represent the interests of their sponsors. They are not agents of free intellectual pursuit or disinterested advice.

Across the vast field of think tanks, there surely is much truth in that accusation. But there is also something else going on: namely. the entire community of foreign policy think tanks in the US came out solidly for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 electoral campaign and was dismissive of Donald Trump, whom they lampooned as an ignoramus or worse. Now it is payback time.

The partisanship of the think tanks during the election was not an arbitrary development. The leadership of our foreign policy think tanks, like the universities to which some of them are attached, had become over the past two decades totally aligned with the Washington Consensus, the bipartisan ideologically based Establishment of Neoconservatives and Liberal Interventionists for whom Trump’s injection of Realism in his foreign policy pronouncements and in particular his open admiration for Vladimir Putin were anathema.

In the past several years of ever more aggressive US pursuit and defense of a global hegemonic policy, all naysayers, and they are de facto either a silent majority or a significant silent minority of researchers, were sidelined, blacklisted from the publications and events which these think tanks administer. Group think stifled free discussion and deprived the institutions of any merit.

But whereas those think tanks financed by single donors are beyond hope of reform and should be allowed to die, several of our most venerable and prestigious think tanks can and should be salvaged through change of management.  I maintain that the effort is worth making, because without it, the United States will be passing from one set of intellectual blinders to another, and policy making on matters of greatest import to our well-being if not our very survival will not be opened up to the public, where it belongs if it is truly to serve the national interest.

 

Although the Council on Foreign Relations and its publication Foreign Affairs are not mentioned by name in Josh Rogin’s op-ed article, the issues he raises concern them first and foremost, given FA's position as America’s most widely subscribed specialized journal dealing with international relations.

 

In the past year, FA did absolutely nothing to hedge its bets for a possible Trump victory. They bandwagoned with the Clinton camp in virtual certainty of her victory and thumbed their collective noses at the "populists," trying to lump Donald with the failed and pitiful experiments of populism in Latin America.  .

 

Rogin’s proposed solution for the now on the outs think tanks is to sell their services to private or foreign interests for the coming 4 to 8 years.  However, that is unseemly for the Council and FA and deprives the administration of a necessary informed and constructive push-back to its foreign policy initiatives in the months ahead. It makes more sense and is more in keeping with the historical place of the institution for it to have a change of management and move with the times, installing in positions of leadership serious Realist School thinkers who will vet and choose among their peers the best essays for publication, the best speakers for venues and find common language with the businessmen in power and the career mid- and lower-echelon officials at State and Defense. 

Till now, the only representative of the Realist School who has had entrée at Trump Tower is Henry Kissinger. That is a good start, and his salutary influence on the tactics if not the strategy of Rex Tillerson was already evident at the start of his confirmation hearings.  However, the full range of views and the depth of knowledge and experience of Realist School scholars and practitioners need to be brought into the public arena if the strategic vision of Donald Trump, which is obviously operating at a geopolitical rather than narrowly ideological level, is to be properly fleshed out so as to succeed.

It is the patriotic duty of the present management of the Council on Foreign Relations and of its Foreign Affairs publication, as well as of management in the many lesser but still important think tanks and university institutes operating in the international relations discipline to hand in their resignations now and let others who have better, more relevant skills to the present challenges take over and run the show.

 

© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

 

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G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.

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