Think Tanks and Foreign Policy
- Lars BrozusLars BrozusGerman Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
- and Hanns W. MaullHanns W. MaullGerman Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP); Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe Bologna Center
Foreign policy think tanks originated in the context of the Industrial Revolution and world wars in Western industrialized countries and then spread to all parts of the globe. In the process their national orientations toward governments and their attentive national public audiences have evolved toward a global perspective. As a consequence, they also have been drawn into, and have contributed to, the debate about the future of the Western-dominated international order.
What exactly makes a think tank remains contested, but there is broad agreement on the variety of functions they fulfill. They bring knowledge to power, but power also uses them to advance its political agenda. As the idealistic notion of expert knowledge as a solution to political problems has fallen by the wayside and advocacy think tanks have flourished, the interaction of think tanks with governments, the media, and the public has become politicized. In liberal-democratic countries, there is a growing trend toward competitive knowledge production by think tanks, whereas in authoritarian systems, think tanks are increasingly being used as instruments of state-controlled public diplomacy. Ultimately, think tanks have to bridge the tension between the needs of decision-makers, on the one hand, and the standards of scientific inquiry and orientation toward the common good, on the other hand. This tension cannot be resolved, but it can be made productive. For this, a strong emphasis on professional integrity will be essential.