A History of Think-Tanks: 12 Things You Should Know

There has been remarkable growth in the number of think-tanks over the past century. In the 1920s, there were a handful. In the 1950s, there were a hundred or so mainly clustered in Western cities. Now, there are over 7,800 located across the world. A series of anniversaries marking the centenaries for some of the original institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom, coinciding with increasing turbulence in international affairs, makes this an apt time to review their role in the 21st century. Here are 12 things you should know about their history and what lies for them ahead.

Chatham House
Nov 22, 2018 · 7 min read

(1) In the West, think-tanks were born out of three things.

· The decline in the power of the British empire and the rise of the United States.

· The failures in policymaking ahead of the First World War.

· The post-war spread of national self-determination and the weakening of colonial systems of government around the world.

(2) They began as ‘study groups’ which brought together academics and government officials to discuss policy issues within a confidential settingoften under the Chatham House Rule.

They also hosted lectures, reviewed research papers and reports and kept extensive libraries. But their work focused on influencing specific individuals and communities, rather than the wider public, using a ‘rifle not a shotgun approach’.

(3) Their mission was driven by a commitment to liberal internationalism.

This encompassed both the Woodrow Wilson brand of internationalism — as was the case for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1910) and the Council of Foreign Relations (1921) — and the liberal imperialism of the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House (1920).

They believed that intergovernmental organizations, like the League of Nations, were essential to sustaining peace beyond the post-war period.

(4) Although opposed to isolationism, as well as self-interested nationalism, they were not idealists or Utopians.

They appreciated the importance of national power but believed that anchoring it within an institutional architecture would make international relations more stable.

They were, therefore, ‘patriotic internationalists’ who understood that liberal internationalism would be to the advantage of their respective nations as well as conducive to peace.

The early think-tanks, then, were national institutions: although their founders shared a common cultural outlook, common traditions and common political views, they also shared a sense of competition.

(5) The end of the Second World War provided a turning point in their evolution.

The devastating effects of the war renewed the determination of the victors to build durable international institutions — unlike the failed League of Nations. One way it was agreed to do this was to reflect the reality of power politics in their design: this involved giving a veto right to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

Several of the think-tanks of the time played a key role in designing the UN and other post-war organizations. This helped to usher in a period of relative geopolitical stability, which in turn, led to a period of sustained economic growth for the West and its allies.

(6) As the Cold War unfolded, more think-tanks began sprouting in European capitals and in cities across the United States.

Like the early think-tanks, these think-tanks provided a space for policymakers to debate policy issues.

Superpower competition, and decolonization, led to the creation of think-tanks around the world although these organizations operated more as extensions of government diplomacy — relying on national government funding and maintaining close relationships with incumbent regimes.

(7) Think-tanks began to evolve from informal ‘study groups’ to centres of expertise with full-time staff.

Following the Cold War, the areas of research for most think-tanks centred on the competition between the West and the Soviet Union, nuclear deterrence and energy security.

Western think-tanks, then, became less focused on their original goal to design a peaceful world order — but to ensure the West could prevail in an era of bipolar competition.

(8) They began to develop different tactics to enhance their relevance to, and impact on, policy issues.

Their research began to look beyond the short-term horizon of incumbent regimes, towards a medium-term one, to increase their relevance to present and future governments.

(9) The political environment in Washington provided an ideal ecosystem for US think-tanks to dominate the sector post-Cold War— much as US power dominated international affairs.

The division of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government, the revolving door through which some 4,000 political appointees were admitted to each new presidential administration, the size and wealth of the US economy and the international impact of the sitting administration’s decisions all provided the ideal ecosystem for US think-tanks to raise funds — from private foundations, companies and individuals as well as through grants from domestic and foreign government agencies — and thereby to dominate the sector throughout this period.

(10) Globalization has radically changed the landscape for think-tanks over the last three decades.

The shift in the power balance from the West to ‘the rest’ has meant that US think-tanks, in particular, have expanded in size as the demand to understand this process has grown.

Non-US organizations, too, seek to understand how US policy might affect their fates.

New and expanded research programmes on global health, climate change, cyber security and international finance also reflect the growing level of international interdependence that has come with globalization.

(11) The concept of think-tanks has continued to spread internationally with think-tanks around the world growing in numberand in size.

US think tanks have ‘gone global’ opening offices in capitals around the world. British think tanks based in London have also leveraged the city’s status as a ‘global hub’. Meanwhile Brussels has capitalized on the enlargement of the European Union, with its access to a wealthy single market of over 500 million people, to increase its influence. Geneva, too, is beginning to leverage its role on the world stage since it is host to the World Trade Organization and several of the UN’s most important agencies.

Outside of the West, China has led the way in establishing new think-tanks and currently has the largest number with 512 — only second to the US which has 1,872. Australia, Argentina, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico and Singapore have also been able to develop internationally recognized institutions due to their expanding global connections and sub-Saharan Africa, south-east Asia and Latin America are also growing their voices on policy issues on the world stage.

However, this diversification in the think-tank arena has not always followed the Western model: the evolution of non-Western think tanks reflects their respective domestic cultures. For example, given the centralization of political power in China, Russia and the Middle East, the notion of institutional independence for think-tanks in these countries is arguably constrained.

(12) In 2018, think-tanks are facing three challenges in an increasingly crowded — and competitive — environment.

· First, technology has radically altered the way policy is made.

· Second, the failure of successive governments in Washington and across Europe to adapt their economies to globalization — that they themselves championed — has led to a popular backlash against the elite-led policymaking with which think-tanks have been associated with.

· Third, the growing amount of funding being targeted towards think-tanks, alongside new demands for transparency in their funding, risk compromising their credibility.

Think-tanks are facing these challenges at the same moment when they are needed to help the world confront a profound turbulence in international affairs. So what do they need to do in order to stay relevant in the 21st century? Read the full article or watch the full video to find out.

By Dr Robin Niblett based on his article ‘Rediscovering a Sense of Purpose: the Challenge for Western Think-Tanks’ in International Affairs.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

Written by

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.

Chatham House

The Royal Institute of International Affairs. An independent policy institute with a mission to help build a sustainably secure, prosperous and just world.