What Does The Blob Look Like? Visualizing the Foreign Policy Establishment

Josiah Tsui
Feb 19 · 3 min read

At Politik, a community designed to help people understand, engage with, and work in foreign policy, we believe that understanding how foreign policy is made is essential to understanding international relations.

That’s easier said than done. With so many politicians, pundits, and scholars in the mix, it can be hard to keep track of everything. We’ve put together a data visualization to help you see who the major players are in the Foreign Policy establishment — also known as the Blob.

Where does the name come from?

In a 2016 interview with the New York Times Magazine, then-Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes derisively referred to D.C.’s foreign policy establishment as the Blob. Washington, D.C.’s foreign policy elites, claimed Rhodes, were often guilty of groupthink. They bore responsibility for debacles like the Iraq War. They were incapable of individual thought.

The Blob did not take kindly to the criticism.

Regardless of what you think of the term (or Rhodes), the name has stuck, and it raises some interesting questions. Perhaps the most basic one is this: who, exactly, is in the Blob? What does it look like?

Starting to define the Blob is easy. It includes everyone from academics to journalists to officials — basically, the people you might hear on the radio or see on TV when news breaks overseas.

But the Blob also includes a lot of people you may not see as often. People like agency officials or research staff at think tanks. How many people are behind the scenes?

As its name suggests, the Blob is amorphous. In a city where its not unusual for policy professionals to move from the public sector to the private sector (as we covered in a previous post), or even from think tank to think tank, it can be hard to keep track of who works where. This graphic helps contextualize the different actors and institutions that help shape foreign policy in Washington.

Comments or suggestions? Shoot us an email at contact@hellopolitik.com. We’d love to hear from you.

Methodology and a Few Ground Rules

  1. We focus on six types of institutions: think tanks, government agencies, universities (policy graduate schools, in particular), media outlets, and multilateral organizations.
  2. The goal of this visualization is to provide a sense of how large different foreign policy-related institutions are relative to each other, not to provide an exhaustive list of every entity that affects foreign policy. The actual blob is far larger, and we’ll cover relationships between institutions in future posts.
  3. We focus on the Washington, D.C. area, where possible. There are many major foreign policy institutions and thinkers based outside of Washington, D.C., but this condition helps keep things manageable. It also reinforces the idea of the Blob as group of closely connected individuals and institutions.
  4. We used LinkedIn data for employee counts. This method likely overestimates the size of the Blob, as it includes administration staff, field workers (for NGOs, for example), etc. We also capped the employee count to ensure that smaller institutions are still visible. For the original data, check out the spreadsheet here.
  5. The NGOs in the visualization are not foreign policy institutions, but they provide advice and policy recommendations to governments in the areas where they work. In addition, they are often led by ex-politicians and work closely with government agencies.

Politik Blog

A community for foreign policy discussion and analysis | hellopolitik.com

Josiah Tsui

Written by

hellopolitik.com | Writes about foreign policy and technology. Previously at TrialSpark, Palantir, and the Harvard Kennedy School.

Politik Blog

A community for foreign policy discussion and analysis | hellopolitik.com

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