View Full Version : Roles of Centers and Think Tanks

Rob Thornton
11-09-2008, 04:34 PM
As a related conversation to the thread Obama's Pentagon in Waiting (http://council.smallwarsjournal.com/showthread.php?t=6254), it is interesting to consider the role of think tanks and centers (both private and government) in the formulation of strategy and policy. There is also a related article in FP magazine - even allowing subscribers to vote on cabinet picks. Over the last year I've had the opportunity to meet a few folks from different ones at some of these exercises, experiments and events. I think JCISFA (my organization) like others has tried where possible to include them in our community of practice, and to be included in theirs. It allows us to both inform their efforts and thinking, and to become better informed via their thinking and concerns.

That the United States' requirements have grown to the point where the market (best word I could come up with) supports and maybe requires a broad range of such organizations may itself serve as a source of discussion.

Be they service organizations (like PKSOI, the Center up at USMA or the MC IW Center -all of which reflect not only service concerns but broader JIIM concerns), Joint organizations (like JCISFA, and the COIN Center - also with JIIM concerns), DoD organizations (like the Consortium for Complex Organizations), relatively long standing non-profit groups like RAND and Brookings, or relatively new groups like CNAS- these all came into being (and continue on) based on a perceived need by someone that was not being filled. The SWC (and other blogs) might even fit into this category, if we make it broad enough - and account for the effects of indirect influence as well as direct influence.

Some things worth considering:

1)What needs were not being met and why?

2)How are these organizations beneficial? Do they provide resistance to institutional bias brought on by mood swings, or do they reinforce it?

3)Are they representative of our form of government, our ideals, both, neither?

4)Do they provide valued perspective or confuse issues? Why?

5)If, as the referenced article supposes, they provide a source for appointments in the Executive Branch, is their advantage or disadvantage in this? How does it affect us pro and con? Does holding a position in such organizations then become a stepping stone to appointment? Does it become an end unto itself where graduates of prestigious universities go and build careers as opposed to going into government service?

6) Umar al Muqtar brought up a an interesting observation on the "Pentagon in waiting" thread. It is the ASDs who make up a big chunk of the meat and potatoes. There are some very competent people I know (or know of) there right now. If under this logic whole groups come in from one center and whole groups go out and into another, what risk is there to continuity?

7) Is there value in bringing in a group who has had the opportunity to get it together in residence elsewhere - basically changing houses? Is there risk in it? What are they?

On a related note, John Fishel asked me recently to look at CNAS in reference to a project he, Marc T and I are working on. I have to admit, I was pretty impressed at the associated people outside of the organization. It appears to have a mission of bringing together voices which while often espousing different political philosophies, are sincere in tackling tough FP and security problems. You can go to their website as John mentioned and look at some of their panels. If their actions are indicative of the approach the CNAS leadership would take if it were asked to assume duties in the Pentagon, I think we'd be well served in that respect.

My own views are that while I brought up the roles and advantages/disadvantages of these types of organizations, I think they have come into being based on real needs, and provide a means of informing elected and appointed leaders, and practitioners with perspectives they might otherwise not get. This is because aside from the existence of such organizations it is fairly easy to become insulated and comfortable to contrary views as the challenges come in spades, the number of people who want answers and solutions have no end, and there are any number of problems lined up which all to often don't reveal their severity or consequence until the next "most important" problem is in your face.

These Centers in my view provide an "intellectual bench" so to speak, and our information technology allows these thoughts to generate new discourse, knowledge and understanding in relatively short order. It also occurs to me that it is a strength of our nation and of our form of government that such ideas can flourish and take root. Ideas which often raise questions about the validity of ideas originating inside government. I've watched several of these ideas being batted around to steer the institutional oil tanker. The initial course recommendations range from instant hard to port or starboard to steady as she goes, but through a relatively short period of time, the consensus becomes a few degrees at a time. I think this is due to the number of folks participating in the discourse, the technology which makes it possible, the range of skills, experiences and education which contribute to understanding the range of possible outcomes and consequences.

My last point on this is how can we make even better use of the intellectual capital that is available? How can we enlarge, where practicable and desirable the communities of practice and interest? These networks don't just show up, they require a combination of sustained personal engagement and the construction of temporary and persistent forums where community discourse can occur. Anyway, the original thread provided me a means to bring up what I thought was a relevant threaded discussion.

Best, Rob