BackChannel

The Impact of the Foreign Policy Research Institute

(Or, Can a Small Organization in Philadelphia Change the Course of History?)

by Alan H. Luxenberg

As Philadelphians, we already know the answer to this question.  We need only think of America’s founders and how they changed world history. But what about FPRI?  How do we measure our impact? 

Impact can be considered in four ways – personnel, policy, the public discourse, and posterity: 

  • Personnel:  how FPRI’s scholars and interns have served the country.  
  • Policy: how FPRI’s ideas and recommendations have influenced policy.   
  • Public discourse:  how FPRI’s books, blogs, and briefings have shaped the public debate and the teaching of history and international relations.   
  • Posterity:  how our symposiums for teachers at the high school level and the FPRI readings assigned to students at the college level or those obtaining professional military education have deepened and broadened the understanding of teachers and students alike.[1] 

To explore all the ways that we impact our community, the Nation, and the world, a little history of FPRI is in order.

THE FPRI “BRAND” – GEOPOLITICS[2]

FPRI was founded by Robert Strausz-Hupé in 1955.[3]  An immigrant from Vienna, he arrived here in the 1920s virtually penniless.  His work in the financial industry took him to Europe in the 1930s, where he read Mein Kampf. Though the conventional wisdom of the day was that Hitler would moderate once in power, Strausz-Hupe’s interpretation of Mein Kampf taught him otherwise and he began lecturing on the emerging Nazi threat, first in Europe and then in America, where he would become a legendary professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

One of Strausz-Hupé’s earliest books, Geopolitics: The Struggle for Space and Power (1942), helped popularize his method of analysis – geopolitics, defined simply as the study of geography, history and culture to inform our understanding of contemporary international affairs (or, as FPRI Senior Fellow James Kurth puts it, “the study of the mentalities and realities of the localities”). He established the International Relations program at Penn, and then founded the Foreign Policy Research Institute on the premise that, as he said, “a nation must think before it acts.”  By the 1950s, his principal concern was the Soviet threat.  His classic and best-selling work Protracted Conflict foresaw a conflict that would be waged over decades and would thereby test the patience of a democratic polity; to prosecute such  a war successfully, it was essential to educate the American public in the nature of the threat and the war that we faced.  Hence his book and this think tank.

PERSONNEL AND POLICY  

Among Strausz-Hupé’s graduate students were John Lehman, Harvey Sicherman, and Shirin Tahir-Kheli – all became part of FPRI at a very early stage in their careers,  all rose to key positions in government, and all returned to FPRI in some capacity or other.

  • John served on Henry Kissinger’s staff; then he became Secretary of the Navy and set out to build the 600-ship Navy. The “Lehman Doctrine” offered a strategy for countering a Soviet attack on Europe. He later served as a commissioner on the 9/11 Commission and today is a trustee of FPRI.[4] 
  • Harvey served three secretaries of state – Haig,[5] Shultz, and Baker — and coined the phrase “A Europe, Whole and Free” which encapsulated the Bush administration’s vision of post-Cold War Europe, and “Two plus Four”  for the method for achieving German reunification peacefully.  Finally, Harvey’s comprehension of the US role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy had few rivals within the United States, and he was someone everyone consulted on the subject. [6] Harvey was president of FPRI from 1993 to 2010.
  • Shirin served on the National Security Council as Director of South Asia Affairs and as Special Advisor to the Secretary of State on Women’s Empowerment in the Muslim World.  She was at least one president’s “go-to person” on Pakistan, and when she returned to FPRI she facilitated private and unofficial talks between ranking Indians and Pakistanis to develop “confidence-building measures.”   This illustrates yet another way in which institutions like FPRI have impact – via back-channel diplomacy.[7]

Dozens of FPRI scholars have risen to key positions, and so too have many FPRI interns, including –

  • Douglas Feith (an intern in the 1970s), who served as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.
  • Tina Kaidanow (in the 1980s), who served as the first US Ambassador to Kosovo and is currently deputy ambassador in Kabul.
  • Ilan Berman (in the 1990s), currently VP of the American Foreign Policy Council.
  • Edward Fishman (in the 2000s), now a Management Fellow in the State Department.  

Sometimes, a summer at FPRI can be a turning point in a young person’s life.

INFLUENCING POLICY AND ENHANCING THE PUBLIC DISCOURSE: BOOKS, BLOGS, AND BRIEFINGS  

Henry Kissinger said that once in government, he had no time to think.  He had to rely on the thinking he had done prior to government service – or on the ideas generated by the people who populate think tanks. 

One of the secrets to FPRI’s success is that we have always placed a premium on scholars who write (or speak) well or on writers who have acquired in-depth knowledge outside of academia.  Some examples:

  • Travel writer Robert Kaplan was long affiliated with FPRI, which administered many of the foundation grants that subsidized his critically acclaimed books, going back to Balkan Ghosts in 1993 – a book reported to have made it onto the reading list of more than one US president. [8]
  • Journalist David Satter, who remains affiliated with FPRI, is known for his 3 decades of coverage of the Soviet Union and Russia; his book on the fall of the Soviet Union has been made into a prize-winning documentary. [9]
  • David Danelo, a Marine Corps veteran-turned- writer, carved out a niche at FPRI investigating “borders.” His 2011 FPRI work on the geopolitics of northern Mexico led to his appointment as policy director for the US Customs and Border Protection, where he had an opportunity to put his ideas into practice. [10]
  • In 2009, former British military intelligence officer Andrew Garfield orchestrated an FPRI study jointly conducted with the Royal United Services Institute in London on Afghan Police Reform that we understand was distributed at the highest levels of the US government and used by the NATO Training Command in Kabul.
  • Our John Templeton Fellow, Edward Turzanski, draws on extensive experience in the US intelligence community to comment on national security issues for the nation’s media, often doing a dozen radio interviews a day, reaching millions of listeners.

On the scholarly side, we have among our ranks the Pulitzer Prizewinning historian, Walter McDougall, who directs the IR program at UPenn that Strausz-Hupé founded, and who has worn many hats at FPRI – Editor of Orbis, Chair of our Center for the Study of America and the West, and co-chair of our Butcher History Institute.   While with FPRI, McDougall has authored several “big books” on American and world history and over two dozen FPRI essays – all classics. His book Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 was described by no less a figure than Walter Russell Mead as having “changed the way the history of American foreign policy is taught at America’s leading universities.”  In other words, his books don’t just sit on shelves collecting dust.[11]

Another great essayist in our ranks is senior fellow James Kurth, who has worn many of the same FPRI hats as McDougall and is one of the nation’s great strategic thinkers.  This year alone, several different scholars with sterling reputations of their own have described Kurth to me – in completely separate contexts but in precisely the same words – as “a national treasure.”  If that’s so, then FPRI must be one, too. [12]

THE COLLAPSE OF COMMUNISM – AS PROJECT, EVEN HASTENED, BY FPRI – AND SUBSEQUENT TRANSITIONS

In 1987, we convened a historic three-day conference in New York City on “Will the Communist Regimes Survive,” offering presentations by 36 dissidents or exiles from 12 communist countries.  They did not agree on the answer but they certainly illuminated the transnational fertilization of ideas across communist borders that was key to the eventual collapse of communism.  Let it not be said that no one foresaw the collapse of communism.  FPRI did.

 At the time, we had three Romanian scholars and writers attached to us, who, with funding from the National Endowment for Democracy, published an underground journal in Romanian that was clandestinely brought into the country. Eugen Ionescu, the famous French playwright of Romanian origin, served as chairman of the Editorial Board. The journal contributed to the eventual ouster of the Romanian dictator Ceausescu – more the activity of a do-tank than a think tank but we did it.  One of “our” Romanians, Vladimir Tismaneanu, made a name for himself as the go-to person on Romania and on the day Ceausescu collapsed, we received 60 media calls for his commentary.   He went on to influence the development of US policy toward all the former Warsaw Pact countries undergoing radical change.  Another of our Romanians, the late Michael Radu, exhibited an encyclopedic knowledge of terrorist groups worldwide, which led to his winning several government contracts.

Just after 1991, we were joined by Martha Olcott, who had been studying Central Asia in general and Kazakhstan in particular for some twenty years – but nobody cared until the Soviet Union broke up into 15 republics.  Suddenly, everyone wanted to speak to Martha and she did a series of studies for us that were commissioned by agencies of the US government. 

Ever since, we have played a role in supporting, or studying the lessons of, democratic transitions in Europe and the former USSR.  For the past 8 years, that project has been ably led by Ambassador Adrian Basora, who served on the staff of the National Security Council and as Ambassador in Prague at the moment when Czechoslovakia split into two countries – peacefully, with his helping hand.

POSTERITY AND THE HISTORY “THING”

In the 1990s when the National History Standards were issued, FPRI’s Walter McDougall penned what was perhaps the most eloquent critique of those standards, leading one foundation to come to us and say “How can we help?”  Thus was born our History Institute (subsequently named the Butcher History Institute in honor of our longest serving trustee), with the mission to “teach the teachers.”  We have held 46 weekend conferences for high school teachers on topics in American and world history and international relations.  More than 1000 teachers from 700 schools in 46 states have participated – and invariably they say at the end of the weekend that “this has been the best professional development experience of my career.”   We give them meals and accommodations for the weekend and an intellectual feast that they can never forget.  As a result, they return to their classrooms re-energized.  Today, among the nation’s think tanks, FPRI is known for “that history thing,” as one Washington think tanker put it.[13]

FPRI 2.0: A VISION FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

Recently our board conducted a strategic planning process that has enabled us to provide a stronger financial base, recruit young talent, expand our program offerings geographically, give new emphasis to our History Institute, upgrade our website, bolster our social media presence, and create new products and services from E-Books to blogs to webinars.

FPRI now offers  regular programming  in five venues (center city Philadelphia, the Main Line, Princeton, New York City, and Washington DC, reaching very different audiences, while  our expanding menu of publications (from blogs to briefs to books) and live-streaming of  events reverberate around  the world. Our new signature “show” – Geopolitics with Granieri – features young historian Ron Granieri, who combines the skills of William Buckley and Phil Donahue in an interactive format (exclusively for members of FPRI – live or by webcast).  Meanwhile, our fans on Facebook have grown from 2,500 fans in January 2013 to over 30,000 fans today, and the top ten cities for FPRI  fans include Cairo (#1), New Delhi, Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad.

In the years ahead, FPRI will grapple with the rise of China, the decline of Europe, the chaos of the Mideast, and the ever present threat of terrorism at home and abroad – not to mention the new cyber dimension of war, espionage, and crime; the emergence of crime-terror pipelines, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of rogue states or groups.  Our job is to analyze how best to advance the national interest in the face of these challenges and to educate the American public – by providing insight into the larger historical, geographical, cultural, and technological context of current events. 

Our growing network of rising young scholars equips us with the intellectual tools to do the job.  They hail from academia – including Penn, Haverford, Swarthmore, Temple, Princeton, to name a few – and outside of academia – from the military, intelligence, law enforcement, journalism, and the legal profession.  And they are very much in demand:

  • Barak Mendelsohn (Haverford), an expert on jihadism, is regularly invited to contribute to the NY Times online forum “Room for Debate.”
  • Dominic Tierney (Swarthmore) writes regularly for The Atlantic Online.
  • Michael Horowitz (UPenn), an expert on military innovation, spent 2013 as a Fellow in the Dept. of Defense for 2013. 
  • Michael Noonan, an expert on military affairs, blogs weekly for the US News and World Report.
  • Felix Chang, a former FPRI intern-turned-venture capitalist whose writing on East Asian security issues draws increasing attention from the policy community, both here and abroad.
  • Vanessa Neumann, whose work on crime-terror pipelines has attracted the attention of US and international agencies and who writes regularly for The Weekly Standard.
  • Jacqueline Deal whose work on Chinese nationalism and grand strategy is regularly featured in the leading policy journals.
  • Jakub Grygiel  (Johns Hopkins University) whose grasp of the classics of Western civilization is put to good use in understanding national security issues.
  • Lawrence Husick’s brief on cyberwar has been described by former National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane as “the best briefing I’ve heard from anyone, anywhere.” 

Notably, in 2009 FPRI was approached by the U.S. Special Operations Command to hold a series of academic conferences on “foreign fighters,” meaning volunteers who leave their home countries to fight elsewhere and then return with increased skills, experience, lethality, and broadened social networks. As the civil war in Syria heated up, we have seen yet another wave of foreign fighters, and this year our program will explore the potential impact of these fighters not only on the conflict in Syria but also on other countries.  FPRI Fellows are at the forefront of delivering analyses on this and other important topics in national and international security.  East Asia is one area of particular strength, with June Teufel Dreyer on Sino-Japanese relations, Rens Lee on the Russian Far East, and Jacques deLisle on China-Taiwan relations.   The Middle East is another, with Frank Gunter on the political economy of Iraq, Samuel Helfont on Islamism, and Tally Helfont on the Arab “Spring.”   FPRI’s Jim McGann has carved out a unique niche assembling the world’s think tanks for summits on issues of broad international concern.    The editor of our journal Orbis, Mac Owens, is probably the nation’s leading thinking on US civil-military relations and writes periodically for the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor, and National Review Online.

Whatever we have accomplished is the product of a small but creative staff, a large network of 90 affiliated scholars, and a truly active board of trustees.  I would name more names but then this report would never end.

CONCLUSION

It was gratifying to learn in January 2013 that FPRI was named the top think in the US with a budget under $5 million. Nonetheless, it would have been even more gratifying to be named among the top ten with a budget over $5 million. Whatever the case, our supporters (and prospective supporters) can rest assured that FPRI’s trumpet is heard around the world.

 


[1] See Richard Haass (then-director of Policy Planning, US Dept. of State), “Think Tanks and U.S. Foreign Policy: A Policy-Maker’s Perspective,” U.S. Foreign Policy Agenda, an electronic journal of the US Department of State, November 2002.  

[2] See James Kurth, “History and Geography: A Meditation on Foreign Policy,” FPRI E-Notes, September 2005, an erudite essay produced on the occasion of FPRI’s 50th anniversary.  Also be sure to listen to Kurth’s remarks on “Why Is this Think Tank Different from All Other Think Tanks?” June 6, 2012 at: /multimedia/2012/09/different-thinktank

[3] Here I draw on Harvey Sicherman, “Robert Strausz-Hupe: His Life and Times,” Orbis, Summer 2011; Walter A. McDougall, “The Wisdom of Robert Strausz-Hupe,” FPRI Wire, March 1999; and Robert D. Kaplan, The Revenge of Geography (Random House, 2012), pp. 82-87.

[4] Kissinger himself was an associate of FPRI in the 1950s, which is why he agreed to deliver the keynote on our 50th anniversary — and remains today a New York City Friend of FPRI and reader of Orbis.

[5] Gen. Haig served as director of FPRI’s Western Security Program in 1979, after retiring as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. 

[6] For a far more eloquent appreciation of Harvey, see Walter A. McDougall, “Harvey Sicherman: A Celebration,” Orbis, Summer 2011; John Lehman, “What Would Harvey Say?” Orbis, Summer 2011; and Dov Zakheim, “Harvey Sicherman: An Appreciation,” Orbis, Summer 2011.

[7] Another example of our back-channel influence was our annual conference with the Soviet Institute of the USA and Canada, 1981-1989, which alternated between Philadelphia and Moscow.  At one such meeting William J. Perry delivered remarks on the prospects and prevention of accidental nuclear war to which the Soviets appeared to pay particularly close attention.  Perry’s first trip to the USSR was as part of the FPRI delegation to the conference; later, he became Secretary of Defense. 

[8] We shepherded grants for the following books by Kaplan:  The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy (2001); Eastward to Tartary (2001), Warrior Politics (2003); Imperial Grunts (2006) and Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts (2007).   

[9] See his books Age of Delirium (1996), Darkness at Dawn (2003), and It was a Long Time Ago and It Never Happened Anyway (2011).

[10] He has since returned to FPRI to develop a field research program, for there is no better way to understand the “realities and mentalities of the localities” than to travel.

[11] McDougall’s FPRI essays can be found here: /contributors/walter-mcdougall

[12] Kurth’s FPRI essays can be found here: /contributors/james-kurth

[13] Thanks also go to the School District of Philadelphia, for it was they who first asked us to conduct programming for teachers, which we did in 1988 and subsequently formed the Marvin Wachman Center for Civic and International Literacy in honor of our former president.