This article is based on a presentation to a public forum at the Foreign Policy Research Institute on “Do Think Tanks Matter?”, on January 30, the day the Global Think Tank Rankings were released by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies project at the University of Pennsylvania.
How is the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) different from other think tanks? In some ways, as Vincent Vega said in Pulp Fiction, “it’s the little differences,” but in other ways, there are more significant dissimilarities. As most know, FPRI was founded at the University of Pennsylvania in 1955. What some may not know is that one of the reasons that it was founded, as related to me in a conversation with the late Harvey Sicherman, who served as president of FPRI from 1993 to 2010, was that it was seen as a way to democratize the analysis of foreign and defense policy. At the time, debate of such topics was largely the domain of communities in Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston, with more limited intrusion from outside voices. FPRI was also a reaction to, and a pushback against, the New Look policies of the Eisenhower administration. Books produced by Institute scholars such as Protracted Conflict discussed fighting the Cold War ideologically among other angles. (While some might fault that particular work for viewing world communism as a monolithic threat rather than as polycentric one, there are still good details to be found there about political warfare, Soviet political thought, and Russian history.)
The Institute split from Penn in 1970 due to issues of campus politics (tenure decisions and a ban on classified research) and personality squabbles. This is not uncommon; other think tanks, for example the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have split off from universities over monetary and personality conflicts, etc. And not only do think tanks split from universities, they also may split apart. Both the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (1976) and the Middle East Forum (1994) divided off from FPRI.
During the Cold War, the Institute was a proponent for containing and defeating the Soviet Union. This harder line approach, however, also allowed for things such as a yearly Track Two conference with the Institute for US and Canadian Studies. The end of the Cold War led to more frank discussions among Institute scholars, largely drawn from Republican or right-of-center circles, about the proper uses of American power in a (briefly) unipolar world. More on this below.
For roughly the first half of the Institute’s history, it was a Washington, D.C.-style think tank that happened to be two hours north of the Capitol. By “DC think tank,” I mean a place where scholars write studies and reports as the main part of their duties—basically acting as a university without students. But being outside of the beltway has allowed FPRI to act not only as a research and publishing organization, but also one that offers speakers and programming for audiences on diverse topics as well as education programs for teachers from across the country and even the world—for example, by freely posting videos from lectures, but also from our unique history institutes for teachers on YouTube.
There are many other benefits of being outside the beltway. One is that we are not compelled to operate within the capital’s natural 72-hour time rhythm. In other words, what happened yesterday, how do we get through today, and what do we have to do tomorrow? This allows for an agility to address events in real time, but also to allow thinking and analyses to marinate for medium- and longer-term issues.
Another is that we are not dogmatically tied to ideological constraints. The crowded intellectual space of DC tends to create ideological silos among think tanks where only a certain amount of declination is allowed off of azimuths of thought and prescriptions. While the intellectually uncurious or lazy may pigeonhole FPRI as a bastion of right-wing voices, the truth of the matter is that we have scholars with myriad positions. A simple browsing of our website should confirm this. And, in any event, foreign and defense policy is no longer a battle between voices on the left and the right. Debates today are much more likely between those who favor a more restrained U.S. foreign policy and those who seek more engagement with the world with numerous points between.
Today, FPRI proudly has scholars with views across this spectrum. The hybrid structure of the organization with research, publication, and educational outputs allows for engagement with a plethora of audiences. Our hub and spoke model of organization also has allowed us to recruit a network of over 100 affiliated scholars and practitioners who are drawn locally, nationally, and internationally.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of FPRI’s organizational essence from 1955 to the present is its focus on a geopolitical perspective which looks at international politics through the lenses of history, geography, and culture. To put it another way, such an approach is what FPRI’s own James Kurth calls the “realities and mentalities of the localities.” This focus on geopolitics allows for many perspectives, but offers a useful framework for analyzing and offering prescriptions for the conduct of foreign and defense policy.
Michael P. Noonan, Ph.D. is the Director of Research and the Director of the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.