On Think Tanks, or, What Trump Didn’t Get in Helsinki

The Trump administration has brought with it a dark winter of discontent to US think tanks. Institutions stocked with the analytical rosters of former Clinton and Obama appointees with North Korea-related expertise are hardly alone; even experts at the Heritage Foundation find themselves unable to embrace the steps being taken by this unorthodox Republican administration.

The discontent within the think tanks appears to be matched by the rise of skepticism toward expertise generally, cultivated assiduously by foreign bots as well as the President himself. Council on Foreign Relations member and Yale historian Timothy Snyder may have gone off the deep end, creating his own rhetorical memes meant to awe rather than illuminate (see: “politics of eternity” in his The Road to Unfreedom), but Putin’s Helsinki performance nevertheless proved the Yale historian’s more valid points about Russian state tendency to relativise narratives and sow doubt.

And analyst Daniel Pinkston in Seoul is fond of comparing the Trump administration to a Cultural Revolution for the US government bureaucracy — certainly an apt historical analogy if the ethos refers to Mao’s preference of “better red (i.e., ideologically pure) than expert.”

While the US is hardly to the point of mass movements against think tanks themselves, there certainly has been increasing scrutiny about their function. Though founded with the original purpose of providing policy advice to governments and even corporations, American think tanks have come under fire for being increasingly beholden to foreign interests. Corporate interests, particularly those such as arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, have been connected to an unrelentingly hawkish approach by some think tanks toward North Korea. (Lockheed Martin’s stock fell precipitously on the morning after Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un; it has since recovered.)

Others, however, have defended the role of American think tanks in the traditional sense that they are purveyors of independent analysis independent of government or corporate interests.

And whatever their pretentions to act as figures within history rather than mere commentators on events, even the most detail-oriented university professors are poor substitutes for full-time policy watchers with deep expertise on topics like international sanctions, border security, human security, missile and nuclear technology, reunification issues, and comparative autocracies, to name just a few of the analytical toolboxes being used to understand the present and possible futures of the Korean peninsula.

While think tanks in the West continue to search for an ideal role amid fluctuating circumstances, think tanks in more autocratic states have fewer such problems. The most influential Russian think tanks make no secret of their connections to the Russian central government. As for China, the sheer amount of money sloshing around thanks to the “Belt and Road” Initiative means that one has to read foreign academic or “expert” commentaries about Chinese policy with extreme prejudice, if not total skepticism. Within the PRC, no one ought to be under any illusions about the independence of Chinese think tanks even as they expand their global reach. Indeed, independence can have negative consequences, as one Chinese policy institute recently learned the hard way.

Anthony V. Rinna, an analyst in Seoul with whom I regularly work, offers a two-part analysis of data offered by Russian think tank coverage of the Korean Peninsula. That data, he argues, offers insights into the Kremlin’s interests in and policies toward Korea, as well as how Moscow engages with the wider international community in terms of its Korea policies.

One of the more interesting points brought to light by Rinna has to do with Moscow’s relative lack of interest in disarmament issues and their overshadowing, in terms of think tank output, on economic issues. Although Rinna does not pivot to bring this conclusion around to Russian pressure to relax sanctions on North Korea in the aftermath of the short but intense Trumpian “maximum pressure” era, it does lend weight to the idea that North Korea’s nuclear status may indeed be seen in Moscow as a fait accompli.

Among the many collateral casualties of the, shall we say, light touch approach to Vladimir Putin taken by the US President at yesterday’s meeting in Helsinki was the relegating of Russia’s role with respect to North Korea to sideline conversations at best, whether with respect to Russia’s maintaining sanctions, providing economic incentives to Pyongyang, or Putin’s possible upcoming meeting with Kim Jong-un. The utter lack of substance or specificity to the public statements on North Korea was hardly encouraging or indicative that Trump’s approach to North Korea is now to simply make a victory lap, having (in his own mind at least) solved the nuclear issue already.

If covered in any depth, it is likely that the basket of North Korean issues were handled in a parallel meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This meeting was joined by US Ambassador Jon Huntsman, whose tenure in Moscow has thus far had none of the élan of his Obama-era stint as Ambassador to Beijing, perhaps because his signature issues of human rights and free trade with China run against the Trumpian grain.

In the meantime, no readout has yet been produced of the Pompeo-Lavrov meeting, and the US Secretary’s Twitter account has been quiet. This silence provides no water therewith to douse the raging fires of US foreign policy commentators as well as some sentient Republican Senators that Trump has engaged in something well beyond foreign policy malpractice. While there is no end to the bonfires in sight, the dark winter of discontent for US think tanks, then, is not without light from these flames.

Image: White House flickr account, 16 July 2018. 

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