Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Stephen Walt on Large Think Tank Conferences

Harvard professor Stephen Walt is not a big fan of boring think tank conferences.  He thinks that more outside-the-box thinkers should be put on think tank panels to spice things up and provide fresh thinking on foreign policy challenges.

In a Foreign Policy article this week titled "Take 2 Ambien and Call Me When It's Over: I'd Rather Spoon My Own Eye Out Than Sit Through This Year's Think-Tank-a-Palooza," Walt bashes the predictable lineup of speakers at the annual conferences at Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and New America Foundation (NAF).

Here are some of Walt's excerpts:
I've been looking over the programs for these three gatherings, and my first impulse is to yawn. Instead of a diverse array of speakers offering fresh ideas, or a clash of divergent world-views and policy prescriptions, the programs for all these events are heavily populated by the usual suspects: prominent foreign-policy practitioners, policy wonks, and public figures whose views are already familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to the travails of U.S. foreign policy.
...It's easy to understand why conference organizers stick with familiar faces: putting a bunch of established foreign policy VIPs on the program helps guarantee a big turn-out and highlights the organization's "convening power." And in our celebrity-mad world, many people would happy to catch a glimpse of somebody like McCain or Clinton, even if neither says anything new or thought-provoking. Sticking to establishment figures also avoids controversy: you don't have to worry about donors getting upset about the program or government officials refusing to appear on the same dais with someone they regard as radioactive.
But given the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of U.S. foreign policy, is this really the best we can do? Wouldn't it be more interesting, and more importantly, more useful for these organizations to cast the net more widely, and include people whose ideas on foreign policy were serious, well-informed, yet outside the current consensus? I'm not suggesting that CFR or CNAS invite a Taliban spokesman to participate (though lord knows that could be very revealing)...
Walt goes on to provide some speakers he think would add some energy and excitement to think tank conferences, such as Edward Snowden, Andrew Sullivan, Jeremy Scahill, Dana Priest, William Arkin, Jane Mayer, Gareth Porter, Rashid Khalidi, Chas Freeman, Flynt and Hillary Leverett, Stephen Cohen, Robert Kaplan, and Hugh White.

Here is a link to the CNAS annual conference for 2014; here is a link to NAF's annual conference, called "Big Ideas for a New America"; more about CFR's annual conference on June 12-13 can be found here.

Think Tank Watch should also point out that Walt was a Resident Associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institution, and a consultant for various defense think tanks.