Do think tanks really think? It's not that these organizations -- mostly centered in Washington, D.C., but also scattered across the country -- don't harbor some fine minds among their scholars and fellows, but the problem is we know what they think -- and have often known for a long time. The rest is articulation.
Among Washington think tanks, we know what to expect from the Brookings Institution: earnest, slightly left-of-center analysis of major issues. Likewise, we know that the Center for Strategic and International Studies will do the same job with a right-of-center shading, and a greater emphasis on defense and geopolitics.
What the tanks provide is support for political and policy views; detailed argument in favor of a known point of view. By and large, the verdict is in before the trial has begun.
There a few exceptions, house contrarians. The most notable is Norman Ornstein, who goes his own way at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Ornstein, hugely respected as an analyst and historian of Congress, often expresses opinions in articles and books which seem to be wildly at odds with the orthodoxy of AEI.
A less-celebrated role of the thinks tanks is as resting places for the political elite when their party is out of power. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, rumored to be favored as a future Republican secretary of state, is hosted at AEI. National Security Adviser Susan Rice was comfortable at Brookings between service in the Clinton and he Obama administrations. At any time, dozens of possible office holders reside at the Washington think tanks, building reputations and waiting.
My interest in think tanks and their thinkers has led me to what might be developing into a think tank, although it's too early to say. It's so early that it has no headquarters, secretariat or paid staff. But this nascent think tank has gathered a loose faculty from a coterie of public intellectuals, mainly in and around Boston, and abroad in Hanoi, Tokyo and Berlin.
It's called the Boston Global Forum. Formed in 2012, it's led by two very different but, apparently, compatible men: Michael Dukakis, former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential nominee, and Nguyen Anh Tuan, who founded a successful internet company in Vietnam and now lives in Boston.
The concept of the forum is to study and discuss a single topic for a year. Last year, in forums and internet hookups between Boston and Asian and European cities, the topic was security in the South and East China seas, where war could easily erupt over territorial disputes. After a year of discussion, the participants concluded that a framework for peace in the region needs to be established and that current international arrangements and organizations don't go far enough in that direction. This year's topic is cybersecurity.
The Boston Global Forum has strong ties to the faculties at Harvard and Northeastern University, where Dukakis is a professor. Most forum meetings take place on the Harvard campus. Two of the forum's most conspicuous champions are Harvard professors Joseph Nye and Tom Patterson. Patterson's office at the John F. Kennedy School of Government serves as a kind of de facto headquarters.
This new entrant into the think tank cohort is very East Coast-tony, and very energetic. This year it has plans for meetings in Vietnam, Tokyo and somewhere in Europe, and has attracted media heavyweights like David Sanger of The New York Times and Charles Sennott, one of the founders of the online GlobalPost.
As the Boston Global Forum is a new think tank, questions abound: Will it get funding? Will it find premises and staff ? Will it get public recognition?
The big question about anything that looks like a think tank is, will thinking happen there? Will the Boston Global Forum be a crucible for big ideas? Or will it, like other think tanks, develop its own binding ideology?
Will the Boston Global Forum become, like so many, a smooth propaganda machine? Or will it be a place where the outlandish can live with the orthodox?