Article No. 012/2018
The following is the full text of the Keynote Address delivered by Ambassador M. Ganapathi, Former Secretary, Ministry Of External Affairs; and Member, C3S, at the Conference on ‘Why Think Tanks Matter’ organized by Chennai Centre For China Studies (C3S); Think Tanks And Civil Societies Programme, University Of Pennsylvania; and National Maritime Foundation (NMF)- Chennai Chapter, on January 30, 2018 at Loyola Institute Of Business Administration, Chennai.
70 years ago, on this day, the Father of our Nation, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. I pay my respectful homage to this great and towering personality of the 20th Century! I also bow my head in the memory of all the martyrs.
Since August 1947 and since that tragic day in 1948, India has shown indomitable spirit and determination in overcoming many odds to chart out a course which has taken us to where we stand today. India is today recognised as an emerging power with an important role to play among the comity of nations in the 21st Century. The term Indo-Pacific resonates in Chancelleries and power centres globally.
I consider it an honour to be asked to deliver the Keynote Address at this event organised by the Chennai Centre for China Studies under the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Programme of the University of Pennsylvania. Why Think Tanks Matter is an appropriate and relevant theme for the day.
Think Tank is a western term, now accepted globally. India historically had its original thinkers. Kautilya was an original thinker with a great foresight and relevance to the cause and effect of not only developments in his time but also in today’s day and age. Mahatma Gandhi was another original thinker whose Ahimsa or non-violence is often quoted and whose birthday October 2 has been inscribed as the International Day of Non-Violence by the United Nations. In between, there were many others whose thoughts and theories resonate in discussions and writings.
The path traversed by the original thinkers to the ever-present lobbyists and NGOs to the evolution of think tanks in the preceding two centuries has not been easy. Democracy permitted people to express their ideas freely. The concept of universal suffrage is only 100 years old. The first few organisations aimed at providing policy inputs came into existence around that time and gathered pace and momentum after the Second World War. However, these institutes were predominantly established in the western world, in Europe and the USA. With increasing globalisation following the end of the Cold War, some of these organisations ventured to establish their offices and institutions in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and other parts of the developing world. At the same time, independent think tanks came into existence in these countries.
The Russian Federation has its think tanks, marginally more independent than that what it was in the Soviet days. China boasts of the second largest number of think tanks. At a meeting of the Leading Group for Overall Reform in October 2014, President Xi Jinping gave his blessings to the development of new think tanks saying “Building a new type of think tank with Chinese characteristics is an important and pressing mission. It should be targeted on promoting scientific and democratic decision making, promoting modernisation of the country’s governing system and ability, as well as strengthening China’s soft power”. He also noted, “Think tanks should be led by the Communist Party of China and adhere to correct direction”. The Chinese leadership’s initial aim was to project China’s soft power. It is an amalgam of soft and hard power now. The independence of views expressed by Chinese think tanks will always be under scrutiny as it will be carried out under CCP supervision. And with the Party seeking more foreign-educated intellectuals to join the Communist Party leadership, Chinese think tanks would continue to compete with the best in terms of interest and influence.
Think tanks in the Asia-Oceania region have been predominantly based in China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and some other countries. This is but natural given the geographical location or the economic and political importance of these countries. Africa, unfortunately, does not boast of many notable think tanks, an area which requires rectification. They have their challenges. However, think tanks in Europe and the USA will continue to be the most recognised and sought after in view of their respective countries’ international standings and their inherent historical strength. This is clearly evident in the Index detailing the “Most Influential Think Tanks In The World For 2017”. And importantly, these are the think tanks whose output is followed by leaders, academics and other thinkers. At the same time, if we need to properly understand developments in the emerging powers, China, India, and others, it would be relevant to access the output from the think tanks located in these countries or in their regions.
Having spent over 37 years dealing with Indian diplomacy, my remarks will have a foreign affairs perspective. It is but natural, as thinks tanks have played an important role in contributing towards international relations and foreign policy. And having been posted in capitals hosting some of the most influential think tanks, I am persuaded to conclude on the relevance of these organisations. Leaders have used think tanks to announce or indicate significant moments in the history of their nations’ foreign or domestic policy.
I can recall some important moments. During the last days of the apartheid regime in South Africa, then President F.W. de Klerk used his address at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), or Chatham House as is more well-known, to announce that the moment to end apartheid had arrived.
We had the ASEAN leaders in India at a historic event last week. The 10 leaders of ASEAN were the Chief Guests at the Republic Day function. It would be pertinent to recall that then Prime Minister Shri P.V. Narasimha Rao had announced the Government of India’s Look East Policy in 1994 at the Institute of South East Asian Studies, Singapore. And our relations with ASEAN have gone from strength to strength since that time.
Leaders had been reluctant in the earlier days to be seen at think tanks. Those hesitations are now past. Our Prime Minister has participated in the Raisina Dialogue jointly organised by the Ministry of External Affairs and the Observer Research Foundation. During overseas visits, our leaders have given their ideas not only on bilateral relations but also on international policies at Universities and think tanks. Leaders have spoken at the Council for Foreign Relations, the RIIA, among others to convey their country’s viewpoints. The Australian Prime Minister inaugurated the Lowy Institute in 2003. The idea of BRIC (now BRICS) evolved in President Putin’s address at the 43rd Munich Conference on Security Policy in 2007. The Shangri-La Dialogue organised by the International Institute of Strategic Studies is very popular. And while the World Economic Forum at Davos, not a traditional think tank in the sense of the term, as it is a business powerhouse, welcomes leaders advocating their countries strengths.
The Ministry of External Affairs has actively encouraged Track 1.5 or Track 2 dialogues with other countries in the run up to or on the margins of important bilateral and multilateral interactions. This has enabled policy sharpening in providing greater content and substance to such interactions. During the 3rd Round Table on ASEAN-India Network of Think-Tanks held in late 2017, the External Affairs Minister Mrs. Sushma Swaraj noted, “The discussions are timely and opportune. It will provide useful inputs to our leaders”. The Minister urged the Think-Tanks to strengthen consultation and suggest ways to enhance maritime, commercial, educational and cultural co-operation. A former ASEAN General Secretary remarked, “As the world gets more complex, it is important to come up with innovative policy ideas”. And a former Prime Minister of Thailand said, “I don’t believe public policy is ever value free. Public policy is not only about technical management issues: all policies reflect choices, and choices reflect values. Think tanks do not need to be shy about the values they represent. Make them explicit. There is no neutrality in issues where society needs to make a choice”.
What is the purpose and aim of a think tank? A think tank is supposed to research and generate ideas, create a platform for policy discussion, interact with policy makers among others. It should have a clear vision and mission statement. Its activities would be similar to a certain extent to but more focussed than that carried out by academia, consultants, media, among others. Its activities would focus on issues of relevance to a country in the spheres of domestic and foreign policies, economic and commercial engagements, international security and defence, culture and connectivity and people to people contacts. While some think tanks would focus on the full spectrum, others specialise within a narrow focus.
From an Indian perspective, issues of interest for policy inputs from think tanks would include the political developments within the country and the region including China and neighbours, the global economy and development issues, trade related issues, gender issues, nuclear non-proliferation and export control regimes, environment and climate change, defence and security cooperation, international terrorism, cyber security, United Nations and financial institution reforms, the Indian Ocean, the blue economy among others.
Who sets the agenda of think tanks? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? Think tanks are supposed to aid and assist policy makers by providing ideas collated through deep research and also provide out of box ideas for consideration. They are useful forums for exchange of ideas and thoughts between policy initiators and makers and policy planners and providers.
India now boasts of some influential think tanks. Some are semi-autonomous while others are funded by the private sector. At the same time, the private sector institutions also enjoy some Government patronage.
The Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA), the oldest institution founded in 1943, and which hosted the Asian Relations Conference (ARC) in 1947; the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis (IDSA); and the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) are semi-autonomous. The heads of these organisations are appointed by the Government. World leaders have used the ICWA and IDSA platform to convey their countries’ policies to the Indian audience and the larger world. President Xi Jinping spoke at the ICWA during his 2014 visit.
Think tanks with major private sector participation include the Centre for Civil Society (CCS), the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF), the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), the India Foundation (IF), the Ananta Aspen Centre to name a few. ORF has closely interacted with the Government on major projects and has been co-opted in hosting a range of Track 1.5 and Track 2 dialogues.
Defence and security specific institutes include the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, the Centre for Air Power Studies, the National Maritime Foundation, among others.
India is also an attractive destination for some of the international think tanks. Brookings and Carnegie have set up offices in New Delhi.
Challenges facing think tanks include location and concomitantly effectiveness. As would be expected, most of the influential think tanks are located in or around the Capital of a country, be it New Delhi, London, Washington, Paris or Beijing. Some of the institutes are located in the next biggest City or important transit points – Mumbai, New York or Sydney. Access to and for policy makers influences the choice. To address this lacuna to a certain extent, the Ministry of External Affairs Public Diplomacy Division initiated the Distinguished Lecture Series where retired Ambassadors visited Universities to speak and interact on foreign policy issues with academics, think tanks and research fellows based outside Delhi. At the same time, institutes as the Gateway House in Mumbai, the Takshashila Institution in Bangalore, and the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in Chennai have emerged as influential think tanks.
Think tanks have to constantly adapt to changes. Political and economic developments rapidly evolve changing the contours of the known. The information highway has provided its own challenges in coping up with facts, alongside disinformation. And the rapid response coverage of news and events in the media 24×7, at times without authentication and verification poses its own problems. The challenge posed by increasing informatisation can only be overcome through focussed research.
The trade and economic integration within the EU was the focus of many a think tank. However, BREXIT would force them to redefine the purpose and scope of their research. Similarly with new directions in policy coming in from the White House at a rapid pace, think tanks will have to spur themselves into deciphering the many possible views emanating from these statements. Would America First be the same as America Alone or are they different ways in approaching a new America? Would the US withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific partnership and its efforts in rejoining at a later date create opportunities or challenges? And where does multilateralism head from here – would it create complications at the WTO and make bilateralism and regional approaches the order of the day? Where would the Climate Change decisions and discussions head towards without the USA? And what is a new normal in a global common? With uncertainty being the only certainty, the job of think tanks is cut out. Research gets redefined. At the same time, issues confronting the advanced countries would be totally different from those confronting the developing world and the least developed countries. Thus there would be differences in approach when a particular think tank addresses a particular issue. Contradictions would have to be overcome.
There was a time when think tanks were referred to as glorified talk shops. Things are however changing in some of the important institutions with greater emphasis on research and in their staffing patterns.
Publications by think tanks through their Issues Briefs, Policy Papers, Monographs, Books have to be relevant and effective. They have to be less verbose, focussed, better defined and structured to convey their ideas succinctly and clearly. This could to a certain extent address the demand supply imbalance and open up opportunities for them with policy makers, the business and the community at large. Policy makers are always short of time and a well directed brief could always catch their eye. It is the quality that matters over quantity.
Language, area and region and subject specific specialists in country or subject specific institutes are an important element which will govern the performance and effectiveness of think tanks. While China related Institutes abound, there are very few think tanks dealing with India’s other neighbours, the Indian Ocean, Africa among others. Early recognition in addressing this imbalance would always be helpful in looking at issues that arise in these areas and in their redressal.
While government funded institutes and those that have been established by major private sector enterprises have no problem in reaching deep pockets for their activities, many of the other institutes function on a shoestring budget and are left to scour for funds and thus hampered in their output. At the same time the donors would seek to question as to what is it in for them if they were to fund a project.
Another major drawback faced by the academia and think tanks in India is the absence of a system similar to the 30-year rule in many countries. This does not allow full scope research into various issues.
A word or two on the Chennai Centre for China Studies or the C3S, the host of today’s event. I should also add an interest clause here as I a member of the C3S. The Centre celebrates its 10th Anniversary in another 3 months. It is among the premier China-related think tanks in South India. Its vision includes research and outreach on China. The quality of its work output is second to none. However, the C3S has to reach out to donors and I do hope its work is recognised through greater private sector participation. This would enable it to widen its canvas of activities. This would the right moment for it to do so as it enters the second decade of its existence.
Today’s Programme is comprehensive in content and extensive in scope. It will cover a wide range of issues of interest and relevance. And the participants are experts in their fields who contribute regularly towards policy initiation and policy making. Thus, the discussions should be productive and result oriented.
In summing up and based on my own personal and professional experience, I would emphasise that think tanks are important and effective tools in providing useful inputs towards policy and decision-making. They are valuable additions to public diplomacy. Think tanks do definitely matter!
[M. Ganapathi is a retired Ambassador who served in the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. He is Member of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are the author’s own.]