Carnegie Endowment Launches Effort To Become First Global Think Tank

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Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that although the last decade has seen rapid globalization in all types of organizations, the think tank world has been strangely removed from this trend. Even those think tanks with a distinctly international focus have remained largely national organizations, anchored in the views of one country and seemingly immune—at least in organizational structure—from the globalization occurring around them.

“It’s very striking that at a time when everything is globalizing, from business to terrorism to social activism, the think tank sector has remained largely national,” Mathews said in an interview with The Washington Diplomat at Carnegie’s offices near Dupont Circle. “And this is the sector that tries to bridge government and business and academia in finding policy solutions to problems.”

Mathews is determined to take Carnegie in a new direction. She wants to demonstrate by example that the best way for think tanks to shape global affairs is to organize themselves as aggressive, entrepreneurial and creative policy networks spanning the world.

To do that, she said Carnegie is transforming itself from a think tank on international issues to the first truly multinational, and ultimately global, think tank—an effort that entails expanding its presence beyond Washington, D.C., into other regional centers around the world.

This effort began several years ago when Mathews and her colleagues at Carnegie reassessed how they should be focused and configured in the future. Mathews said she was frustrated with the ideological polarization that had divided Washington’s think tank community over the past five years. To her, the war in Iraq revealed an “alignment on a one-dimensional axis from right to left,” in which think tanks made arguments about the war and the world that were almost fully predictable.

She also observed a stale policy debate regarding the direction of U.S. foreign policy between unilateralists and multilateralists, in which each school seemed more adept at attacking the other than offering fresh insights or helpful recommendations.

Reflecting on these themes and about the successes of Carnegie’s Moscow center over the previous decade and a half, Mathews was convinced that Carnegie was uniquely positioned to become a global think tank, arguably the first of its kind.

“After some conversations, we realized we had the model right in front of us in the Carnegie Moscow center. It was a model of doing things differently—of being there, of being part of a different society, of having two halves of one whole: partly here in Washington, partly in Moscow. And we had watched the success of the Moscow center in creating much deeper understandings on both sides,” she said.

Mathews believes Carnegie’s Moscow center demonstrates that a think tank whose mission is to promote global security, stability and prosperity requires a permanent international presence and multinational outlook. She called the Moscow center a superb example of how to operate in a difficult political environment and said it has a track record that shows how invaluable it is to have a sustained physical presence on the ground.

Earlier this year, Mathews and the Carnegie board announced a new mission for the endowment that they described as a fundamental redefinition of its role and mission (see Feb. 15, 2007, news column of the Diplomatic Pouch).

Mathews said the first phase of Carnegie’s “New Vision” initiative is to have a total of five offices: in Washington and Moscow, as well as a new presence in Beijing, a regional office in Beirut, and a new office in Brussels that will open later this year. Washington will remain the hub of the Carnegie network and will be the place through which the other programs collaborate with each other.

“Everyone sees that there’s a big opportunity to use this network in a very powerful way,” she said, expressing her confidence that Carnegie’s new offices will generate fresh ideas and prove their value by affecting policy choices in the United States, Russia, China, the Middle East and Europe.

According to Mathews, Carnegie’s new vision will accomplish three goals. First, it will develop an improved understanding in the United States of the views in other countries and regions. As important, it will develop a deeper understanding abroad of American thinking and generate, on both sides, a critical mass of research-based insights on vital issues.

Second, it will demonstrate—in microcosm—the approach Carnegie believes the United States should be taking in its international relations. “You can only criticize American policies so many times without losing your audience and sounding anti-American. What we could do was demonstrate in fact what the U.S. should be doing and demonstrating its value with our products,” she said.

“It became increasingly obvious that a single superpower is a whole lot harder to deal with than two superpowers. It does engender fear and resentment. There is this paradox: That power means you have to consult more rather than less,” she added.

Finally, Carnegie’s transformation will provide a model of how to conduct independent policy research, even in difficult political circumstances, and demonstrate how institutions can contribute to the strengthening of their governments and societies.

Mathews has led the Carnegie Endowment for a decade and won praise for bringing energy and innovation to an institution that is frequently lauded for blending rigorous scholarship with tangible recommendations for policymakers.

With a doctorate in molecular biology from the California Institute of Technology, several stints in government, and strong ties in the think tank community (she co-founded an influential environmental think tank, the World Resources Institute), Mathews is widely considered one of the leading analysts of public policy in the world.

Innovative and creative, Mathews is also practical and tough-minded. Her clearly stated warnings in 2002 and 2003 about the dangers of the impending war in Iraq demolish the Bush administration’s claim that the ensuing debacle was surprising and could not have been predicted.

Mathews is proud of Carnegie’s challenging posture toward the Bush administration’s assertions before the Iraq war. “We were the only think tank that opposed the war before the war. We opposed it vigorously and actively on several different grounds—on the grounds that the WMD [weapons of mass destruction] threat was not there; on the grounds that the idea that it would create a tsunami of democracy was a mirage; and on the grounds that the likelihood of success was so small,” she said.

Mathews is also especially proud of Carnegie’s role in developing an alternative approach to Iraq before the war: the idea of a more robust inspections regime for possible weapons of mass destruction. Mathews worked closely with former Swedish diplomat Rolf Ekeus and retired U.S. Gen. Charles Boyd to develop the concept of coercive inspections, and their proposal is still cited as an example of the constructive contributions a think tank can make to the policy debate.

“That was a homerun and you don’t get many homeruns in this business. It was a crucial issue in which everyone was focused. It was a great idea. And we were able to recruit the right people with both professional mileage and political credibility to develop it,” Mathews said.

“The French and Germans picked it up as the core of what they proposed for the Security Council and large pieces of it became part of the UNMOVIC [United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission] rules of engagement and was one of the reasons that UNMOVIC worked,” she added. “Although coercive inspections as an alternative to war wasn’t adopted, I still feel it had enormous value. It’s the thing I’m proudest of.”

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, Mathews emerged as one of the most forceful critics of the impending conflict. Appearing in television debates and writing several articles published in the Washington Post, she made arguments that were strikingly prescient.

For example, she anticipated that the removal of Saddam Hussein would be relatively easy, but that governing and rebuilding post-war Iraq would be hugely complex and costly.

Writing in February of 2003, just weeks before the war began, Mathews said Iraq did not pose an imminent threat and observed there was overwhelming global opposition to the war given that a new inspections regime was just launched. “The United States can assemble a broad coalition to fight the war, but with few exceptions, it will be a coalition of resentful, unwilling states,” she said.

Mathews also pointed out that there were plenty of risks of going to war, including “lasting enmity in the Muslim world, the likelihood that a war will be a recruiting tool for al Qaeda and motivate more terrorism, and above all, the looming burden of post-war Iraq—a large scale, long-term military occupation and political reconstruction for which the American public is totally unprepared,” she wrote. “While war is certain to mean the end of Hussein’s rule, it will also mean the beginning of new uncertainties that could multiply over the decade or more of war’s aftermath.”

However, Mathews declines to indulge in “I told you so” declarations. “This is truly one of those times when saying ‘I told you so’ isn’t at all satisfying. It wasn’t that hard to see that what we were about to do was a huge mistake. But I feel very good about the work we did at Carnegie before the war—under great pressure,” she said.

Looking ahead, Mathews said she wants Carnegie to carefully examine the frequently made assertion that the Middle East will unravel into regional war and chaos if the United States withdraws from Iraq. She senses that Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Sunni world would step in, contain the violence, and take strong steps to create stability there.

Mathews has been critical of the Bush administration’s reluctance to engage in talks with Iran, especially regarding its nuclear program, charging that administration has not made it clear if its goal for Iran is regime change or nonproliferation.

She argues that a nuclear Iran is dangerous enough, but the crisis is not just about Iran. Rather, it is about the likely consequence that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be followed by nuclear weapons in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and elsewhere.

“What is at stake is not a choice between nine and 10 nuclear weapons states, but a choice between nine and 30 or more,” she said. “If we fail to pursue this effort with clear-minded diplomacy, a nuclear-armed world will be the Bush administration’s chief legacy, no matter how the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism turns out.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999