In the nation’s capital, think tanks are an inextricable link in the political chain, a powerful — and prolific — source of knowledge that almost constitutes its own branch of government, much like the press is often referred to as the fourth estate. These idea factories churn out research and policy advice that influences decision makers from all sides of the political spectrum, and think tanks themselves run the gamut from small partisan interest groups to internationally established institutions.
Ellen Laipson, president and chief executive officer of the Henry L. Stimson Center, which focuses on security issues, believes that think tanks shape U.S. policy by examining current programs, developing new ideas, and looking over the horizon at coming challenges. But in Laipson’s view, think tanks also do something much more fundamental and significant: They ensure there is actually a policy debate occurring in Washington.
“Particularly when you have a president and a Congress from the same party, you need think tanks to make sure there is a debate. When the same party runs both the executive and legislative branches, there might not be as thorough a vetting of the issues. It’s important for think tanks to remind people that we haven’t resolved all the issues,” she told The Washington Diplomat.
Indeed, think tanks are often described as “governments in waiting,” referring to the fact that many members of an ousted political party bide their time as fellows or guest scholars until they can return to government service. Despite their inherent nature as both an influence on, and mirror of, government, think tanks provide vital intelligence to the political discourse, whether on climate change, nonproliferation, terrorism or the economy.
“Think tanks participate in many parts of the lifecycle of a policy — from identifying a need, generating new ideas, and figuring out who the stakeholders are. We don’t participate in the decision itself. That is a government function. But we study how the policy is being implemented, we monitor it, figure out when it needs to be revised, and when it is no longer effective,” Laipson said. “I’m quite persuaded that think tanks are part of the architecture of how we make national security policies,” she added.
Both soft-spoken and forceful, Laipson is the leader of one of Washington’s prominent security-oriented think tanks, which was named one of the 30 best think tanks in the United States by a report published in Foreign Affairs magazine earlier this year.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan Stimson Center was created in 1989 by two policy analysts, Barry Blechman and Michael Krepon, who remain affiliated with it. They envisioned a think tank that solved difficult problems and promoted international peace and security. Their motto still guides the Stimson Center: “Pragmatic steps toward ideal objectives.”
Blechman and Krepon were intrigued and inspired by the legacy of Henry L. Stimson, who served as secretary of war under presidents William Howard Taft, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, as well as secretary of state under Herbert Hoover. In their minds, Stimson’s long career working for Democratic and Republican presidents in senior positions provided a tangible example of pragmatic idealism and nonpartisan foreign policy.
Laipson said that for two decades, Stimson has adhered to its founding mission of developing practical solutions to serious problems. For example, it created a plan to remove tactical nuclear weapons from U.S. submarines; developed confidence-building measures for India and Pakistan; pushed for completion of the Chemical Weapons Convention; promoted indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; played a central role in preparing the Brahimi Report on U.N. peacekeeping reform; wrote a “code of conduct for space” that was endorsed by the European Union; and crafted recommendations to keep U.S. nuclear laboratories secure.
“I like to say that we’re a boutique, not a factory. We produce some things very well and we don’t try to produce everything. We’re not structured as a think tank that has to have evenly distributed expertise on every corner of the world. We don’t try to cover everything,” Laipson explained.
“We are occasionally about very big ideas. But we’re often about fixing or tweaking ongoing programs to make them work better. Stimson sometimes does things that are not headline grabbing, but are quietly very effective. We are not always the flashiest, but I think the people that know us the best think our work is very high quality,” she added.
Laipson herself entered the think tank world in 2002 after nearly a quarter-century of government service. After completing her master’s degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Laipson accepted a position as a Middle East specialist for the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a research arm of the Library of Congress that conducts studies and produces reports for Congress. Laipson — who speaks French, Hebrew and Arabic — said the job deepened her understanding of the Middle East, honed her research skills, and helped her develop a “professional analytic voice” in her writing.
After a decade at CRS, Laipson moved into executive branch jobs dealing with security policy. She was the director of Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council from 1993 to 1995, and special assistant to Madeleine Albright from 1995 to 1997 when Albright was the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Laipson then moved to the National Intelligence Council (NIC), serving as vice chairman and co-manager of the Global Trends 2015 report, which offers a wide-ranging and forward-leaning perspective on the emerging international environment designed to help policymakers think about the world more comprehensively then their day-to-day responsibilities require or allow. She remains proud of the report, saying it “generated a global conversation about big-picture issues.”
After five years at the NIC, she was approached by the board of the Stimson Center about becoming president. Intrigued by the challenge of running a major think tank, she accepted and has headed the Stimson Center for the past seven years.
Laipson explained that Stimson’s programs focus on three areas related to global security. The first is transnational threats, which includes research on biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, cooperative nonproliferation programs, space security and transnational crime. The second is the sub-regions of Asia, which includes the Persian Gulf. The third area is managing effective institutions, which includes budgeting for foreign affairs, defense, peace operations, global health security and homeland security.
Laipson closely follows Iraq and has written extensively on the consequences of the U.S. invasion in 2003. She believes the United States has pulled back from “the brink of catastrophic failure” in Iraq — a prospect that was quite real in 2006 and 2007 — and by also pulling its troops back recently, America is beginning to give the Iraqi people an opportunity to build their own nation while maintaining a good relationship with the United States.
“It’s OK to have as our goal a more modest relationship with Iraq. It doesn’t mean failure. It doesn’t mean we have to have either this exceptional relationship or nothing. There is something in between,” she argues. “We can scale our relationship down, have more realistic expectations, more modest goals, and treat Iraq as an important country in the Middle East but not assume that Iraq is going to be a special ally of the United States.”
And after such intense and costly involvement in Iraq for more than six years, Laipson said the United States should carefully scale back its presence to let the country determine its own future.
“I think the consensus view in the United States is that it’s very important that we leave Iraq in a measured way that is honorable to our service and to our institutions and gives Iraq time to plan and prepare,” she said. “I don’t think it is appropriate for the U.S. to overreact whenever Iraq does something that is not on our script. We are not writing the lines anymore. They are masters of their own destiny.”
Laipson though is concerned about the limits of American power in the other war front in Afghanistan — as well as the U.S. approach toward Pakistan, arguing that while the fates of these two nations are linked, they also pose distinct challenges for U.S. policymakers.
She believes the Obama administration is intent on defeating al-Qaeda in Afghanistan while also supporting a more holistic approach that includes economic development. But she cautions that there are limits to what the United States can accomplish in Afghanistan. “Quite frankly, Afghanistan is very likely to remain a very underdeveloped country for some time.”
In her view, the stakes for the United States are much greater in Pakistan. “When it comes to Pakistan, the issues are of a very different scale in terms of the interests to the U.S. and of the stakes involved if things don’t go well,” she said.
“Pakistan is many things at once — an emerging middle power, a nuclear weapons country, a country with a nuclear rivalry with India. In parts of it, the national government does not have complete control. There is political Islam and important geopolitics in play there. Pakistan is a very fundamental 21st-century challenge. The stakes for the U.S. in Pakistan are very high.”
The complexity of the American challenge in Pakistan is exacerbated by the uncertainty among Pakistan’s leaders about the U.S. commitment to their struggles. They fear the United States will stay engaged in the region only when it has a direct self-interest, but if circumstances change, they worry Washington will move on to new crises and abandon its commitments.
“Pakistan is never certain that our intentions are serious enough. They want a partner in us, but are quite skeptical we will ever understand what they need,” Laipson said. “The partnership is not quite close enough for them.”
On Iran, Laipson worries the U.S. posture toward that country is too tightly focused on its nuclear program. “Iran is a strategically important country for many reasons, not just the nuclear issue. When we look at Iran’s nuclear program as the driver of U.S. policy, we immediately get into this very punitive mode. I prefer we deal with Iran’s nuclear program as part of a larger, more comprehensive policy,” she said.
But Laipson cautions that President Barack Obama also needs to be careful about taking on too much, instead setting clear priorities and sequencing them carefully. This includes developing a plan to get the Senate to deal with a host of pending treaties, including the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.
“President Obama won’t be able to bring five different treaties to the Senate for ratification in his first year in office. He’s got to pace himself. There is a lot of pent-up demand for moving forward on multilateral activities. And the Senate doesn’t have a recent practice of getting major treaties done.”
Overall though, Laipson is impressed with the Obama administration’s initial moves in foreign policy, praising its approach to sizing up problems, assessing new opportunities, and communicating to the world. She cites strong and important speeches by Obama in Cairo, Prague and Ghana in the first months of his presidency.
“I think the way he’s been communicating with the international community is powerful stuff. Now we’ve got some big substantive policy ideas that the bureaucracy is trying to figure out how to implement,” she said. “From our perspective at Stimson, the administration seems receptive to new ideas and wants to be active on global multilateral issues. It feels like a high-energy moment. There is a lot of planning and new ideas here.”
About the Author
John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.