Think tanks à la française
August 24, 2014. Thierry de Montbrial and Thomas Gomart
In France, using the term “think tanks” would be tantamount to “intellectual import-export”, insofar as the international circulation of ideas would be the place of various forms of nationalism and imperialism. The term “think tank”, imported from the United States, is not currently covered by any consensual definition. Think tanks remain relatively unknown in France. In Washington, they play a full-fledged role in public life and have their roots in vibrant associative democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville said: “Wherever, at the head of some new undertaking, you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” In the very specific field of foreign policy, think tanks have gained strong legitimacy in a two-pronged movement: they are representatives of civil society and are acknowledged as such by the federal government, and contribute directly to the United States’ presence on the world stage. There is nothing like this in France, where some could still ask: Do you really think we can talk about French “think tanks”?
To answer this question, we need to compare the situation between the United States and France even if the proliferation in think tanks is now an international phenomenon. There are currently more than 6,500 think tanks worldwide. Of these, 1,815 are in the United States and 176 in France. Placed against this three-layered background – encompassing France, America and the global situation – the relevance of French-style think tanks becomes clear. There are approximately 600 think tanks devoted to international and security issues. This segment is the most sensitive; it underpins the phenomenon and affects sovereign issues and thus the various forms of intellectual nationalism and imperialism. These think tanks play a direct role in the globalization of ideas and their regional or national variations. They intervene before and after a myriad of research projects and debates, thus marking the boundaries of their own specific field, a field on which they cooperate and compete.
Globally, think tanks form a small “industry”, taken as a sector of activity in its own right. Within it, there are a number of French players who define a think tank as follows: “any open organization built around a permanent cadre of researchers or experts, whose mission it is to develop, on an objective basis, syntheses and ideas relevant to policy-making or the formulation of private or public strategies, subscribing to a perspective of public interest”. This definition suggests that there is a clear distinction between think tanks, political clubs and professional circles. In practice, confusion has arisen between “formal” institutions and “informal” clubs of every kind, regardless of their size, missions and legal or financial structures. This trend towards dilution is a global one.
This article has three objectives. Firstly, it aims to put this definition into perspective, not in an inclusive or exclusive way, but by emphasizing the importance of context, and particularly historical context. This is a point often overlooked in the abundant academic literature on think tanks. Secondly, it outlines the contours of the profession of “think-tanker”, which is exercised according to production rules and a social framework whose interactions must be clearly understood. This dimension is also often ignored, which would partially explain the skepticism that seems to prevail towards French-style think tanks. Finally, it explores the links between think tanks and civil society. Anyone who believes in the power of mobilization and engagement of civil societies, regardless of the political regime, cannot afford to overlook think tanks, the potential seeds of a responsible global civil society.
Four generations of think tanks
The success of think tanks reflects and promotes an American/British approach to international affairs. With hindsight, we can break their history down into four successive generations. During the first period (1919-1945), different institutes appeared, and some of them became large institutions that were later assimilated to think tanks. The Second World War favored the institutionalization of American and British think tanks because of their contribution to the war effort. The second generation came with the Cold War which, due to ideological competition, encouraged the development of institutes within the blocs. Working methods and links with the military then popularized the term “think tank”. The third generation (1989-2008) came when the number of think tanks multiplied worldwide, and particularly in Europe. The fourth generation is still in its infancy, and intends to play a direct or indirect role in the efforts towards global governance. Let us focus on the first generation for an understanding of the American/British origins of the phenomenon.
A couple of offspring from the First World War
The foundation of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London in July 1920 and of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York in July 1921 are closely linked. In the framework of the Paris Conference, British and American delegates met to lay the foundations for an Anglo-American institute that would prevent another war. Unusually, external expertise was invited to contribute to the conference. The project did not lead to a joint structure, but both institutes succeeded in building relationships of trust with the Department of State and the Foreign Office. Chatham House and the CFR soon came to symbolize the “special relationship” between the US and the UK by conveying a concept of the international system that combined idealism and balance of power.
Chatham House and the CFR were founded by men who trained during the years when the balance of power between the United Kingdom and the United States was reversed. They had witnessed heavy urbanization, rapid industrialization, waves of migration, and fierce competition among the major powers. These founding fathers were also marked by the rise of the Evangelical Church, Darwin’s theses, the cult of virility, scientism, and a strong faith in political liberalism. Sociologically, the founders of Chatham and the CFR belonged to a social elite, drawn from the best schools and prestigious universities. They never thought of themselves as opponents of the established order, but rather as enlightened supporters of legitimately installed powers and respected members of the establishment. Intellectually, these early think-tankers placed an emphasis on the historical method from an international and pragmatic perspective, built on states and civilizations. Arnold J. Toynbee, Director of Studies at Chatham House from 1925 to 1954, put his stamp on the world of think tanks because of the close ties he established with the Foreign Office and his extensive personal production.
The Chatham House model quickly spread to the dominions – Canada (1928), Australia (1932), India (1936), New Zealand (1938), Pakistan (1948) and South Africa (1934) – where research institutes were established, focusing on international issues. In continental Europe, the model was adopted in Italy (1933), France (1935), with the Centre d’études de politique étrangère (CEPE or Centre for the Study of Foreign Policy), the Netherlands (1945) and Belgium (1947). The momentum resulted not only in a type of organization and a mode of intellectual production, but above all in a form of influence and a state of mind. This in turn made it possible to create active socialization on international issues, customarily treated almost exclusively by the states.
Chatham House gave its name to the “Chatham House Rule”, which covers part of the activity of international think tanks. This rule allows a form of debate specific to these organizations; it is designed to create a space for discussion that is a compromise between the openness of public discussions and the confidentiality of private meetings. It facilitates the exchange of views within a given time period, encouraging succinct forms of oral expression. It thus means that participants can be dissociated from the organization to which they belong, to encourage freedom of tone and proposal. The rule is simple, easy to observe and based on a principle of mutual trust and recognition between participants, thereby establishing a form of socialization and commentary that comes naturally in the Anglosphere… although much less for French elites!
The role of foundations
The American system of think tanks cannot be understood without looking at the philanthropic foundations. American philanthropy, the offspring of rapid industrialization, applies the main principles of Christian charity combined with a particularity that comes from Protestantism, and values personal effort and enrichment while encouraging the redistribution of a share of the accumulated wealth to the benefit of the community. Encouraged by the state, this became “a valuable aid to American diplomacy”. Three foundations have provided crucial support to think tanks in the United States, as well as in Europe and other parts of the world. The Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford foundations, dubbed the “Big Three”, played a key role in the inter-war period, and again after the Second World War, in spreading American intellectual and cultural influence abroad, and in creating transnational networks. Thanks to them, a form of “philanthropic diplomacy” emerged, championing the development of an international elite of knowledge and power designed to rationally steer societies, according to a program based on peace, democracy and the market economy.
These networks allowed forms of sociability that facilitated globalization by conveying an American vision of the world. The deployment of this philanthropic diplomacy went hand in hand with that of official diplomacy: the foundations managed to exploit the room for maneuver opened up by the American diplomatic system, which varies with time and geographical area, but without ever challenging the primacy of the American national interest, of which they have a high opinion despite their open internationalism. This closeness to public authorities provided the basis of American soft power, which benefits from a time-tested system and a wealth of experience that makes it able to combine global presence with regional or local initiatives.
France lags behind
The reasons why France lags behind are both structural and cyclical. Regarding external affairs, the French state has long considered itself omnipotent. Domestically, it has long exercised a kind of monopoly over the general interest. This approach, along with taxation, has discouraged the emergence of think tanks. On a deeper level, French political culture has remained state-centric and largely structured by political parties. This specificity also had its roots in the close link between technical expertise and public decision-making, which emerged with Saint-Simonian scientific and encyclopedic ambition. The creation of administrative bodies of specialists began in the 18th century, thus building a pool that the state drew on to conduct its public policies; this led to a very high concentration of expertise within the state apparatus.
This “French model”, where the state has its own bodies of expertise and control, is radically different from the Anglosphere model based on the principle of “advocacy”, i.e. the tradition of confronting the interests and arguments of the various groups of actors in a political system, based on practice of contradictory debate. One of the historical features of the French model is the homogeneity in the training and behavior of the administrative elites in large institutions, and their constant influence on the design, implementation and evaluation of public policies. Ministers’ departmental staff serve as communication channels between the policy-maker and the administrative bodies, leaving little space for external expertise. At first sight, the French model thus appears to be incompatible with the culture of American/British think tanks. The model has a broad structural impact and largely explains the skepticism that prevails as to the viability of French think tanks. This does not mean, however, that there is inertia in French civil society. Quite the contrary. This society has the ideal instrument at its disposal when it comes to mobilizing and organizing itself, namely the “association”, defined by the 1901 law (according to Act One of which “An association is an agreement by which one or more persons bring together, in a permanent manner, their knowledge or their activities for a non-profit purpose.” ). The association sector currently accounts for 8% of salaried jobs in various areas of activity. Both its weakness and its vitality are apparent. On the one hand, its funding comes mainly from public subsidies and does not enable sustainable development. On the other hand, close to 70,000 associations are reportedly created each year, reflecting the plethora of collective initiatives stemming from society.
In 1935, sixteen years after Chatham House was created, the CEPE was founded in the form of an association under the presidency of Sébastien Charléty. The general secretariat was entrusted to Étienne Dennery and Louis Joxe, who were determined to reproduce the American/British model. The CEPE certainly marked a departure in inter-war France, helping to import a model, a method and contacts, most notably with the launch of the journal Politique étrangère. However, it would nevertheless be misleading to compare its importance and impact to that of its American/British counterparts. The CEPE was closed down during the German Occupation and only reopened in 1945. France continued to lag behind until 1979 when the French Institute of Foreign Relations (Ifri) rose from the remains of the CEPE.
In fact, France was behind for a couple of reasons. First, after the First World War, the French elites were slow off the mark, failing to see the point of hybrid structures such as the Council on Foreign Relations (contrary to the American and British elites); they had a very defensive view of the world at that time. This vision, which was understandable given the suffering endured, was accompanied by a feeling of diplomatic weakening despite military victory, a weakening reflected in the switch from French to English as the main language of diplomatic work. The French elites focused on Germany and watched the United States continue its ascent. The Council on Foreign Relations and Chatham House gained further legitimacy with the Second World War, when they made a direct contribution to the mobilization of intellectuals to support the war effort. In addition to being late, there was a marked characteristic – specific to France and one that continues to influence the perception of think-tankers in our country – the place and function of intellectuals in the public space. To understand the think tank à la française, we need to look at the American/British origins of the phenomenon, alongside the specificities of French intellectual life.
The job of think-tanker
The think-tankers’ main task is analysis and forecasting. Accurate analyses determine the soundness of forecasts, which in turn serve as a conceptual framework when identifying and formulating policy options. Failures in the making decision-process are often the outcome of inadequate analysis and unprepared forecasting. In addition to this dual role, think-tankers must be able to produce useful knowledge and disseminate it in two ways: to the public domain and to the “decision-making oligopoly”. That is why we say that, ideally, a think-tanker should “think like an academic, act like a diplomat and write like a journalist”. And we can add: innovate and acquire funding like an entrepreneur. A vast ambition, with difficulties that are often underestimated.
A permanent grouping of researchers
Let’s return to the definition of think tank as an organization built around a permanent cadre of researchers or experts. A think tank’s international reputation is based on its ability to maintain a qualitatively robust grouping and its degree of professionalism. This is crucial and is what differentiates think tanks from other kinds of “thinking societies”, such as political clubs or professional circles. The researchers or experts are not necessarily lifelong members, but devote most of their professional activity to the structure that remunerates them. In the American system, a person can start work with a think tank before taking on responsibilities in an executive or legislative body, and vice versa. This “revolving door” provides invaluable experience and helps to set think tanks apart from academic institutions. It also creates an interface between the administration and civil society. In reality, the revolving door is highly specific to the American political system, where think tanks enable contact between the executive or legislative apparatus, on the one hand, and civil society or the media on the other. Given their number and size, they are able to offer more professional opportunities than in Europe.
Managerial literature distinguishes between “knowledge workers” and “knowledge professionals”. Given the diversity and fragmentation of the industry, some think-tankers can be classed as “knowledge workers”, i.e. the skilled population whose job is focused on information processing and the dissemination or transmission of knowledge. Others are “knowledge professionals”, i.e. a highly qualified group with a broad social base and whose activity focuses on knowledge creation, the development and handling of ideas and concepts, and likely to define professional fields. In principle, think-tankers possess varying levels of skill in three areas: problem-solving (processing information from various sources), identifying new problems (understanding the interactions between the various actors in the analyzed environment) and “strategic brokerage” (using symbols and the ability to build relations); in other words, using their position as an interface between different areas of activity and social fields.
In think tanks, research is intended to be operational and useful; in this respect, it immediately sets itself apart from research conducted in a strictly academic context. It is policy-oriented, forward-looking, and intended to feed into decision-makers’ strategic reasoning, understood as a dialectic between ends and means. The work of think-tankers is not meant to be judged solely by their peers; it is at its most effective when used within a system of social interaction. The tension between think-tankers and academics is particularly acute in the field of international relations, which is not a fully fledged academic discipline in France. Although there is strong demand for it, Stephen Walt, professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, questions academia’s inability to produce useful knowledge to decipher the world in which we live and then contribute to public debate. He believes there are two reasons for this inability. Academics are prisoners of their theoretical jargon and hyper-specialization, and would hardly be credible faced with decision-makers capable of constructing their own discourses and judgements. Furthermore, academic careers are governed by rules – whether explicit or unwritten – that discourage contact outside the academic sphere due to a risk of instrumentalization and reduced objectivity. Objectivity is not innate for academics or think-tankers; however, the latter shoulder the risk and consider the subsequent application of their work the raison d’être of their profession.
Analysis, forecasting and decision-making
Think tanks lie at the intersection of four spheres: political (including diplomatic and military aspects), economic (the action of international companies and of the business community), media (organized around information flows and helping to shape opinions, mentalities and representations), and academic (the source of knowledge production and, to a certain degree, structuring the spread of knowledge). Among the various books available on think tanks, the work of Thomas Medvetz, Assistant Professor at the University of California, marks a step forward. He was directly inspired by Pierre Bourdieu and withdrew from the debate on the definition, preferring to delineate a territory specific to think tanks (space of think tanks), representing a buffer zone between the four spheres mentioned above. The declared relationship built with decision-makers inevitably raises the question of independence, from economic, political and intellectual viewpoints. It is also a matter of state of mind. All think tanks claim to be independent yet the real issue, according to Medvetz, is understanding the various ways in which forms of dependence are constructed and without which their activity would simply be meaningless.
Whenever they analyze a situation, think-tankers must be able to draw up a power mapping that recognizes the interests at stake. They thus contribute directly to analyses of “risk”, a key word for anyone who reflects on the future. To do this, they also need to establish links between fields and levels of analysis to avoid monocausal explanations, such as dogmatism. One inherent difficulty of the job of think-tanker is that their analyses and recommendations, while forward-looking, must be based on in-depth understanding of the present and thus of the past, without which they would risk making errors of judgement. At the same time, they need to be sufficiently open-minded and enlightened to be able to identify the early signs of change; otherwise, they would tend to take the easy option of extrapolation and fail to spot turning points. These analytical skills must go hand in hand with an ability to organize the discussion and structure the debate, both of which involve mobilizing specific networking skills. Dialectically, research justifies debate that, in turn, validates research with qualified individuals from outside the research community.
With globalization, global governance has gradually emerged as a central theme for major think tanks. With the information and communication technology revolution, we have become increasingly interdependent, and a disruption occurring in one segment of the international – functional or regional – system can destabilize the entire system. We thus need to constantly adapt regulatory methods at all levels and ensure overall coordination. This sums up the problem of global governance. It is much more complex than the problem of corporate organization and governance, since “the world” does not exist as a political unit. Most of the tangible issues of global governance – energy, climate, food, water, health, and, of course, security, macro-economics, finance and digital – are addressed by a combination of states, companies and diverse representatives of civil society. Such groupings are intended to be practical and objective, which does not imply that they are free of any conscious or subconscious ideological hidden agenda. What Max Weber called Wertfreiheit – axiological neutrality – is an ideal towards which the social and human sciences, whether they be fundamental or applied, strive. Like any researcher or expert, the think-tanker must constantly question the methods and conditions under which their knowledge is produced.
Why support a think tank?
As we answer this question, we will discuss funding and the economic model of think tanks. These organizations aspire to useful and operational research based on objective appreciations. So they need to know how to build interest among partners likely to provide funding. In France, there are six main sources of finance: the state, territorial authorities, European funding, individual donors, foundations and, increasingly, companies. Compared to the United States, foundations play a minimal role in Europe. The reduction in public funding has weakened the entire network of associations. Meanwhile, private funding requires specific know-how, and European funding requires engineering. In the absence of a powerful network of foundations, think tanks are forging a hybrid funding model, but it remains fragile and subject to economic conditions.
With regard to the state, think tanks take part in “intellectual diplomacy” and contribute directly to our country’s influence. Indeed, research and expertise are sources of influence on the international stage. In certain areas, if the think tanks have the necessary contacts, they can become involved in Track II diplomacy, i.e. informal but consequential discussions with the aim of forging links or dealing with sensitive subjects to be addressed in an official capacity. Their analyses also feed into the reflections of individual actors, informal groups and services at different levels of the state. There is much less appetite for this latter aspect in France than in the United States; things are changing, but the state and public office still tend to consider themselves as omniscient on international issues. With regard to companies, the work of think tanks helps with analysis of political risk, which is an unmeasurable, non-modelizable part of country risk. It facilitates connections and feeds into reflection at various levels of the organization. The parallel drawn between the work of think tanks and rating agencies prompts an examination of their respective positions vis-à-vis governments, companies and financial institutions, and of their methodological differences.
On the whole, decision-makers who call on think tanks ask for clear analyses, free of academic jargon, that enable them to best answer the crucial question: “What is this all about?” – and, often, to prove or disprove their intuitions. Analyses developed as a result of genuine research work increase the chances of making accurate forecasts, i.e. identifying and, better still, reducing the uncertainty that always hangs over tomorrow. Some partners explicitly demand that strategic options be identified, despite the risks that come with this type of exercise. In American context, some think tanks take the lead by willingly making recommendations that are meaningful within a political agenda. Other think tanks deliberately focus on analysis and forecasting as preparatory phases for decision-making. In both cases, we expect a think tank to interpret the world by shedding light on the balance of power or cooperation between stakeholders. It must then be able to identify new topics and emerging themes, and be ready to assist in formulating problems and structuring the debate. Finally, it should be able to put itself in the decision-maker’s shoes by defining the range of possibilities.
This final point explains the lack of understanding that may arise between the academic, the journalist, the radical intellectual and the think-tanker. We could say that think-tankers are on the side of power in that they try to think about things from the viewpoint of those exercising power. This is a much more complex intellectual task than it would appear, since it involves a detailed understanding of how the “policy-making oligopoly” works. At the same time, the think-tankers have to split themselves in two, so to speak, to try to comprehend the difficulties inherent in the exercise of power and decision-making, continually operating within a framework of severe constraints, which are often invisible to the novice. Several types of misunderstanding arise from this stance, which is relatively well conceptualized by the think tanks. It almost automatically reinforces the significance attributed to the “governing group” with regard to other elements of the social fabric. Think tanks are not there to challenge the existing powers or social hierarchies, but neither do they dismiss the factors contributing to the illegitimacy of a power or the deadlocks in a society. This stance may also have another disadvantage in that it prioritizes the factors that contribute to stability and continuity, overriding the signals pointing to the transformation of a social group. On the other hand, it prompts reflection on action.
The fundamental difference between the general interest and individual interests forms the core of the think-tankers’ task. Positioned as they are at the interface between several fields, they can join up different levels of analysis, from individual to transnational. More importantly, they are able to pinpoint the moment when the general interest splinters into a multitude of individual interests and, conversely, the point of coalescence where the latter merge to the benefit of the general interest. The ability to identify these moments of cleavage or coalescence brings considerable added analytical value. In the future, it is likely that some think tanks will try to provide a specific framework to facilitate this merging of interests. Working in liaison with other stakeholders, they could very well contribute not only by identifying the interests involved, a key step in ensuring coherence, but also by formulating ideas likely to influence them. This still means that the “policy-making oligopoly” has to take civil society seriously enough. In the digital age, this is an issue that affects the balance of power.
The nucleus of an international civil society?
The concept of civil society is dialectically opposed to that of the state or, more precisely, state government. The government works with an operative definition of “public goods” that underpins the “general” interest of the state, a general interest that the same government is tasked with ensuring both at home and internationally (for international matters, we usually refer to “national” interest). In France, the state has long claimed to be the sole embodiment of the general interest. Representative democracy cannot be exercised without the existence of a civil society, which could be defined as all active units working towards the public good – and therefore, by definition, to political unity – but that do not belong to the state apparatus. From a pluralist perspective, think tanks would willingly present themselves as the “primus inter pares of civil society”. Yet this institutional stance draws much criticism.
In vogue – but subject to criticism
“Where lies the legitimacy of think tanks, which are often the projects of passionate individuals who can walk away from failed projects and are only accountable to themselves?” This question raises two kinds of qualitative and ideological criticism. Let us focus on the latter, largely inspired by the work of Antonio Gramsci and of Pierre Bourdieu, an inevitable reference for critics of the French think tanks. Since they do not set themselves up as counter-powers, think-tankers endeavor to contribute to the “production of the dominant ideology”. In their 1976 paper, Pierre Bourdieu and Luc Boltanski obviously did not use the term think tanks, but they analyzed the dominant discourse built around the Plan, the place where speech becomes power “in those committees where the enlightened leader meets the enlightening intellectual”. From this perspective, think tanks appear bound by an oligopolistic class in need of tributaries to maintain its power, exercise its symbolic violence and justify the maintenance of the prevailing order. Taken to the extreme, this criticism depicts them as agents of general misinformation and of an interpretation of international relations aimed solely at conveying and consolidating the liberal doxa. Moreover, in France their discourse on the general interest would only have an “establishment effect”, serving as a sign of social distinction. The same would be true of the notion of governance to which they would constantly refer.
We are sometimes struck by the systematic nature of this rhetoric, which can verge on caricature and even insult. Criticism of the ultra-liberal positioning of certain think tanks is undoubtedly the result of the strong impact small structures have made. If we do not go back to the Mont-Pèlerin Society, founded in 1947 by Friedrich Hayek and Wilhem Röpke, American and British neoliberal discourse was most notably endorsed by the Heritage Foundation and the Adam Smith Institute, whose work inspired Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher respectively. They have been remarkably effective in developing and disseminating their ideas, particularly to policy-makers and segments of public opinion. Ideological commitment is openly asserted by those whose raison d’être is precisely to promote a political agenda; their activity is what we call “advocacy”. By definition, advocacy diverts think tanks from analytical and forecasting work, instead getting them to focus on promoting ideas for electoral purposes. That is why we must make a clear distinction between the two professions. Elsewhere, think-tank activity is often compared, or confused, with that of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that aspire to defend universal causes such as human rights or sustainable development.
Former think-tankers have been critical about financing that could lead to dependency and collusion. Structures presenting themselves as think tanks can be administrative “sock puppets” because of their funding and mode of governance. On the other hand, private funding can lead to veiled lobbying activities. These developments are the subject of fierce controversy in Washington, where a redirection of the think tanks would come with a political and legislative scene dominated by powerful lobbies and interest groups seeking scientific approval and media impact.
In the United States, some observers are alarmed by militant developments and a drop in intellectual level (the number of think-tankers with a PhD-level qualification is reportedly falling when compared to communication or marketing specialists), and have denounced political staff’s excessive dependence on think tanks; for example, the Center for American Progress (CAP), the think tank created in 2003 to work on the Democratic Party’s programme, no longer claims to be objective, but simply effective, which makes it akin to a political party. It is worth keeping a close eye on these controversies in France because they concern the very nature of the profession, and point to some kind of reconfiguration. Similarly, it would be useful to hold a fruitful debate between think-tankers and their critics to explore the aims of intellectual production in a system like ours, as well as the importance given to civil society.
Civil society and democracy
To start with, we need to remember that the only truly common good of an active unit is the unit itself. Tangible collective or public goods are inherently flawed renderings of this single abstract good. The active unit’s organization (the government in the case of a state) produces these renderings. So where does the legitimacy of these renderings come from? An abstract answer: previously from God; today, from the people. Specific procedures to demonstrate that the work of the government is in line with the will of the “people” are as flawed as are public pseudo-goods when compared to the single, inaccessible public good. In the minds of Rousseau’s descendants, the best technique comes from direct universal suffrage, which characterizes the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic. Meanwhile, Tocqueville’s successors are wary of the manipulation that can occur with direct democracy; they prefer the notion of representation, compatible with some measure of direct democracy. In practice, a myriad of combinations is possible.
Given that a perfect match between government and population is impossible, civil society is necessary. From a legal viewpoint, the initial manifestations of civil society stem from institutions based on freedom of expression and the right of association to defend or to promote interests considered by their campaigners – and often recognized as such by society – as forming a fraction of the general interest. In this respect, the principle of civil society is inseparable from representative democracy. It opposes the excess of direct democracy, the ideology of which can easily lead to the crushing of minorities and a justification of authoritarianism.
The state and civil society fit together as part of a system of reciprocal control. Civil society seems to form a flexible institutional layer, serving as an intermediary between the government and the people, tasked with giving airtime to certain categories of citizens interested in a particular aspect of the public good, while exercising critical vigilance towards the various branches of government, whose legitimacy needs renewing beyond the electoral processes. In return, the legitimacy of the various civil society organizations requires the government – as long as it is itself considered legitimate, because in the development of a state, the emergence of civil society is often the outcome of a struggle – to exercise control over issues such as respect for the law or transparency in governance and financing. There is a risk that civil institutions may be screens, designed to promote specific interests or, more generally, interests contrary to the notion of public good. Even without talking about corruption here, lobbies influence governments as well as associations, foundations, and the like. In France, trade unions, which are deemed to be representative regardless of how many members they have and which are largely financed by taxes, are often taken to be civil society organizations even though, by their very nature, they defend categorical interests. As for think tanks, they suffer from the state’s lack of trust in civil society, which is detrimental in a complex and interconnected world.
However, in many places, and in emerging countries in particular, think tanks have been enjoying growth, buoyed by public authorities or philanthropy, in response to the world’s increasing complexity and the evermore intense social interactions at an international level. If this category of active unit were abolished, the only “challengers” that governments would come up against would be partisan ideologues, cloistered academics or, even more worryingly, new forms of credence. Public debate everywhere would take a more passionate, less rational turn. Indeed, professional think tanks appeal more to reason than to emotions, serving as an interface and enabling smoother dialogue between powers. In this respect, they can consider themselves as the nucleus of a global civil society, still in incubation.
Aiming for a global civil society
All civil society starts with its roots in the Culture of a state, a culture that varies greatly from one country to another. Civil society keeps it eye on the state (in both senses of the word: the political unit itself and its Organization) and vice versa. The latter point is crucial, because the notion of civil society is no more libertarian than liberalism itself, as Tocqueville explains: absolute freedom or license can lead to anarchy or dictatorship, the former often spawning the latter. However, “global” political unity does not – yet – exist. Given foreseeable technological trends, it may be that political unity of this kind – which will inevitably be new in form and of biological or epigenetic type – can emerge, albeit very gradually and through multiple crises, or otherwise can face far-reaching collective catastrophes.
The lack of “global” political unity means that there are no global public goods, unless we modify and, hence, weaken the concept of public good. The growth and deepening of the externalities that characterize globalization so distinctly increase the risk of severe or even potentially cataclysmic systemic failure in a particular area of the “international system”, and thus its structural instability. Since the First World War, we have seen that catastrophic changes in direction can occur at the global level. It is remarkable that the Cold War ended without major drama and that, since the 1980s, the global landscape has changed more through “slow mutations” than through deadly turmoil. Nevertheless, the current financial crisis or the Arab revolutions remind us that we are never immune to unpredictable shocks, unforeseeable in both occurrence and intensity – those “black swans” that make accurate forecasts illusive.
In its essence, the project for global governance specifically aims to increase the structural stability of the “international system” and thus reduce the risk of catastrophic shifts in all areas. Now, in the early 21st century, we may consider that there is a global public good that reflects a real “wish to live together” at the root of any sustainable and stable political unity, and that is global governance. In this idea, we must see the nucleolus (but not yet the nucleus) of another idea, that of “global” political unity.
As an idea, we can probably expect any reasonable thinker to recognize governance as the par excellence global public good. The difficulties begin when we ask who should convert this abstract public good into tangible public goods, i.e. implement the practical modalities of governance on one issue or another. Again, we come back to the lack of a “global” political unit with an organization that would be empowered to do so. However, bearing in mind that it is often beneficial to weaken concepts in the mathematical sense, we could rightfully consider the United Nations – which has a history spanning almost seven decades – as the nucleus of a substitute organization. Nucleus because, in its current state, the United Nations can merely absorb the shock of inter-state relations, but that is already an important step.
If we take this analysis a step further, we see that think tanks can become more involved in the issue of global governance, and are more able than the other stakeholders to systematically contribute to inspiring and supporting these initiatives. They are already doing so, but still quite tentatively. If they become more aware of their potential and take this role more seriously, we may begin to form the nucleus of a global civil society. And to conclude, allow us a dream: It is through the development of a common culture and the building of legitimate modes of global governance that think tanks will make a modest but genuine contribution to the emergence of this “global” political unity, the maturity of which will inevitably be consolidated in the decades to come. There are already initiatives aimed at this.
If they are to develop, the French think tanks will have to deal with three challenges. First: explaining the profession and adapting it to a context of crisis. What is unique about the think tank is its ability to move constantly between the political, economic, media and academic spheres. As a result, the profession will undergo transformation, brought about by the combined effects of its efforts to adjust to constraints, and of the ways in which it interacts with each of the spheres mentioned above. The profile of the think-tanker is, by definition, shaped by multiple influences. We need, therefore, to patiently explain the specificities of the profession to partners as well as the actors on the fringes of this ecosystem.
The second challenge is the internationalization of the French think-tank community. To start with, the community needs to affirm its place on the international stage, mastering the codes and production methods of its best foreign competitors and partners. This ambition implies resources and a constant effort to professionalize in order to contribute to the transformations of the industry, which has powerful possibilities for structuring knowledge power on a global scale. If our country is subjected to and exerts influence, it cannot ignore the think tanks. This is why French think tanks should stop thinking of themselves as imported commodities. They are also a means of exporting and affirming France’s presence. They are destined to be leaders in the French-speaking world (which will continue to grow numerically in the coming years) but, to do so, they must strengthen their presence in the English-speaking world, where the battle of ideas is fought on a global scale, and take positions in other linguistic areas.
The last and trickiest challenge is the emergence of a global civil society in the digital age. The digital era is transforming dissemination techniques but, above all, it is testing the ability of think tanks, for example, to feed the debate on the democratization of civil societies. The unquestionable change in social interactions brought about by digital technology is leading to profound changes in the terms of discussion, understood as the creation of a shared grammar and rules. It is, indeed, discussion that enables us to act together. Yet with this upsurge in interaction, think tanks lose part of their uniqueness as a bridge between the organization of the debate and research. Nonetheless, they still have three specific features that are difficult to coordinate simultaneously: the production and dissemination of knowledge identifiable by trusted names, the ability to connect actors from different fields, and the expansion and structuring of spaces for debate and discussion. By strengthening their links to increase their impact, think tanks will be able to portray themselves as representatives of global civil society, constantly drawing on their national roots and their international reach. This is the exciting challenge that faces the new generation of think tanks.