Think Tanks as Driving Force in German Foreign and Security Policy

In a globalized world with dynamic developments, new challenges for foreign policy arise. How can German interests be successfully incorporated and ensured? That’s where the work of Think Tanks starts: They prepare data, work together with decision-makers to draw up practical action recommendations, and bring these into political debates. A new study shows that the German think tank landscape has become larger and more diverse in recent years. Nevertheless, the authors see weaknesses and scope for improvement. An interview with Christoph Bertram and Christiane Hoffmann.

Robert Bosch Stiftung | September 2020

The study is the first comprehensive overview of foreign and security policy think tanks in Germany.

You are calling for a change of culture when it comes to German foreign and security policy. What should this cultural shift look like and what role can think tanks play in this?

In light of all the upheavals in international politics, German foreign policy needs to review and redefine Germany’s foreign and security policy interests and instruments. The former cornerstones of German foreign policy are a thing of the past: US-German relations have become more unpredictable, the EU lacks unity, the old East-West détente has given way to a deep-set alienation, and new challenges such as global warming, migration, and global epidemics are adding to the list of threats facing Germany. But what should be the source of this new notion of German foreign policy interests and instruments? Owing, in part, to the longstanding limits to its sovereignty, Germany lacks a modern strategic culture. Lawmakers struggle to question previous assumptions, preferring to hold on to what they know. Think tanks, on the other hand, are not stuck in such a rut; they are able to think without the limits of responsibility. As such, they are ideal for prompting critical review of previous approaches, to develop alternatives and introduce them into the political debate. In other words, now is certainly the time for think tanks.

You see room for improvement across many areas of think tank work in Germany. How exactly can think tanks improve their work? How can their audiences and partners – lawmakers, the administration, and donors – support them in these efforts?

First of all, think tanks need to make a conscious effort to take on this new role. Equally, donors would also have to focus their programs on strategic issues and controversial topics, as well as support the institutes they are funding in implementing them. Rather than avoiding them, think tanks need to encourage lateral thinking and controversial ideas. This means it is important to recruit staff with the right dispositions and skills, as well as recruiting more broadly from science, politics, business, and the media. In addition, think tanks should make an effort to get representatives from politics – from both the parliament and the government – and from the media more involved in their thought processes and in discussing the findings. To make sure they don’t ignore actual constraints and workflows in the political process, they should also look for staff with practical political experience. In turn, this requires audiences to be willing to get more involved – offering suggestions and criticism – in the work of think tanks.

Caroline Bertram

About the person

Christoph Bertram studied law and political science at the universities of Berlin, Bonn and Paris. For sixteen years he worked for the German newspaper DIE ZEIT: as head of the political department and as diplomatic correspondent. From 1998 to 2005, Bertram was director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

The think tank landscape in Germany is growing and diversifying. How can think tanks ensure their advice is noticed?

You cannot just lump all think tanks together. Not all of them aim to provide specific policy advice; some are more concerned with providing an impetus for civil society dialogue, or with developing findings for the academic community. But even those think tanks that do primarily look to advise policymakers cannot demand that their analyses are in fact shared between policymakers, that their proposals are followed, or that the public pays any attention to them. They have to make an effort to achieve that. They need to draw attention through solid research and clear, policy-relevant recommendations, be more responsive to policy needs, and develop a sense of when advice is needed. Often they also need to respond faster to current developments, formulate more concisely, and generally improve their presentation strategies. But even then, there is no guarantee that their advice will be noticed or followed.

Christian Thiel

About the person

Christiane Hoffmann is an author with a focus on foreign and security policy for the German newspaper SPIEGEL. Prior to that, she worked as a correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in Moscow and Tehran. Hoffmann studied Slavic Studies, Eastern European History and Journalism.

One of the recommendations from your research is to invest in think tanks’ social media presence and make greater use of these. How can think tanks improve their use of social media and what is the point of doing so? 

Many German think tanks are yet to truly arrive in the digital age. Admittedly, a think tank’s online presence is not necessarily more effective than their printed analyses or in-person discussions with their audiences. In the future, however, whether or not lawmakers and journalists notice a think tank’s work will increasingly depend on its social media presence. This requires not only technical expertise, but also a certain mental readiness to utilize the relevant formats and opportunities – by offering professional online editorials that detail think tank activities and products to attract attention, by sharing Twitter comments that link to longer analyses, or through videos and podcasts. Anglo-Saxon think tanks are an impressive example of how this can be done. What we are suggesting here is also directed at donors, who should actively promote the use of social media, as well as the necessary expertise.

In terms of the number, size, equipment, and diversity of foreign policy think tanks, Berlin no longer needs to hide behind other capitals.

What can German think tanks learn from international institutions like those in Brussels or Washington D.C.?

In terms of the number, size, equipment, and diversity of foreign policy think tanks, Berlin no longer needs to hide behind other capitals. Nevertheless, the comparative overviews in our study, especially when it comes to Washington and London, demonstrate that Anglo-Saxon research institutes can offer valuable advice to the Berlin scene. As well as their aforementioned exemplary use of social media, there are three further aspects: working closely with policymakers, greater internationality, and visibility among the expert public.

Working closely with policymakers: It is true that the Washington tradition of “revolving doors”, whereby government workers become think-tankers and vice versa, cannot, at least to any great extent, be transferred to the German environment. Nevertheless, it would be beneficial for foreign and security policymakers in Germany to make their expertise, many years of practical experience, and international networks available to think tanks on a more regular basis. This too is often a question of funding, and so this recommendation is also directed at donors. Furthermore, it is worth following the trend in other countries whereby academic qualifications are not the prerequisite for recruitment. Former government workers and military personnel are also frequently recruited as employees, and representatives from the political establishment are included in think tank study groups and confidential discussions.

Internationality: As well as their national audience, the major Washington and London think tanks also target an international audience for their publications. Their membership too is often international, which gives them greater influence on forming international opinion on foreign policy issues than their German counterparts. Some organize international “leadership programs” for young talent.

Greater visibility: In all three places, think tanks organize events for their members. In Brussels and London, they also organize annual conferences and public expert forums that attract considerable media interest.

Read the full analysis

Research and Advice in Foreign and Security Policy

An Analysis of the German Think Tank Landscape The German think tank landscape has become larger and more diverse...