September 18, 2017

On September 18th, 2017, the Center for Strategic Studies of the University of Jordan had the honor of receiving Prof. Dr. McGann, Senior Lecturer, International Studies and Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Prof. McGann is currently in Jordan to attend the summit “Thinking and Advising in a Time of Protracted Conflict and Sustained Instability, the Role of Think Tanks in Shaping the Future of MENA”, organized by the Center for Strategic Studies, the TTCSP and Rome MED.

Prof. McGann accepted our invitation for an interview, discussing the global, regional and local dimensions of the current and future position of think tanks, and most importantly, which challenges lie ahead of the think tank community.

·         Dear Prof. McGann, welcome to Jordan! As an established name in the world of think tanks, what makes you so passionate about this subject? And what has been the motivation for you to establish the TTCSP?

Thirty years ago a question was posed to me by a co-worker, as I was responsible for funding of think tanks in the United States, of why we are funding all these think tanks whilst their ideas and analysis only ends-up in books and on shelfs, gathering dust. I didn’t believe that at that time and I still don’t believe it. Certainly in the US but in many other countries around the world too, think tanks play a very critical role in helping both government officials, elective officials, and more importantly the public to understand the complex issues we face, both domestically and internationally.

It helps make us the critical choices that we must make. Now more than ever before, I feel more passionate about think tanks because I believe they are needed in a time where there are many sources of information, but not all of them are good, and some of them are even dangerous. The institutions that enable to provide quality and critical analysis of key issues are essential to countries large and small around the world.

·         Due to the technology revolution, the information revolution, the world of think tanks has expanded significantly and as of 2017, the number of think tanks around the globe is over 7,500. Do you believe that this significant number poses challenges to policy makers, as it could be considered as an “overflow of information”?

Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State, once described being a policy maker like being at the end of a fire hose. I now believe that it is not only policy makers but the public that are at the end of a fire hose, because there is so much information coming, which makes it hard for them to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the dangerous.

From my standpoint that is a critical new role, a new opportunity, for think tanks to help provide credible information and to help to separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad, and most importantly, from the dangerous. So I truly think they are contributing to deal with the endless flow of information, with trust.

One of the unfortunate things is the information insecurity; who do you turn to that you can trust to obtain information. Moreover, I believe, as described in my most recent book, The Fifth Estate, that think tanks constitute the fifth estate as an important set of institutions, in both government as in civil society around the globe, helping policy makers and the public understand complex problems, and more importantly, identify solutions for how to deal with them.

·         As can be concluded from your results of the 2016 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, the majority of thinks tanks are either based in Europe or the United States. What kind of added value do the other think tanks around the world have?

Well, I think that if you look at places like Singapore, South-Korea, Japan, but also to other regions, there are numerous think tank hubs in Kenya, Ethiopia, and in Latin America, there certainly is a vibrant think tank community present that adds significant value to the emerging powers around the world and developing countries.

I have just completed two books, one will look at the role of think tanks, foreign policy and emergent powers to identify the number of cases where think tanks in emerging powers are contributing to (the development of) foreign policy, security, international affairs and economic affairs. And a second book where I looked at emerging power policy networks, and within that there is now a merging, a set of both in terms of functional areas, key policy areas, but also in terms of shadowing and providing assistance in terms of the necessary thinking needed for the global policy agenda, specifically in the context of the G-20.

So we now have this movement of the G-7 to the G-20, and whilst not all emerging powers are represented at the G-20, it is a marked difference. Interestingly, it is think tanks around the world that have come together, hence essentially providing the policy analysis and support for the G-20 that will help assure that the agenda that for many years was dominated by the G-7 will now turn under the influence of the G-20.

So this year two of our partners in Latin America will host and provide the big think tank policy analysis for the G-20 summit that will take place in Argentina.

So to answer your question, in many ways and in many countries think tanks are now playing a very critical role. A role that was once both outsourced to and dominated by North America and Europe is clearly changing, and I think the world will be a better place as a result of that. 

·         At the same time you wrote an opinion article for the Washington Post called “for think tanks, it’s either innovate or die” (2015). Do you think that think tanks have started to innovate and reform or do they remain unchanged? 

Well I see a lot of improvement but I also see a long way to go. I also see four trends that I think require think tanks to redouble the effort. One of them is the continual relentless technological innovations that create disruptions, and not only in the think tank world, but in many industries and in many parts of society as well. The second is internet and globalization that essentially enable ideas and information to flow around the world. The third is what I see as the major challenge for think tanks, and that they have not met, is how to respond to the increased velocity of information and policy footage. The result of globalization, internet and information causes technology, information and policy to move at a much faster pace, which will require all knowledge-based institutions, including universities, to be much more responsive, and have a much shortened lifespan for issues, for policies, and in many cases for leaders, because things will change so rapidly. And then there is the fourth and final dimension that has the potential of generating catastrophic effects, what I call policy tsunamis.

Because of the internet advances and the increased information policy flows, there will be economic, social, political and environmental forces that will appear as a small dot in one region and then will mushroom and spread across the globe. I don’t  think that anyone will expect to predict those happenings, but we need to do a much better job of surveillance in the sense of global scanning and identifying and understanding these trends, including d the relationship between them and the increased information and policy foes.

And for that I think once again what I described as filling the gap where the media has been shrinking, injecting quality information into the analysis and to be able to be both in terms of techniques and analytics to better understand and almost in real-time this phenomenon that will shape politics and public policy in countries and will occur in a way that for some institutions won’t understand well after it has happened, and then it is too late.

So the question is, how do we restructure think tanks so they are smarter, better, faster, and most of all, more mobile, because we live in a for good or real We have devices that are very powerful, but they are very mobile and most people increasingly get their information from those devices. 

·         Referring back to the phenomena of social media and technology, we can see here in the region, particularly from the Arab spring and onwards, the fact that civil society has clearly adapted itself to the era of technology and information, most exemplary with social media. Do you consider think tanks to have adequately responded to new way of information sharing, or do you believe that think tanks could take much more advantage out of this?


Well, it is not only with the Arab spring, but we can also see it with the election of Donald Trump, where Trump very effectively used social media, used tweets. Also, he was able to target specific markets for the greatest impact. That lesson when coupled with other events, in terms of the Arab spring and other countries around the world, provide, I think, overwhelming evidence that the approaches many think tanks have, which focuses on publishing books and journals, are in contrast with tweets that cannot bring the same level of content and quality as ideas of think tanks do. This will continue to be paramount; where will the credibility flow?

But what needs to change is the way that the think tanks present the analysis and research, and more importantly the way it is disseminated and communicated. Those areas are where real changes need to take place. Not every institution is doing it. However, some are understanding that if you use infographics, social media, it becomes a means of attracting people to greater in-depth analysis and content, but they are not going to connect with an institution and certainly not be drawn into the analysis and content if there is no sophisticated communications strategy.

I think that is the essential element. Understanding the value and power of infographics, big data, video, clips and issue briefs (not in a 25 page brief, but in a 25min video clip). That is the new direction. That is what your audience wants.

And therefore also offering a counterweight to the dangerous…

Exactly. And we will only see a growth of the dangerous if institutions like IFRE, Chatham House, and Brookings, do not understand and/or respond and provide content. Then it will be provided by others and that is where the dangerous is. And it is not going to be a reductionist, simplistic answer, it is really to do the hard work of how to communicate those complex ideas and reach audiences that in a way will help them understand that the simplistic explanations that various groups are providing. That’s the only way to combat it.

·         Only 5,8% of all think tanks are located in the MENA region. Why are there so few think tanks for such an important region in international affairs? And what kind of limitations and challenges does this pose for policy-making in the region?

Well, the subject matter of this being, which has been of my concern for some time, is how do you conduct, how do think tanks operate, and how can policy advice exist in a period of protractive conflict and sustained instability. How do you build for the future? How do you think about the future? And how do you attract young people to seek a career in scholarship and in management of think tanks. Those are sort of the critical questions.

The explanation to why there are so few in the region, I think that is changing. In certain countries, like in Israel there is an oversupply I would suggest. Other countries have historically punched below their wheat, but I do see in the Gulf and elsewhere a dramatic increase of think tanks and interests, because they are noticing that countries of similar size are effectively using think tanks. And I think that as many of the countries in the region rise in power, the leaders of those countries understand the essential aspects of helping them to think about the complex challenges they face.

I have been in the region since the late eighties, I have seen many ups and downs, but I am for the first time really positive about the future, because I think that hopefully, and in many respects even if we had a continued instability in the region, many of the countries in the region are understanding the long term effects of that and are moving forward to build-up the capacity of think tanks, not only within their own country but on a regional basis. And once again this meeting and the response to the MENA summit is an indication of how the think tank community in the MENA region values developing capacities and working together on the critical challenges to region faces. 

·         What are your future objectives for the TTCSP? And how can the TTCSP help the think tank community in the MENA region?

I believe we will continue to partner with think tanks in the region, and part of the instigation of this meeting really came from a group of think tanks who have been to summits, and have said “when are we going to do this in the MENA region”. Hence, we had a successful meeting in 2013 in Turkey, but because of the instability it was hard to find a place and get the group together. Now I think the moment is open and I am happy the Center for Strategic Studies agreed to partner with us, in hosting this summit, and I think that from this we will continue to be supportive. But in every region we have partners and in every region we now have planning committees that from my standpoint will carry this into the future and the ownership and leadership on the direction of MENA summit will come from institutions within the region. So we are here in a supportive role, and we will continue to be, but the objective is to really have it self-sustaining in the region itself.