Independent Policy Research and the Canadian Foreign Policy Community

By Boulden, Jane | International Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Independent Policy Research and the Canadian Foreign Policy Community


Boulden, Jane, International Journal


Although think tanks have a long and distinguished history in both the United States and Britain, and indeed have frequently played an important part in informing and influencing governments, in Canada their existence has been much more precarious and their role less pronounced. As middle powers, Scandinavian countries, which have established think tanks, could be a source for comparison with Canada. There is, however, scant literature in English on the subject. Australia, another middle power whose political system has British origins, is also a potential point of comparison. However, there are few Australian foreign policy think tanks.(f.1) For the purpose of comparison, therefore, Britain and the United States are more appropriate because they have had the strongest influence on the structure and nature of Canada's political system as an entity, and in both countries think tanks play an important role.

I think tanks: Definitions and Role

The term 'think tank' has its origins in World War II when it was used to describe a secure room where strategies and plans could be discussed. In the United States today the expression is applied to policy research organizations. The proliferation of think tanks in the United States, and the implications of their role, have only recently been studied, and work on the subject is still fairly limited.(f.2) Hence, an agreed definition of think tanks has yet to be developed. The task is made more difficult because organizations that fall within the category have remarkably different characteristics and backgrounds. As David Ricci points out: 'no one has yet decided exactly what think tanks are. [They] do not have a generic form in the same sense that we are able to specify the nature of social groupings such as families, armies, churches, and industrial corporations.' He then suggests that the key is to explore the concept according to the activities and research projects carried out.(f.3)

James Smith calls think tanks policy research organizations and provides the most evocative description of their activities: 'Think tank may conjure up images of elegant town houses or ultramodern offices in which scores of intellectuals with distinguished academic degrees dreamily contemplate the future. The more mundane reality is a warren of rented offices in which a handful of researchers monitor the latest political developments, pursue short-term research projects, organize seminars and conferences, publish occasional books or reports, field telephone calls from reporters, and work hard to obtain foundation grants or corporate support to keep their enterprises afloat.'(f.4)

Colin Gray suggests that a key feature of think tanks is their role in society: 'If officials are too close to action to have the time (or, often, even the inclination) to look much beyond the apparent need of the moment, then academics are too far removed from policy action to conduct research that speaks even to an expansive definition of those needs ... A prototypical think tank would be custom built to engage in policy analysis. To repeat, this is a distinctive social role. Government is designed/has evolved to administer, rather than to analyse, policy; while the university is organized to protect and advance separate scholarly disciplines.'(f.5)

Grays reference to a 'distinctive social role' hints at an assumption in all of the studies on think tanks: they are useful, indeed essential, in democratic societies because they facilitate public education and debate on key national issues. To go a step further, it is not just that informed discussion and debate are desirable; the public has a right to know about and to make their views known on important issues, especially those relating to national security.

II The British Foreign Policy Community

In the 1960s, changes in the domestic and external foreign policy environment brought about changes in the inward, closed nature of the British foreign policy elite. …

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