In December 2015, a fact-finding and recommendation mission on French foreign policy think tanks was entrusted to Ambassador Yves Saint-Geours. The idea to conduct this mission stemmed from the long-held belief that in the battle of global ideas, think tanks are on the front line.
Whether it is by finding words to express global strategic shifts, coming up with concepts to organize the chaos of international relations or trying to determine future global trends, think tanks play a central role in a State’s soft diplomacy. They also play an important role in decision-making as they issue recommendations and policy options.
Think tanks are growing in numbers - there are now thousands all over the world including a hundred or so with major international influence on the media, populations and their leaders. However, the think tank industry is strongly dominated by British and American academics and researchers, who set out and fully understand all the codes, whereas we need to raise our international profile. Think tanks are a tool for wielding power, which has clearly benefited the United States.
In his report, Yves Saint-Geours made the following observation:
- French foreign policy think tanks are good and think tankers are in high demand: the French landscape is extremely diverse and is based on extremely high-level academic research and field work. French analyses are appreciated and works are read.
- However too often, structures are working alongside one another instead of with one another. Too often French diplomats take their inspiration from ideas being discussed in Berlin, London or Washington and are not paying attention to what is being produced in France. Too often Anglo-Saxon and especially North American concepts prevail.
- Public action does not match needs. The government seems hesitant and indifferent when it comes to taking action in this industry even though it is vital to France’s influence in the world. Government subsidies are irregular and have fallen sharply; they are out of sync with recent efforts conducted by think tanks.
- As a result, French think tanks are having trouble developing, hiring staff, opening offices abroad and investing in innovative tools.
In the post-Brexit world, where populism is threatening the European Union, where revisionist governments are threatening the international liberal order, where disinformation and rumours too often take precedence over studying facts and political courage, it is especially important to be able to rely on high-quality national analyses, developed in close connection with authorities, based on accurate field research that is widely disseminated. Supporting think tanks means supporting the means of getting France’s voice heard abroad.
With this in mind, Ambassador Saint-Geours advances a series of recommendations to improve the coherence of the government’s report on think tanks and to work on the institutional bottlenecks that are negatively affecting the performance of the think tank sector in France.
The report contains 20 recommendations but there are three priority areas:
Coherence and evaluation of public funds for think tanks:
- Establish an interministerial steering committee to arbitrate subsidies the Prime Minister grants to think tanks;
- Carry out an independent evaluation on the use of public funds for all subsidized mechanisms;
Having the Ministry work more closely with think tanks:
- Establish an exchange programme within the Ministry on a voluntary basis. For example, a diplomat could spend one or two years in a think tank and in turn, a researcher from a think tank could spend time in one of the political directorates of the Ministry;
- Have directors of the main think tanks devoted to international issues and the Minister meet every in an “Advisory Circle on Foreign Affairs” to determine the current priority issues together;
- Organize active support from the Ministry and Minister for the fundraising for think tanks.
Dissemination and promotion of French ideas via cultural sections, international meetings and translation:
- Mobilize embassy cooperation and cultural action sections via the Institut Français to facilitate venues for French think tankers in the network;
- Create a fund for the translation of French works produced by think tanks so that they are better known;
- Create a specific fund for sending experts to global conferences and forums so that France’s voice is heard abroad.