Changing the World in 6-page increments
What impact can an 'undergraduate think tank' make on national security policy? You'll be surprised.| November 11, 2009
Largely unknown outside of the think tanks and government agencies within the D.C. Beltway, the policy brief is a demanding and important form of writing.
“Policy briefs are normally anywhere between four and six pages long and are very, very dense,” Dennis Smith explained. “Actually, they’re quite hard to write. What you have to do is to lay out a problem very succinctly and then add a solution—very simply. And the solution can be quite complex.”
These situation-and-remedy distillations function as the narrative ball bearings deep inside the machine that turns the wheels of democracy. The four- to six-page policy briefs are like acorns: some of them will grow into mighty executive orders, departmental directives or other documents that can leaf out into many hundreds of pages of minutiae and have world-altering effects. Others, again like acorns, never will see the light of day. But the truth is simple: If you want to be a player in the decision-making processes of public policy, you’ll need to be as familiar with the policy brief as an Elizabethan poet was with the sonnet.
“Ultimately most of my students are going to get jobs in D.C., in think tanks or the government,” Smith said. “They’re not going to be writing research papers; they’re going to be writing policy briefs.”
Smith, along with Amy Oakes, are co-directors of PIPS—the Project on International Peace and Security at William & Mary. Both Smith and Oakes are assistant professors in William & Mary’s government department. PIPS itself operates within William & Mary’s Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations.
Working for (or with) the feds
PIPS, now in its second year, was established as an “undergraduate think tank,” Smith said, a practical, research-based initiative in which an elite group of students grapple with pressing issues with security implications and then produce fresh policy recommendations. Products of the excellent government and international relations programs at William and Mary, many of our graduates work either for the federal government or with it. Once they begin work, they soon find themselves faced with the necessity of mastering the policy-brief format.
“Policy brief” is actually an umbrella term, explains seasoned diplomat Mitchell Reiss, covering a variety of memos, reports and intelligence assessments. “It’s an avalanche of information; I have seen hundreds of these documents,” he said. “PIPS is working on documents that we would call Memos to the Secretary. These would be things that the policy planning office would send up to the Secretary of State suggesting a change or a way to enhance an existing policy.”
If Smith and Oakes are the parents of PIPS, then Reiss is the program’s godfather. Ambassador Reiss is diplomat in residence at William & Mary. He has a foreign-service dossier that’s already thick and continues to grow, as his experience in security-sensitive areas such as North Korea and Northern Ireland means that his name is automatically on the short list whenever events dictate that the U.S. needs a special envoy to visit one of these trouble spots. At William & Mary, he teaches a course, Challenges in American Foreign Policy, in which he urges students to take a more prescriptive approach to American foreign policy issues: “In other words, to not only understand the complexities, but to go one step further and actually try to make policy recommendations for trying to solve things,” he said.
An insider’s take on things
It only made sense for Smith and Oakes to seek out Reiss during the formative period of PIPS. He brought an insider’s connections (see sidebar, opposite page), and an experienced diplomat’s understanding of the challenges of the profession.
“First of all, it’s very, very difficult to influence American foreign policy from outside the government. The reality is that it’s sometimes hard to influence it from within the government,” Reiss said. “The way to have a fighting chance of doing so is not just to have a good idea, but also to be able to articulate it in a manner that is persuasive.”
The issues PIPS tackles are all security-related, or as Oakes says, “Broadly, scenarios in which you might threaten or use military force—situations that endanger U.S. national interests.” Further, she explained, PIPS concentrates on “medium-range” issues, issues that might reasonably be expected to come to a head in five to fifteen years. Short-range policy questions, such as what the U.S. should do about Pakistan today, are unsuitable for PIPS because such a question requires an immediate response.
Likewise, Oakes said, “It’s harder to anticipate what the issues are going to be in 50 years.” Policy challenges that are predicated on developments in the distant future (What should Washington do if China surpasses the U.S. in military capability?), while important, have too long a development horizon to be suitable for the program.
For PIPS, medium-range issues are just right. “We have a pretty good idea what those issues are going to be and we can come up with reasonable plans for how they can be addressed,” Oakes said.
“That’s why I think we’ve had so much luck in the relationship with the Department of Policy Planning at the State Department, because their mission is exactly the same,” she added. “Everybody in Washington is thinking about the short term, but they, like us, are constructing strategy for dealing with medium term issues.”
Even limiting the scope of PIPS to medium-range security issues still leaves a wide range of potential topics. Where to begin? Smith thought to ask for suggestions from security and foreign-policy professionals themselves.
Asking for topics
“We sent out a ton of letters and e-mails, asking them what types of questions they thought were important right now,” Smith said. “We got a decent response for the first year. We generated a list of about 80 questions, hoping for an even bigger list this year.”
Not all the responses from the foreign-policy community were reassuring. “Some policymakers told us, when we first broached this idea with them, that they were skeptical,” Smith said. “They didn’t think undergraduates could produce anything that they would consider valuable.”
PIPS started its first year with something to prove to the skeptics, but the undergraduate think tank concept had quite a bit going for it. To begin with, PIPS is a highly selective program; fellows are selected from a group of invitees that represent the highest-performing students in William & Mary’s government and international relations programs. Six fellows were selected and sat down with Smith, Oakes and that list of 80 security issues.
“Out of the 80, we quickly narrowed it down by topics that we thought were especially interesting. So we went down from 80 to maybe 12. Then out of that 12, we refined it down to 6 research questions, because there were only 6 fellows,” Smith said. “Then they started working on them.”
The security implications of some PIPS topics are not always immediately apparent to the layman. For instance: What does the aging population of Japan have to do with U.S. security? Plenty, it seems. PIPS fellow Alanna Whytock ’09 explained in her policy brief that the U.S. alliance with Japan is “the lynchpin of the nation’s security architecture in Asia.” A grayer Japanese demographic, she points out, means an economically and militarily weaker ally for the U.S.
A standout among standouts
Reiss cited Whytock’s paper as a standout effort, although he speaks highly of all the offerings from the 2008 PIPS fellows.
“There was some very interesting thinking done about how Japan can play its role as our major ally in Asia at a time in which they are resource-constrained this way,” Reiss said. “It implicates the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance. It implicates defense spending issues for Tokyo.”
Whytock’s policy brief suggests that the U.S. could help to counter the effects of declining enlistments in the Japanese armed forces by selling advanced weapons systems, such as the F-22 fighter, to Tokyo.
“This paper addresses some pretty big-ticket, big-idea type of issues. Not a lot of people are thinking about them,” Reiss said. “There is an intersection of the demographic change with the defense challenge where I thought someone was doing some very smart thinking on an interdisciplinary basis.”
Whytock’s paper garnered notice elsewhere, as well. A writer for the Tokyo bureau of Bloomberg News contacted PIPS seeking information about the report. An official from the think tank CNA (Center for Naval Analyses) heard Whytock’s presentation in April at the Northern Virginia headquarters of the giant government consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton (see sidebar).
“Alanna’s solution was one that the people at CNA were just tickled pink about,” Smith said. “This is directly relevant to defense planning, right now. At CNA, they said this issue was one that is actually relevant to policymakers, especially as DOD (Department of Defense) is doing the quadrennial defense review right now. They asked if they could use it. In fact, they’ve interviewed Alanna.”
Other papers from the first year of PIPS bring similar interdisciplinary insights into their narratives of looming problems and potential solution. Jeremy Meisinger ’10, for instance offers a new economic development model and concept of “energy independence”, based on promoting the creation of multiple algae-based energy suppliers in the developing world. Rachel Walsh ’10 points out in her brief how the differences in public education systems in the Arabian Peninsula can affect a state’s level of Islamic radicalism.
“Her basic message was that Yemen and Saudi Arabia both have major problems with radicalism, but Kuwait doesn’t. Why is that the case?,” Smith asked. “She said it came down to the way in which their education systems were organized.”
He further explained that the structure of the education systems in Yemen and Saudi Arabia result in large numbers of students primarily receiving a religious education.
“When they graduate, they have extensive religious training, but few practical job skills,” Smith said. “As a result, not only are they highly sensitized, ideologically, they also tend to be unemployed and tend to fall prey to these radical groups. What is fascinating in the case of Kuwait is that they have a very well balanced and organized education system. There is religious education but it’s not radical in nature; it’s not Wahabist; it’s standard, conservative Orthodox Muslim. At the same time, graduates of Kuwaiti schools come away with a level of technical education that makes them employable. Rachel contends that this explains why we see so few Kuwaitis participate in terrorism, while we see so many young people from Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
New year, new fellows
PIPS enters its second year with a new crop of six fellows. Some of the 2008 PIPS fellows—including Meisinger—were juniors and will return this year to act as mentors to the new members of William & Mary’s undergraduate think tank.
Think tanks often promote or are sympathetic to one or another geopolitical school of thought, often identified with a particular foreign-policy architect.
“There are realists—Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft being examples,” who advocate a tough-minded approach to foreign policy in which government focuses on promoting the national interest through the pragmatic use of power, Oakes explained. “And you have neo-conservatives, who borrow ideas from both realists and the liberals, such as political commentator Charles Krauthammer—and key members of the Bush administration during the run-up to the Iraq—Paul Wolfowitz, for example,” she said. “Finally, you have liberals, who are committed to the multilateral promotion of democracy, free trade and progressive norms—think Woodrow Wilson, Bill Clinton.”
As PIPS enters its second year, Smith and Oakes are taking pains that making sure that the project remains ideologically and politically neutral—even though individual students may exhibit ideological leanings. They stress to the PIPS fellows that their policy briefs could be seen by the whole spectrum of the policymaking community, a group professionally sensitive to bias and able to detect and interpret nuance.
“We don’t want to be seen as a conservative think tank or a liberal one. We just want to be known as an undergraduate one, with students who are doing exciting, thoughtful and important work; work that’s very well done,” Oakes said. “Dennis and I have no particular political agenda. Regardless of what our personal beliefs are, we’ll critique every paper with the same degree of rigor. The fellows have to present these papers to policymakers and at think tanks. Even if we may privately disagree with what a student says, we’re not going to let them present an obviously flawed paper. That’s not in our interest.”