After the release of a major new ranking of the world’s top think tanks, Russian experts took a moment to reflect on what needs to happen for the nation’s political elite to pay attention to their expertise.

Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin. Photo: Russia Direct / Vladimir Stakheev

This week the University of Pennsylvania introduced its 2015 think tank ranking, “The Global Go-To Think Tanks Index.” Presented in Russia at Carnegie Moscow Center on Jan. 28, the results of the index brought about discussion by Russia’s most prominent experts about the challenges they face during a period of highly charged political confrontation.

In 2015, 24 American think tanks and only three Russian ones were included in the list of the best think tanks worldwide (both non-U.S. and U.S.), which comprised 175 analytical centers out of almost 7,000 think tanks in the world. In 2013-2014, the list included four Russian think tanks. This year, however, the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, which two years garnered the 98th position, was off the list.

While Carnegie Moscow Center climbed from the 26th position to the 24th in the list in comparison with 2014, the Institute for World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO) remained at the 32nd position, with Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO-University) falling from the 100th position in 2013 to 123rd place in 2015.

Six U.S. think tanks rank in the Top 10: Brookings Institution (1st place), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (3rd), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (4th), Council on Foreign Relations (6th), Rand Corporation (8th) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (9th). The UK’s Chatham House, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Amnesty International (AI) took second, seventh and 10th positions, respectively.

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Given that this year’s index presents 52 various nominations of think tanks depending on region, research field and achievements, Russia demonstrated a better record in other categories this year. For example, over the last two years, 11 Russian analytical centers were included in the list of the best analytical centers in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2015, the list comprised 12 Russian think tanks, including Carnegie Moscow Center (2nd place), IMEMO (4th), MGIMO-University (12th), the Center for Economic and Financial Research (10th), the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies (25th), and the Russian International Affairs Council (62nd). 

The author of the ranking, James McGann, assessed the think tanks based on certain criteria, including the ability of these think tanks to follow the principles of objectivity and intellectual and political independence, the reputation and professionalism of a center’s personnel, the high quality of scholarly contribution, the amount and the variety of publications, exposure to media, the ability to keep up with the demands of the digital sphere and others.

Infographic by Nikolai Korolyev

Russia’s think tank expertise ignored by the nation’s governing elite

One of the most important criteria of the University of Pennsylvania’s think tank index, which Russian experts pay attention to, is the impact of a center’s research and programs on a country’s leadership and key political players and the reputation of the think tank from the perspective of the government. This is where the Russian think tanks fall behind.

Carnegie Moscow Center Director Dmitri Trenin argues that the authorities in Russia are very closed and reluctant to rely on any expertise outside governmental agencies.

According to him, the role of Russia’s think tanks in the country’s foreign policy decision-making process is “close to zero,” because primarily officials take decisions based on secret information and usually relegate any outside expertise to something irrelevant. Secrecy is a tool of the Russian authorities to keep power under their control. After all, if one has secret information, one has a lot of political advantages and leverage, he argues.  

The governance style in Russia, in which power is in the hand of just one person, further exacerbates the problem, Trenin said.

“The [political] monarchy is restored in Russia, when one person takes decisions,” he said during the presentation of the University of Pennsylvania’s think tank ranking, clarifying that the government in Russia will remain “the major customer and sponsor of expertise.” Business and universities will play no significant role in the foreign policy decision-making process because of the nature of the Russian political elites with their low regard for intellectual expertise and the current crisis of academic research in the country.

“The crisis of academic science is going on in Russia, which affects the quality of Russia’s foreign policy expertise,” said Trenin, adding that the lack of good analysis on China or the U.S. is creating the situation in which the government “cannot feed itself with” high-quality expertise.

This, in turn, hampers the quality of the decision-making process and leads to the emergence of pseudo-expertise, pseudo-ideology and conspiracy theories in the country –  when the occupation of expert is devalued and met with a great deal of suspicion. Today’s experts are good in being polemical, but bad in adhering to professional integrity and facts.

However, Trenin doesn’t seem to be hopeless about the future of Russia’s think tanks. Even though Russian political elites neglect them, it doesn’t mean that the country’s analytical centers don’t have any impact on society and politicians at all.

The mission of think tanks in Russia shouldn’t add up to attempting to give recommendations to the government, he believes. Instead, it should educate society and “those part of the political elites, which are not hopeless.”      

The role of ideology in shaping foreign policy expertise

Trenin contrasts Russian expertise with American expertise in terms of its impact on the foreign policy decision-making process. In the U.S., the government is more open to outside expertise and more flexible in hiring those who previously worked as academics or experts.

But this stems from the nature of the American political system and society, with its political competition, open door policy and the high activity and role of business and charity organizations in funding analytical centers. Those who worked in academia or the expert community can easily become governmental officials, or even diplomats. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul and legendary American diplomat Henry Kissinger are good examples of how academics successfully made the transition.

So, no wonder 27 percent of all think tanks worldwide are located in the U.S. (1,835), while the global share of Russian ones is only 2 percent (122 think tanks).

Nikita Mendkovich, an expert with the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), believes the influence of ideology on the quality of Russian expertise is inevitable and it is also common for the U.S., he argues. U.S. foreign policy and its expertise, with its focus on expanding democratic values and institutions, is ideology-driven to a large extent, which resulted in many mistakes and failures in the Middle East, according to him.

American diplomats listen only to those experts they find personally favorable and compatible with their mindset, not those with whom they disagree and who could provide better expertise. And this affects their perceptions and decision-making process as well. Thus, ideological preferences of certain experts are essential in reaching political office or becoming a representative of the political elite, Mendkovich said.

Based on his experience, Trenin agrees, admitting that sticking to intellectual independence and shying away ideology-driven analysis is becoming increasingly difficult, even in the U.S.

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“Neutrality is becoming equal to supporting the regime [in Russia],” he said. “In fact, one is supposed to reject objectivity.”

Russian experts must be wary of the echo chamber effect

A slightly different view comes from Christopher Hartwell, the president of Poland’s Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE), which was ranked third in the University of Pennsylvania’s list of the best analytical centers in Central and Eastern Europe.

The key is to keep the lines of communication open, the dialogue amongst scholars going, and the spirit of open inquiry alive,” he told Russia Direct.

Hartwell point out the strong points of Russia’s expertise and sees it as “quite good in some areas — economics especially, where there is a broad exposure to international trends and debates and the latest research.”

Yet regarding the expertise in other fields, he also expresses his doubts, much like Trenin.

“In other areas, it’s very difficult to gather expertise because it may be counter to what the political line is, especially in issues of foreign policy,” he said. “I find that Russian colleagues are often quite frank in private but much more reserved in public given the chilling effect that has come over the country in regards to research. People aren’t going out on a limb to criticize anymore, especially if [Chechen President Ramzan] Kadyrov is going to call them ‘enemies of the people.’ That creates an echo chamber for certain policies, and a big lack of independent viewpoints. That is never good for policy, not just in Russia but in the U.S. and EU as well.”

Hartwell is also critical of American expertise on Russia. He argues that the problem results from the fact that, “After the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, American funding and interest turned elsewhere.”

“The Soviet Union was no longer a threat so there was less of a need to scrutinize the Kremlin,” he said. “There was pretty much a winnowing of the whole Russian studies field after 1992 and especially by 2000. Now that Russia is back in the news again, unfortunately for all the wrong reasons, there is a sense that some of the Russia expertise that is needed has atrophied or doesn’t exist anymore.”

However, Hartwell also believes that “the insularity that Russia is now pursuing” also hampers not only Russia’s expertise, but also American expertise.

“We’re going back to the days of Kremlinology, where every word of the dear leader is parsed and examined for hints of what’s coming next,” he said.