Wednesday, February 18

The Virtual Think Tank and thinking about security threats in the Twenty-First Century

With this post I'm opening up the comment section on Pundita blog.
Mark Safranski, whose ZenPundit blog has been a staple at Pundita since the early days, is a contributor to the newly-published Threats in the Age of Obama, a collection of essays edited by Michael Tanji.

ZenPundit has assembled quotes from a few of the essays in Tanji's book, which give an idea of the breadth of interests represented by the contributors. I haven't yet read Threats, and I'm not familiar with all the people that Tanji has gathered for his book (see the list of contributors below). But from the names I'm familiar with the book is a good overview of the security threats that Obama's administration needs to deal with.

The book is also an example of the Virtual Think Tank; as such it's as much an example of cross-discipline thinking as it is a primer on this era's security threats.

Daniel Drezner, from his new perch at the Foreign Policy website, reported a few days ago that President Obama has been raiding America's public policy schools in a quest to stuff his foreign policy team with university deans. This isn't the first time a U.S. presidential administration has built an in-house think tank by pulling academics from their chair at a university. But no matter how much academic brainpower is assembled to advise the President, the history of results is always depressingly (and often tragically) the same:

The opinion of academics whose conclusions most closely serve the administration's partisan leanings and defense goals come to dominate foreign policy. And because the academics are specialists, who are rarely given to investigating outside their discipline, galactic-sized chunks of reality completely escape their attention.

That explains the utter weirdness that has characterized U.S. foreign policy for decades and the escalating number of purported Black Swan events to beset these shores. ('Well it just happened like a bolt out of the blue, Mr President.')

Tanji, a former supervisory intelligence officer at the Defense Intelligence Agency, is well-aware of the limitations of the Virtual Think Tank (see his essay on the topic, which I've linked to above). But clearly he hopes its unfettered scope will prevent the worst oversights to arise from the blinkered research and analysis that academia produces.

We should all hope. In this era, when a handful of people can wreak as much destruction as a million-man army, the window for saying, 'Back to the drawing board' is very narrow.

Academic specialists are necessary contributors to all types of government policy, of course. The systemic problem generated by the approach is that the traditional think-tank, and the Washington institutions that rely on them, tend to limit the type of specialist whose views are considered.

And because the spur of the profit motive is largely absent from government deliberations, there isn't much incentive to rigorously question a viewpoint once it becomes entrenched at the policy level. The questioning tends to be forced in the wake of a massive failure, which is the wrong time to cast around for fresh input.

The beauty of the Virtual Tank is that it opens the door wide and encourages specialists from many disciplines and starkly opposing viewpoints to exchange ideas and pool data. That is especially vital in this era because there's a big difference between research and intelligence gathering and the kind of conclusions that derive from each. Both approaches are necessary.

I also note that Michael Tanji has invited Mark Safranski to contribute to his Threats Watch project, which is ongoing. The site is a good place to pick up news about emerging security issues.

And speaking of the Virtual Think Tank, ZenPundit has a roundup of contributions to the latest Clausewitz Roundtable.

In addition to Mark Safranski the contributors to Threats in the Age of Obama are: Daniel H. Abbott, Christopher Albon, Matt Armstrong, Matthew Burton, Molly Cernicek, Christopher Corpora, Shane Deichman, Adam Elkus, Matt Devost, Bob Gourley, Art Hutchinson, Tom Karako, Carolyn Leddy, Samuel Liles, Adrian Martin, Gunnar Peterson, Cheryl Rofer, Steve Schippert, Tim Stevens, and Shlok Vaidya.

Several of the contributors have a website/blog of their own, so Googling the names will call up their credentials.
This entry is cross-posted at RBO with Procrustes' usual great taste in accompanying artwork.

The entry is also linked to with comments at ZenPundit and tdaxp.


Fred Zimmerman said...

Thanks for the kind words. For more about the publisher of THREATS, see

mark said...

Hi Miss P.

First, a hearty thank you for your kind remarks and links. Very gracious of you!

I also welcome the return of the comments at Pundita, which I think might have been open for around 4 nanoseconds, several years ago. :)I look forward to seeing the debate develop and thrive here, as I know it will.

Adrian said...

Thanks for the publicity!