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Podcast: Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi on the new era of activist think tanks

The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft was barely a couple of months old when COVID-19 shut down America.

Just like that, the dovish think tank’s already formidable ambition of forcing a paradigm shift toward military restraint in US foreign policy became even more daunting.

Trita Parsi

The growing bipartisan support for ending the “endless wars” in the Middle East became less of a priority. Meanwhile the team of people assembled thanks to generous funding from the likes of George Soros on the left and Charles Koch on the right had to learn to work together without ever having met.

But the think tank’s co-founder and executive vice-president, Trita Parsi, says the epidemic has also vindicated the Quincy Institute’s mission.

“Here you have a scenario in which by now 220,000 or so Americans have died – more Americans killed than in the last 10 or so wars. And the US military and this bloated Pentagon budget and this militarization of our foreign policy was completely useless in dealing with this threat,” Parsi told The Influencers, a new podcast co-hosted by Foreign Lobby Report Editor Julian Pecquet and Richard Levick of the international communications agency Levick.

The moment, Parsi said, calls out for the kind of innovative work the Quincy Institute is doing in terms of creating actionable policies around the academic theory of restraint in global affairs. Traditional think tanks are largely absent from that space, he said, pointing to last year’s debate over ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, in which advocacy groups provided much of the analysis.

“We felt that the [existing] think tanks … are rarely producing intellectual work that goes in the direction that a lot of advocacy organizations that have been pushing for more diplomacy, pushing for a less militarized foreign policy were looking for – the type of intellectual validation of what they were doing,” Parsi said.

He faults funding by corporations and foreign governments for neutering “freewheeling thinking outside of the box,” leaving many established think tanks to simply defend the status quo. That has left a vacuum filled by the likes of the Quincy Institute, or QI, on the left, and the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) on the right.

“New thinking is not happening necessarily in the think tanks; it’s happening in advocacy organizations,” Parsi said. “And then eventually there will be some form of hybrids emerging, whether that is FDD or QI, because there is some space in between that has been left empty.”

For now, Parsi said, the Quincy Institute is primarily focused on producing research that can turn into detailed proposals for policymakers. He anticipates the proliferation of more “action-oriented” think tanks, in part because of a rapid-fire news cycle that requires experts to be part of the conversation on television and social media if they want to stay relevant.

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“I think this is going to be more common. You’re having think tanks having more resources allocated toward having outreach people who are interfacing with Congress, much more so than before,” he said (FDD for instance registered a lobbying arm last fall). “I think the news cycle and the speed in which things are done right now means that you need to be present on Twitter and be able to react very swiftly rather than hiding in your room writing a 50-page report.”

Whether that trend is positive, Parsi acknowledged, is highly questionable.

“Whether it’s good or bad, it’s an interesting question,” he said. “I think overall it’s not terribly awesome, to be completely frank.”

“I think overall it’s not terribly awesome, to be completely frank.”

Trita Parsi on think tanks taking on more activist roles

Turning to the 2020 election, Parsi, a co-founder and former president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), made clear he personally favored former Vice President Joe Biden‘s approach of re-entering the 2015 nuclear deal and engaging with Tehran. But, he added, that’s just addressing one “symptom” of US foreign policy over the past several decades.

“At the end of the day,” Parsi said, “there is nothing from the Biden camp, or from Biden himself, that gives much of an indication that Biden is at a place in which he is willing to go so far as to say: You know what, we need to have a broader overhaul of our foreign policy, which means we have to reassess, should the United States sustain or try to sustain military hegemony in the Middle East? Is the region that important?”

He said the Quincy Institute was focused on the “long haul” of changing US foreign policy thinking beyond the current bipartisan support for pulling US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It’s not just ending the wars,” he said. “It’s ending the mindset and ending the strategy that gets us into all of these wars.”