May 22, 2015
Governance is perhaps the greatest crisis we face today. Governments are run by bureaucracies and corporate clients which are not accountable to the citizens and they are most influenced by media corporations that serve to distract and entertain, rather than to inform and to challenge. There is literally no space for the citizen to engage in the debate on policy and many have simply given up.
The think tank today is a double-edged sword. There are think tanks that honestly offer an opportunity for citizens to participate in a discussion on policy. Such organizations as the Korea Federation of Environmental Movements and People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy are representative of this movement. Nevertheless, even the most progressive of those think tanks are often dominated by an inside circle of influential figures and are not so welcoming to outsiders. Equally important, they tend not to be as international in their outreach. Progressive think tanks do have their partners around the world, but they rarely hold seminars in English, or produce reports in English, let alone Chinese or Japanese.
On the other hand, there are massive spaces for the discussion of policy like the Asan Institute for Policy Studies that bring together leading figures for seminars and publish numerous policy papers aimed at policy makers. And yet such think tanks as the Asan Institute are not meant as places to debate policy, but rather for experts, often from the far right, to kindly explain an agenda that has already been decided. These think tanks feature many events that are invitation only and they take pride in their exclusivity, limiting meetings with important public officials to VIP guest lists.
The problem is that although think tanks have tremendous opportunity as locales for a broad debate on policy, in most cases they are founded and run rather for the purpose of manufacturing consent with ideas created by interest groups and cannot reflect the opinions of a broad range of citizens. Think tanks reflect acutely the spread of consumer culture as well, serving often as tools for repackaging ideas, often unpalatable ones, in such a manner that the public can accept them. Therefore the think tank ends up serving a distinctly anti-democratic function of disguising the sources of new policy initiatives.
Think tanks are also linked to a larger trend of outsourcing whereby decisions which were made previously by highly trained government officials, or professors at national universities are outsourced to consulting companies and other external organizations which are given the authority to control the policy debate. The authority of individuals working in government, or in corporations to participate in a debate on policy and direction is thus drastically reduced and the workplace made far less democratic.
The rise of a consulting culture in which what are essentially bribes can be given to so-called experts and retired employees of major companies and government agencies is linked to the rise of think tanks in that both are employed as a means to promote a non-transparent decision making process and to disenfranchise government and corporate workers.
That said, think tanks have become a critical space for the discussion of policy in capitals around the world and that trend will not be soon reversed. Think tanks have the potential, if seldom realized, to serve as an open platform wherein civil servants, representatives of the private sector, local citizens’ groups, experts and ordinary citizens can gather for a comprehensive and in-depth discussion of policies and their broader implications.
Think tanks in Washington, D.C., such as the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation have played a significant role in policy debate for many decades. Numerous articles have recently appeared in journals in Korea, China and Japan advocating that the nations of Asia should also develop a new generation of think tanks that correspond with their new economic influence. In a sense, think tanks have become critical for advancing the national interests, or so it is perceived.
But it is only recently that Seoul has developed a critical mass of think tanks and started to draw attention from around the world. Such institutions as the Korea Development Institute and the Sejong Institute were path-setters who established a systematic debate on national policy, granted with very close ties to government. In the case of KDI, its attention has turned increasingly to presenting Korean models for economic growth to the developing world.
But the establishment of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the East Asia Institute over the last seven years has resulted in global impact for Korean think tanks. Asan Institute above all has brought in top policy makers from the United States for high profile events in Seoul and Washington D.C. that have drawn tremendous attention. The right wing agenda of many events at the Asan Institute have been rather disturbing to many working on Korean policy, but nonetheless, the new visibility has inspired many to look at Seoul again as a possible center for think tanks.
Also significant is the presence of international think tanks in Seoul. The Asia Foundation has had an office in Seoul for decades that occasionally prepares reports and holds small events, but its profile has been rather limited. As Korea has moved from developing to developed nation, the sole focus for the Asia Foundation on the Korean Peninsula has become North Korea.The recent addition of a branch of the Asia Society has increased the opportunities for events with a cultural focus in Seoul.
Perhaps the most exciting recent development is the establishment of think tanks in Seoul (as opposed to branches) by foreigners. The Asia Institute, which focuses on relations between Korea, China and Japan with attention to topics overlooked by mainstream think thanks such as climate change and technology and society, has established a significant sphere of influence. The Asia Institute started in Korea and brings a global perspective while highlighting distinctly Asian issues. Similarly, the Arirang Institute was established in Seoul a few years ago by an American with the mission of encouraging a broad dialog among Koreans and foreigners about the topic of unification. For Koreans accustomed to the Americans spouting off hawkish perspectives on the North Korean threat, it was refreshing to have an American think tank which suggested that cultural engagement with North Korea, and the region, was the way forward. Arirang Institute has acquired a loyal following among Korean college students and is the first think tank to North Korean refugees in the discussion about North Korean policy.
The question is whether Seoul can rise to the next level in terms of the impact of its think tanks on a global level. Certainly the potential is there. Think tanks like the Asan Institute have substantial funding and Seoul has one of the best educated audiences in the world for events. You can find experts with experience living all over the world in Seoul as you can find in no other city–perhaps because of the breadth of the business activities of Korean corporations. I have found that you can find someone with a knowledge of infrastructure in Kazakhstan, with near native fluency in Korean, Chinese and English, with business experience in Ethiopia, more easily in Seoul than in just about any major city. Moreover, we find among the next generation of Koreans a significant group of highly educated people who have near native fluency in Chinese, Korean and English. Such a population will be critical as we increasingly move towards a policy debate focused on Chinese issues.
Perhaps one of the biggest obstacles to Seoul’s rise as a capital for think tanks has been simply the lack of awareness among Koreans of just how important Seoul has become. Koreans are profoundly aware, and overly sensitive, about what is being done at Harvard and Yale, and they want to know about Japan, England, Germany and Australia. But they are far less aware of how Korea itself is increasingly being benchmarked by developing nations for its outstanding infrastructure, its manufacturing know-how, its capacity in e-government, its world-class research institutes, and its universities. Still, for many educated Koreans, the country is a long way from reaching the high standards of advanced nations and the focus has been on catch up–and not on original policy discussions originating in Seoul.
Given Korea’s remarkable ability to make rapid changes, to move quickly to take advantages of new trends in technology and economics, it is certainly possible, but by no means guaranteed, that Seoul can become the center for an outstanding cluster of think tanks related to policy, technology and international relations.
To do so would require some profound changes, though. Those changes are not, however, issues of budgets, or technology or branding. Although improvements could of course be made, the basic support structure for a think tank Mecca is already in place. Rather the challenge is one of vision and of innovative capacity. New think tanks that unfurl new horizons in policy cannot be created by benchmarking other think tanks. They can only emerge if Seoul cherishes a culture that encourages such vision and innovation.
First and foremost, the next generation of Seoul’s think tanks will have to address the concerns of young people. So often the seminars and receptions at think tanks in Seoul have no participants under forty, and in many cases the speakers at think tanks are in their sixties and seventies.
If you manage to find someone under thirty (or even under forty) at an Asan Institute event, he or she is most likely serving as an “intern.” Interns play at best a minor role organizing events at think tanks and increasingly the position of intern has degenerated into an exploitative position in which young people are expected to work hard with no pay and no guarantee of employment.
This unfortunate practice must stop. Young people, including high school and college, should be deeply involved in planning seminars and research projects, and in the process of determining the priorities for think tanks. We should make it easy for committed youth to get funding to start their own think tanks and to use those think tanks to promote their ideas. Only when youth play the vital role in think tanks will they properly reflect the needs of the next generation. Moreover, Korea faces the tremendous challenges of an aging society with the consequence that the concerns of youth are ignored in favor of the concerns of older people. Such a bias creates tremendous inequity in our society and the think tank should help to alleviate, not reinforce, that bias.
Also, next generation of think tanks must be international in every sense. There is a serious misunderstanding of what “international” means by many think tanks. The assumption is that if you have events in English for an elite group of experts and bring through an occasional expert from the United States you are “international.”
Korean think tanks need to establish research teams that include non-Koreans as senior researchers, not just visitors. And those senior researchers should be at least 50% women as well. But most importantly, next generation of think tanks should be multicultural. That means we need researchers and staff who are half Korean and half Vietnamese or Mongolian. Those young people are our future and they should be fully represented at think tanks.
Next generation of think tanks must address issues that are critical to our age. Climate change should be the primary topic for discussion at think tanks, bringing together all stakeholders to prepare for the response. Such seminars should not be entertaining and there should be no anticipation of some special privilege for the presenters. They should be brutally honest, even frightening, confronting the serious dangers that we face.
So also the impact of technological changes on our society should be an important topic. Although we are unaware of this fact, technology is fragmenting our society and undermining our ability to focus on the problems in our society. The role of the think tank is to draw attention to serious problems that are otherwise invisible to ordinary people. To merely repeat accepted platitudes for the audience as a ritual defeats the purpose of the think tanks; Think tanks must guard against becoming symbols of authority and legitimacy. Think tanks should promote a broad dialog, and should never promote the narrow agenda of an interest group.
The work of Korean think tanks must be truly multilingual in response to Korea’s new role in the world. Although English is clearly the dominant international language, Korean think tanks will need to conduct seminars and produce reports in Chinese, Japanese and Arabic, and even in languages such as Indonesian and Vietnamese in the future. Moreover, in order for reports and policy suggestions to be effective, they must be written in a language which matches with that used by government officials in each country so that the suggestions can be rapidly and easily be adopted as policy.
Ultimately, the success of Seoul as a center for think tanks with global reach will come down to the ability of Koreans to innovate, not simply to imitate famous think tanks in Washington. We need new networks that integrate the research and the debate taking place at Korean think tanks with that which is taking place at peer organizations around the world. That network can serve not only to promote a broad discussion, but also to coordinate implementation of new policy around the world. Overwhelmingly complex subjects like climate change and the future of cyberspace demand such careful coordination of policy and we will need to find ways to divide up and share massive projects between think tanks around the world. So also we need to promote cooperation between large think tanks and small think tanks in Seoul.
Large think tanks have substantial budgets and access to world-class experts, but smaller think tanks, by contrast, have greater flexibility in their approach and a better awareness of the actual needs of ordinary people. If Seoul can articulate and implement new strategies to encourage the sharing of resources and specialized knowledge between think tanks at all levels domestically, it can create an ecosystem that will foster innovation.
Sadly, although liberal think tanks in Seoul offer critical perspectives on contemporary policy, they fail to present an argument that will appeal to an international audience. The materials they produce are rarely available in English, or in other languages, and they have few international partners. By contrast, conservative think tanks dwell on topics in international finance and security that are far removed from the concerns and needs of average people in Korea or around the world, such as jobs for youth, the destruction of the environment and gap between rich and poor.
Finally, Korean think tanks will be most effective when they emphasize a distinctly Korean perspective. Paradoxically, as Korean think tanks become truly global, they will need to present a distinctly Korean perspective that is founded in Korea’s own intellectual tradition. Korean think tanks are not imitations of think tanks found elsewhere, but rather must have their integrity and internal logic.
To start with, Korea’s greatest strength comes from its position as a nation with global reach that is not marred by an imperial tradition of domination. Korea is committed to international relations that are balanced and assume reciprocal relations. For this reason Korean think tanks can be open platforms for debate such as many in advanced nations are not.
Moreover, Korea has a long tradition of good governance, of maintaining a balance of power within government, as well as of the embrace of sustainable development, that dates back to the Joseon period and could be the basis for new Korean innovations in policy with global implications. The degree to which Korean think tanks contemplate not only recent manufacturing successes of Korea, but also Korea’s institutional innovations of the 14th century, or of the 18th century, a more profoundly Korean approach with global appeal can be developed.
One way to lay the foundations for a Korea’s future think tanks is to draw on the legacy of Korea’s greatest think tank of the past: The Hall of Worthies (Jiphyeonjeon). The Hall of Worthies was a think tank that functioned as a central part of the policy debate within government, but retained its autonomy at its zenith under the rule of King Sejong.
The scholar assigned to the Hall of Worthies was permitted tremendous freedom to pursue his intellectual concerns and was provided with the materials for conducting research aimed at encouraging moral governance. The research produced many essential texts on the principles of good governance with concrete examples. The perspective adopted at the Hall of Worthies was always long-term and time was granted to scholars to carefully consider Chinese and Korean precedents for ethical governance.
The scholars in the Hall of Worthies constantly referred back to the ethical texts of the Confucian tradition when evaluating contemporary policy, but at the same time the approach to policy was extremely practical, seeking always for the effective application of ethical principles to specific contemporary situations. Finally, the Hall of Worthies collected historical and philosophical materials that supported the reforms undertaken by Sejong aimed at creating a more equitable society.
Could the next generation of Korean think tanks take the Hall of Worthies model of long-term ethical consideration of past policy and make it a new model for think thanks around the world? Given how few think tanks today consider policies for agriculture and trade, diplomacy and security from before the 20th century, there is tremendous potential in such a historical perspective.