February 18, 2019

The paradox of national institutes for international relations

By Barend ter Haar.

International affairs by definition involve more than one nation, but think tanks that study international relations are predominantly national in character. This paradox can be easily explained by history, but it is clearly a handicap because understanding an international issue requires a good understanding of the positions of both or more sides.

For a proper understanding, it is usually crucial to know not only the official positions of all the parties involved but also the underlying interests, feelings, and contradictions. It is practically impossible to analyse those underlying emotions and interests from abroad. It requires not only knowledge of the local language, but also a local presence in order to speak directly with the people involved.

However, almost all the European think tanks that study international relations are organized on a national basis and although they might be very well equipped to explain one side of an international issue, they are usually much less well prepared to explain the other side of the story.

The experts working at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, for example, know their way around the Dutch bureaucracy, but much less so in London and Berlin, let alone Warsaw and Moscow.

To address this problem, there are, at least in principle, two possibilities. The first would be to open local branches in as many capitals as possible. Several think tanks have opened offices in Brussels and a few have opened local offices in places like Washington and Moscow, but opening offices in a large number of capitals is beyond the means of even the largest institutes.

The only feasible option is, therefore, cooperation between institutes. Several networks have been set up for that purpose. One of them is the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions (see: http://osce-network.net/) that was set up almost five years ago on the suggestion of the OSCE Secretary General at that time, Lamberto Zannier (since last year OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities). In 2013, Clingendael was among the founding members of the OSCE Network. Since then, membership of the Network has grown to 74 institutes from 40 countries.

The purpose of this track II initiative is to contribute to a common analysis of issues that are relevant for the OSCE. So far, the Network has produced the following seven reports:
Threat Perceptions in the OSCE Area (2014)
The Future of OSCE Field Operations (Options) (2014)
Reviving Co-operative Security in Europe through the OSCE (2015)
European Security – Challenges at the Societal Level (2016)
Protracted Conflicts in the OSCE Area: Innovative Approaches for Co-operation in the Conflict Zones (2016)
The Road to the Charter of Paris; Historical Narratives and Lessons for the OSCE Today (2017)
OSCE Confidence Building Measures in the economic and environmental Dimension; current Opportunities and constraints (2017).

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