Institutionalization of Foreign Policy Think Tanks in Italy and in the UK: An Explanatory Framework

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Abstract

This article explores the phenomenon of foreign policy think tanks in Europe in a comparative perspective and offers a framework of analysis for this topic. Assuming that think tanks were largely imported from the US after World Wars I and II, the article argues that European think tanks have been influenced by the different national political contexts in which they have undergone a process of institutionalization. First, the article hypothesizes that such contexts have contributed to determining different incentives for cooperation between think tanks and national policymakers. Such cooperation is based on the willingness of policymakers to turn to think tanks for expertise, advice or validation of policy decisions. Secondly, different political contexts are expected to influence the strategies of action that think tanks have developed towards policymakers and their audience. In this respect, the article identifies three strategies: the generalist, the advocate and the lobbyist. Empirically, the article is based on a survey of eleven organizations conducted in two countries, Italy and the United Kingdom, in 2013-14. Given that very few data are available on this type of organization, their activities, funding, policy audience and goals are investigated. These indicators are used to investigate the main commonalities and differences between the two cases and to compare them with the hypotheses. The results first show that there is comparatively more funding available for think tanks in the UK system than in the Italian one. Secondly, there is apparently more willingness from policymakers to turn to think tanks for expertise in the former case, considering that the UK think tanks hold a higher number of closed-door events and parliamentary hearings. On the contrary, where policymakers tend, instead, to more scarcely rely on external expertise - as it seems more evident in the Italian case - the core audience of think tanks tends to shift to other, more accessible targets (the public opinion, the academia or even businesses). The case study makes it more evident how advocacy becomes a far less important activity for an Italian think tank than a UK one.

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