Conflict and Leadership
Think Tanks and US Foreign Policy

The United States can afford to make gross miscalculations that would be catastrophic for any other country. The leadership of the United States rests on four key dimensions of power: the dollar’s dominance in international settlements, unprecedented military power, an attractive lifestyle and complementary migration policy, and finally, an innovative economy that allows the United States to maintain leadership in technology and military combat systems. If foreign policy mistakes do not undermine one of these four pillars, then the United States can afford to make them without significant consequences for itself, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

Having dealt with American research for more than 15 years, I’ve never stopped being amazed at the following paradox: how, with such a significant number of first-class think tanks (and there are more than 2,000 of them in the United States) the US continues to make such serious foreign policy mistakes as the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, or the betrayal of the allied government of Mubarak in Egypt in 2011 in favour of the Islamists, and later to support a military coup against the latter.

Each of these foreign policy mistakes has caused significant damage to American power and cost the American taxpayer a significant amount of money. The invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan alone, in terms of aggregate costs, was comparable to the GDP of one of the top ten countries in the world. Of course, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan possesses enough resources to reward US military intervention. The question arises: why, when making decisions in such important situations, didn’t the American elites rely on the opinion of prominent experts in the United States, who warned about the possible consequences of these steps?

Let’s try to answer this question.

Law, Power and the Power of Precedent in International Relations
Rein Müllerson
Current discussions, including the recent annual session of the Valdai Club in Sochi and its aftermath, have drawn attention to international law and particularly to two crucial questions: can international law be effective (even exist as such) in the absence of a balance of power, and what is the role of precedent in that domain? Here are some reflections on these matters.
Expert Opinions


The practice of applied political analysis in the United States is more developed than in any other country. It thrives especially in the area of applied analysis and forecasting. Advanced research practices are based on methods of analysing negotiations, assessing the interests of the parties, analysing the international environment and resources available to participants in international situations, and a comparative analysis of their mutual strategies. These and other methods were developed on American soil throughout the twentieth century, but especially intensively after the Second World War. The only Nobel Prize awarded to a specialist in international affairs was received in 2005 by the American Thomas Schelling, author of works on game modelling of international crises and co-author of the concept of containment.

Research in forecasting is developing especially actively in the United States. Four main approaches to reducing international uncertainty are well developed.

The first and most common is the logical-intuitive one. In this way, researchers project the observed trends into the future and put forward reasoned assumptions about how they will develop in the short and medium term. Annual forecasts of the development of international relations are issued by such well-known commercial analytical centres as the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), by Ian Bremmer’s Eurasia Group, Stratfor corporation and Geopolitical Futures.

The second group of approaches is based on the methods of simulation and scenario games, which are developed in great detail and yield quite convincing results. Based on these techniques, the US National Intelligence Council prepares a regular “Global Trends” report which contains both medium and long-term forecast of international relations. In the mid-1980s, the research team of Peter Schwartz prepared a scenario analysis of the development of the world energy market, one of the branches of which was based on the likelihood of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 2010, the same group released a scenario forecast suggesting the onset of a planetary pandemic of a viral infection, quite convincingly describing its possible consequences.

A scenario analysis of the future of Russian politics was proposed by Clifford Gaddy and Michael O’Hanlan in the article Toward a “Reaganov” Russia. According to the authors, in the most likely scenario, the country will lean towards the political model of the United States under Ronald Reagan — a small number of military operations abroad, reliance on conservative values and investments in the military-industrial complex.

The third group of approaches relies on the growing spread of crowdsourcing — the massive involvement of specialists from different fields in the forecast, who are asked a closed question about the probability of an event occurring by a specific date. The largest backlog here belongs to the group of Philip Tetlock of the University of Pennsylvania, who has been implementing the Good Judgment Project since 1984.

Finally, the fourth approach is the use of large-scale information systems, the largest of which is now Palantir. Originally designed to meet the needs of the military, Palantir has now expanded its use to handle large amounts of data of any origin.

With such a significant head start in terms of methods of analysis and forecasting, American foreign policy, nevertheless, continues to make major mistakes. How are they caused and how can they be explained?

The shortest answer to this question is that the United States can afford to make gross miscalculations that would be catastrophic for any other country.

The leadership of the United States rests on four key dimensions of power: the dollar’s dominance in international settlements, unprecedented military power that can only be challenged by Russia and only due to the latter’s nuclear weapons, an attractive lifestyle and complementary migration policy that attracts thousands of talented immigrants to the country every year, and finally, an innovative economy that allows the United States to maintain leadership in technology and military combat systems.

If foreign policy mistakes do not undermine one of these four pillars, then the United States can afford to make them without significant consequences for itself. The foreign policy success of the United States is connected not with rational decisions, but with keeping the initiative in international affairs and with having the ability to push ahead its decision-making through the use of force, post-factum contriving a beautiful metaphor about the “struggle of freedom against non-freedom”.

However, in such a situation, the significant achievements of American analytics are ultimately unnecessary, since retaining the initiative in political processes requires not rationality, but energy and determination to use force. As a result, classical think tanks are gradually being replaced by “advocacy think-tanks” — think tanks that are engaged in propaganda or, in other words, promoting a certain political platform and forming consensus around it. The task of these think tanks is not to put forward the most qualitative or rational line, but to develop the most vivid, emotionally stimulating and mobilising policy. The United States can afford such reckless behaviour as long as the four pillars of its global leadership are not threatened.

Why the West Blames Russia
David Lane
Labeling Russia as a threat to the West is a Western invention. As neither the USA nor the EU could realistically consider Russia to be an ideological, economic or geo-political danger, the explanation must be found in the internal structures of the hegemonic Western states.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.