Moving think tanks beyond the Beltway
© Greg Nash

For the next two months, as official Washington empties out into the hinterlands, D.C.-based think tanks should do the same.

While members of Congress and their staffs switch into full-on campaign mode and President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE himself hits the midterm trail as well, the thinkers of Washington’s other establishment community would be well served by some listening tours.

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Traditional think tanks have become as enmeshed in Beltway culture as any career bureaucrat, and the spirit of civic engagement that should mark the democratic campaign process could help reinvigorate the think tanks as much as the politicians they work to influence.

While various think tanks have experimented getting out to ‘real America’ to varying degrees of success, the Center for New American Security stands out for its efforts of the past year.

One Think Tank’s Ticket Out of Town

In the summer of 2017, working with funding from the German government and the Robert Bosch Stiftung, CNAS launched a 12-city tour that goes beyond the norm of think tank travel.

“It became clear there was a growing disconnect between those of us here and those of us outside the Beltway,” said Julie Smith, CNAS former senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program, who headed the program.

Where others have seen their work beyond the Beltway as a chance to share their research (for a fee) to an inviting community, CNAS invested time and resources to listen to everyday Americans in everyday towns.

“People are really eager to engage,” Smith said after visits to Grand Rapids, Mich., and Salt Lake City, Utah. CNAS has also gone to Pittsburgh and Tampa and is scheduled to visit Boise this fall.

For each stop, CNAS builds a two-day program to engage business leaders, high school and college students, local government leaders and the public at large. Each city shapes the topics.

“In Utah, we talked a lot about Brexit and trade. No matter where we go the Russia question is a big one,” Smith said. NATO questions have come up repeatedly as well.

Smith admits the effort is time-consuming, but worthwhile. “It's easy to get caught up in the day to day, the D.C. cycle of roundtables, speeches and op-ed writing. If you don't leave the DC bubble and speak to Americans about foreign policy, you’re really not doing anyone any favors creating policies that may not reflect their true desires.” 

The Need to Engage

As Jennifer Rubin wrote not long ago in the Washington Post, collaborating and interacting with “a wider segment of Americans beyond D.C. politicians and staffers is essential to bring new ideas into the Beltway and to encourage private efforts in lieu of or to supplement public initiatives.”

Having worked with international organizations that lack a major U.S. infrastructure outside of a Washington office, this sub-federal engagement has always been high on my list of recommendations. And every time a client does it they are heartened by the reception. “It’s been a great experience,” Smith said, reflecting on the gratitude so many of CNAS hosts expressed.

In Salt Lake City, CNAS traveled with the Ambassador of Denmark and met with teens. “This was such a cool experience because no one cares what high school students think and the fact you do is really special.”

Beyond Dollar Bills

For many of today’s think tanks obsessed with funding and donor lists, this domestic travel builds them a different, but no less useful, list.

Smith said she has heard a lot of “thank you for coming,” and “thanks for caring about what we think” from the local audiences. 

“They want to stay in touch,” Smith said, which creates a new well to tap with creative ideas rooted in often unheard communities. For every congressional district office that focuses its local district staff time almost exclusively on constituent service – valuable work ranging from veterans’ benefits to visa assistance – a key element of the constituents can be overlooked: their ideas. That’s what CNAS was after when they launched this series.

“The payoff is learning what people think,” Smith said. 

And in learning what people think beyond the Beltway, Smith knows her colleagues at CNAS and elsewhere may have rethought their own work as well.

“Maybe hosting events at the Willard every month isn't what we should be doing,” she said.

Neil H. Simon is a partner at Bighorn Communications and the former spokesman for the U.S. Helsinki Commission and OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. He is based in Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C.