Report review: Research and advice in foreign and security policy – an analysis of the German think tank space

3 December 2020

Robert Bosch Stiftung and Stiftung Mercator launched Research and Advice in Foreign and Security Policy: An analysis of the German Think Tank Space, authored by Christoph Bertram and Christiane Hoffmann in cooperation with Phineo gAG (Julia Nast and Annalena Rehkämper).

The report provides an overview of the German think tank landscape, focussing on those seeking to influence decisions on foreign and security policy, and makes recommendations for how to strengthen their work and influence, drawing on a comparison with Washington DC, London and Brussels counterparts.

You can watch a presentation and discussion at the 2020 OTT Conference here:

The German foreign and security policy think tank landscape

Based on an analysis of 24 organisations, the authors found that the sector, albeit small, is growing and becoming more diverse.

The key functions that think tanks fulfil are research and analysis; advisory services; networking and debate; capacity building; and outreach.

The authors grouped think tanks into three distinct types based on how think tanks view themselves and how they act:

  1. Academic research institutes (seven in the sample) focus on their own scholarly activities and target the academic community. Some are formally linked to universities and their main objective is not to provide solutions for policymakers per se, but to make relevant knowledge available. As a result, they are somewhat distanced from the political process. Most staff from these organisations are academics and researchers (with a PhD) who also teach at universities.
  2. Policy institutes (13 in the sample) perceive themselves as policy advisors, hence most of their work is centred on current political developments. Staff is more varied and includes communicators in key roles. They produce a wider array of products including charts and visuals, alongside more traditional policy briefs.
  3. Activists/do tanks (four in the sample) are smaller and newer. They wish to influence the public debate and arouse the interest of citizens in foreign policy. To do this they sometimes use unconventional formats, tapping into areas such as art and culture. They usually collaborate with external fellows, experts and other organisations, but they do not seem to play a significant role for policymakers.

The main weaknesses in influencing foreign and security policy identified by the authors are:

  • Think tanks do not fully take into consideration the political process and do not exploit existing windows of opportunity during which certain issues could be addressed.
  • They seem to avoid controversial issues, and often their products are not well tailored to their audiences (e.g. they are too long, or too academic and without clear recommendations).
  • They lack an international orientation, do not have sufficient social media presence and, so far, have not been successful at increasing societal interest or debate in foreign and security policy issues.

However, the authors argue that making German think tanks more effective is also the responsibility of, and needs changes from, policymakers and donors.

Policymakers, they suggest, are not fully taking advantage of the products and services think tanks offer and they need to more effectively communicate their needs to thinktankers.

On the part of donors, the authors critique what they call ‘projectitis’, limiting the ability of think tanks to access flexible, unrestricted funding that allows for capacity building, communications, or quick response to new issues.


Drawing from their analysis of the sector and its weakness, as well as a comparison with think tanks in Washington DC, London and Brussels, the authors recommend that German think tanks:

  • Prioritise current challenges relevant to German strategic interests (e.g. strategic partnerships with France, the USA, Russia and China, and issues such as the environment, migration, health and hard security issues).
  • Resist uniformity by injecting more variety into their staff (i.e. hiring not only academic profiles); recruiting government, politics, media and business officials to gain a better understanding of their specialist knowledge of the political process; and offering contrary opinions when relevant.
  • Consider alternative sources of funding (e.g. membership fees and private-sector sponsorships), that can provide flexible funding, allowing them to respond to emerging trends and take advantage of windows of opportunity to influence policy.
  • Improve communications by boosting the use of social media and engaging directly with the public; increasing collaboration with other think tanks; and presenting clear action recommendations.
  • Increase international orientation by organising staff exchanges with foreign institutes and recruiting international fellows; establishing partnerships with international institutions; and setting up leadership programmes that connect young talent from think tanks, government, and politics.

Our review

This is an interesting report that provides a needed analysis of foreign and security policy think tanks in Germany. For us, the characterisation of think tank types that exist and their key functions and weaknesses is one of its key contributions.

It was also interesting that the authors appeal for a more active role from policymakers and donors to increase the value of think tanks’ work. However, while the wider context is indeed important – and helps hinder or foster the relevance of think tanks and their work – it is ultimately the think tanks’ responsibility to improve their engagement with policymakers and the public. And it is the think tanks themselves that should be actively developing strategies and products that are useful and pertinent for policy audiences.

A discussion about the policy regime literature would also have been useful to better illustrate why German think tanks in foreign and security policy do not have maximum traction with policymakers.

Nevertheless, the report presents an excellent mapping and overview of the think tank sector in Germany and offers interesting recommendations that can be taken up by think tanks in other contexts as well.