December 16, 2022 - 10:45am

Washington’s foreign policy circle is a famously tight network. Comprising government officials, academics, and think tanks, this group (known as the ‘Blob‘) has developed a reputation for hawkishness and support for high levels of military spending.

There are hundreds of think tanks based in Washington, making it difficult to tell where the policy comes from: the White House or unelected officials. During the Reagan era, for example, there were almost 200 employees at conservative think tanks who served as government officials or consultants for his administration. But what do they actually believe?

New research by Richard Hanania and Max Abrahms has found that think tanks are much more hawkish than International Relations scholars, even controlling for ideology.

Taking a comprehensive survey of the most influential scholars and top 20 think tanks, the two researchers discovered that the closer a think tank employee was to power (both geographically and professionally), the more likely they were to be militarily interventionist. According to Hanania and Abrahms, for all the think tanks located within three miles of Capitol Hill, every mile further away is associated with a -0.48 deviation in militant internationalism:

Militant internationalism based on geo-coded responses of think tank employees responding within 20 miles of Capitol Hill.

The researchers posit that the reason for this is the increased likelihood of socialisation with government officials:

These kinds of contacts can take the form of, among other things, panel discussions, interviews with the media, and access to social, business, and networking opportunities with influential figures…Those closer to the center of power are more likely to be part of the foreign policy community (Walt 2018). We do not expect to see a relationship between distance and political preferences within the category of professors, whose job description does not necessarily involve influencing public opinion, being close to media centers, and meeting with powerful figures.
- Richard Hanania and Max Abrahms

So why is the foreign policy community more hawkish generally? Hanania and Abrahms give three answers: self-selection, institution-selection and knowledge-based:

First of all, people who favor more hawkish positions might be more likely to seek out positions of influence and power. Second, institutions and governments might seek out those with more hawkish views, or perhaps pressure them into supporting a more aggressive posture for the United States abroad…Finally, the nature of the work and the focus of their research might encourage TTEs, who put more effort into studying contemporary and policy-relevant issues to adopt more hawkish views. 
- Richard Hanania and Max Abrahms

The Ukraine war has been something of a renaissance for the Blob. But this research should serve as an important reminder to Washington foreign policy officials that not everyone thinks alike — even if all think tank employees do.

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.