DC Event March 28 — Think Tanks on Think Tanks

Think Tanks — What Do They Really Contribute?

Monday, March 28, 6 PM, Open Gov Hub, 110 Vermont Ave. NW. Washington DC

Washington DC is to think tanks what Detroit once was to the global auto industry. But what do these institutions really bring to the table? Are they best thought of as academic institutions like universities, simple generators for policy or a storage center for those temporarily outside government. How useful are they to policymakers, journalists and others? What kind of people do they attract — and who do they marginalize or do without? Do they operate differently in other countries or even cities? PS21 and a great panel of think tank types will be getting more even more introspective than usual…

Negar Razavi [moderator] — Anthropologist, University of Pennsylvania. PS21 global fellow
Andrew Selee — Executive Vice President, Woodrow Wilson Center
Peter Apps — Global Affairs Columnist, Reuters. Executive Director, PS21
Maria Stephan — Senior Policy Fellow, United States Institute for Peace. Former US State Department official

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A new year for PS21

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHard to believe, but PS21 is now a full year old. Executive Director Peter Apps outlines its plans for the year to come. 

This time last year, if we are honest, PS21 was little more than a website, a good idea and some ambitious but still far from tightly defined projected events. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this year it now feels very different – still very much a new and evolving entity but also an unquestionably established institution.

We have successfully stayed true to our founding principles and ideals, I think – non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan and ever so slightly feral. We have also, perhaps even more importantly, built the beginnings of a really great community – a unique and interesting group of people from a very wide range of backgrounds united by the desire to explore some of the biggest issues of the era. It’s a fun, always eclectic crowd and building that has been perhaps our greatest achievement.

We have also produced some great research and writing, true to our ambitions of delivering content people read and discussions they remember.

So, what next?

Content people read

Over the last year, the PS21 website has showcased some truly excellent writing from our fellows, international advisers and other contributors. From immigration to geopolitics, the Arctic to Australia, our writers have delivered some really great content an increasing quantity of which we have been able to place elsewhere on other media.

This week we launch a particularly exciting new strand – our Imaging 2030 Series. This will showcase some of PS21’s best writers as they imagine what the world in general – and their areas of expertise in particular – might look like in 2030. You can read our first piece here.

Discussions they remember

Our 2016 events programme commences this week with an excellent discussion at Whitehall in conjunction with the Cabinet Office on Risks to Watch in 2016. Other upcoming discussions upcoming on London, DC and New York include Social Media in the Middle East, the upcoming US election, and the challenges of running megacities.

This year we will be making a concerted effort to move beyond some of the national security and political risk topics that were much of our focus in 2015. We will keep delivering discussions on topics in those areas of course – they are important and we have developed a strong reputation in that area. But we also want to look beyond they at wider societal, cultural and other trends.

Building on the success of last year, we will also be holding networking drinks and small salon-like meetings in all three cities. Because sometimes the best conversations don’t need structure at all.

Once again many thanks for being part of PS21’s first year. 2016 we hope should be better yet. Please feel free to get in touch at ps21central@gmail.com.

All the best,

Peter Apps

Executive Director

DC Event November 3: Game of Thrones to House of Cards–What TV Can Teach Politics

Time: Tuesday, November 3, 6pm.


Location: EU Delegation to the U.S., 2175 K Street, Washington DC, 20037 (entrance on 22nd Street)


Is there a difference between European and US portrayals of politics? How do power structures operate in Brussels and DC? Can we compare political struggles and dynamics? This EU Rendez-Vous will be everything but business as usual. A panel discussion will be moderated by Adam Kushner, Outlook editor, The Washington Post, and will feature the following panellists: James Barbour, spokesperson of the European Union Delegation to the U.S., Ari Ratner, CEO of Inside Revolution, PS21 governing board member and former State Department political appointee 2009-12 and Alyssa Rosenberg, culture columnist, The Washington Post. Follow us on @EUintheUS and @PS21_central.

RSVP here.

DC Event September 29: Making it as a woman in DC

Time: Tuesday, September 29. 6:30 — 9:30pm.

Location: Thomson Reuters, 1333 H Street NW, Washington DC.

What does it take to make it in DC as a woman? As part of its “inside DC” series, PS21 pulls together a unique collection of women from both sides of the aisle to discuss what it’s really like.


Negar Razavi (Moderator): Anthropologist, PS21 global fellow

Rachel Hoff: Director of Defense Analysis at the American Action Forum

Sarah Arkin: Senior Policy Adviser to Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Rachel Rizzo: Program Assistant, Strategy Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council

Elvina Nawaguna: Journalist, Market News International

RSVP here.

DC Event September 21: Is nuclear war risk growing?


Time: Monday, September 21. 6:30 — 8:30pm.

Location: Thomson Reuters, 1333 H Street NW, Washington DC.

Is great power nuclear war back on the agenda? Ahead of the publication of PS21’s landmark survey of national security experts on conventional and nuclear conflict risk, we bring together a panel to discuss just how real the risks might be. This discussion — which comes ahead of the survey’s publication in the first week of October — will focus on where the greatest risk of superpower conflict might lie and how it might be avoided. Because the survey is not yet published, this discussion will be off the record.

Moderator: Milena Rodban: independent political risk consultant, PS21 global fellow

Elbridge Colby:  former Pentagon nuclear strategist, senior fellow, Center for a New American Security

Scott Cheney-Peters: founder, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC)

Rachel Rizzo: program assistant, Strategy Initiative, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council

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DC Event August 19: US-Israel Relations After Iran Deal

Old City from the Mount of the Olives

Time: Wednesday, August 19, 6:30pm – 8:30pm
Location: Thomson Reuters, 1333 H Street NW, Washington DC
After July’s historic nuclear deal between the P5+1 great powers and Iran, what is next for relations between the United States and Israel? 

Moderator: Warren Stroble, Washington diplomatic editor for Reuters

Panelists: Alexandria Paolozzi, Senate Legislative Director and Issue Specialist on Israel for Concerned Women for America (CWA). She visited Israel in September 2014 on a Millennial Leaders tour. She has organized Capitol Hill panels on religious freedom in the Middle East, rallies and demonstrations in support of Israel, and has lobbied on pro-Israel policies in the United States Senate.

Dr. Guy Ziv is an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service (SIS), where he teaches courses on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, and international negotiations. He is the author of the Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel. He is founder and director of the Israel National Security Project (INSP), a repository of statements by Israeli security experts concerning the strategic imperative of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ari Ratner is a former State Department official and current PS21 board member. 

Register for the discussion here.

DC June 4 Event: What would a Hillary Clinton foreign policy look like?


Location: Thomson Reuters Conference Room, 1333 H Street, Washington DC

Time: Thursday 4th June, 6.30pm

Even with more than a year to go, Hillary Rodham Clinton is by far the presumptive Democrat contender for 2016. If she does win the White House, what do her years at the State Department tell us about what her foreign policy might be like?

PS21 pulls together a uniquely qualified panel to discuss:

Moderator: Ali Wyne: PS21 Global Fellow, Member of the adjunct staff, RAND Corporation

Ari Ratner: State Department political appointee 2009-2012, Fellow New America

Warren Strobel: Chief diplomatic correspondent, Reuters

Leigh O’Neill:  Policy director, Truman National Security Project

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DC Event: Arab Spring@4: What Next? Key Takeaways/Media


On Thursday, February 25, 2015, PS21 held a discussion with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy on the Arab Spring@4: What Next? In Washington DC.

Chair: Sidney Olinyk, former Pentagon chief of staff for Middle East policy. Member of the PS21 international advisory group.

Ari Ratner: former State Department political appointees. Fellow, New America

Nancy Okail: Egyptian activist, executive director for the Tahrir Centre for Middle East policy

Leigh O’Neill: policy director, Truman National Security Project

The full transcript of the event can be had found here: PS21 Arab Spring Event Transcript Full audio can be found here.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion.

Western governments and the US in particular were seen as being continuously behind the ball when it came to tackling the chaos that followed the revolutions of 2011. On the ground, frustrations continued to rise particularly with the reassertion of military rule in Egypt. Four years on, there is widespread pessimism including about the ability of foreign policymakers to tackle similar situations in the future.

“As anyone who has worked in government knows, it’s very difficult to keep up with our own internal systems, let alone the internal dynamics of a foreign country… undergoing revolution,” said Ratner.

The immediate revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere had several effects, he said. Firstly, the price of oil rose sharply, helping those energy producing regimes and seriously undermining the remainder. Across the region, America’s allies looked at the abandonment of Egyptian President Honsi Mubarak and immediately worried about the credibility of America’s support for them.

The West’s ability to respond was seriously curtailed by the global financial crisis, he said, coupled with other subordinate crises such as the Japanese earthquake and the Eurozone crisis.

It was, several speakers cautioned, too soon to tell who the real winners and losers would be.

“What is happening is a battle of narratives,” said Nancy Okail. “The more powerful group is the one that sets the narrative. The victor is the one who writes history at the end of the day.”

Authoritarian regimes such as the new rulers in it you, she said, had been relatively ineffective at taking back the narrative, reframing themselves as the bulwark against chaos. The activist and pro-democracy groups, meanwhile, had in many cases fractured and lost the initiative.

Okail found herself on the receiving end of what she called a “huge smear campaign” after she returned to Egypt to push for political reform. Western-funded and backed NGOs in particular were targeted, she was arrested and put on trial.

“I see the case of the NGOs as a microcosm of everything that happens in the country,” she said. “The lack of rule of law… they had control of the media and because of that we were portrayed as enemies of the state and spies. (They) claimed that we were trying to implement this huge Zionist plan to divide Egypt.

Leigh O’Neill pointed in particular to the sample to as one nation which stood out in particular for its stability. She attributed this partly to the Jordanian government strategy of “regional relativism”, making sure the population knew how bad things were elsewhere.

“Jordanians are fed a steady diet and have embraced regional relativism,” she said. “They look around and they see things are not so great (elsewhere). That is something that the government and the people of Jordan have in common.”

Still, she said many of the problems that helped push Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in Tunisia were also true in Jordan.

“What does it take to like yourself on fire because you are subject to this relationship with a state?” O’Neill asked. “That’s an important story to tell and remember particularly when we unpack… and talk more honestly about what authoritarianism is and whether it’s “benign” or not so benign.”

Okail in particular warned against too positive and interpretation of events in Tunisia, widely regarded as one of the few success stories

“I worry so much when people over romanticised Tunisia,” she said. “It’s definitely in the best scenario in the region.(Tunisia has the largest number of recruits in ISIS and that tells you something.”

Ari Ratner said overall he remained broadly optimistic that Islamic State itself could be militarily defeated or weakened. Dealing with the underlying problems of the region, however, was more difficult.

“I have pretty strong faith that is something that is achievable,” he said. The military… are pretty effective at killing people, killing terrorists and fighting insurgencies. We will muddle our way through, and Isis will be defeated… This is just my own suspicion (but) ISIS is not the predominant story in the region.”

“The much bigger question is how you address the underlying conditions at which something like ISIS emerges,. There is no easy answer to this, in my mind.”

Many of the underlying causes of both the Arab Spring and ISIS were identified in May 2002 UN report on the region, he said: shortcomings of freedom, lack of rights, education, access to science. Few of those problems have been solved.

The simple truth, Okail said, was that in Egypt and elsewhere the youthful activists and women in particular found themselves largely sidelined in the aftermath of the revolution.

Many of those risks were also present elsewhere, Ratner said.

“It’s a very unstable world. Everywhere, to some extent, is a pool of gasoline.”

Okail said governments were often particularly ill suited to dealing with such dangers.

“Most policymakers look at the immediate situation,” said Okail. “They want to solve what is going on now without a long-term vision or strategy for what happens next. They need an actionable plan: something to do right now showcase for the media and the taxpayer. And they are very quick in identifying all recognising victory and defeat.”

Small victories, however, she said, were possible.

“Opportunities go back to the battle of narratives,” she said. “These regimes care so much about the image we can use this as an opportunity… right before a UN meeting, they might release prisoners. These are small windows of opportunity that we can keep pushing.”

For US policymakers, Ratner said the region offered little bit difficult decisions. On Saudi Arabia, for example, it was unclear whether the US pulling back nominations would make things better or worse.

“The world is always hypocritical — it’s the nature of the beast,” he said, pointing to the multiplicity of interests within the US government “people compare the US government to an aircraft carrier but it’s more like a carrier battle group because there are lots of ships in formation and if you change course only a bit that can mean a big thing.

As to the bigger picture, it was still too soon to tell what the last four years really meant, he said.

“I think it was Chou En-Lai that was asked how he viewed the French Revolution and he said it was too soon to tell,” said Ratner. “That was 200 years afterwards… but it’s certainly been a traumatic period.”

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DC Revolutions Event: Key Takeaways / Video


On Monday, February 9, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion on Leaderless Revolutions and their Challengers.

Location: Thomson Reuters, Washington DC


Srdja Popovic: Serb activist and politician, founder CANVAS, author of Blueprint for Revolution. PS21 global fellow.

Jack Goldstone (chair): professor of public policy, George Mason University currently on attachment to the Woodrow Wilson Centre for Scholars. Author, Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction. Member of the international advisory group, PS21.

Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion. For the full transcript click here.

“If you look through the history of these uprisings it’s always the outsiders,” Popovic said. “The power of outsiders in modern political life, whether we agree with them or disagree with them, is growing.”

Technology, particularly social media, has made organising protests and resistance in many ways easier. Popovic’s book and organisation — the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) aims to share them around the world.

“Fifteen years ago if you wanted to organise a rally, you need it posters, leaflets, radio commercials, knocking on doors and a large organisation,” said Popovic, one of the leaders of the largely peaceful revolution that toppled Serb president Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. “Now I can make a Facebook group and everyone will know.”

“(There is) the phenomenon you call citizen journalism. Even in the most off-line places like Yemen, you can see people demonstrating and they are videotaping it on their cameras. So you can make sure that any type of state/police brutality can be seen by the world.”

“The last and most important events is that new media brings the power of horizontal learning… there was a girl who made a viral video called “what’s wrong with Venezuelan in a nutshell”… now somebody sees it in Ukraine. The way we can learn from this… is something we are really exploring now.”

But, he said, such technologies also bring with risk. Campaigns — such as the Kony 2012 effort to encourage US and its allies to track down the leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army — can bloom quickly but also lose traction.

“Every coin has two sides. I’m thrilled about making things fast and cheap but I would say “clicktivism” is a real problem… The fact that you are “lighting” the page to save the polar bears does not necessarily mean that you have saved the polar bears.”

Social media can also be used as a tool for regimes to trace and control dissidents.

“The first thing any government will do is track your Facebook password so now it can be used to know your friends into a trap.”

Up to 2010, nonviolent revolution had a higher success rate in changing regimes and leading to democracy than violent movements. The 2011 revolts over the “Arab Spring” appeared to illustrate something similar. But in recent years there has been considerable push back. The Green Movement in Iran failed in 2007. In Hong Kong in 2014, protesters failed to retain momentum.

“In Bahrain, you probably have a larger proportion of the population than anywhere else in history,” said Goldstone. “Over 10% of the population seems to have been involved on the eighth day of the movements and yet that was suppressed… does the format have to be revamped?”

Autocratic regimes, Popovic said, were adapting fast. He cited Philip Dobson’s DATE book, “The Dictator’s Learning Curve”.

“The first thing they learn is to put a velvet glove on the iron fist. There are more NGOs shut down in oppressive places of the world for not following fire regulations are supposed to be anti-government.”

“Secondly, it’s a propaganda war,” he said, pointing to increased efforts to discredit activist organisations by alleging they are tied to western intelligence agencies, etc.

Maintaining discipline and organisation, Popovic said, was key.

“We think it can start small. And small means small, tangible victories. Things like graffiti, recruiting 10 people, street theatre… They show your commitment, they showed presence. And they teach your people how to do stuff.”

“One single Molotov cocktail will completely destroy the reputation of them. Plus it will give fuel to your enemy to respond very actively and nastily.”

Humour was also a powerful weapon, he said. He cited the example of a 2012 protest in a Siberian town against election fraud that saw protesters put out hundreds of small Lego characters waving signs saying things like “106% for Putin”. The authorities ordered it banned.

“It was effective because someone is putting the opponent in a losing situation,” he said. “If they let the toys protest, everyone will see (it) but if you ban it, you are afraid of toys… humour breaks fear.”

From the Arab Spring to Occupy, in 2011 in particular took to the streets and governments quailed. By 2014, however, many of those movements have faltered. “A good year for bad people,” Goldstone said, pointing to events in Ukraine, the Middle East and elsewhere. Popovic called it “the year of bad hangovers”

“There are many different reasons why movements fail,” said Popovic.

“If you play video games, you understand that they are made of levels. When Mubarak is down you don’t claim “game over”. You know that more nasty people are coming in a nastier spaceship that they will throw more bombs at you.”

“The second thing is losing unity too early… Part of the reason Syria failed is that the Sunnis could bring the Christians onto their site to oppose Assad. Look at Ukraine. Great victory in the Orange Revolution and then (opposition leaders) Tymoshenko and Yushenko stop fighting from the moment they start sharing office and it all falls apart.”

Popovic cited the example of Occupy as a movement but failed to capitalise on its potential. It became committee said, far too broad, too keen to be all things to all people and never really worked out what it wanted.

“The enthusiasm is great, the topic of social inequality is the most important topic of the 21st century,” he said. “What’s problematic with Occupy is they… adopted this “we need to build a consensus around everything every time”. That’s death for an organisation.”

One of the most important things when Popovic said, was to ensure there was a roughly shared view of the future a movement wanted.

The discussion was fast moving, light-hearted and well received.

“Very hard to make Serbs serious,” said Popovic.”You tried bombing our country and it didn’t work.”

“One can learn a lot from scholars and academics about nonviolent resistance but there is absolutely no substitute for the wisdom and inspiration of those who have done it,” said Goldstone.

“This was a talk that I wish had gone out to a thousand or ten thousand people, Thanks to the Project for Study of the 21st Century for organizing this and keep your eye out for more such events, it’s gonna be a fun ride.”

View a transcript of the discussion here: Leaderless Revolutions transcript.

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DC Superpower Discussion: Key Takeaways / Video


On Thursday, January 29, 2015 PS21 hosted a discussion on Avoiding Disaster in a New Era of Superpower Tension.

Introduction: Gary Barnabo, President, Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and member of the PS21 International Advisory Group (IAG).

Moderator: Joshua Marcuse, Founder and Chairman YPFP and member of the PS21 IAG.

Nikolas Gvosdev: Prof of National Security Studies at the US Naval War College, PS21 international advisor

Fiona Hill: Former US National Intelligence Officer for Russia and Eurasia. Director, Centre for the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

Ali Wyne: RAND Corporation. PS21 global fellow

Elbridge Colby: former Pentagon nuclear strategist. Senior fellow, Centre for a New American Security

Here are some of the key takeaway from the discussion.

The world has changed dramatically from the multipolar US-dominated 1990s and first decade of the 21st century. Both Russia and China are keen to reassert themselves in their region and also globally. Both in and outside government, Washington has yet to formulate a response.

“Policymakers will not be able to cope with the new, rapidly changing world,” said Gvosdev. “They are unable to interact with a multipolar world in which compromise is a necessary interaction and not a policy defeat.”

Both Russia and China have very different views of the world that the US often struggles to comprehend. Russia has successfully showed it is flexible enough to make major strategic gains despite multiple inherent weaknesses. It perceives not just the world but also recent history very differently.

“The collapse of the Soviet Union is not seen as… a US victory (in Russia),” said Hill, adding that — like the Islamic State — Moscow was increasingly adept with its media strategy. “Russia is winning the media war because Putin makes it entertaining.”

China’s rise is inevitably straining international relations, particularly in Asia.

“Strenuous assurances of both parties that they do not want conflict actually breeds suspicion” said Wyne at RAND. “The US believes that China is attempting to dominate East Asia and China believes that the US is trying to contain it.”

The risk of potential superpower conflict is therefore quietly growing.

“With an unclear international power structure for states are more willing to resort to the use of force to achieve their goals,” said former Pentagon nuclear strategist Colby. “To face these challenges, the US must prepare for a major power conflict even though prevention is the goal.”

In the Middle East, great powers are struggling to manage rising conflict without antagonising each other further. Sometimes interests coincide, often not. The US might welcome greater Chinese engagement in unstable areas of Africa, for example, but much less in the Gulf.

In both Europe and Asia, America’s alliances complicate matters still further in different ways.

In Europe, Russia remains shocked by the your use of NATO military power against Yugoslavia in 1999. NATO has been unclear in its strategic ambition — whether its priority is mutual local defence or global security. It is unclear whether Russia genuinely believes NATO states would act militarily in the event of a crisis involving the Baltic states, once part of the soviet union and now NATO members.

In Asia, the US has multiple allies who feel threatened by China. Again, it is unclear what it can genuinely do at this uncertainty in itself but we instability.

“It’s not in the US interest or ability to “contain” China,” said Wyne. “The US should set up a regional economic architecture so that (other regional) states do not have to make the choice between the US and China.

PS21 Superpower Transcript