Charge Affairs’ Senior Staff Writer Benjamin Dills sat down with Andrew Selee, Executive Vice President of the Wilson Center, to talk about the evolving role of nonpartisan institutions in foreign policy dialogue in the United States. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The full, unedited audio is available below.
Benjamin Dills: Thank you for talking to me today. To start off, can you please can you please talk about your role here at the Wilson Center and what your history at the Wilson Center has been?
Andrew Selee: Sure, I actually came to the Wilson Center as a young professional. I came in my early thirties working on Latin American issues and went on to start our Mexico Institute, which has become something of an institution in US-Mexico relations. I continue to do that on the side but ended up getting moved into management roles at the Center.
Today I’m Executive Vice-President and do day-to-day oversight of operations at the Wilson Center. The Wilson Center has a congressional charter and tries to be as nonpartisan as one can be in a conflicted, partisan environment.
What do you see as the role of a nonpartisan institution in this environment, and what goes into being a nonpartisan institution? Has that definition been evolving over the past decade?
It is evolving; it’s evolving very rapidly right now. A lot of things that we could assume were a part of a bipartisan consensus probably aren’t any more right now. That said, our ultimate accountability is as a public organization. For us, the accountability is to Congress.
I think there are two roles. One is bringing people together who might not see each other otherwise, might not talk to each other, and having the credibility to get people to sit down and talk to each other.
And the other is trying to understand underlying facts and underlying frameworks that people might be able to agree on. Sometimes you can find facts and basic information that people agree on or frameworks that help move a discussion forward. Trying to actually find a way of looking at the world that reasonable people from different points of view can look at and say, “that actually makes a lot of sense to me.”
Talking about being a place for people to meet, do you think there is still, once the cameras are off, the place for a collegial atmosphere where people from either side of the aisle can talk, or do you feel like the partisan environment has been intruding on those kinds of spaces?
I think there is, and I think right now we’re at the beginning of a presidency with a President who came in and wanted to break the mold of how issues were discussed in Washington. That can be healthy in some ways; it can be disturbing or frustrating in other ways. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a time of wonderful change or the world’s about to end.
My guess is that we’re going to see much more continuity in foreign policy in the coming years than we think we are. That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes, obviously, and there will be the kinds of changes that happen between a Republican and Democratic administration. And there may be more of that than usual because Trump based his campaign on making more radical changes than usual.
But I think we’re starting to see on a number of issues, particularly in foreign policy, that there’s a fair amount of consensus and there’s a lot of constraints. There are interests that have to be balanced. We have to keep relations with everyone.
In foreign policy, there’s a balancing act that survives from administration to administration, ultimately because the leader of the United States is constrained by multiple interests and is always trying to balance. It’s unlikely to see a full-scale shift from China towards Taiwan or from the Palestinians towards Israel.
And with [President] Obama we saw this. Obama came in ready to break the mold of American foreign policy. He did some radical things; the shift with Cuba was, of course, noticeable. There were other things here and there, such as the deal with Iran. But these were also gradual.
This is sounding a lot like the conventional wisdom that new Presidents come in thinking they are going to change the presidency, but the presidency ends up changing them.
They obviously have influence through the bully pulpit. They can shape the tone and the tenor, and they can make gradual changes. But presidents are constrained by multiple interests, domestically as well as in foreign affairs.
Presidents tend to, at their best, understand that the most important changes are changes in trajectory, small but durable change that moves the needle in ways that are not so radical that they create pushback, but that over time makes a large difference. I think that President Trump will have to learn that over time.
Winston Churchill famously said that a lie gets halfway around the world while the truth hasn’t even had a chance to gets its pants on. To modernize that, it seems to me that nuanced, independent analysis very rarely goes viral. I’m curious to see what your thoughts are on how nonpartisan institutions can create impact without getting drowned out by all of the dialogue.
I think for think tanks, experimenting outside of the 30-page policy brief is a good idea. I think you need the brief that has real substance because specialists and decision makers need it. And you don’t give up on having deep knowledge in order to create exciting tweets.
That said, there are ways of taking what we know deeply, real expertise, and making it a little sexier and more interesting. Obviously, getting into social media is one of those ways. Figuring out how you do graphs and charts and statistics that are catchy and new and counter-intuitive and putting them out in accessible formats. Numbers that catch people by surprise. Getting narrative and visual. That doesn’t mean you don’t get technical, but do it in a way that has a story or a video attached to it, or a podcast.
I’ve found interesting to see that some think tanks are advertising some positions as “Storyteller” rather than “Writer-Editor” or “Digital Editor.”
In some ways, we should all think of ourselves as storytellers with substance. It’s not just enough to have the skill of storytelling; you also have to have the substance and expertise. We continue to hire for deep expertise, but also in this world in which there is so much information and analysis and ideas flowing back and forth, you’ve got to be a good storyteller.
You recently took part in an event at the Heritage Foundation, “The Death of Think Tanks in the Era of Trump.”
Yes, may they rest in peace.
One of the other panelists, Rebecca Heinrichs, said that think tanks are losing relevancy if they keep repeating the same ideas from Washington that the American public hasn’t seen work. That was her interpretation of the situation. I wanted to get your response to see if you agree that think tanks need to question some of their basic assumptions or if she isn’t giving the Washington consensus enough credit.
By the way, I don’t believe think tanks are dying. I think we all agreed in that panel that they are alive and well. But they do need to adapt, and Rebecca’s point is well taken. Think tanks become part of a circular conversation sometimes. The Washington political circuit does become an echo chamber.
Getting out of Washington to talk with people who are not a part of that policy circuit and listening to how they talk about things and learning from them is something we should do a lot more of. Those of us in the ideas industry should be out there in a similar way as politicians. We don’t have publics that elect us, but we should have publics out there that we are talking to and engaging with in a systematic way.
To what degree do we here in Washington end up overestimating how much the partisanship pervades all the way down into organizations, either in the business community or municipal governments that are trying to deal with practical challenges?
I think that’s true. I don’t think that America’s as divided as people think it is, which does not mean that there are not divisions.
It was fascinating parsing some of the exit polls from the recent election. You see very quickly that Trump didn’t win on the issues. He won on people wanting Washington and policy shaken up. They appreciated his business expertise. They didn’t necessarily like his opponent.
When you start looking at specific issues, and I was looking particularly at immigration and trade issues, most American have the same views that they’ve always had. People were interested in immigration reform rather than expelling people. They thought trade was neutral or good for the country. There were people who were skeptical of both without question, but they were significant minorities.
I think it is an error to think that people have wanted to shake up the country and take it in a completely different direction. What they want is a government that is a more agile; they want a government that is more responsive.
Almost as though the political system itself is amplifying any partisanship that exists rather than it reflecting the real differences.
Exactly, there is a wonderful book, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics, by Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian political philosopher. He takes an adventure into running for Prime Minister of Canada, which does not actually go very well. It’s about what he learned being an actual politician, and he walked away with great respect for politics.
He acknowledges that politics is ultimately about a compromise between multiple different ideas about what it means to be Canadian in his case and what it means to be American in our case. Politics is responsible for bringing people together who have different needs, desires, and views. Politicians have to listen to people and reconcile these multiple impulses in a way that no one wins completely, but people feel like the country is moving in as close to a direction they’re comfortable with as possible.
That sounds like a very optimistic, hopeful note. Do you have any final thoughts you would like to have before we finish up?
For those that care about ideas, this may seem like a rough time, but ultimately ideas matter enormously. Ideas are about what we think America’s role in the world is. For those involved in American foreign policy, if we don’t have ideas and ideals about where we’re going, it’s unlikely that we’re going to get anyplace. I think that we’re going to find that we’re going to come back to a debate about ideas again before too long.