Anne-Marie Slaughter recently became president and CEO of the New America Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. A former professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, she was the first woman director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, a job she held from 2009 to 2011. She was also among the first to call for U.S. military intervention in Syria, making her case in an op-ed published in the New York Times in early 2012. She spoke recently with Washington Monthly editor in chief Paul Glastris about her views on foreign policy and the role of think tanks in affecting policy.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, President of the New America Foundation Credit:

WM: People who share your liberal interventionist views on foreign policy have not been winning many battles in recent years. Do you see cause for concern in that?

AS: I object to the characterization and the diagnosis. I would describe myself as a liberal internationalist, in a traditional Wilsonian tradition, somebody who believes that if you don’t pay attention to what is happening on the ground to actual people, you will pay. So that has meant that I’ve been very supportive of the intervention in Libya and I’ve been calling for action in Syria for two and a half years. Given how terribly—and predictably—the conflict in Syria has evolved, I think I was right there too. When I was calling for it there weren’t al-Qaeda members. The Free Syrian Army had just started, and you had plenty of much more moderate people who were basically asking for the same rights as everyone else across the Middle East. It was completely foreseeable that if you don’t help the moderates, the extremists are going to take over.

WM: But in a broader sense, one gets the feeling that a combination of the disaster in Iraq, the winding down in an unsatisfying way of the war in Afghanistan, the rise of anti-interventionism among some factions in the Republican Party, and a resurgence of anti-interventionism among progressives—and just a general tiredness among the public—has made the kind of vision you’ve written about for many years harder.

AS: I certainly think that is true in relative terms. What I think the president is trying to do is to be the president who ended two wars and ensures that we would not go to war unilaterally and recklessly again. He’s saying, Not only am I going to get us out of Afghanistan and Iraq, I’m going to make sure that Afghanistan and Iraq can’t ever happen again. He said he’ll use force to defend our interests, but in situations that do not directly threaten our core interests but violate our values, he was absolutely adamant that it has to be multilateral. I know everyone thought it was a disaster to ask Congress about the Syrian chemical weapons issue, but I read it as saying that he wants to establish the precedent of going to Congress. I subscribe to those principles, so even though I might be losing the battles, I support the larger cause.

WM: The way the Syrian chemical weapon drama played out has been largely characterized as ad hoc-ism meets lucky break, Obama escaping a trap of his own making. Was it that, or was there a deeper logic to it?

AS: There are some things I think that were not anticipated. If you remember, he said he was going to go to Congress on a Friday. By the Sunday-morning shows, it looked like Congress was going to give him the authority he needed and there would be an attack sometime later that week.

What did catch the White House by surprise was this vehement no from the American people, which meant the people who would otherwise have been expected to support him were now saying no. Legally, he could have gone ahead on his own, but politically it would have been very hard. So from that sense the Russian proposal came at a very opportune time, but I don’t think it was just a lucky break. There was a lot of diplomacy behind the scenes with the Russians and there had been diplomacy on our side too. Secretary Kerry and President Obama have always said it requires a political settlement, and that’s where we are now. There will be another round in Geneva, and I don’t think it is just ad hoc or lucky. I think there is a real commitment to what diplomacy can do.

WM: Until three years ago, only one woman ran a major Washington think tank, Jessica Mathews at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Now there’s Jane Harmon at the Wilson Center, Sarah Wartell at the Urban Institute, Neera Tanden at Center for American Progress, and of course you at New America. Why did this change occur so suddenly, and why did it take so long?

AS: It reflects the fact that you now have a pool of qualified women for this level of job, right? So Jessica was appointed at Carnegie in the ’90s, but in those days there were very few women at her level. Now you have women who were leaders on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, women who have been in the Senate, in my case women tenured professors. I just think there’s a much bigger pool at the level required to run a think tank.

WM: Will the rise of female think tank executives change the way think tanks operate and what they achieve?

AS: There’s part of me that says no and there’s part of me that says let’s wait and see. Do I think I’m going to do things differently than my predecessor Steve Coll did because I’m a woman? No. I think he and I have different leadership styles, but I don’t think that’s related to our genders. On the other hand, with more women taking over there may be more collaboration among us. At least in conversations that I’ve had, there’s less of a sense that we have to own the project and we have to own the donors and more of a sense that why don’t we figure out if we can collaborate on a project?

WM: We recently saw a think tank, the Heritage Foundation, help bring the entire federal government to a halt. Even if you don’t agree with what they did, do you think it’s appropriate that think tanks have that kind of power?

AS: Well, there are the explicitly partisan think tanks and then there are the independent heterodox nonpartisan ones. We [at New America] pride ourselves on our objectivity, so I would say my kind of think tank, Brookings, Carnegie, we could never have that kind of power. We simply couldn’t. We had a big impact on the Obama health care plan, we were one of the first places to come up with the individual mandate, but we could never actually advise politicians in the same way.

WM: Did your experience at the State Department developing policy give you any insight on how a think tank like New America might go about influencing policy?

AS: The report that I remember having the single biggest impact, for me, was one by the U.S. Global Leadership Council that aggregated the work of about thirty think tanks on development reform. That was invaluable, because while I wasn’t so concerned with whether think tank X supports Y’s idea, what was interesting was the number of ideas that think tanks supported. One lesson I learned is that the aggregation of knowledge can be as important as putting knowledge out in the first place. Because you’re working with people with very little time, they really need to have trusted sources of information.

WM: Having spent time in government, if you could change one thing to make it function better, what would it be?

AS: It would be to have every single agency connected on the same intranet, and with an unbelievably good internal search capacity, so that if I had a problem of food security, say, I could type that in and find the ten people in multiple agencies who knew a lot about it, who have written on it. You could enhance the efficiency of government a million percent if you could do that. The main problem is that we didn’t know what we knew. We didn’t even know what we knew within the State Department, much less within USAID, and the Department of Agriculture, and the Pentagon.

WM: What’s stopping the creation of such an intranet?

AS: The fact that the technology is twenty years out of date. It would cost a lot, it would take a big up-front initial investment, but also think about all the security issues. One example: State and USAID used different versions of Microsoft Word, so when we were doing a collaborative project and if I did not convert my documents to the previous version of Word, nobody at USAID could read them. And you’re asking me about an intranet with a great Google search?

WM: So how does one in your position find those ten or twenty experts within the government?

AS: You don’t, although sometimes the think tanks can connect you. A single-issue think tank is going to know everybody who works on these issues.

WM: So think tanks can sometimes be the Yellow Pages for the government’s own expertise!

AS: You said that, I didn’t!

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