It wasn’t the television studios, or the boss’s office the size of an Olympic swimming pool. It wasn’t the auditorium for 200 people, or the ten-storey-high purpose-built building with a two-storey atrium. It wasn’t the overseas offices in Oman and Beijing, the staff of 400, the oak-panelled corridors, or the oil paintings lining the walls numerous enough to set up an art gallery. It wasn’t the $300 million endowment, or the ability to raise $2.3 million from a single fundraising dinner (with tables going for $75,000 a time). It wasn’t the fact that my meeting with one institute’s president was delayed because a real president — of Panama — had dropped by, squeezed in between a former president of Indonesia and the supreme allied commander of NATO.
No, what really brought home to me the gaping difference between American and British think tanks last week was bumping into David Frum, George Bush’s former speechwriter, in the lift of the American Enterprise Institute, in whose waitress-service canteen I had just dined sitting next to Paul Wolfowitz, the former head of the World Bank. Other think-tank colleagues there include John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the enormously courageous Somali-born apostate and former Dutch politician. In Britain, top policy thinkers choose to work in universities; in the US they choose to work in think tanks. ‘Think tanks are more important than universities now,’ Frum told me, without a hint of immodesty. Even though I lead Policy Exchange, Britain’s (and arguably Europe’s) largest centre-right think tank, I wouldn’t dare to claim we are more important than a university.
In a whirlwind tour of US think tanks last week, I tried to find the reasons — beyond the US’s obvious size and wealth — for the differences between their think tanks and ours.