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Think Tank Celebrates 50 Years of Dispensing Foreign-Policy Advice

November 17, 2005 By:
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Back in 1955, the Soviet Union and the spread of communism constituted America's greatest threats overseas. Concerned that the country's policy-makers did not have a clear, long-term approach to what he rightly believed would be a projected conflict, University of Pennsylvania professor Robert-Strauz-Hupe established the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

A half-century later, FPRI remains in Philadelphia, although its focus has changed. Its scholars now tend to concentrate on places like Iraq and Iran rather than Russia, but the original goal - to foster a deep and complex understanding of the world within the policy-making environment - remains constant.

"Our primary mission is to educate people about America's role in world affairs," said FPRI vice president Alan Luxenberg.

One office away sits president Harvey Sicherman, whose own space is strewn with broadsheets - The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Financial Times of London - that appear to indicate a hectic pace dominated by the daily news cycle.

Both men said the opposite is true. Sicherman explained that while Washington always demands quick fixes to policy problems, the world of think tanks allows experts to step back and consider a sea of historical, economic and geopolitical factors to come up with long-term recommendations.

"It's an unnatural act in Washington to stand back and look at policy," said Sicherman, who worked in the administrations of both President Ronald Reagan and the first President Bush. (He boasts to have been the highest-ranking Orthodox Jewish official ever to have served in the State Department.) "The very urgency of government business tends to blind people toward longer-term trends."

When Sicherman first joined FPRI as a researcher in 1969, the organization was primarily targeting its research and policy recommendations toward those in government; a large percentage of its work involved classified research.

But it split from Penn a year later, when a rule change stipulated that campus institutions could no longer conduct classified research. Its office remained in University City until 1995, when it relocated to Center City.

"When you're in Philadelphia, you're close enough to Washington to understand what's bothering the policy-makers, but you're not stuck on the government's schedule," said Sicherman, who after his stint inside the Beltway rejoined the organization in 1993, taking over the reigns from Daniel Pipes, who now heads Philadelphia's Middle East Forum.

In the past 35 years, the institute has become more about outreach - trying to inform the public about how what happens abroad affects life at home, according to Luxenberg, himself a 30-year veteran of FPRI.

Public lectures, teacher training, high school programs, textbook editing and weekly e-mail updates on world affairs now coexist side by side with its more traditional enterprises, like publishing the quarterly Orbis: A Journal of World Affairs.

In 2003, FPRI created the Center on Terrorism, Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, an indication of where the bulk of the group's work lies: coming up with strategies for how to deal with terrorism, which FPRI sees as a protracted conflict on the order of the Cold War.

"You have to get people to understand that this is not a problem that has a beginning and an end," said Sicherman. "It will require a permanent semi-mobilization of American resources to deal with it."

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