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In over two decades of work in think tanks and foreign policy research, the most important, rewarding and frustrating project that I have been involved in has been the Pacific Forum’s next-generation initiative, the Young Leaders (YL) program.

By finding and bringing up-and-coming young professionals into our policy discussions, it provided an unparalleled opportunity to widen and warp minds. It has also exposed more clearly than any other endeavor the constraints when tackling the toughest, most obstinate problems.

The YL program was launched nearly 20 years ago when Ralph Cossa, my former boss and the then president of Pacific Forum, struck up a conversation with a young woman serving him coffee before a meeting at a Tokyo partner organization. She had a doctorate from a Boston university and despite being smart, personable and having a command of issues and English that bested a good number of senior professionals, that was likely to be the only encounter the two of them would ever have.

That prompted him to launch a program aimed at finding similarly capable youngsters, or YLs, and bring them into our discussions. With support from several foundations, a number of them Japanese, the program took off. Today, there are nearly 500 members of the YL program, more than 1,000 alumni and nearly 60 countries represented. While every organization seems to have its own next generation program, I like to think the Pacific Forum’s was one of the first and one of the best.

The YL program has four goals. First, it seeks to immerse the next generation in issues that are key to their work and future careers, along with the processes of engagement. The former is common; the latter is not. There is very little understanding of what think tanks do among people who don’t actually do that work. While we’re called talking heads for a reason, those meetings are much more than opportunities to build resumes, hone debating skills and wrack up frequent flyer miles.

Unlike academic conferences, the real point of a think tank discussion is relationship building: establishing trust and confidence among attendees to push the conversation beyond empty exchanges and the rote repetition of talking points. Participants gain insight into the thinking of others around the table and together can think constructively and creatively about problem-solving. Two think tankers at one conference may next meet when each is representing their respective governments, and the rapport they establish during their time in the program may help facilitate frank discussions and give them confidence to address real issues on bilateral relations. Those conversations take place in a variety of settings: the conference itself, coffee breaks, meals or even extracurricular activities that the Pacific Forum sets up for networking and ice breaking. In fact, it is the so-called offline discussions that are invariably most useful.

The second goal is giving YLs a chance to begin building relationships among themselves. Past attendees have done just that, forging friendships and partnerships that have lasted long after they graduated from the program. Some have also written papers together, launched initiatives and a few even got married.

Third, program participants get a chance to sit down alone with some of the world’s top experts, senior government officials or leading academics, people they’d likely never meet. The readiness of seniors to talk to YLs says a lot about their character and priorities.

In retrospect, two stand out. First is Desmond Ball, the Australian strategic analyst who was the scourge of security communities in Australia and the U.S, and who always made time for the YLs, telling gripping stories and serving up unique insights into the issues he probed. The other is Brad Roberts, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy. He not only gave graciously of his time, but continues to nurture strategic thinkers as director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

I like to think that YL sessions with senior participants widens the horizons of the “gray hairs” as well. Many academics and policy pros travel in their own bubbles, seeing only counterparts or folks who pay for the privilege.

Finally, the YL program tries to insert next-generation views into the conference process. This is increasingly important given the accelerating pace of change and evolving assumptions and expectations between generations that have resulted. For example, younger South Koreans think quite differently than their elders about reunification with North Korea. It’s not that they don’t see their neighbor as a threat, but rather that family ties have faded and they have been sobered by the experience of German unification. Similarly, younger Japanese have a very different view of their country’s wartime past: They aren’t indifferent to it but it is so distant from them that complaints about warmongering are utterly foreign and, frankly, insulting.

Still, introducing such views can be a tough sell since many senior participants often don’t have time for such thinking. For them, YLs need seasoning and more realistic views of how government works.

In retrospect, we either succeeded spectacularly in cultivating brilliance or got very lucky in our screening process because program alumni are everywhere. I’ve run into YLs or alums who are now government officials and academics throughout the region. They’ve greeted me at the National Security Secretariat, the Foreign Ministry, South Korea’s Ministry of Defense, Vietnam’s Diplomatic Academy and think tanks whenever I travel. Some alumni are now also ambassadors, politicians and teachers at leading educational institutions around the world, as well as media figures and business professionals.

For all the success, the YL program has been incredibly frustrating as well. My dream was to mix up promising young folks from a range of fields: not just junior bureaucrats, researchers or soon-to-be or newly minted Ph.D.s, but media figures, junior military officers, civil society activists, scientists and other opinion leaders. They all have different problem-solving methodologies and use different tools to deal with problems. I wanted a cross-pollination of views and thinking, to encourage them to experiment and try new approaches and partnerships.

It’s a hard sell. Outside the bubble I tried to create, Young Leaders are discouraged from venturing too far from the conventional wisdom — and not just in societies for which good pedagogy is repeating what the professor told them the day before. Every institutional incentive is to play it safe and not rattle cages. There is no encouragement to think broadly or out of the box. If they do, they are told that they don’t understand reality or that their solution has already been tried. In some discussions, I had to ask senior participants to leave the room since they felt obliged to correct “misimpressions” whenever a YL ventured an unorthodox opinion. Sometimes their mere presence stifled creative thinking.

Yet every big problem that we face is testimony to the failure of conventional wisdom. It’s precisely because these problems are enduring that we have to test new approaches and find new solutions.

Ignorance isn’t bliss — or the basis for good policy. That leaves me with some guiding principles for helping to develop young minds (and yes, they are vague and need far more specificity). First, find the sweet spot. Don’t reward ignorance or recklessness, but don’t kill experimental thinking or a readiness to innovate. Second, and to get there, teach methodologies. That requires empathy (understanding the thinking of the person with whom you are working to find a solution), an understanding of history and culture, and a willingness to look outside your particular field for answers. Third, focus on the practical. That can be tough when so many program participants are academics, which is another reason I like to put civil society activists and scientists into the mix; they have to focus on results.

Come think of it, those might not be bad guidelines for all of us, not just Young Leaders. Happy holidays and see you in 2022.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule-Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum, where he directed the Young Leaders program. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions” (Georgetown University Press, 2019).

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