A place to spot the future

January 22, 1999

Chris Gamble, first woman director of Chatham House, says the institute will be stronger in the 21st century

Foreign secretary Robin Cook has witheringly described Chatham House as "a social forum for retired diplomats" while last year The Times none too politely asked: "What's it for?" We are certainly not short of publicly offered opinion on the answer. The Times view is that we are a think-tank and that, like all think-tanks, to stay in business we need to be a "story-teller". New Statesman has quoted all sorts of people: academics worrying about competition on the research side; corporate observers offering kind scorn; previous directors reflecting how the house's income tended to "fall short of expenses by a significant margin".

While New Statesman concluded in May 1998 that "the grand old centre of British foreign policy debate is in deep crisis", in December it conceded the strength of Chatham House's influence compared to that of Robin Cook's new Foreign Policy Centre. Perhaps in summer, New Statesman read The Financial Times, which applauded our role in preparing the ground for big ideas to grow and hoped none would lose sight of that role and its importance.

My appointment as the director brought much curiosity about Chatham House bringing in someone who was not only female but also not elderly and not from the armed services or the establishment.

So, to those and all others who are watching our space, here is the latest bulletin. We are very well, thank you. Our house is in order. Our future is not in doubt. Why? Well, we believe in ourselves.

When I joined Chatham House, I knew little of its people. Like many, I was familiar with the front end - the meetings, the opportunity to hear and meet with a round of eminent speakers with whom contact would normally be beyond reach. Of what and who lay beyond that I had little idea. I do now. There is a young staff bubbling with belief in what they are doing and contributing. Their commitment is the strongest foundation for our role in the 21st century.

We believe in making the complicated business of international affairs accessible because security issues, terrorism, other countries' foreign policy and consequent actions, energy crises and environmental threats, the powers of superstate institutions, scenarios in matters of health and law and economics that might unfold beyond the millennium affect us all. We believe that access to information about these issues matters. And we believe that informing thinking via a range of expert and highly regarded views will contribute to sounder opinion, better decisions and a better connected world.

Chatham House is best placed to do all this for a number of reasons that add up to its uniqueness. First of all we are not about British foreign policy, nor about British viewpoints. We are an institute of international affairs, based in London, where intellectual vigour and freedom of speech are strongest.

Like our staff, our expertise is international. We combine research and analysis and library services with meetings, conferences and publications, including our flagship journals, The World Today and International Affairs.

All this focuses on sending out those who come to us better informed. Information is the key. Under the terms of its charter, Chatham House is barred from having an opinion. Perhaps most of all, this gives us our strength. We do not seek to influence, but to inform. We are impartial.

No one, searching to describe Chatham House, contemplates identifying it with political leaning. "The left-wing think-tank Demos"- yes; "the left, or right- wing think-tank Chatham House" - unthinkable. The very name stands for discretion and the freedom to think and speak unfettered without fear of public record.

Confidence in us for this extends across the widest constituency. There are international statesmen and thinkers who simply do not consider addressing an audience anywhere in London other than at Chatham House. Business competitors explore scenarios and contexts together behind our doors. Unthinkable political introductions take discreet place. Institutions that are living some of the worst problems in the world find the connections they need here.

Finally, powerfully, we are a place. The media can provide information; the academic world can offer specialist research; the internet can facilitate a massive exchange of views. But Chatham House is somewhere to come, to think, to talk, to rub your ideas up against knowledgeable people from a range of sectors and professions, to find a base on which to start thinking for yourself, to hear those whose decisions are going to change your life and the next generation's, to network, to challenge, to spot the future.

None of this costs the British taxpayer a penny. Other countries have institutes of international affairs funded wholly or in part by government. Some governments use public funds to set up their own think-tanks. Policy analysis is in some cases bought by businesses needing answers on their own agendas.

Chatham House falls into none of these categories. We earn our way. That we are now solvent is a big vote of confidence that has been overlooked. Through good management and practice, the deficit that threatened the institute has been removed and we are financially sound.

We are not complacent at Chatham House. We have a lot to do. We need to win larger financial investment in our future than we have at present if we are to be comfortable. We want to widen our membership. We want to reinvigorate our contacts with the university international relations community. We must address our image and public relations. We need more friends out there.

Chris Gamble is director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House.

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