A Powerful Idea: Think Tanks & Democracy Promotion during the Reagan Era

Name of applicant

Rasmus Sinding Søndergaard


DKK 350,000



Type of grant

Internationalisation Fellowships


Few ideas have done more to shape the world we live in today than the notion held by the United States, that it is in its interest to promote democracy abroad. Although part of a longstanding American tradition, democracy promotion underwent a significant change in the 1980s. The same decade witnessed a proliferation of think tanks aimed at influencing the formulation of US foreign policy. Based on research in recently declassified archives, this project examines the poorly understood genesis of modern US democracy promotion during the Reagan years with a particular focus on the crucial role of think tanks. The project traces the evolution of US democracy promotion, how think tanks contributed, and how this impacted actual foreign policy.


The project fills two crucial historiographical gaps with significant implications for our understanding of the current US foreign policy and international affairs. First, the 1980s constitutes a defining but understudied moment in the tradition of US democracy promotion. Second, think tanks have become increasingly influential actors in shaping US foreign policy, but archival-based studies of these institutions are almost non-existent. The project uses recently declassified government archives and think tank archives to further our understanding of the genesis of modern US democracy promotion and the role think tanks played in bringing this change about. As such the project promises to cast light on the roots of the liberal world order at a time when it is experiencing a profound crisis.


The research will be conducted at Georgetown University in Washington DC, which provides the optimal setting for both archival research and academic collaboration. I will conduct extensive archival research and interviews in the DC area supplemented with research trips to Stanford University and a few other key locations. Throughout the project, I will present my research at international conferences as well as seminars at Georgetown University and other leading universities in the DC area.

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