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In an imposing former military building in the sleepy suburb of Solna, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute [SIPRI] is a global thinktank with a uniquely Swedish outlook. From leafy outskirts of the Swedish capital, the institute’s experts advise governments in the EU and North America and provide training to officials all around the world. With around 50 researchers from 15 different countries, SIPRI is like a mini UN. Their task is to understand the logic of war, shed light on those violating international agreements and find peaceful solutions to the world’s conflicts. “SIPRI was established by the Swedish parliament in commemoration of 150 years of unbroken peace in Sweden,” says Sibylle Bauer, who heads the institute’s Dual-use and Arms Trade Control Programme. “It [has] a unique Swedish approach, and a contribution by the Swedish tax-payers.” (SIPRI has a sek50m [€5.9m] annual budget funded by the Swedish government, the EU and countries such as Norway, Finland, Holland and Canada.)

Since its founding in 1966, SIPRI has become a trusted source used by academics, policy-makers, journalists and top military brass – who pore over its annual yearbook for information on arms transfers, military spending, arms control, disarmament and conflicts.

Its reputation was built up largely during the Cold War, when it was one of the few places providing unbiased information. And it’s a reputation that sticks; today, the institute works with all willing countries, including North Korea and Iran, and keeps its information available to everyone. Part of its mandate is to advocate transparency in an area where it is often lacking. “We have various sources but they are all open,” says Sam Perlo-Freeman, director of the Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme, gazing out from SIPRI's conference room. “Governments don’t always provide data. In some cases they want to keep it secret; in other cases, maybe we’re just not looking hard enough.”

If SIPRI does have an agenda, it is peace. Sam Perlo-Freeman makes no secret of the fact that he’d like to see the world’s governments spending less on defence. “At the moment defence is roughly about 2.6 per cent of global gdp, which might not sound like a whole lot but when you consider what it would cost to eradicate world hunger, it’s a small fraction of what’s being spent on the military,” he says.

This passionate analysis is common in the corridors of the Solna HQ. “Opportunities to work at SIPRI are few and far between,” says Paul Holtom, director of the Arms Transfers Programme. “I can’t think of another place where you would have such a high level of respect and such access to government officials.”

The institute’s high-calibre employees continue to unearth critical information. One of them is Hugh Griffiths, head of Countering Illicit Trafficking Mechanism Assessment Projects, which investigates illegal arms trading. Recently, documents found through his research in Liechtenstein led to a British businessman being accused of insuring oil tankers that were undermining international trade sanctions imposed on Syria. Work such as this has rightfully earned SIPRI its reputation as one of the world’s leading military thinktanks.

But while the institute has been built over several decades, it is now shifting its focus from Europe and the old hegemonies of the Cold War. It has just opened offices in Beijing and Washington and there are plans to open in other places such as India, Africa and possibly Latin America. At the same time, at its heart, SIPRI will always value its Swedish roots.

Project 2049 Institute, Washington DC

Project 2049 opened in 2008 with the aim of providing the thinktank-saturated community in Washington DC with unbiased analysis of future trends in the Asia-Pacific region. LC Russell Hsiao, a senior research fellow, says, “Asia is often looked at through a China prism, or through an Asia outside-of-China prism. But one of our trademarks is that as well as military trends, our focus is on politics, economics and security, on democracy and governance and on the broader region.” The institute’s establishment was well timed, with the Obama administration announcing a new Asia-centric defence policy in 2011. Project 2049 now finds itself offering analysis designed to help ensure that this strategy succeeds.

Lowy Institute for International Policy, Australia

Once on the periphery of world affairs, Australia now has a box-seat as the world’s centre of geopolitical gravity shifts eastwards. Today the country finds itself a key partner in the US defence strategy of “rebalancing” in Asia; the independent thinktank is helping to steer the debate. The Lowy Institute’s mission statement – “Interpret, inform, influence” – encapsulates what a thinktank, at its best, is really for. It was the brainchild of Frank Lowy, one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen.

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