COLUMN

Hacks and Hired Guns

Are America’s think tanks in hock to the highest bidder?

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Is American foreign policy on sale to the highest bidder? Are wealthy foreign governments buying influence at prominent think tanks, and using it to brainwash gullible Americans and warp our national discourse? A recent article in the New York Times suggests that this problem is serious, focusing its attention primarily (but not exclusively) on the venerable Brookings Institution. The article prompted impassioned affirmations of objectivity from Brookings’ president Strobe Talbott, along with assorted "told-you-sos" from a diverse array of critics (including yours truly here) and useful comments from experts who have been studying this issue for some time.

Reading the original article, I couldn’t help but feel a bit like Captain Louis Renault: Should any of us be "shocked, shocked" to learn that well-heeled foreigners are using money to try to influence U.S. foreign policy? Get serious, folks: Anybody who’s paid the slightest bit of attention to the think tank and lobbying world in Washington over the past few decades knows that it is awash with cash from a wide variety of sources. Needless to say, most of those donors are hoping to get policymakers to see things a certain way and to do things they might not otherwise do. At this stage in the erosion of American democracy, why would anyone think that Brookings (or the American Enterprise Institute, or the Heritage Foundation, or the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or Center for a New American Security, or plenty of other places) would be above temptation?

But in point of fact, the whole question of outside funding for scholarly (and not-so-scholarly) activities is more complicated than people often think. Few people will do serious policy analysis free of charge, which means that even completely non-partisan institutions (to include universities) require lots of financial support. Some of this support can come from endowments, but most research organizations will also be tempted to raise additional money so that they can expand their activities. How should we think about this problem, and what "best practices" should we be encouraging?

Let’s start by admitting that some "policy analysis" is really just hack work by hired guns and intended solely to advance some narrow political cause. There’s no commitment to truth or integrity in such work; it’s indistinguishable from the basest political propaganda. When you see somebody change their views like a weather vane, always pointing in the direction of whoever is paying the bills, there’s good reason to question their objectivity and to be exceedingly wary of their recommendations.

In other cases, however, a policy analyst or author is getting paid to do research and offer recommendations that are in fact completely consistent with what they really believe. Outside support might help them expand their research and make it more influential, but in this case donors aren’t dictating the conclusion in advance. If a foundation or private donor offered to pay me to write a book on U.S. foreign policy blunders or U.S. grand strategy, or even on how to make international relations research more relevant to policymakers, and didn’t tell me in advance what conclusions I was supposed to reach, I’d be tempted to take the money and I wouldn’t regard it as compromising my integrity. And that is clearly the case for some of the work that goes on in think tanks, too. But be forewarned: If someone funding my work was known to have a vested interest in my conclusions, readers would be within their rights to wonder whether the work itself had been tainted by this conflict of interest, even if the donor never said a single word to me about what I was writing.

Moreover, to conclude that think tanks like Brookings or AEI or even the Council on Foreign Relations are never corrupted by big bucks is at best naïve and at worst disingenuous. The more that research organizations become dependent on soft money from outside donors, the more attention they will pay to what those donors want (and to what they don’t want). Even if donors have no formal say over what a senior fellow or research associate writes or says, most of the people doing the work will be aware of the donors’ preferences and be reluctant to offend them. Self-censorship is hard to avoid under these conditions, because few scholars (or program heads) will want to publish something that they know is going to offend a major donor or jeopardize the future flow of funds. Dependence on soft money doesn’t mean think tank employees are nothing but a bunch of hired pens, but such concerns are bound to warp their agendas in countless direct and indirect ways.  

Moreover, outside donors can shape a research organization’s agenda simply by choosing to fund some areas of work and not others. Indeed, organizations like the Ford, MacArthur, and Smith Richardson Foundations have been doing this for decades. When donors control some of the purse strings, certain topics will get more attention than they would have otherwise received and other topics will be under-studied or ignored completely.  Some senior fellows may be hired solely because there’s a donor out there who is willing to pay for them, and others may be let go because support is lacking or because influential donors don’t like what they have to say.

To make matters worse, the line between think tank research and formal political lobbying has become increasingly blurred in recent years. As journalist Ken Silverstein and others have shown in a number of revealing books and articles, the work of a number of prominent think tanks is driven as much by explicit political agendas as by scholarly criteria, even though these organization often pretend to be doing "serious" scholarship and adopt the outward appearance of more academic institutions. Even an independent and well-regarded organization such as the Smithsonian’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars can sometimes be caught up in lobbyists’ activities, even though no money is changing hands.

What about the ivory-tower world of academia, where objective "scientific" research is supposed to rule the day? The situation is in fact somewhat different here, but not as much as most university professors would like to think. Universities often have sizeable endowments and can make money from student tuition, so faculty working on foreign policy topics are not compelled to raise outside money in order to keep their jobs and continue their research (though it certainly doesn’t hurt). The institution of tenure — which does not exist in the think tank world — also helps insulate faculty from outside pressure. Moreover, rising to the commanding heights of academia depends on demonstrating scholarly credentials through publications in peer-reviewed journals and academic monographs, something researchers at inside-the-Beltway think tanks rarely do anymore.  

Yet even in the well-protected world of academia, faculty, deans, and university presidents remain sensitive to donors’ interests and the research agenda of the faculty can be easily swayed when a foundation, major donor, or a government dangles the prospect of large research grant. University-based scholars have more freedom to say what they think than their think-tank based counterparts, but they still face subtle forms of pressure and are not immune to temptation themselves.

Finally, the present hoopla over foreign funding of D.C. think tanks, prompted by that article in the New York Times, if anything understates the problem. There are obviously grounds for concern when a foreign government, individual, or foundation gives a big slug of money to a research organization, but it is not obvious why money from overseas is any more worrisome than money arising from within the United States itself. In both cases, individuals or organizations with deep pockets and particular agendas are trying to influence public and elite understanding of some issue and thus to influence what the U.S. government eventually does about it. Does it really matter whether the donor is a weapons manufacturer, an oil company, a multinational financial services company, an ethnic lobby, a wealthy individual with a particular agenda, or an ideologically motivated foundation?  

In some cases, the level of support will be evenly distributed across the ideological spectrum and the resulting "war of ideas" will be a mostly fair fight. In other areas, by contrast, groups or individuals on one side of the debate will enjoy a clear advantage in resources and we should expect to see shallow and heavily skewed debate. And if the follies of the past 20 years have taught us anything, it is that narrow and one-sided debates tend to lead to major foreign policy screw-ups.

What is to be done? As I’ve written before, the least objectionable way to address this problem is to encourage greater transparency on the part of think tanks and other research organizations. Groups that refuse to divulge their donors, or refuse to detail how the money they receive is being spent, should be "named and shamed" by independent ratings agencies such as Transparify. Journalists that continue to rely on "expertise" from non-transparent research organizations should be reminded that they are relying on biased sources, and encouraged to seek out more independent sources of expertise. They could do a better job of acknowledging the political stance (and funding sources) of the groups on whom they often go for expert commentary, and include that in their reportage.

It may be too late to dry up the torrent of money that is warping the public debate on critical foreign policy questions, but I’d settle for knowing who’s paying whom (and for what).

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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