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The Thin Red Line: Think Tanks and Foreign Powers

By Mitch Yoshida, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow


Last week, The New York Times published an exposé alleging foreign government influence on some Washington, D.C. think tanks. The result of an investigation by The Times, the piece has elicited condemnation from some quarters and rebuttals from the think tanks in question, while shedding more light on a problem that risks undermining the credibility and impact of the think tank industry as a whole. How can U.S. government officials in particular – who, at times, rely heavily on think tank analyses and recommendations when assessing foreign policy challenges and formulating policy – continue to trust that the work of these institutions is a) not made in a foreign capital, and b) does not therefore pose a threat to their own credibility and missions?

Lawyers interviewed by The Times singled out the Brookings Institution and the Center for Global Development (CGD) for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which “requires groups that are paid by foreign governments with the intention of influencing public policy to register as ‘foreign agents’” with the Department of Justice.  Correspondence and other documents obtained by The Times indicate that CGD accepted funding from the Norwegian government to persuade U.S. officials to double spending on forest protection efforts. With regard to Brookings, the article reads: “The Brookings Institution, which also accepted grants from Norway, has sought to help the country gain access to American officials, documents show. One Brookings senior fellow, Bruce Jones, offered in 2010 to reach out to State Department officials to help arrange a meeting with a senior Norway official, according to a government email. The Norway official wished to discuss his country’s role as a ‘middle power’ and vital partner of the United States.”  

The article also alleges foreign government influence on other think tanks that, while maybe not illegal, raise questions about their independence and intellectual integrity. Shedding light on the potential scale of the problem, The Times estimates that U.S.-based think tanks received $92 million in “contributions or commitments” from foreign governments in the past four years – which it concedes is a low estimate given most think tanks’ lack of transparency about donors and donations. Critically, the piece also points out that the absence of documents detailing the purchase of influence by foreign governments does not preclude implicit agreements with think tanks that can compromise their work. As one scholar at Brookings put it, “[i]t is the self-censorship that really affects us over time.”

The root of the problem is that these think tanks have conflicting aims. On one hand, they seek funding from foreign governments to expand their operations and ensure that their voice is heard as the number of actors attempting to influence U.S. foreign policy increases. On the other hand, they reassure their target audiences that they have implemented procedures to protect the independence and intellectual integrity of their work. Yet they cannot have it both ways – formal internal mechanisms do not, as The Times piece points out, necessarily neutralize the informal influence that foreign government funders wield over these think tanks and their work. To the consumers of think tank products who are charged with protecting and promoting U.S. interests, and are now aware of this, discerning whether or not the fine line between independent analysis and lobbying on behalf of a foreign government has been crossed is difficult, if not impossible, given the unwritten pressure these governments can exert.  If there is even a hint of doubt that such products have been affected in this way, there is no reason for U.S. government consumers to risk their own missions and credibility when they can almost always turn to other sources that are not funded by foreign governments.

The think tanks in question have three choices:

  1. Refuse to fully disclose foreign government donors and donation amounts, diminishing their credibility, impact and donor base in a vicious cycle;

  2. Fully disclose foreign government donors and donation amounts, in which case their credibility, impact and donor base would still diminish, though to a lesser extent;

  3. Reject donations by foreign governments altogether, which would restore their credibility and influence but in some cases require downsizing

So far, these think tanks have opted for the first choice – an unsustainable position, not only for the reasons stated above, but because the Department of Justice is most likely investigating their connections with foreign governments. The House of Representatives, moreover, is already moving to institute a rule that would require think tank experts testifying before its committees to disclose foreign government funding for their work. That leaves the second and third options, which do not – it should be noted – imply that these think tanks should isolate themselves in a Fortress America when it comes to their analyses and recommendations; this would compromise the quality of their work. But since these institutions primarily seek to inform U.S. officials and foreign policy, they must, at the very least, fully disclose foreign government donors and amounts received to remain relevant.

Full disclosure: The Streit Council does not accept donations from foreign governments.


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