A recent front-page article in the New York Times revealed that many foreign governments now make large donations to U.S. think tanks, which in turn help those governments gain access to U.S. policymakers, largely by producing and disseminating research that is friendly to those governments.
Strobe Talbot of the Brookings Institution, one of the Washington-based think tanks cited in the story, insists that the substantial money the organization receives from foreign governments doesn’t influence its work. In a letter to the Times, he states that "no one, inside or outside the institution, tells our scholars what questions to ask or what answers to propose."
However, that’s not what many foreign governments apparently believe. An internal government report from Norway says: "In Washington it is difficult for a small country to gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats, and experts. Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding." A government ministry in Qatar says that its large gift to the Brookings Institution will help in "reflecting the bright image of Qatar in the international media, especially the American ones."
Moreover, the conflict of interest in this situation is real, irrespective of people’s motives and standards of conduct. Foreign nations seeking to influence U.S. decision makers gave lots of money to U.S. think tanks, which in turn did work that, by anyone’s reckoning, helped those nations achieve their goals. Even if all the players were acting entirely as disinterested seekers of truth, as Talbot suggests, there would still be something wrong.
What’s the right thing to do? Should these organizations be required to register as lobbyists for foreign governments, as some have suggested? Probably not. If I take your money specifically to represent you to decision-makers, then I’m a lobbyist. In some cases these think tanks walked right up to that line, but they don’t seem to have crossed it.
Should think tanks refuse to accept donations from foreign governments, as Congressman Frank Wolfe of Virginia has now recommended? No. There is nothing inherently wrong about a think tank accepting money from a foreign government. (Disclosure: My think tank, IAV, has accepted donations from Oman.) It’s also worth remembering that there's no such thing as a donation without expectations. As long as we have think tanks, we're going to have donors with motives.
To me, two changes are needed. The first is more disclosure. If you're a think tank engaging with U.S. policymakers, and you've accepted money from a foreign government with a vested interest in the matter, you should be required prominently to disclose that relationship — even if you and your boss are convinced that the money isn't influencing your work! This is a simple, obvious reform that's already being discussed in Congress.
The second change is harder. Put simply, the mission of a think tank should drive funding, not the other way around. But like many universities, think tanks increasingly act as if their mission is to increase their funding and size. As a result they've become, first and foremost, giant fundraising machines for which the prime imperative is constant expansion. If you run a think tank or university today, it's likely that your main activity is raising money and that your main goal is getting bigger. Asked about the Brookings Institution's heavy focus on foreign donations, one scholar said: "Brookings keeps growing and it has to support itself." That's the idea.
But think tanks should question this idea. It concerns more than foreign governments buying influence. Arguably the most harmful trend in think tanks today — and in our public life generally — is hyper-partisanship. What feeds it? There are many factors, but a major one is the growing domination of money. There are many donors willing to pay think tanks to become PR shops for already-defined political agendas — and plenty of think tanks willing to make that deal with the devil, in part because of their conviction that success is fundamentally defined by dollars.
In our case at IAV, our staff and budget are small and our office is distinctly unfancy, unless your tastes run to secondhand books and hand-me-down furniture. Working this way has obvious disadvantages, but to me it's worth it. At least we do our own work rather than someone else's. At least we spend most of our days on something other than trying to make the organization bigger. At least we still live out the dream of having the tank serve the think rather than the other way around.
David Blankenhorn is president of the Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.