The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Regarding the foreign funding of think tanks in America

A report that is supposed to disturb people is not as disturbing as it thinks

Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) speaks at the Brookings Institution in Washington about his vision for the future of U.S. foreign policy. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Five and a half years ago, Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nicholas Confessore wrote a blockbuster story in the New York Times about how foreign governments were ostensibly buying influence in the American marketplace of ideas through the funding of think tanks. They claimed that more than a dozen think tanks had “received tens of millions of dollars from foreign governments in recent years while pushing United States government officials to adopt policies that often reflect the donors’ priorities.”

They went so far as to claim that some think tanks had become “a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington” and warned that “some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.”

This story set off an earthquake within the staid foreign policy think tank community, representing an existential threat to the credibility of some of these institutions. It was also one of the inspirations for me to write about the evolution of the marketplace of ideas in “The Ideas Industry.”

Since that time, a lot of think tanks have attempted to address the problems raised by that story and follow-on reporting. They exercise greater control over who and when one can use a think tank association. They have also endeavored to show greater transparency in their funding.

Has any of this made a difference? The Center for International Policy, as part of its Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, has a new report out by Ben Freeman that suggests the answer is no. It looked at publicly available information, including media reports, on foreign funding between 2014 and 2019 to see if anything changed since the Times story set off a hullabaloo. According to the summary on its website: “Many think tanks in Washington D.C. share a common trait — they receive substantial financial support from foreign governments. While these are often democracies with interests closely aligned with those of the U.S., a significant number of these foreign donors are undemocratic, authoritarian regimes whose aims often diverge significantly from U.S. interests.” This is how coverage at RealClearPublicAffairs and the American Conservative played it as well.

This sounds a) pretty bad and b) as if think tanks have not learned anything since 2014. A peek at the actual report, however, suggests a somewhat different interpretation.

For one thing, Freeman and I clearly disagree about what constitutes a “significant number” and “undemocratic, authoritarian regimes.” According to Freeman’s own data, only three of the top 20 foreign donors are authoritarian (Qatar, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates) and only the UAE gave more than $10 million. Combined, those three countries were responsible for approximately 17 percent of foreign funding from the top 20 foreign donors. The rest came from Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development economies, international organizations like the United Nations and World Bank, and Taiwan. Of the 67 foreign donors listed in the appendix, only nine would be classified as authoritarian by my back-of-the-envelope calculations.

At one point, Freeman states that World Resources Institute funding “came from at least 27 different foreign sources, most of which were governments in Western democracies. There were, however, a noticeable number of donors to the think tank from Asia, including China, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and the Asian Development Bank.” Again, this is an odd formulation. It is not clear at all why funding from “Asia” should be viewed as different from “Western democracies,” particularly with respect to Japan or South Korea or the Asian Development Bank.

Any evidence that this foreign funding affects the output of think thanks is mostly asserted rather than proved. Indeed, the one time Freeman discusses this explicitly is about how United Arab Emirates funding affected the output of the Brookings Institution. He wrote: “Many of the think tank’s scholars haven’t shied away from lambasting the Emiratis. One Brookings scholar, for example, offered a scathing rebuke of the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen, calling their strategy ‘disastrous.’ Other Brooking’s scholars, however, have been decidedly uncritical of the Emiratis.” If Brookings scholars display a heterogeneity of views toward the UAE, it is difficult to claim that their funding has censored the think tank’s output.

The report is useful in highlighting which think tanks continue to demonstrate the least transparency with respect to foreign funding — shame on the Hoover Institution, among others. But what stands out is that the think tanks believed to exercise the most influence in Washington — the American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, Center for American Progress, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Council on Foreign Relations, Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Heritage Foundation — are among the most transparent in this area.

Greater transparency among the other think tanks would be a good thing, and there is more work to be done. But this report suggests that allegations of pay-for-play in significant think tanks are wildly overstated. This seems like a good thing.

[Full disclosure: I am a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, as well as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, both of which are mentioned in the report, and am on the board of the Niskanen Center. I receive no remuneration from these titles. I have been paid by Brookings, the Center for a New American Security, and the Council on Foreign Relations for specific reports I have drafted under their auspices. In none of those instances was I ever pressured to alter the content of my findings and/or conclusions.]