So this is quite the front-page story by the New York Times’ Eric Lipton, Brooke Williams and Nick Confessore:

More than a dozen prominent Washington research groups have 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, an investigation by The New York Times has found.
The money is increasingly transforming the once-staid think-tank world into a muscular arm of foreign governments’ lobbying in Washington. And it has set off troubling questions about intellectual freedom: Some scholars say they have been pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.

On the one hand, Sunday’s New York Times front-pager wasn’t exactly groundbreaking.  If you read Bryan Bender’s excellent Boston Globe article from last year, or Ken Silverstein’s ebook on the subject from earlier this year, you already knew that think tanks sometimes engaged in policy research at the behest of official foreign donors.  This is pretty much a form of influence arbitrage — because think tanks are not as heavily regulated as more traditional outlets of foreign government funding (campaign contributions, lobbyists), it’s not surprising that more money is flowing their way.

What makes the Times story so gripping, however, are three facts.  The first is that the think tanks cited in the Times story are largely of the “nonpartisan” category.  More ideological think tanks, such as Heritage or the Center for American Progress, don’t appear in the story.  And since these think tanks earn their policy currency based on their expertise, the notion that they are working at the behest of some foreign government agenda is disturbing.

The second is that the reporters were able to get the Norwegian government’s perspective on the whole enterprise:

“In Washington, it is difficult for a small country to gain access to powerful politicians, bureaucrats and experts,” states an internal report commissioned by the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry assessing its grant making. “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.”

Indeed, the roster of countries that have contributed to think tanks all have one trait in common:  their comparative advantage in world politics is a surfeit of money compared to other forms of power.  Japan is a great power, but every other country cited in this study is both rich and small.

The third is that, although most of the think tanks cited in the story have stoutly denied any kind of pay-for-play scheme, other think tank heads have been a bit more surprised by the Times reporting:

At least one of the research groups conceded that it may in fact be violating the federal law.
“Yikes,” said Todd Moss, the chief operating officer at the Center for Global Development, after being shown dozens of pages of emails between his organization and the government of Norway, which detail how his group would lobby the White House and Congress on behalf of the Norway government. “We will absolutely seek counsel on this.”

So, naturally, the reaction has been to decry the think tanks universe with responses like this one:

I’m afraid it’s not that simple.  Before we cry havoc and let slip the dogs of hypocrisy charges, it’s worth considering that think tanks have to get their funding from somewhere.  One can argue for greater transparency in revealing their sources, but the important point is that the sources are pretty narrow:  foreign governments, the U.S. government, foundations, large corporations, or really wealthy individuals.  I suspect that exactly none of these actors are funding think tanks out of the goodness of their heart — they all have policy agendas that they want to further.  [What about crowdsourcing funding through lots of little donations?–ed.  That would require ordinary Americans to care about foreign policy.  And they don’t.]

I wouldn’t go so far as Jillian or Robert — I strongly suspect there’s more overlap between Google’s interests and those of the federal government than, say, the United States and Qatar — but their larger point about a world of special interests is correct.

In an ideal world, you would want think tanks to have sufficiently large and independent endowments to be independent of any one source.  Most think tanks do not possess an endowment that large.  Lacking that option, my preference would be for a think tank that’s transparent and diverse about its funding, rather than beholden to any one particular source.

There is also the more serious-but-only-implied allegation of whether think tanks distort their policy analysis in response to the prospect of funding.  In his statement on the article, Brookings Institution president Strobe Talbott was pretty definitive on this point:

Brookings has over 200 scholars and more than 700 funders for hundreds of research projects. Our scholars determine our research and policy recommendations, not our contributors. We accept funding from foreign governments with the understanding that they are supporting our independent research.
The Times leaves the impression that some Brookings activities, partially funded by Norway, are based on a quid pro quo by which Brookings advances Norwegian interests in exchange for a donation. There is no truth to that. Brookings, with support from Norway and other donors, is advancing two priorities of its own mission: meeting the public policy challenge of climate change and developing ideas for a more cooperative international system.

So, what should you, as a consumer of think tank reports, believe about all of this?  You should probably pay a little more attention to the money, and the extent to which the think tanks in question are upfront about their money.  But you should also note that the systemic effect of this trend on American foreign policy is very likely nil.  As the Times story noted, “think tanks’ reliance on funds from overseas is driven, in part, by intensifying competition within the field: The number of policy groups has multiplied in recent years, while research grants from the United States government have dwindled.”  Even if individual think tanks have received foreign funds, the idea that Brookings or the Atlantic Council has a clear playing field in the foreign policy arena is pretty absurd.

[Full disclosure: A various points in my career I was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow, a nonresident transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and am currently a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.  The point is,  think tanks have been very, very good to me.]