A foundation overseen by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch is making major investments in foreign policy programs at elite American universities, including a soon-to-be-announced $3.7 million grant to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The latest grant, which is expected to be made public early next week, is part of a larger effort to broaden the debate about an American foreign policy Koch and others at his foundation argue has become too militaristic, interventionist and expensive. It follows about $10 million in similar grants the Charles Koch Foundation has given in recent months to Notre Dame, Tufts University, Catholic University and the University of California at San Diego.
"This is the beginning of a much bigger project to ask questions about America's proper role in the world and how we move forward," said Will Ruger, vice president for research at the Charles Koch Foundation.
Charles and his brother David Koch have stirred controversy in recent years as symbols of big money run amok in American politics. They typically support Republican candidates who advocate for smaller government, less regulation, free trade and are skeptical about humans’ role in contributing to climate change. The money the Charles Koch Foundation is spending on foreign policy amounts to only a fraction of the $300 million to $400 million the brothers are expected to pay out over the next two years on policy and political campaigns — up from $250 million during the 2016 elections.
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In the world of foreign policy, the grants are a major investment aimed at generating new ideas about how America should use its military power and vast economic influence.
On foreign policy, Charles Koch has been an iconoclast, and has frequently broken with mainstream Republicans to raise doubts about the wisdom of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He pointedly declined to back President Trump’s campaign for the White House but is seen as an ideological ally of Vice President Pence, especially on matters related to domestic policy and politics.
At the height of the Vietnam War, he took out a full-page ad in the Wichita Eagle calling for an end to American involvement in the conflict.
The foundation’s grants are designed to encourage research that advances the realist school of foreign policy, a view that is skeptical of American-led humanitarian interventions, abhors nation-building in places like Iraq or Afghanistan and preaches the importance of restraint on the world stage.
Foreign policy realists typically support big investments in naval and air power to dissuade potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, and to safeguard global commerce and free trade.
“We are not pacifists,” Ruger said, “but we want to be smarter. . . . This isn’t a liberal or conservative issue. It’s looking at what we’ve been doing and saying what’s a better approach.”
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The investment at Harvard and MIT, like the Koch foundation programs at the other universities, will primarily pay for graduate-level and postdoctoral fellowships. Stephen Walt, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Barry Posen, the director of MIT’s Security Studies program, will oversee the Koch-funded program at the two schools.
Both professors are known as realists who have criticized the Republican and Democratic foreign policy elite for overstating America’s capabilities and too quickly defaulting to the U.S. military to deal with threats they say are only peripheral to American interests. The goal, they said, is to break the bipartisan Washington consensus on American foreign policy.
“There’s been no disagreement on American exceptionalism and global leadership in a lot of places. For example, Iraq had bipartisan support initially,” Walt said. “There are nasty debates about tactics but most of those happened between the 45-yard lines.”
Posen said during the Cold War there were often big debates over nuclear weapons and U.S. policy in places such as Latin America or Asia. “The debate that was quite spirited became somewhat somnolent in the post-Cold-War world,” he said.
Trump’s “America First” foreign policy philosophy, which is skeptical of free trade, NATO and other big security alliances, has opened up some of the debate. But, he has also led the Republicans and Democrats who make up the foreign policy elite to close ranks in opposition to him.
Posen and Walt said the fellowships wouldn’t be limited to foreign policy realists.
“This is not about politics,” Posen said. “This is about policy and training graduate students and scholarship.”
The foundation is also bankrolling a foreign policy debate series with the Brookings Institution that kicked off last week in St. Louis and will be followed with similar discussions over the next few weeks in Las Vegas and other U.S. cities.
The first debate focused on America’s global leadership role and future debates will cover China policy, trade, military power and the relationship with Russia and NATO.