The New York Times ran an investigative article over the weekend examining foreign government funding of U.S. think tanks. The article found that

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.

The article was a good example of investigative journalism. However, it did miss one point that is perhaps most important for majority of U.S. citizens and residents, who are generally opposed to much of our government’s foreign policy, especially e.g., wars of choice. This is that the foreign governments funding the think tanks in question are all allies of the United States, and often share U.S. foreign policy goals. In that sense they may reinforce the U.S. government’s influence over media and ideas.  This paid influence in “the marketplace of ideas” help perpetuate the process by which the media that reaches most Americans does not recognize an independent civil society on foreign policy issues. Practically all of the experts that Americans see on major TV on foreign policy issues are either government officials, former government officials, or are getting money from the government – or from its foreign allies.  

Writing about the investigation, the Non-Profit Quarterly noted that sometimes think tanks are not overly transparent regarding their foreign funding:

There are several very disturbing elements to this story that should be a concern for all nonprofits.

First, because these think tanks are 501(c) organizations, the public disclosure of their funding relationships with foreign governments may be difficult to spot in formal documents such as Form 990s. For example, on the CSIS website, there is a list of foreign governments that have provided funding to the organization, but without funding amounts, dates, or the specific projects or initiatives they may have supported. There is nothing in the latest CSIS Form 990 posted on the GuideStar website identifying or describing any foreign government funding of the organization. One would think that funding from other sovereign nations might be something that should be a matter of public disclosure.

There are some clear examples of where foreign government funding represents a conflict of interest in regards to policy positions adopted by Washington think tanks. As the NYT noted, the Government of Japan has funded the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as Japan works to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” deal with the U.S. and a dozen other countries:

The center will not say how much money the [Japanese] government has given — or for what exactly — but an examination of its relationship with a state-funded entity called the Japan External Trade Organization provides a glimpse.

In the past four years, the organization has given the center at least $1.1 million for “research and consulting” to promote trade and direct investment between Japan and the United States. The center also houses visiting scholars from within the Japanese government, including Hiroshi Waguri, an executive in the Ministry of Defense, as well as Shinichi Isobe, an executive from the trade organization.

In an interview with Democracy Now, Brooke Williams, one of the authors of the NYT investigation, described how a CSIS expert had testified before Congress in favor of the TPP:

…there’s an organization called the Japan External Trade Organization. And we found, in filings with the Department of Justice, that they had been paying the Center for Strategic and International Studies, as well as other think tanks, for research and consulting. And then we also documented that the product of these seminars and groups that they held was to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now, a member, a scholar there, ended up testifying before Congress, promoting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And what this comes down to is: Do lawmakers know? When someone from a research organization approaches them with a policy recommendation, do they know that a foreign government has funded that organization or, in some cases, even the policy paper itself?

But CSIS is not alone; the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) also receives support from the Japanese government, for example. PIIE has also strongly promoted trade deals like the TPP and NAFTA (see our critique of PIIE’s misleading claims regarding Latin American countries’ growth and NAFTA).

Among the think tanks with significant foreign funding examined in an accompanying NYT graphic is the Inter-American Dialogue, the most-cited think tank on Latin America in the U.S. media, and the key foreign policy establishment think tank on Latin America and the Caribbean in Washington. Among the governments that the NYT notes have donated to the Dialogue are those of Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and Panama. According to the Dialogue’s own site, Canada is another. Each, it is worth noting, have “free trade” agreements with the United States. Yet, as The Intercept and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have noted, the press does not see any possible conflict of interest or need to notify its readers of funding sources.

Writing at the Washington Post, scholar and Brookings fellow Daniel Drezner noted that “think tanks have to get their funding from somewhere,” and funds from foreign governments are not the only ones that can have strings attached. Funding from “the U.S. government, foundations, large corporations, or really wealthy individuals” can also be problematic.

Drezner is right – and the U.S. government and corporate funding going to groups such as CSIS, PIIE and the Dialogue is perhaps even more troubling. With support from USAID, and a revolving door between its leadership and the U.S. government (and related groups such as the congressionally-funded National Endowment for Democracy), it should perhaps be little surprise that the Dialogue’s policy positions are so often closely aligned with the U.S. State Department’s, or with their many corporate donors.

PIIE’s list of supporters consists mostly of large corporations, some based in the U.S., some not. Among these are Elliott Management, a principle vulture fund seeking to get top dollar for their holdings of Argentine debt. They also include corporate heavyweights such as Caterpillar, Cargill and major automobile manufacturers – all of which have supported FTA’s with various Latin American countries.

The Boston Globe has previously reported on the hawkish CSIS’ significant funding from weapons manufacturers:

CSIS is building a new 15,000-square foot, $100 million headquarters in Washington with money raised by a high-powered collection of former senior government officials and titans of industry representing defense giants Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Raytheon, along with pharmaceutical conglomerate Procter & Gamble, oil giant Chevron, and a top adviser to the Sultan of Oman, according to CSIS officers and documents.

Much of the response to the NYT article has been in defense of the think tanks’ funding, suggesting that these experts can remain above the influence of their funders’ various agendas. But support from these donors is inherently problematic -- as are revolving doors between organizations and governments -- if we are to have an independent civil society.

Disclosure: CEPR receives no funding from corporations or governments, with one exception of a grant from Washington State several years ago. More information about our funding is available here, and through Guidestar here.