Buying Foreign Influence With Think Tank Money, American Edition

Salvadoran President José Napoleón Duarte in 1984 Photograph by Scott Wallace/Getty Images

The New York Times ran a long investigative story earlier this week about how foreign governments made generous donations to influential Washington think tanks, and in return, some scholars at those institutions felt “pressured to reach conclusions friendly to the government financing the research.” In one example, Japan’s financial support for a certain think tanks allegedly led to scholars pushing for free-trade policies. Another staffer describes Qatar, a donor to his prestigious policy institution, as a “no-go zone.”

The portrait that emerges isn’t flattering, although some of the policies that end up getting promoted don’t seem too nefarious—the government of Norway paid one organization, as the Times puts it, “to persuade the United States government so spend more money on combating global warming by slowing the clearing of forests in countries like Indonesia.”

But if the model sounds somewhat familiar, it should. It’s what the U.S. did for decades in countries around the world. During the Cold War, for instance, the CIA funded European intellectuals and writers on the noncommunist left, usually without their knowledge. In a more direct comparison, the U.S. funneled money to think tanks in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s to push free-trade policies—just like those meddlesome Japanese uncovered in the Times investigation.

Aaron Schneider, a professor at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, says money from Usaid has flowed to foreign think tanks to promote closer integration with the U.S. The most successful is FUSADES in El Salvador, where Schneider says ”each president that enters office receives a four-year plan outlined by them.”

Whether U.S. funding of those think tanks was effective is another question. But it feeds into the image of a heavy-handed superpower meddling in the politics of its smaller neighbors. The image that emerges from the Times story, on the other hand, is more one in which smaller countries struggle for attention in the capital of a superpower whose polity seems largely uninterested in events beyond its shores.

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