Think tanks want to be quoted in every story. They never want to be the story.
But since the dozens of foreign policy think tanks in Washington influence what policymakers do and how the media thinks about the global issues of the moment, think-tank drama matters.
Therefore, it is noteworthy that scientists at the New American Engagement Initiative (NAEI), a program that pushes for “unconventional thinkingdeparting from the Atlantic Council, one of Washington’s largest foreign policy institutions, to the smaller, independent Stimson Center.
Politico broke the news on Wednesday, pointing to Charles Koch’s NAEI funding as one of two impetus for the split:Atlantic Council cuts ties with Koch-funded foreign policy initiative.”
The other part, highlighted by representatives of both think tanks, is more revealing about an emerging trend in foreign policy circles in Washington.
Representatives from Stimson and Atlantic Council confirmed that: the NAEI scholars initiated the departure and were not fired. According to three other sources familiar with the decision, which would speak only on the condition of anonymity, the more established Atlantic Council was not suitable for researchers testing articles of faith in Washington’s foreign policy.
A staff change in the corridors of Washington’s think tanks may seem insider-out, but the exit reveals an emerging ideological rift that’s less about the source of funding and more about the contours of the US primacy debate, especially around the Russian war. against Ukraine. In part, it reflects a wider debate about restraint.
How the West should respond to the war is becoming the ideological issue around which scientists and foreign policy institutions define themselves.
How an initiative to challenge ‘predominant assumptions’ came and went in two years
The New American Engagement Initiative began at the Atlantic Council in 2020, with $4.5 million in support from the Charles Koch Institute. The funding organization bore the name of the right-wing billionaire known for his libertarian policy intentions and has since been renamed standing togetherwho has also donated to others research institutionssuch as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the RAND Corporation.
The purpose of NAEI has been to challenge “predominant assumptions that shape US foreign policy” and to “help policymakers manage risk, prioritize and allocate resources wisely and efficiently.” Emma Ashford, Matthew Burrowsand Chris Preble have anchored the initiative. “After two productive years with the Atlantic Council, Chris and Mathew approached Stimson,” said Miriam Smallman, communications director at the Atlantic Council in a statement. “We are proud of NAEI’s work and wish them every success in their new venture.”
“The NAEI team has made this move possible,” said David Solimini, communications director at the Stimson Center. “The team is looking to expand into an area – track 2 diplomacy and high-level dialogue – where Stimson has a long track record, and we are happy to have them.”
It’s not clear why the backchanneling of “track 2 diplomacy”, where non-governmental people act as intermediaries and pursue dialogue to create potential diplomatic openings, would be better suited to Stimson, a respected impartial institution that is smaller anyway.
The Atlantic Council has approximately $38 million in annual revenue according to the most recent available data (as opposed to Stimson’s $8 million). Experts from the Atlantic Council regularly testify before Congress, attend policy talks with the White House, and are quoted everywhere, including outlets like cafemadrid. While think tanks rarely have large institutional views on policy, they do have ideological leanings, and it is clear that the Atlantic Council pro-NATO by design, with many European government bodies as major donors.
The problem with the initiative doesn’t seem to be just funding. bought money, certainly carries a certain stigma among progressives, but several experts at other think tanks who receive funding from Stand Together told me it is a particularly hands-off financier who is not involved in day-to-day operations and has no interest in influencing of certain programming. (NAEI also received funding from a number of other sources.)
All think tanks run on money somewhere, and in addition to its European donors, the Atlantic Council receives gifts from arms manufacturers (Raytheon, General Atomics, Lockheed Martin), security firms (Palantir), oil companies (ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP) and undemocratic countries (the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain). Even Burisma, the energy company that invited Hunter Biden to the board, donated between $100,000 and $250,000.
This has more to do with ideas. When Ashford and Burrows argued in a 2021 article not to put human rights at the center of US discussions with Russia, it caused a stir within the Atlantic Council. Twenty-two of the think tank’s staff members published a open letter trying to “detach ourselves from the report”. While policy conflicts sometimes arise within think tanks, and that can be very healthy, it is unusual for it to be disseminated in such a bitter manner in public.
As policy recommendations advocating restraint enter the American mainstream and invade the halls of places like the Atlantic Council, there is another pushback: accusations of isolationism and questioning the motives of financiers, rather than real commitment to the ideas at hand. to be.
How think tanks grapple with the Russian war?
It should come as no surprise that Ashford and her colleagues would make provocative suggestions for US foreign policy. Each fellow in the initiative had developed a robust publishing track record with an anti-establishment worldview beforehand. The initiative was a space to ask first order questions about US foreign policy.
When I interviewed Ashford in the run-up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, she was a purveyor of unorthodox thinking. “People in Washington still think it’s America’s responsibility to prevent conflict everywhere,” she told me. “The way people in DC think about this is still stuck in the 2000s: America as a force for good in the world.” For Ashford, it is important to consider the limitations of US power.
Preble, who was director of foreign policy at the libertarian CATO Institute before joining the Atlantic Council, also enjoys challenging the status quo. As he put it to me in January, “The Washington playbook is that you threaten to use force, and only then will you be taken seriously” as a foreign policy thinker.
(Ashford and Preble declined to be interviewed for this story. A Stand Together representative declined to comment on the record.)
The Russian war in Ukraine has become another rift in Washington, and think tanks define themselves around very specific stances.
An indication of the initiative’s weak fit was an article that Ashford wrote in May arguing against Finland and Sweden joining NATO. The Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it may be noted, recently donated more than $250,000 to the Atlantic Council, and Finland’s Ministry of Defense more than $100,000. An internal email from Stand Together in April has been leakedand Daniel Fried, an Atlantic Council colleague, a former US ambassador to Poland, used it as an opportunity to bash NAEI’s financier.
Politico also reported earlier this month that Joe Cirincione, a leading expert on nuclear arms control and a forward-looking foreign policy analyst, has publicly left the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, as has Paul Eaton, a retired general serving on the board. sit.
that think tank, founded in 2019 by old establishment critic Andrew Bacevich and other well-regarded foreign policy thinkers, was born of a marriage between the conservative Koch’s funding and that of the liberal George Soros’ foundation. The goal: a transparent foreign policy that thinks outside the ring road. Cirincione, who at one point advised Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign has been a critic of the maxims of US foreign policy. (In my last job I edited this story from him on how to reform the nuclear-industrial complex and freeze the proliferation of nuclear weapons capabilities.)
Cirincione told Mother Jones that Quincy’s comrades had become too critical of Ukraine, NATO’s expansion and US policy, without paying due attention to the brutal invasion of Russia. It had nothing to do with Koch’s financing. Journalist Robert Wright read Quincy’s coverage of Russia carefully and emphasized that his most aggressive claim, that Quincy experts excused and justified the Russian war, was: “unfounded.”
But Cirincione’s departure from Quincy, and now the New American Engagement Initiative’s departure to the Stimson Center, known for its gun control policy work, may have another relevant analog.
In April 2021, the Biden administration was considering Matthew Rojansky, director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center, will be Russia’s top White House official. But a high-profile campaign went after Rojanksy because he “soft on the Kremlin.” Than dozens of foreign policy leaders came in favor of himbut in the end Rojanksy blocked of the crucial role of the director of Russia of the National Security Council.
The commotion from this week’s think tank recalls what those experts wrote last year in support of Rojansky’s candidacy: “We, the undersigned, wish with this letter to defend the ideal of free inquiry and discussion. We also encourage others to defend and uphold it.”
This is much needed in Washington policy circles as the war in Ukraine enters its six-month period.