The New York Times has published over the weekend an excellent study of how foreign governments are buying influence at Washington’s think tanks. According to the story, foreign governments are not only getting prominent think tanks to embrace their views of what is in America’s interest, but to lobby for these views with politicians and high officials. 

I’ve seen the New York Times story greeted with a shrug and a “so what,” but it is a big deal, maybe even a bigger deal than the New York Times suggests. Washington think tanks, which were originally intended as a source of impartial, objective, and disinterested information, have become arms of foreign as well as domestic influence peddlers.

Some history is in order for those who think it has always been that way. The first policy groups, which originated early in the last century and only later became called “think tanks,” included the Brookings Institution (which was formed out of three other policy groups), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Twentieth Century Fund (now the Century Foundation). They were products of the Progressive Era idea of using social science to produce policy research that, in the words of Robert Brookings, would be “free from any political or pecuniary interest.” 

Andrew Carnegie gave his think tank an endowment of $10 million in order to free it from having to raise money. Brookings, who had retired from business to devote himself to philanthropy, generously funded his. The scholars at these groups had definite ideas, but the groups resisted attempts by outside group to shape their conclusions. In 1933, Brookings’ president Harold Moulton, who was a conservative economist, rejected railway company complaints’ about a Brookings study recommending nationalization. “We are concerned only in finding out what will promote the general welfare,” he declared.

As I argued in The Paradox of American Democracy, these kind of groups can perform an important function in a democracy where the greater public, which does not have the time or the background to study arcane trade or environmental questions, or to probe Saudi or Russian intentions, often have to rely on experts to frame the choices they have to make. And that goes for many politicians as well. But sometime after World War II, this chain of expertise from the think tanks down to the politicians and the general public began to corrode. And what the New York Times story shows is that it has continued to do so.

The first blow against the older model of the think tank was struck by the American Enterprise Institute, which was found in 1943 by a group of anti-New Deal businessmen. It pioneered the think tank as corporate lobby. The second blow was struck by the founding of the Heritage Foundation in 1973, which combined business lobbying (its first chairman was from the National Association of Manufacturers) with a factional political agenda aimed at remaking the Republican Party. These groups represented everything that Robert Brookings had warned against, but they passed themselves off as comparable Washington think tanks. Moreover, their researchers demanded and eventually got equal billing on op-eds and television debates with those from the older think tanks.

By the 1980s, Washington think tanks were proliferating and growing and competing with each other the way beer companies might. They sought dollars to expand their staffs and build new headquarters, and the way they got money was by demonstrating their influence and importance. Brookings, which had relied primarily on foundation grants, began actively seeking corporate money. Carnegie stopped relying on its endowment alone. Specialized think tanks, including the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which traded on its foreign policy expertise, and the Institute for International Economics, which specialized in trade and international monetary affairs, also vied for funding. They competed for some of the same American corporate donors—and for money from foreign companies and their governments.

Foreign governments have been trying to influence Washington think tanks for decades. The Republic of China (Taiwan) began to do so in the 1950s and became a mainstay of the conservative think tanks. The Saudis and other oil states became active in the 1970s. Japan entered the fray in the late 1970s, and then, in the 1990s, China became a major player. And European and Latin American countries have also given their share of grants. The New York Times report reveals how Norway, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, and a prominent Lebanese political family have used contributions to enlist the aid of Brookings, CSIS, the Atlantic Council, and the Center for Global Development.

The Times devotes particular attention to how Norway, a major oil producer, has wooed Brookings, CSIS, and the Center for Global Development. Norway was engaged in seeking American support for slowing deforestation, which is not particularly controversial, and for Arctic oil exploration, which is. I would guess that the Times’reporters focused on Norway because, due to Norway’s open access laws, they were able to obtain documentary evidence showing that in exchange for funding, Brookings and the Center for Global Development actually engaged in lobbying on these issues for the Norwegian government. In doing so, they may have broken the law, which requires groups and individuals that lobby on behalf of foreign governments to register with the Justice Department and to stamp whatever they write with the name of the country they represent.

The Times also claims that Qatar sought to advance its agenda through Brookings’ Doha Center and the UAE its agenda through funding a lecture series at CSIS. And it recounts how Michelle Dunne, a former State Department official who became director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, resigned after a member of Lebanon’s Hariri family complained of her urging the United States to end military aid to Egypt after the coup in the summer of 2013. It’s difficult to prove these charges—Brookings president Strobe Talbott has denied any influence from foreign donations—but these incidents suggest that overall the pattern that began after World War II has continued.

The New York Times report focuses on think tanks that retain some vestige of the older commitment to objectivity. It could probably have come up with more chilling examples of foreign influence-peddling if it had investigated those think tanks that have function as surrogate business lobbies. It may have looked at Brookings precisely because it is among the last, best hopes for keeping the flame of Progressivism alive in Washington. And I also believe that there are think tanks that have largely avoided any taint of influence peddling. (I spent several years at the Carnegie Endowment and didn't encounter anything untoward.)

There is a more telling omission, however, in the New York Times’ account of foreign influence on American think tanks. Japan and China, two of the main countries that have tried to exercise influence in Washington, have often done so through companies and foundations rather than directly through their governments. I learned that when I wrote an article for the New Republic in January 1990 about Japan’s attempt to influence think tanks. James Mann, former Los Angeles Times’ bureau chief in Beijing, and author of books on U.S.-China relations, discovered the same thing in writing about China’s attempt to influence Washington. In these countries, government and business often work in concert.

In my New Republic article in January 1990, I described how during this time of bitter trade disputes between the United States and Japan, Toyota endowed a chair of Japan studies at CSIS (widely dubbed “the Toyota chair”). CSIS consulted with Toyota on whom to appoint to it. Brookings, which before the 1980s insisted that foreign government contributions go through third parties into the think tank’s general fund, began accepting Japanese corporate donations for specific purposes. Edward Lincoln, who was at the time a senior fellow at Brookings, complained, “The first thing [the Japanese] ask when they give money is what do we get.”

The New York Times reports how CSIS received $1.1. million from the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO), an arm of the government, to promote “research and consulting” at a time when Japan was trying to get the U.S. Congress to back the Trans-Pacific Partnership. CSIS made a JETRO official a visiting scholar, and one of its scholar testified on Capitol Hill about how critical the trade agreement was to “the entire Asia rebalancing strategy.” CSIS officials denied a quid pro quo, but a Japanese diplomat told the Times that the country expected favorable treatment for its money.

That’s a straight government grant, but The New York Times might have also investigated another foreign contribution to CSIS. This May, CSIS, which I’ve heard from other people at thinktanks to be desperately seeking funding, announced that its posh new building would house the Zbigniew Institute on Geostrategy. The institute, which may simply be a fundraising gimmick, was seeded by a large grant from Wenliang Wang, who runs Rilin Enterprises, which is headquartered in Dandong, China.

Rilin Enterprises is the largest private construction firm in China and also controls the largest port near the North Korean border. Wang has been an advisor to municipal administrations and is on Forbes list of the China’s most wealthy individuals. Says Mann, “Anyone in construction is dependent on state banks for loans. Dandong, the closest city to North Korea, is more heavily connected to the government and the People’s Liberation Army than most other cities. It is safe to conclude the guy has extensive government connections.” Is it likely, given this bequest, that this institute will air hostile views toward China?

There is nothing illegal about foreign companies or countries contributing to American think tanks. And there is nothing illegal about the think tanks taking the money as long as they don’t lobby without registering. Defenders of the think tanks insist that their scholars are incorruptible and that foreign governments and companies invariably fund positions that these scholars would have taken or already took have taken. The Center for Global Development didn’t need the Norwegians to convince them to support slowing down forestation. That may be true, but it’s not the problem posed by these contributions.

Robert Brookings and Andrew Carnegie wanted to create a wall of separation between the donors and the researchers that would guarantee independence. Even if a researcher at CSIS believed, say, in free trade with Japan when his program received a grant from JETRO or Toyota, the grant would make it less likely that a researcher might change his mind in the course of studying the subject. Or that a research at the Center for Global Development would decide that some forests should be cut down. That’s why Carnegie was originally an endowment, and why Brookings insisted that contributions be dumped into a general fund. The only structural guarantee of impartiality and objectivity is to maintain strict separation between donors and researchers, but the think tanks have abandoned that. And that applies, of course, to domestic as well as foreign contributions. Indeed, the situation has gotten much worse, as the major think tanks insist that resident scholars raise money for their own programs and projects.

The additional, specific problem with foreign contributions is that they can reinforce a point of view in a debate among Americans about their country’s interests in the world. If one assumes that all American citizens are equally knowledgeable, then the point is perhaps moot. But they are not. What recognized experts say in their publications and on television or the internet occupies a special place in the debate, and if, due to foreign contributions, one side is more prominently represented than the other, then Americans’ ability to make an informed decision is undermined. That’s not merely a hypothetical, but has happened repeatedly over the last decades—over, for instance, whether to fund an American HDTV industry, or over whether to grant most favored nation trading status to China.

If this point is difficult to grasp, or seems petty, consider what it meant for the United States after World War II to have funded one political party in a foreign country over another. And imagine something like that is going on here, although in realm of policy rather than political parties. It’s a corruption of democracy—and one that Brookings and Carnegie never even imagined when they founded their policy groups. The New York Times deserves credit for reopening the debate over foreign influence over Washington think tanks.