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HomeGeopolitical CompassThe AmericasDefense Contractor Funded Think Tanks Dominate Ukraine Debate

Defense Contractor Funded Think Tanks Dominate Ukraine Debate

Author: Ben Freeman 

Affiliation:  Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft 

Organization/Publisher: Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft 

Date/Place: May 2023/ US

Type of Literature: Report

Number of Pages: 33

Link: https://quincyinst.org/report/defense-contractor-funded-think-tanks-dominate-ukraine-debate/ 

 

Keywords: Think Tanks, Ukraine, U.S., Donor




Think tanks play a pivotal role in shaping the discourse surrounding U.S. foreign policy. They act as intermediaries between the academic community and policymakers, providing expert insights, conducting research, and offering policy recommendations. However, it is essential to recognize that think tanks are not neutral entities, but rather often carry their own ideological biases. Furthermore, the financial support they receive can lead to conflicts of interest that directly influence their work. This paper delves into the complex dynamics surrounding think tanks, their funding sources, and their influence on American public debate of U.S. foreign policy, specifically with regard to the recent Ukrainian crisis. 

 

The Role and Biases of Think Tanks

Think tanks serve as information hubs for policymakers, journalists, and the public. They offer valuable expertise on a wide range of policy matters, contributing to informed decision-making in the realm of foreign affairs. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that many think tanks are not neutral entities. Rather, think tanks often have ideological leanings that influence the perspectives and recommendations they provide.

 

Financial Interests and Conflicts of Interest

One of the key concerns in assessing think tanks’ influence on foreign policy is their funding sources. Think tanks rely on substantial financial support, and the origins of this funding can sometimes lead to conflicts of interest. For example, investigations have revealed that some think tanks, such as the Center for International Policy, received funding from government entities and defense contractors. This raises concerns that their research output may not always be objective, but could in fact serve as a form of propaganda aligned with the interests of their funders.

 

Alignment with Funders

Experts working within think tanks may find themselves aligned with the views of their funders, as they seek to maintain their relevance and influence in policy discussions. This interplay between financial interests and policy positions highlights the intricate relationship between think tanks and their contributions to public discourse.

 

Think Tanks and the Ukraine Crisis

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has been a central topic in foreign policy debates, with numerous think tanks actively advocating for increased U.S. military spending in response to the crisis. While some experts from these think tanks may genuinely support these policies to protect the Ukrainian people, there is an additional motivation to consider: the financial interests of their employers, who receive funding from military contractors that benefit from the war. This creates a scenario in which think tanks funded by the defense industry are more likely to promote military support for Ukraine. 

 

Data Analysis

An analysis of the available data demonstrates that think tanks financed by the defense sector are significantly more prone to propose policies favoring the arms industry, in contrast to those not reliant on such funding. Moreover, think tanks with substantial defense industry funding wield considerable influence in media discussions concerning arming Ukraine.

 

The Influence of Funding on Think Tank Work

Financial contributions from the arms industry can influence think tanks through mechanisms such as censorship, self-censorship, and perspective filtering. While think tanks may assert their commitment to intellectual independence, funders can still influence their research and publications. Scholars critical of defense industry donors may in some cases be marginalized within these institutions.

 

Media’s Role in Amplifying Think Tank Perspectives

Media outlets frequently cite think tanks for expert perspectives on foreign policy matters. However, it is concerning that media sources are over seven times as likely to cite a think tank with support from the defense sector compared to one without such backing. This highlights the significant influence of financial interests in shaping public discourse.

 

Lack of Transparency in Media Reporting

It is also noteworthy that none of the media mentions analyzed in this paper disclosed information about defense industry funding of these think tanks, even when they advocated policies that could financially benefit their funders. Transparency and accountability in media reporting are essential to ensure that the public is fully informed about potential conflicts of interest.

 

Recommendations for Transparency and Trust

According to Freeman, to restore public trust in the think tank sector and the media, several measures can be adopted:

 

  1. Think tanks should make their funders publicly known to enhance transparency.

 

  1. Think tanks should disclose their funding sources within their publications, especially when these sources have a financial stake in the subject matter. This disclosure should extend to readers, including policymakers and journalists.

 

  1. Media outlets should adopt professional standards for reporting any conflicts of interest with sources discussing U.S. foreign policy, thus promoting transparency and accountability.

 

The influence of defense industry funding on think tank perspectives on the Ukraine crisis highlights the need for greater transparency and accountability in both think tank production and media reporting. Only through these measures can the public have confidence in the integrity and independence of these institutions and the information they provide to help formulate U.S. foreign policy.

 

It is evident that defense industry funding may shape think tank production through a combination of donor censorship, self-censorship, and perspective filtering. In this dynamic, scholars critical of defense industry donors are, in some cases, marginalized within the leading foreign policy think tanks.

In referencing think tanks, media outlets were found to be over seven times as likely to cite a think tank with support from the defense sector than one without such backing.

The investigation reveals that think tanks funded by the arms industry are prone to supporting increased U.S. military spending over the Ukraine war and occasionally dismiss diplomatic solutions to the conflict.

Curiously, none of the media mentions analyzed in this article disclosed information about the defense industry funding of these think tanks, even when they advocated policies that could financially benefit their funders. Furthermore, none of these articles mentioned the substantial funding received by CSIS from the arms industry, including Lockheed Martin, a company that has secured hundreds of millions of dollars in Ukraine-related contracts and whose CEO is even quoted in a CSIS report.

In terms of recommendations, the analysis presented here underscores several measures that could restore public trust in the think tank sector and the media. Firstly, think tanks should make their funders publicly known. Secondly, think tanks should adopt a professional standard of disclosing their funding sources within their publications, especially when those sources have a financial stake in the subject matter. This disclosure should extend to readers, including policymakers and journalists, to ensure awareness of potential conflicts of interest. Lastly, media outlets should similarly adopt a professional standard for reporting any conflicts of interest with sources discussing U.S. foreign policy, thereby promoting transparency and accountability. 

I agree with the author that the above recommendations would contribute to a higher degree of professionalism among media outlets and think tanks. Adopting a more transparent standard about their donors could greatly affect a number of global crises. As seen in the Ukrainian-Russian case, think tanks have had a huge impact in shaping American foreign policy. Indeed, the American public sphere barely discussed negotiations and diplomatic solutions as a serious option when they should have been the most important way to resolve the issue and conflict. However, the degree to which think tanks would be willing to provide transparency about their donors is unclear. Given that the American think tank industry is worth tens of millions of dollars, expecting think tanks to voluntarily provide donor transparency does not seem realistic.

By: Dilara Özdemir, CIGA Research Assistant

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