By Blaise Malley
On Friday, March 5, two scholars at the Atlantic Council, Emma Ashford and Matthew Burrows outlined a US approach to Russia with a striking headline: — “Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia.” Still, the ideas put forth in the piece were hardly explosive — “perfectly anodyne” in the words of Dan Drezner.
In response to the report, however, twenty-two people affiliated with the Atlantic Council signed a statement “disassociating” themselves from an article with which they had no association to begin with. Some of them also spoke anonymously to Politico to criticize the article and discredit its authors. Only one, Dylan Myles-Primakoff, managed to interact with the actual substance of the article in his response published a few days later.
While the piece made the rounds among restrainers on Twitter for being a particularly thoughtful analysis of US-Russia relations, it was this backlash from within the Atlantic Council that made headlines and dominated foreign policy discourse for multiple days. Mainstream media commentary, while somewhat sympathetic to the authors of the article, overlooked the fact that this episode revealed something deep—and deeply disturbing—about the way that the foreign policy establishment works.
This backlash should not be viewed in isolation, but rather as a telling example of how those with power police what viewpoints are and are not acceptable in serious foreign policy-making circles.
As many have pointed out since the article’s publication, the Atlantic Council is a think tank that should, in theory, welcome original thinking of all kinds. Many at the think tank, including its president and CEO Frederick Kempe, emphasized this ideal in the wake of the controversy, maintaining that the organization welcomes debate and affords its scholars intellectual independence.
Yet critics pursued two lines of argument to suggest that Ashford and Burrows did not deserve the protections of intellectual independence. First, they claimed that Ashford and Burrows’ article was so beyond the pale that they deserved only scorn. One of the anonymous sources told Politico: “You can make a case for bringing in alternative points of view, but if you’re going to do that, you have to have standards, man.”
The implication of both the signed statement and the quotes given to Politico is that the article was so unacceptable that it deserved the no-holds barred response that it received. Yet commentators like Daniel Larison have offered a comprehensive defense of the report’s recommendations.
This is despite the fact that the Atlantic Council presently houses advocates for some of the worst foreign policy decisions in recent memory, such as the Iraq War, both within its staff (including one of the signatories of the letter) and on its board of directors. Apparently supporting catastrophic wars that cause immense damage around the world is not quite as harmful as suggesting that prioritizing human rights and democratization in Russia over other policy goals may not be in the United States’ best interest.
The second point of emphasis throughout Politico’s reporting on the internal dispute centered around funding – specifically from the Charles Koch Institute (CKI). In 2020, CKI awarded a $10 million grant to the Atlantic Council and three other think tanks, and has recently begun funding other institutions in order to promote a more restrained American foreign policy. Anonymous critics from within the organization suggested that the points of view expressed by Ashford and Burrows were a result of that donation, and that the Institute’s views were driving research at the Atlantic Council.
While it is important—indeed necessary—to scrutinize the funding of think tanks, this is a conversation most think tanks generally prefer to avoid. The Atlantic Council, for example, receives funding from repressive foreign governments such as Bahrain, defense contractors like Raytheon and Palantir, and other powerful private companies such as Goldman Sachs. Both the Embassy of the UAE and Facebook are all listed as top contributors on the Atlantic Council’s honor roll, having donated over $1,000,000 apiece – yet sparking far less outrage from within the center as to whether these donations influence scholarship on US policy towards the Middle East or social-media disinformation.
In all, the Atlantic Council received the fourth highest level of funding from foreign governments among the top 50 think tanks in America, according to a January 2020 report from the Center For International Policy. The same study notes that “The Atlantic Council’s ties to the UAE have given the UAE the opportunity to shape the think tank’s reports prior to publication.” A recent story in the American Prospect notes that a Saudi Arabia expert from the Atlantic Council failed to disclose her potential conflicts of interest before testifying in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.
Think what you will about Charles Koch and his politics but his grant was transparent not only in its funding but also in its goal—to provide resources for scholars to study new, less militaristic approaches to US foreign policy. Yet it is this donation, not those that come directly from foreign governments or the war machine, that somehow taints the think tank’s work. It is particularly absurd for one of the letter’s signatories to claim that the grantor was operating as a “Trojan Horse” that has “pretty much the same views as the Russians.”
In DC, only certain ideas and certain problematic sources of money attract this level of vitriol. And it is not process or principle that guides these calculations, but orthodoxy. In other words, Arab monarchies’ oil money supporting US militarism is “just part of the game,” but midwestern US oil money that is skeptical of military spending is somehow beyond the pale.
Those who are concern trolling about the Koch’s other political goals, whether it be on taxes, the environment or labor standards, seem to conveniently ignore the harmful political associations and impacts of other donors’ atrocious human rights records or culpability for the ongoing and catastrophic war in Yemen.
These distinctions are not accidental. As Patrick Porter wrote in a 2018 article for International Security: “Thanks to the Blob’s constraining power, alternative grand strategies based on restraint and retrenchment are hardly entertained, and debate is narrowed mostly into questions of execution and implementation.” The reaction to Ashford and Burrows is a clear case of the foreign policy establishment limiting the boundaries of acceptable discourse.
Those who are committed to upholding a muscular foreign policy rarely choose to hold members of their community accountable for their beliefs or to confront the issues that arise from problematic funders happy to fund the status quo. When the dominant worldview is challenged—even in perfectly reasonable ways—those concerns suddenly emerge. By not merely critiquing these challenges but denouncing them as unacceptable, opponents of Ashford and Burrows’ article are working not only to discredit the argument but also to treat it as so unserious or dangerous that its substance does not even merit engagement —thereby continuing to sideline ideas that deviates too far from the policy consensus.
But the speed and intensity with which these scholars—and others—responded may also be an indication of something else: That establishment thinkers are afraid that their ideas may be losing ground. There likely would not have been such a reaction to a single report if there was not real fear about the increasing prevalence of “restrainer” or anti-interventionist beliefs. And as those schools of thought become more prominent, there will surely be even more pushback from those who value American militarism and primacy.
Blaise Malley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. His work has appeared in The American Prospect and The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @blaise_malley.