June 22, 2021

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Restrainers vs. Internationalists in DC Think Tanks

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“The general view at the Atlantic Council is to send them back to the Cato Institute where they came from.”

The quote, from an anonymous but “prominent” staffer at the Atlantic Council, purported to sum up the reaction at the establishment Washington think tank to the recent arrival of two analysts from Cato, an iconoclastic libertarian shop that often finds itself at the margins of U.S. foreign policy debates. It followed a high-profile controversy—by the standards of Washington’s think tank circles, in any case—in which members of the Atlantic Council publicly disavowed the work of one of those analysts and her co-author.

If D.C. were a high school, the popular kids of the foreign policy establishment were sick of being forced to make nice with the newcomers, who called themselves “restrainers” or “realists.” Suddenly flush with cash, they kept crashing the kinds of cool and exclusive parties they would have been shut out of years ago: panels, op-ed pages, quotes in prestige newspapers—even think tanks, like the Atlantic Council, founded on the premise of promoting an active U.S. role in the world.

Worse still, they kept asking the same tedious questions. Why is the U.S. underwriting the security of wealthy allies that refuse to pay more for their own defense? Why is it still in Afghanistan? Why is it contesting Chinese maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea?

Finally, nearly two dozen staffers and fellows at the Atlantic Council had had enough. When two of their restraint-minded colleagues, Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows, published an article on the think tank’s website arguing that the U.S. should “focus on interests, not human rights” in Russia, the think tank’s “internationalists” went nuclear. Twenty-two of them signed their names to a brief and apparently unprecedented statement disassociating themselves from Ashford and Burrows’ piece, denouncing not just its arguments, but also the values it expressed.

Until recently, if you were a restraint-minded academic hoping to get into the think tank world, with all the access it entailed, your options were limited to places like Cato.

A few followed up with anonymous worries, like that swipe at the Cato Institute, about funding and intellectual independence. The article at the heart of the controversy, you see, was written under the auspices of the New American Engagement Initiative, a new Atlantic Council program backed by the billionaire libertarian Charles Koch—the same Koch who backs the Cato Institute, where, in a simpler time, such foreign policy heresies might have been sequestered.

Naturally, the spat played out publicly in D.C.’s equivalent of a high school paper, Politico.

On one level, this mid-March episode from the U.S. capital was exactly as silly as it looked, one of those unseemly ego clashes characteristic of academia, where the fights are vicious because the stakes are low. But it also laid bare two of the most important forces driving today’s debates over the future of U.S. foreign policy, with enormous implications for America’s global role and, by extension, for the world. The first is the rapidly growing clout of the so-called restraint community, a loose coalition of foreign policy hands and intellectuals whose allies run the ideological gamut from America First nationalists to anti-war leftists. What binds this disparate group together is the instinct to shout, “Do less!” wherever the establishment’s impulse is to “lean in.”

The second is who’s paying for all this.

To start with the ideas, perhaps the ur-text of the restraint movement is a book by MIT’s Barry Posen, appropriately titled “Restraint.” In it, Posen critiques U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War as counterproductively pursuing global preeminence for America and its liberal system of values, squandering the country’s wealth and influence on projects that have little to do with core U.S. interests and that indeed undermine America’s security in the long run. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq is the paradigmatic case, but Posen also cites NATO’s post-Cold War expansion and the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo as unnecessary and unhelpful. Stephen Wertheim, one of the foremost proponents of restraint in D.C., has argued more recently that America’s “futile” wars include the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan, and that “Washington’s post-Cold War strategy has failed.”

“Restraint as a theory was indeed formulated originally in academia, and I think it’d be fair to say that it’s moved into the think tank world,” Wertheim, who himself moved into the think tank world from academia, told me. It has roots in the mainstream academic international relations theory of realism, which proposes that states act according to their interests and mostly leaves aside the question of domestic values such as democracy and respect for human rights. But “restraint” is a more specific proposal for how to organize U.S. grand strategy in particular.

David Koch, left, and Amway founder Rich DeVos at an event in Orlando, Florida, Aug. 30, 2013 (AP photo by Phelan M. Ebenhack).

The question of venue, and the significance of restraint having now taken hold in the world of mainstream D.C. think tanks, matters for one crucial reason: Think tanks have policy influence. Their analysts supply quotes and op-eds for newspapers, testify before congressional committees and enter the federal government, sometimes even at the level of Cabinet appointees and the deputies that advise them. And until recently, if you were a restraint-minded academic hoping to get into the think tank world, with all the access it entailed, your options were limited to places like, yes, Cato.

The more typical foreign policy views usually found at prestige organizations like the Brookings Institution and the Atlantic Council tended to favor the maintenance of the U.S.-led liberal international order, backed by robust military alliances and forward-deployed U.S. troops. This usually went hand-in-hand with the promotion and protection of free trade and, as Brookings’ Thomas Wright put it, “albeit imperfectly, the principles of freedom, human rights, and democracy.” In general, its bipartisan proponents argue, this “internationalist” posture has deterred conflict, protected global prosperity and facilitated the spread of democracy in places like Eastern Europe and Latin America since the end of the Cold War.

This being Washington, neither side is above caricaturing the other. The Restrainers tend to overemphasize the degree to which America’s “engagement” or “action” abroad necessarily means “war”—which, de rigueur, must be referred to in the post-9/11 era as “endless war.” The establishment Internationalists in turn accuse the Restrainers of “isolationism,” even though many advocates of restraint very clearly call for active diplomacy.

But the debate is real, and practitioners I’ve spoken to on both sides of it generally see it as healthy.

Indeed, a reasonable person might have to squint to see what’s so controversial about the Restrainers’ arguments. After all, the past four U.S. presidents have now promised some version of overseas disentanglement. Prior to 9/11, George W. Bush said during the 2000 presidential campaign that he didn’t think U.S. troops “ought to be used for what’s called nation-building.” Candidate Bush called for humility in foreign affairs and pronounced himself “worried about overcommitting our military around the world.” Every subsequent president was elected vowing in some form to bring home the troops that Bush went on to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2008, no less an establishment thinker than Thomas Friedman of The New York Times called for “nation-building at home,” a mantra later picked up by former President Barack Obama when he took office, but one that you might just as easily hear on a Cato panel. It doesn’t take a dedicated pacifist to wonder why the U.S. has been in Afghanistan long enough for people who weren’t even born on 9/11 to now be old enough to deploy there.

That brings us to the question of why Restrainers are gaining such influence—or notoriety—now, two decades into the war on terror and three since the Berlin Wall fell: As much and perhaps more than their ideas, what is driving the backlash against the Restrainers is the money that is helping to amplify those ideas.

Policy research is not free, and the world of nonprofit think tanks that help generate them is in fact a billion-plus dollar industry. “The theory is that think tanks serve as a kind of middle ground between academia and public policy,” said Ben Freeman, who studies think tank funding at the Center for International Policy, itself a think tank. “It’s like the ivory tower for policy nerds—so many great nerd worlds coming together.”

That does happen, he says, but so do activities that can look an awful lot like advocacy work. Not only are think tank scholars testifying before Congress, they are in some cases writing laws, speeches or talking points for members. And Freeman has documented how this work in many cases depends on the largesse of foreign organizations and governments, defense contractors and foundations—funding they’re under no legal obligation to disclose, though many do so voluntarily.

The money funding the “rise of the Restrainers” comes with its own stigma attached, this time having to do with the Koch family brand.

Freeman found that the Atlantic Council, which does disclose its funders, had 30 different foreign funding sources when he analyzed these funding streams last year, adding up to about $12 million and mainly coming from allied, democratic nations in Europe. In fact, Norway is the top foreign donor to U.S. think tanks writ large, according to Freeman’s research. More questionably, many think tanks—including the Atlantic Council—take money from wealthy authoritarian governments such as the United Arab Emirates, a fact that has featured in tawdry episodes such as the Center for American Progress reportedly softening a statement condemning the Saudi killing of U.S.-based dissident Jamal Khashoggi out of consideration for its connections with the Saudi-allied Emiratis.

On the other hand, think tanks tend to proclaim and do demonstrate independence from such funders. Following the Khashoggi killing, for instance, the Brookings Institution ended a grant from Saudi Arabia—which may have heartened another Brookings funder: the Saudis’ archrival in the Gulf, Qatar.

“There is no doubt that there’s money in Washington and around the world that likes to buy outcomes,” said Fred Kempe, the Atlantic Council’s chief executive officer. “There’s also no doubt that if we were a part of that, it would damage our reputation.” In a note he sent to staff following the Russia dust-up, which he later shared with me, Kempe declared his disappointment over the episode, stood by his new staffers and called the anonymous quotes in the subsequent Politico article “inexcusable.” He also, in defending the New American Engagement Initiative, offered his own dose of realism about funders: “We are an organization that does not exist without financial support, and we seek partnerships that embrace our values and the work that we aspire to do.”

In a subsequent email to me, he said the Atlantic Council demands independence in all its contracts. He called the notion that it publishes the work of realists because of outside funding “ludicrous” and pointed out that Henry Kissinger and the late Brent Scowcroft, both of whom figure in the pantheon of U.S. foreign policy realists, played leading roles in the Atlantic Council’s history.

Yet the money funding the “rise of the Restrainers” comes with its own stigma attached, this time having to do with the Koch—pronounced like the soft drink—family brand. Koch money isn’t exactly new on the think tank scene, but it has lately grown more lavish and more prominent. That it raises eyebrows in a world awash in money from Gulf patrons, as well as from defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, is a testament, in part, to the function Koch money has played in domestic politics.

In 2010, the New Yorker writer Jane Mayer exposed the extent to which the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch—using their wealth generated from oil refineries and other businesses—helped jumpstart the American Tea Party movement. Mayer detailed how, funneling donations quietly but perfectly legally through activist nonprofits, Koch money fortified politicians and activists whose policy preferences aligned nicely with Koch corporate interests, particularly when it came to opposing environmental regulations. Then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid later called the brothers “enemies of progress” spending “massive amounts of money to mislead every level of government.” He accused Republicans backed by the brothers of suffering from a “Koch addiction.”

Since then, the Koch brand has been politically toxic in some circles, so much so that when David Koch died in 2019, one left-leaning obituary was titled “David Koch’s Monstrous Legacy.” But according to Anna Massoglia, who has tracked Koch spending for the watchdog OpenSecrets.org at the Center for Responsive Politics, by the time of David’s death, the Koch’s strategy had already shifted. Rather than operating in the shadows, she told me, both brothers had begun to embrace their reputations as deep-pocketed patrons of influence, putting their names on major grants backing all kinds of libertarian causes.

One of these areas, which today accounts for tens of millions in the Koch portfolio of grants, is foreign policy.

Koch money launched the libertarian Cato Institute in 1977. But at least since 2014, the Charles Koch Institute has been spreading its largesse to other major think tanks, funding programs and scholars well outside its first libertarian fiefdom. The Carnegie Endowment has a Koch grant, as do the RAND Corporation and the Center for the National Interest. Koch money in 2019 helped found a restraint-oriented think tank called the Quincy Institute, where Stephen Wertheim now resides. That Koch did so alongside funds from George Soros’s left-leaning Open Society Foundations was itself a play for Washington’s attention, immediately raising Quincy’s profile because of the inevitable slate of “strange bedfellows” media coverage that followed.

President Joe Biden speaking at the White House.

President Joe Biden speaks about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Washington, April 14, 2021 (AP photo by Andrew Harnik).

If the Kochs were cagey about where their money was headed back in the Tea Party days, their affiliates are only too happy to talk about it now, at least in the foreign policy sphere. In a recent interview, Will Ruger, who leads these efforts at the Charles Koch Institute, name-checked Carnegie and the International Crisis Group as recipients of past grants, noting that the former leaders of each now serve at the highest levels of the Biden government—Carnegie’s William J. Burns at the head of the Central Intelligence Agency and Crisis Group’s Rob Malley as special envoy for Iran.

Ruger doesn’t consider himself a noninterventionist—he actually personally served as a Navy officer in the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. But he, too, believes that the “foreign policy status quo” has failed the United States since the Cold War. He’s similarly open about his ultimate aim, which is to create a “counter elite” of Restrainers to question that status quo. Part of this process is to draw restraint-minded scholars into more traditional think tanks by funding their salaries, thereby stamping their work with the prestige branding of places like the Atlantic Council. These scholars thus remain establishment critics, while enjoying newfound establishment cred.

Ruger is pleased with the progress so far, and he sees pushback like the Atlantic Council controversy as a good thing—evidence that Restrainers are being taken seriously, having an impact and maybe even scaring people.

He stopped short of taking credit, for himself and his ideological allies, for President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by this September. But he did credit Restrainers for helping “create a lot of the conditions under which this was discussed.” He added, “You see this in the balance of op-eds, and the balance of quotes. … You saw more realists and Restrainers quoted in news stories on Afghan policy. You saw more op-eds.” Indeed, if you were a foreign policy journalist or Hill staffer scanning Twitter for Afghanistan takes, the Restrainers were hard to avoid.

In a flourish reminiscent of the Koch-funded activism of the early Tea Party days, that campaign was also accompanied by lots and lots of emails: about a million of them sent to Congress and both the Trump and Biden administrations since September 2019, from groups in the Koch network such as Concerned Veterans for America and Americans for Prosperity, as well as leftist organizations they partnered with, such as Common Defense and VoteVets. Concerned Veterans for America also spent millions on ad buys, including in swing states ahead of the 2020 election, calling for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Restrainers like to point out that, on this question at least, they’re on the side of public opinion: A 2020 YouGov poll—commissioned by the Charles Koch Institute—found close to 70 percent support for bringing U.S. troops home from that theater. But it’s also true that efforts funded by Koch’s financial support can shape public opinion and the ways it gets communicated to public representatives.

So even though restraint-oriented money like Koch’s still accounts for a small proportion of the funding stream for foreign policy think tanks, it’s no longer the case that the Restrainers are mere plucky Davids standing athwart the Goliath of the so-called foreign policy blob.

Fighting about these kinds of things is, arguably, among the things think tank scholars were put on Earth to do—which is part of what made the Atlantic Council fracas so puzzling.

The way the money is distributed matters, too. Brookings’ Thomas Wright told me that, as far as U.S. grand strategy goes, there’s no real equivalent to Koch money for the internationalist side, where donors tend to favor more specific issue areas—U.S. policy in the Middle East, say, rather than U.S. behavior abroad in general, which is what people like Wertheim deal with.

Wright thinks some of the Restrainers’ arguments aren’t quite as iconoclastic as they make out. Reducing the U.S. footprint in the Middle East, a prominent talking point for the restraint camp, is “a pretty common policy also among centrists,” he told me. Elsewhere, though, he finds their platform to be underdeveloped. “My main critique,” he explained, “is that outside the Middle East, they haven’t really come up with an alternative” to the U.S.-led international order. It’s fine to criticize the extent of America’s global footprint and its security commitments to allies in Europe and Asia, he says, “but what I want to know is, what do they propose to do?” Wright adds, however, that the debate itself isn’t illegitimate.

For his part, Wertheim says the restraint framework “suggests that the United States is overcommitted globally, has no profound reason to be trying to dominate every region of the world militarily, to be spending so much on defense.” And as the U.S. tries to pivot away from the war on terror, restraint offers a check on the gathering consensus around a strategy of “great-power competition” with China. “There are needs at home that need to be met,” he argues, “and there are also threats on a planetary scale, like the threat from climate change, that should take precedence over conventional military threats.”

Fighting about these kinds of things is, arguably, among the things think tank scholars were put on Earth to do—which is part of what made the Atlantic Council fracas so puzzling: It seemed to set certain ideas beyond the parameters of acceptable debate, based in part on who was funding the research.

In so doing, the Atlantic Council scholars who signed the “disassociate” statement handed the Restrainers more evidence with which to position themselves as lonely truth-tellers shunned by the establishment, albeit backed by a billionaire—not to mention the obvious rejoinder to which most think tankers are vulnerable: Who pays your salary?

Kathy Gilsinan is a former senior editor at World Politics Review and is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

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