War: what is it good for? Apparently, in Washington’s world of think tanks, the answer is: the bottom line.
In fact, as the Biden presidency approaches, an era of great-power competition between the United States and China is already taken for granted inside the Washington Beltway. Much less well known are the financial incentives that lurk behind so many of the voices clamoring for an ever-more-militarized response to China in the Pacific. We’re talking about groups that carefully avoid the problems such an approach will provoke when it comes to the real security of the United States or the planet. A new cold war is likely to be dangerous and costly in an America gripped by a pandemic, its infrastructure weakened, and so many of its citizens in dire economic straits. Still, for foreign lobbyists, Pentagon contractors, and Washington’s many influential think tanks, a “rising China” means only one thing: rising profits.
Defense contractors and foreign governments are spending millions of dollars annually funding establishment think tanks (sometimes in secret) in ways that will help set the foreign-policy agenda in the Biden years. In doing so, they gain a distinctly unfair advantage when it comes to influencing that policy, especially which future tools of war this country should invest in and how it should use them.
Not surprisingly, many of the top think-tank recipients of foreign funding are also top recipients of funding from this country’s major weapons makers. The result: an ecosystem in which those giant outfits and some of the countries that will use their weaponry now play major roles in bankrolling the creation of the very rationales for those future sales. It’s a remarkably closed system that works like a dream if you happen to be a giant weapons firm or a major think tank. Right now, that system is helping accelerate the further militarization of the whole Indo-Pacific region.
In the Pacific, Japan finds itself facing an increasingly tough set of choices when it comes to its most significant military alliance (with the United States) and its most important economic partnership (with China). A growing U.S. presence in the region aimed at counterbalancing China will allow Japan to remain officially neutral, even as it reaps the benefits of both partnerships.
To walk that tightrope (along with the defense contractors that will benefit financially from the further militarization of the region), Japan spends heavily to influence thinking in Washington. Recent reports from the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Initiative (FITI), where the authors of this piece work, reveal just how countries like Japan and giant arms firms like Lockheed Martin and Boeing functionally purchase an inside track on a think-tank market that’s hard at work creating future foreign-policy options for this country’s elite.
How to make a think tank think
Take the prominent think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which houses programs focused on the “China threat” and East Asian “security.” Its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, which gets funding from the governments of Japan and the Philippines, welcomes contributions "from all governments in Asia, as well as corporate and foundation support.”
Unsurprisingly, the program also paints a picture of Japan as central “to preserving the liberal international order” in the face of the dangers of an “increasingly assertive China.” It also highlights that country’s role as Washington’s maritime security partner in the region. There’s no question that Japan is indeed an important ally of Washington. Still, positioning its government as a lynchpin in the international peace (or war) process seems a dubious proposition at best.
CSIS is anything but alone when it comes to the moneyed interests pushing Washington to invest ever more in what now passes for “security” in the Pacific region. A FITI report on Japanese operations in the U.S., for instance, reveals at least 3,209 lobbying activities in 2019 alone, as various lobbyists hired by that country and registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Acttargeted both Congress and think tanks like CSIS on behalf of the Japanese government. Such firms, in fact, raked in more than $30 million from that government last year alone. From 2014 to 2019, Japan was also the largest East Asian donor to the top 50 most influential U.S. think tanks. The results of such investments have been obvious when it comes to both the products of those think tanks and congressional policies.
Think-tank recipients of Japanese funding are numerous and, because that country is such a staunch ally of Washington, its government can be more open about its activities than is typical. Projects like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s “China Risk and China Opportunity for the U.S.-Japan Alliance,” funded by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, are now the norm inside the Beltway. You won’t be surprised to learn that the think-tank scholars working on such projects almost inevitably end up highlighting Japan’s integral role in countering “the China threat” in the influential studies they produce. That threat itself, of course, is rarely questioned. Instead, its dangers and the need to confront them are invariably reinforced.
Another Carnegie Endowment study, “Bolstering the Alliance Amid China’s Military Resurgence,” is typical in that regard. It’s filled with warnings about China’s growing military power -- never mind that, in 2019, the United States spent nearly triple what China did on its military, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Like so many similarly funded projects inside the Beltway, this one recommended further growth in military cooperation between the U.S. and Japan. Important as well, it claimed, was developing “the capability to wage combined multidomain joint operations” which “would require accelerating operational response times to enhance firepower.”
The Carnegie project lists its funding and, as it turns out, that foundation has taken in at least $825,000 from Japan and approximately the same amount from defense contractors and U.S. government sources over the past six years. And Carnegie’s recommendations recently came to fruition when the Trump administration announced the second-largest sale of U.S. weaponry to Japan, worth more than $23 billion worth.
If the Japanese government has a stake in funding such think tanks to get what it wants, so does the defense industry. The top 50 think tanks have received more than $1 billion from the U.S. government and defense contractors over those same six years. Such contractors alone lobby Congress to the tune of more than $20 million each election cycle. Combine such sums with Japanese funding (not to speak of the money spent by other governments that desire policy influence in Washington) and you have a confluence of interests that propels U.S. military expenditures and the sale of weapons globally on a mind-boggling scale.
A defense build-up is the order of the day
An April 2020 report on the “Future of US-Japan Defense Collaboration” by the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security offers a typical example of how such pro-militarization interests are promoted. That report, produced in partnership with the Japanese embassy, begins with the premise that “the United States and Japan must accelerate and intensify their long-standing military and defense-focused coordination and collaboration.”
Specifically, it urges the United States to "take measures to incentivize Japan to work with Lockheed Martin on the F-2 replacement program,” known as the F-3. (The F-2 Support Fighter is the jet Lockheed developed and produced in partnership with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries for the Japanese Defense Forces.) While the report does acknowledge its partnership with the embassy of Japan, it fails to acknowledge that Lockheed donated three quarters of a million dollars to the influential Atlantic Council between 2014 and 2019 and that Japan generally prefers to produce its own military equipment domestically.
The Atlantic Council report continues to recommend the F-3 as the proper replacement for the F-2, “despite political challenges, technology-transfer concerns,” and “frustration from all parties” involved. This recommendation comes at a time when Japan has increasingly sought to develop its own defense industry. Generally speaking, no matter the Japanese embassy’s support for the Atlantic Council, that country’s military is eager to develop a new stealth fighter of its own without the help of either Lockheed Martin or Boeing. While both companies wish to stay involved in the behemoth project, the Atlantic Council specifically advocates only for Lockheed, which just happens to have contributed more thanthree times what Boeing did to that think tank’s coffers.
A 2019 report by the Hudson Institute on the Japan-U.S. alliance echoed similar sentiments, outlining a security context in which Japan and the United States should focus continually on deterring “aggression by China.” To do so, the report suggested, American-made ground-launched missiles (GCLMs) were one of several potential weapons Japan would need in order to prepare a robust “defense” strategy against China. Notably, the first American GCLM test since the United States withdrewfrom the Cold War era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019 used a Lockheed Martin Mark 41 Launch System and Raytheon’s Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile. The Hudson Institute had not only received at least $270,000 from Japan between 2014 and 2018, but also a minimum of $100,000 from Lockheed Martin.
In 2020, CSIS organized an unofficial working group for industry professionals and government officials that it called the CSIS Alliance Interoperability Series to discuss the development of the future F-3 fighter jet. While Japanese and American defense contractors fight for the revenue that will come from its production, the think tank claims that American, Japanese, and Australian industry representatives and officials will “consider the political-military and technical issues that the F-3 debate raises.” Such working groups are far from rare and offer think tanks incredible access to key decision-makers who often happen to be their benefactors as well.
All told, between 2014 and 2019, CSIS received at least $5 million from the U.S. government and Pentagon contractors, including at least $400,000 from Lockheed Martin and more than $200,000 from Boeing. In this fashion, a privileged think-tank elite has cajoled its way into the inner circles of policy formation (and it matters little whether we’re talking about the Trump administration or the future Biden one). Think about it for a moment: possibly the most crucial relationship on the planet between what looks like a rising and a falling great power (in a world that desperately needs their cooperation) is being significantly influenced by experts and officials invested in the industry guaranteed to militarize that very relationship and create a twenty-first-century version of the Cold War.
Any administration, in other words, lives in something like an echo chamber that continually affirms the need for a yet greater defense build-up led by those who would gain most from it.
Profiting from great power competition
Japan is singled out in this analysis because the Center for International Policy’s Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative, where we work, had striking access to its influence data. There are, however, many other nations with defense agendas in the Indo-Pacific region who act similarly. As a Norwegian think-tank document put it, “Funding powerful think tanks is one way to gain such access, and some think tanks in Washington are openly conveying that they can service only those foreign governments that provide funding.” A Japanese official publicly noted that such funding of U.S. think tanks “is an investment.” You can’t put it much more bluntly or accurately than that.
Foreign governments and the defense industry debate the nitty-gritty of how best to arm a region whose continued militarization is accepted as a given. The need to stand up to the Chinese “aggressor” is a foregone conclusion of most thought leaders in Washington. They ought, of course, to be weighing and debating the entire security picture, including the potential future devastation of climate change, rather than simply piling yet more weaponry atop the outdated tools of war.
To be sure, think tanks don’t make U.S. foreign policy, nor do foreign lobbyists and defense contractors. But their money, distributed in copious amounts, does buy them crucial seats at that policymaking table, while dissenters are generally left out in the cold.
What’s the solution? For starters, a little transparency in Washington foreign-policy-making circles would be useful so that the public can be made more aware of the conflicts of interest that rule the roost when it comes to China policy. All think tanks should be required to publicly disclose their donors and funders. At least the Atlantic Council and CSIS report their funders by levels of donations and note certain sponsors of events or reports (a basic level of transparency that makes a piece like this possible). Such a standard of transparency should minimally be practiced by all think tanks, including prominent organizations like the American Enterprise Institute and the Earth Institute, neither of which releases any information about its funders, to highlight potential conflicts of interests.
Without transparency, the defense contractors and foreign governments that donate to think tanks help create foreign-policy thinking in which this world is, above all, in constant need of more weapons systems. This only increases military tensions globally, while helping to perpetuate the interests and profits of a defense industry that is, in truth, antithetical to the interests of most Americans, so many of whom would prefer diplomatic, peaceful, and coordinated solutions to the challenges of a rising China.
Unfortunately, as foreign policy is now made, a rising China is also guaranteed to lift all boats (submarines, aircraft carriers, and surface ships) as well as fighter planes aiding the military-industrial complex on a planet increasingly at war with itself.
This article has been republished with permission from TomDispatch.
Cassandra Stimpson is a research project lead at the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative (FITI) at the Center for International Policy (CIP). Her previous positions include researcher at CIP in Washington, D.C., and senior program officer at GOAL Uganda in Kampala. Her writing has appeared in The Nation, InkStick Media, and the Security Distillery. She has a Masters in Security, Intelligence, and Strategic Studies from the University of Glasgow and a Bachelors in Political Science from Pace University.
Aerial view of fog over Bath Iron Works and Kennebec River in Maine. Bath Iron Works is a leader in combatant design and construction with a $27 million dollar contract from the Navy for maintenance. (Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock.com)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.