A Washington echo chamber for a new cold war
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.