Then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. speaks while former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy (and CNAS co-founder) moderates at the CNAS-Defense One inaugural National Security Forum, entitled "Setting the Next Defense Agenda" in Washington, Dec. 14, 2015. (DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen/public domain)
American primacy on the menu for big industry donors at CNAS

Transparency is key, but this prominent think tank isn’t always up front about the funding behind its pro-corporate, pro-military positions.

In a new report from the Revolving Door Project, my colleague Erica Jung and I examine major conflicts of interest at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a bipartisan, DC-based foreign policy think tank with at least 16 former affiliates now in the Biden administration. Among the serious questions raised are whether CNAS is publishing reports that directly promote the interests of their donors — including defense contractors, major corporations, foreign governments and the U.S. government — without disclosing their support, in direct contradiction to public statements made by the think tank’s founders.

A review late last year by the Center for International Policy of 50 major U.S. think tanks found that CNAS was the single largest recipient of defense contractor money from 2014 to 2019. In our report, we were able to identify 29 different defense companies that have contributed to the think tank, with Northrop Grumman (the 5th largest U.S. defense contractor in 2019) as their biggest financial backer by far. 

The defense industry, however, is far from the think tank’s only private sector donor. Other contributors include firms in finance (Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase), fossil fuels (Chevron and the BP), Big Tech (Amazon and Google), and telecommunications (Comcast and Cisco). In their most recent fiscal year alone, CNAS received major contributions from 18 of the 100 largest American corporations. 

CNAS co-founder Michèle Flournoy has acknowledged the issues posed by these funding sources. As she said in these remarks in 2014 about think tanks: “Every funder has intent. They’re giving you money for a reason. And what you have to ensure in running a think tank is that that bias does not creep into your analysis or constrain your analysis.” 

Flournoy is no doubt aware that extensive support from big business opens CNAS up to these concerns in a big way. Not surprisingly, our review of past publications from the Center suggests that the line between their positions and the interests of their donors is rather “murky” — to borrow a term from Flournoy — in part because their interventionist views often fit quite comfortably with that of the profit-oriented aims of big industry players, many of whom are jockeying for contracts and friendly regulation from the federal government.

While CNAS emphasizes “pragmatism” and claims to take no institutional positions, their general approach can be summarized with a phrase borrowed from the Center itself: “Extending American Power.” A 2007 paper by CNAS co-founders Michèle Flournoy and Kurt Campbell, released the same day as the think tank’s opening event, lays out the Center’s ideological foundations. In contrast to the “neo-isolationist impulses” supposedly inflicting critics of the War on Terror, they argue: “The United States has been and will continue to be the preeminent leader in the international community, and we cannot protect or advance our interests in a globalized world if we do not continue to serve in that role.”

Unmentioned in this perspective is their conflation of U.S. foreign policy “interests” with the “interests” of the U.S. business community. As The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman rather bluntly argued in 1999: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist — McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.” 

Friedman follows this stunning statement with a quote in the same vein by neoconservative Robert Kagan — the husband of former CNAS CEO Victoria Nuland, who is now the third most powerful person in the U.S. State Department. ”Good ideas and technologies need a strong power that promotes those ideas by example and protects those ideas by winning on the battlefield,” he said. Today, contributions to CNAS from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft suggest that Silicon Valley recognizes the benefit of “Extending American Power.”

Our new report explores the ways in which CNAS advances the interests of donors in the name of promoting U.S. national security interests. In one instance, the think tank published a paper recommending that the military spend tens of billions on additional purchases of the B-21 bomber — a jet under development by Northrop Grumman, one of the organization’s largest donors. The report does not disclose this financial connection to CNAS. In another example, back in 2009, two top officials at the think tank published a report praising the services provided by private military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the center accepted money from some of those very companies (some of which had histories of scandal), including KBR and Dyncorp, and did not disclose it in the paper.

The interests of defense companies in maintaining an aggressive foreign policy is obvious. Militarism creates a demand for the services of these companies, thus giving them an obvious incentive to contribute to organizations like CNAS which advocate for the very military deployments and weapons projects that generate their revenue. Nathan Robinson argues that these companies would actually be irrational to not promote the opinions which enrich them: “Under the classic Friedmanite formulation, a company has no social responsibilities beyond maximizing value for its shareholders. This means that a weapons company, if it is to be ‘socially responsible’ in Milton Friedman’s sense, should be actively trying to ensure that demand for weapons does not decrease.”

But the question remains: do these companies contribute to think tanks like CNAS because of their aligned views, or do think tanks reflect the views of their donors because they are getting the financial incentive to do so? Without the proper disclosure, it is easy to think the worst.

When reached for comment for this article, a CNAS official pointed us to its guidelines and list of donors available online. “CNAS does not take institutional positions, and rigorously adheres to and publicly emphasizes its Intellectual Independence Policy on all research,” said Cole Stevens, communications officer for the the center.

Meanwhile, the apparent CNAS conflicts of interest are not limited solely to the defense industry. Indeed, these ethical issues are so widespread that it wasn’t even feasible to include them all in our report.

In 2015, a congressional bill proposed to remove the ban on U.S. exports of crude oil, prompting opposition both from environmentalists and from liberal think tanks that are also close to the current Biden administration, such as the Center for American Progress (CAP). While CAP pointed out that the move could increase greenhouse gases by the equivalent of 135 coal plants running for a full year, CNAS — which has recognized that climate change may “be a defining security challenge of the 21st century” — supported removing the ban.

A 2015 CNAS report co-authored by Elizabeth Rosenberg (who now serves in the Treasury Department) argued that eliminating the restrictions would make “the economy more resilient, while at the same time strengthening Washington’s influence and leverage around the world.” Two months later, Flournoy testified in front of the Senate Banking Committee to condemn restrictions on crude oil exports as “antiquated laws” which “hamper the ability of U.S. national security leaders to reap some of the strategic benefits” of flooding world markets with this dirty energy source.

In neither of these instances did CNAS disclose that it was receiving funding from BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Shell — four of the world’s largest oil companies. In fact, all four of those companies lobbied congress on the crude oil ban. In the years since, CNAS has continued accepting big oil money while promoting this policy: a 2019 report to Congress co-authored by at least five CNAS figures now in government positions called for the United States to “promote free trade” in crude oil and liquefied natural gas, saying it would “provide considerable security and economic benefits…”

The 2015 repeal of the ban, it would seem, was consistent with the think tank’s dedication to expanding “American power”: the move opened the door to substantial profits for wealthy American corporations while expanding the American government’s leverage over international energy markets. CNAS donors include massive corporations which serve as the backbone of this American economic power. Seemingly, from the center’s perspective, policies which benefit their donors strengthen America’s global position by definition, regardless of their impact on the people inhabiting the world which American power ostensibly protects.

To its credit, the center at times argues for a more nuanced, realistic approach to American foreign policy than other more transparently hawkish foreign policy organizations, offering diplomatic approaches to combating climate change, disease, and other threats to global security. But it appears that the Iraq War — which destabilized the Middle East and killed hundreds of thousands for no perceivable strategic benefit — did not force a more fundamental re-evaluation of what our “interests” ultimately entail. Judging by the think tank’s years-long opposition to a timely U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (the topic of their first-ever report), it seems that Flournoy and Campbell were more concerned by the “domestic and international skepticism about the use of military force in the wake of the Iraq War” than they were by the war itself.

Furthermore, their fellows have been encouraging the new president to undermine his predecessor’s deal with the Taliban and to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan until “conditions are met.” Their consistent institutional position behind “withdrawing responsibly” is one that could conceivably keep the United States at war for another 20 years. 

As multilateralist and nuanced as their approach may be today, the think tank’s foreign policy stances often represent their own brand of “America first” ideology. They seek to expand the American reach over global affairs; whether the rest of the world actually wants this is a secondary concern. This is a perspective which serves a rather symbiotic purpose for the corporate interests with a large stake in the American economy that fund CNAS: both are fundamentally interested in primacy above all else.