Follow us on social

7389851-scaled-e1685633590487

How weapons firms influence the Ukraine debate

'Experts' from defense industry funded think tanks are flooding the media, pushing for more arms without disclosing their benefactors.

Military Industrial Complex

“To be brutal about it, we need to see masses of Russians fleeing, deserting, shooting their officers, taken captive, or dead. The Russian defeat must be an unmistakably big, bloody shambles. …To that end, with the utmost urgency, the West should give everything that Ukraine could possibly use,” argues Eliot Cohen in The Atlantic. 

What neither Cohen, who also famously pushed for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, nor The Atlantic acknowledge in the article is that most of the weapons Cohen mentions in the article — including long-range missiles, F-16s, and even F-35s — are made by funders of Cohen’s employer, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

While this might seem like a glaring conflict of interest that, at the very least, should be disclosed in the article, a new Quincy Institute brief that I authored, “Defense Contractor Funded Think Tanks Dominate Ukraine Debate,” shows that this article isn’t an exception; it’s the norm. America’s top foreign policy think tanks are awash in funding from the defense industry. They’ve dominated the media market related to the Ukraine war, and they seldom, if ever, disclose that many of the weapons they’re recommending the U.S. give to Ukraine are made by their funders. 

In short, when you hear a think tank scholar comment on the Ukraine war, chances are you’re hearing from someone whose employer is funded by those who profit from war, but you’ll probably never know it. That’s because 78 percent of the top ranked foreign policy think tanks in the U.S. receive funding from the Pentagon or its contractors, as documented in the new brief. 

At the very top, defense industry influence is even greater: every single one of the top 10 ranked foreign policy think tanks receives funding from the defense sector. And, for many think tanks, the amount of defense funding is enormous. For example, CSIS, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), and The Atlantic Council all reported receiving more than a million dollars a year from the defense sector. 

These and other think tanks that receive considerable defense sector funding have publicly advocated for more militarized U.S. responses to the Ukraine war and, compared to their counterparts at think tanks that accept little or no defense sector funding, have dominated the media landscape related to the Ukraine war. 

The new brief analyzed mentions of these top ranked foreign policy think tanks in Ukraine war related articles that appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. This analysis revealed that media outlets were more than seven times as likely to cite a think tank with defense sector support as they were to cite a think tank without it. Of the 1,247 think tank media mentions we tracked for the brief, 1,064 (or 85 percent) were mentions of think tanks with defense sector funding. And, the two most mentioned think tanks in Ukraine war related articles were think tanks flooded with defense sector dollars: CSIS and The Atlantic Council.

Yet, we only know the extent of CSIS and the Atlantic Council’s funding from the defense sector because both think tanks are commendably transparent about their donors and list all funders, within funding ranges, on their websites. Unfortunately, many of the nation’s top think tanks aren’t as forthcoming. In fact, the new brief found that nearly one third of the top U.S. foreign policy think tanks do not publicly disclose their donors. This included some of the most mentioned think tanks in media articles about the Ukraine war, like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Though AEI scholars have disclosed at public events that the organization receives funding from defense contractors, the organization does not list its donors on its website. 

Media outlets were, similarly, not transparent about the conflicts of interest of the experts they were citing. In fact, none of the media mentions analyzed in the brief were accompanied by disclosures of defense industry funding of think tanks that were, at times, recommending policies that could financially benefit their funders.

All of this points to several clear recommendations for reform.

First, Congress should mandate that think tanks disclose their funders. Given think tanks’ prominent role in the policymaking process and the enormous amounts of money they receive from the defense industry, foreign governments, and other special interests, it’s imperative that the public and policymakers know who is funding the think tank expert they’re hearing from. 

Second, media outlets should report any potential conflicts of interest with sources they’re citing about major U.S. foreign policy decisions. As the brief notes, “By not providing this information media outlets are deceiving their readers, listeners, or viewers.” 

Given the growing chorus of research documenting how think tank funding influences think tank work, the very least media outlets can do is let their readers know when a source might be biased, especially when they’re commenting on questions of war and peace. 

Weapons cargo bound for Ukraine is loaded onto a C-17 Globemaster III during a security assistance mission at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, Aug. 19, 2022. The Department of Defense is providing Ukraine with critical capabilities to defend against Russian aggression under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cydney Lee)
Military Industrial Complex
How much did the right really gain in Europe?

Marine Le Pen, President of the French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National - RN) party parliamentary group, and Jordan Bardella, President of the French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National - RN) party and head of the RN list for the European elections, attend a political rally during the party's campaign for the EU elections, in Paris, France, June 2, 2024. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann/File Photo

How much did the right really gain in Europe?

Europe

The elections for the European Parliament brought gains for parties belonging to both its populist far- right factions — European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the more radical Identity and Democracy (ID) group. Parties of the populist or far right (ECR, ID or unaffiliated) came in first in five countries: France, Italy, Austria, Hungary, and Slovakia.

In Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands, such parties made a strong second place showing. These elections produced highly unsettling developments in France and Germany, the two most influential EU member countries.

keep readingShow less
What the Swiss 'peace summit' can realistically achieve

President of the Swiss Confederation Viola Amherd and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy inspect the guard of honour of the Swiss Army, on Monday, January 15, 2024, in Kehrsatz, near Bern, Switzerland. Keystone/Alessandro Della Valle/Pool via REUTERS

What the Swiss 'peace summit' can realistically achieve

Europe

The Ukraine “Peace Summit” in Geneva this weekend is not really a summit and is not really about peace.

The agenda has been scaled back to discussions of limited measures aimed not at ending the war, but at softening some of its aspects. Outside Europe, very few international leaders are attending — including President Biden, who is sending Vice President Kamala Harris and national security adviser Jake Sullivan instead.

keep readingShow less
||
Diplomacy Watch: A peace summit without Russia
Diplomacy Watch: What’s the point of Swiss peace summit?

Diplomacy Watch: At G7 summit, West works to reassure Ukraine

QiOSK

Switzerland will host a summit this weekend aimed at shoring up global support for Ukraine’s war effort — and Washington and its Western partners are looking to ensure that Kyiv enters the meeting in as strong a position as possible.

Not much of the news coming out of Ukraine in recent months has been particularly positive. Russia has started taking Ukrainian territory for the first time since 2022, there has been increasing political turmoil in Kyiv, and morale among frontline soldiers continues to suffer. Last weekend, right-wing parties that are more skeptical of assisting Ukraine overperformed in European parliamentary elections, particularly in France and Germany.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest