Do Think Tanks in Georgia Lobby for Foreign Powers?
By Till Bruckner
Below, just for the heck of it, I’ll make the counterargument. Here’s the rival hypothesis:
These revelations were enough to spark a protracted and sometimes paranoia-tinged debate on how foreign funding of think tanks might actually be foreign lobbying in disguise, and how such sinister practices threaten to distort American democracy and exert undue influence on foreign policy formulation in D.C.
Ironically, America was at the same time conducting sustained, highly orchestrated and lavishly funded foreign lobbying campaigns via think tanks to pry the countries of Eurasia away from Russia and to build elite and popular support for a rival pro-Western path consisting of NATO membership, EU accession, and free market reforms.
The thing is, nobody in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Central Asia called them lobbying campaigns. Instead, we called them “democracy promotion”. Or “civil society strengthening”. And American funding for local think tanks and local NGOs – the borders are blurred as both tend to tank far more than they think – was a key element of these lobbying attempts.
The following description of USAID’s More Transparent and Accountable Governance program in Georgia neatly illustrates how America’s foreign lobbying efforts work: pour money into think tanks, NGOs and the media – not to promote independent policy research and critical thinking, but to push pre-defined Western policy agendas:
Considering foreign actors’ role in Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and USAID’s apparent willingness to use foreign aid as an inducement in explicitly quid pro quo foreign lobbying deals, this is surprising; even in bigger and more resilient Germany, some people are beginning to raise the alarm about possible democratic distortions as a result of American-funded non-profits’ maneuverings.
Efforts by governments abroad to boost non-profit oversight and regulation tend to be dismissed almost reflexively as ‘crackdowns’ by many Western donors and their chorus line of NGO grantees, even in the case of mature democracies such as India. These opponents of meaningful government oversight frequently forget – or choose to ignore – that even the world’s oldest democracy, the United Kingdom, places restrictions on the political activities of non-profits, including those that are entirely domestically funded.
If a foreign government designed and funded a similar programme in the U.S., the participating NGOs and think tanks would almost certainly need to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, forcing them to document and subsequently disclose their financial dealings and interactions with officials in great detail.
Non-profit regulation is a minefield in every country, balancing the imperative to preserve freedom of speech (including donor-funded speech) on the one hand, and the desire to protect democratic debating space from excessive distortions by powerful and wealthy vested interests (specifically donor interests) on the other.
(See here for an especially good attempt to strike such a balance through dialogue.)
On the positive side, think tanks have largely delivered on their promise in terms of policy development: they have helped to build domestic research capacity and to improve policy formulation processes and public debates around specific policies, and they deserve a lot of credit for this.
On the negative side, I have witnessed how, over time, think tanks in Georgia have narrowed the field for democratic debate. There’s something impoverished about a political landscape in which every single think tank paper seems to be pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-E.U., pro-market, and even pro-gay rights, with the scope of inquiry reduced on to how best and fastest to join NATO, join the EU, open markets and privatize, and safeguard minority rights.
Meanwhile, alternative voices, choices and options have been pushed to the margins of media coverage, public debate, and eventually electoral politics, in the process politically marginalizing Georgian voters with different ideological leanings by robbing them of voice, choice and representation. NATO-or-Putin, privatization-or-communism, gays-or-gulags – only idiots and traitors would dissent.
Some observers lament America’s polarized think tank landscape with its endless dialectic clashes between Heritage, Cato, the Center for American Progress & Co., but they miss that each side in every debate should get a chance to articulate, refine and communicate its views through rival think tanks. In Georgia, there is no such democratic competition, as only one ideological side has all the think tanks, all of which financially depend on a cabal of Western donors with overlapping agendas.
What can Georgians do to reclaim and diversify their domestic political space? One option is the German model of funding for think tanks tied to political parties with public money. Another is for think tanks to mobilize more money from domestic donors. Either way, if Georgians want to have a healthy democracy, sooner or later they will have to start paying the bills.
Till Bruckner spent several years living in Georgia, where he witnessed the Rose Revolution while shilling for sinister foreign interests in a variety of roles, including think tank ventriloquist, NGO stooge, and journalistic parrot. He later wrote his PhD thesis on accountability in international aid in Georgia, focusing on the political economy of aid and non-profit accountability. His collection of hats currently includes freelance journalism, think tanking, and running advocacy efforts for Transparify, an initiative promoting greater think tank transparency worldwide. This article was researched and written in a private capacity. None of the views expressed here should in any way be taken to represent the views of Transparify or of any other organization.
The views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors' alone and do not necessarily represent the views of CRRC.
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