The American Senate’s contentious confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel have raised the prickly issue of foreign financing at US think tanks, with Republicans opposing his candidacy suggesting nefarious links between Hagel and Kazakhstan, among other foreign nations and companies. Republicans have asked Hagel – a former Senate Republican who is now the nominee of a Democrat president – to reveal the sources of foreign funding at several organizations for which he has served as a board member, most notably the Atlantic Council, where he is currently chairman.
Foreign money flowing to US-based think tanks is often opaque, which means countries like Kazakhstan – where opaque is the gold standard – fit right in. The extent to which foreign funding influences the policies or positions taken by these organizations, or their associates, sometimes concerns the government officials they seek to advise and influence.
Such seemed to be the motive for an unnamed aide to a Senate Republican, who asserted to the conservative Washington Free Beacon blog on February 11, “The nexus between Chuck Hagel, the government of Kazakhstan, the Atlantic Council, and Chevron is apparent. He’s clearly delivered political cover from a prominent think tank and used his board position at Chevron to encourage investments in Kazakhstan.” (Chevron was deeply invested in Kazakhstan long before Hagel joined the Atlantic Council in 2009.)
In response, Atlantic Council CEO Frederick Kempe published a letter detailing the Council’s policies on foreign funding and intellectual independence, with a list of donors from the last five years. Part of the policy was to forbid a single foreign entity from being the only donor for an event or project. Included on the list are the governments of Kazakhstan and Georgia, as well as Georgia Industrial Holding Group, People’s Bank of Georgia, State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR), Nabucco, and a host of Turkish state and private companies.
On February 14, an official from the Atlantic Council, who asked to remain anonymous, confirmed that the Embassy of Kazakhstan in Washington had directly sponsored a recent forum on 20 years of US-Kazakh relations. It was evident from the Council’s website that there were other events sponsored by Astana, too. One of the few Kazakhstan activities I could find with Hagel’s name on it was a policy brief advocating that the US support Astana’s much-coveted 2010 OSCE summit, in part as a means to improve the country’s human rights performance.
The official reiterated that the Atlantic Council does not disclose exact funding amounts from its donors.
Not Kazakhstan, Georgia, nor most of the companies noted above are listed as supporters on the Atlantic Council’s website.
The official explained that the website is outdated, and that the list included in Kempe’s letter covered the years since Hagel became chairman in 2009. “It is unfortunate that our supporters page has not had attention in years," the official said. (The Open Society Institute, under whose auspices EurasiaNet.org operates, appears on the online list.)
A quick review of the Council’s general online content on Kazakhstan turned up a number of analytical articles on foreign policy, with a few critical articles on the country’s sham elections. Coverage of Georgia was similarly varied – leaning both positive and critical. SOCAR, Chevron, and a number of Turkish and other companies sponsored this major 2012 energy conference. It was unclear which events the Georgian government had supported. But, a good-faith reading could conclude that the Council’s activities follow the spirit of the integrity policies laid out in Kempe’s letter.
For its part, the Washington Free Beacon cited the writings of a single participant in one of the Council’s young fellows programs as evidence of an organization-wide pro-Kazakhstan bias.
Hagel has refused to provide details about the Council’s or other organization’s finances on the basis of confidentiality commitments, arguing such information is “not mine to disclose.”
Nothing stops Congress from subpoenaing the Atlantic Council to testify or provide further information on their donors. But, as Democrats point out, Hagel is certainly not the first cabinet nominee to be connected to organizations receiving foreign funding.
If Congress really wanted to get to the bottom of this issue, it could investigate conflicts of interest at non-profit think tanks in general. US law requires full disclosure on paid lobbying, and the Sunlight Foundation has published evidence of extensive paid lobbying by Eurasian governments in Washington.
Non-profits like the Atlantic Council are not subject to such regulations, and without full disclosure they are left open to such accusations – legitimate and spurious – of conflicts of interest, and of blurring the line between honest policy advise and paid advocacy for foreign entities. Though greater transparency on donors would be of great service to the foreign policy world, there are few signs this domestic political fight will provide any.