American Primacy on the Menu for Big Industry Donors at CNAS — Responsible Statecraft

The following section is part of a follow-up article to a recent report I co-authored, “The Military-Industrial-Think Tank Complex: Conflicts of Interest at the Center for a New American Security.” You can read the full piece at Responsible Statecraft.

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….

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.

Originally published at on February 22, 2021.

Writer on politics, public policy, and current events. All opinions here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of employers past or present.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store