Current Affairs

The Insidious Influence of the Arms Industry on Foreign Policy

Nobody with any affiliation to a weapons company should be allowed to hold government office.

Let us acknowledge frankly that the very existence of for-profit weapons companies is dangerous to humanity. If the job of a corporation is to maximize its profits, the job of a weapons corporation is to constantly increase its sales of weapons. This means that the corporation’s financial interest is directly opposed to the existence of permanent peace. Unless people and their governments perceive a threat, they have no reason to buy weapons. Making violent human conflict a thing of the past poses an existential threat to a weapons corporation. 

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. Unless it is trying to make sure more people are buying weapons, it is not doing its job. And just as the tobacco industry spent decades fulfilling its “responsibility to shareholders” by trying to manipulate public opinion into thinking cigarettes were (1) cool and (2) safe, a weapons company should always be trying to get people scared.

A for-profit weapons company, then, is one of the most dangerous artificial institutions that can be built. And anyone who represents the interests of such a company should be kept well away from any position of power. Unfortunately, the Biden administration seems determined to do the opposite.

The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is a think tank whose motto is “Bold. Innovative. Bipartisan.” Its experts are quoted all over the media, including in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, PBS, and MSNBC. It is small, with only around 30 employees, but it is influential, and many individuals who have been affiliated with it are now joining the Biden administration. 

A new report called “The Military-Industrial-Think Tank Complex: Conflicts of Interest at the Center for a New American Security” by Brett Heinz and Erica Jung of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows just how deeply the CNAS is tied to (1) the Biden administration and (2) the weapons industry. Some of the top donors to CNAS are Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, BP, BAE Systems, and Airbus. (They have also received funding from more than 20 other defense companies.) The Revolving Door Project’s report shows that CNAS puts out seemingly scholarly papers that advocate positions that just so happen to benefit the governments and defense contractors that are its major donors. The report also shows that CNAS “publishes research and press material that frequently supports the interests of its sponsors without proper disclosure; and even gives its financial sponsors an official oversight role in helping to shape the organization’s research.” 

Examples include: 

1) Supporting the U.S. military’s use of private military contractors who donated to CNAS 
2) Advocating for the preferred Afghanistan strategy of active-duty U.S. military officials with close links to the Center 
3) Making a deal with the [United Arab Emirates] embassy for research calling for looser military drone export rules to the country  
4) Advocating for additional purchases of jets produced by one of CNAS’ largest contributors
5) Recommending policies on U.S.-China relations which would benefit multiple CNAS donors

Essentially: weapons companies and governments donate to CNAS. CNAS produces “research” showing that the United States should do the things that benefit those weapons companies and governments. Then CNAS “experts” are quoted as neutral commentators in the press (the think tank is, after all, “bipartisan”) and go on to high-level staff positions in the United States government, where they can shape American foreign policy. 

The Obama administration was stuffed with CNAS personnel, with the Wall Street Journal calling it a “farm team for the incoming Obama administration.” The think tank has long been a jobs program for centrist Democrats. CNAS was founded in 2007 by former Clinton defense officials who worried that negative reaction to the Bush administration’s hawkish foreign policies would lead to “neo-isolationism.” Neo-isolationism, meaning declining to engage in unnecessary military conflicts abroad, would of course be a disaster for the profits of CNAS donors, and CNAS’ first-ever report said that the U.S. national interests meant we would need “a significant military presence [in the Middle East] for the foreseeable future.” (Which, coincidentally, would lead to a significant guaranteed flow of income to defense contractors for the foreseeable future.) 

CNAS makes only the barest pretense of suggesting that its weapons industry donors have no effect on its “scholarship.” Its Board of Advisers, which “actively contributes to the development of the Center’s research,” includes the chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association, as well as executives from the Aerospace Industries Association and Raytheon. In fact, over 70 percent of advisory board seats “belong to individuals who work at one of CNAS’s major financial sponsors, represent multiple CNAS donors, and/or are themselves large individual donors.” CNAS even offers donors direct roles in shaping research, such as “the ability to recommend candidates for the Center’s Next Generation National Security Fellowship.” When Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Jim Webb (D-VA) questioned CNAS founder Kurt Campbell about Campbell’s 2009 appointment to the Obama state department, Campbell rejected Webb’s suggestion that “being heavily funded by defense contractors” was a problem, saying that “not one of our publications, not one of our public advocacies ever touches on anything that these companies worked on.” 

This, as Heinz and Jung show, was bullshit. In fact, CNAS published work arguing that private military contractors were indispensable, and defending them against charges of wrongdoing, despite being funded by those very contractors. Other examples are easy to find. I looked on CNAS’ website myself and quickly found their 2017 briefing for the Trump administration on drone policy. It argued that “drone export policy has overly prioritized limiting proliferation at the expense of other U.S. interests,” arguing that the U.S. should loosen restrictions on the sale of armed drones abroad. Again, by pure coincidence, CNAS donors stand to reap massive profits from a giant expansion of the international market for weaponized drones. 

All of this is grossly unethical. A think tank needs to be independent if a single word it says is to be trusted. Of course, there will always be plausible deniability that corporate donations have directly influenced a think tank’s pro-corporate conclusions, just as tobacco industry funded “experts” always insisted that the money they received from the tobacco industry had no bearing on their conclusions. But it is important to remember that a corporate-funded think tank cannot be independent. The Friedmanite maxim that corporations must serve shareholders above all means that no corporation should donate to a think tank that hurts its financial interests, meaning that if the think tank were ever to come up with conclusions that hurt its funders, they would be duty-bound to yank their contributions. This means that CNAS staff’s jobs depend on not producing research that could compromise the financial interests of the country’s giant weapons corporations. This does not mean that the chair of Raytheon calls up CNAS fellows and discourages them from saying the U.S. government should cancel a contract with Raytheon. It means that the chair of Raytheon doesn’t need to do this, because CNAS people know who is writing the checks and know that those people would have to stop writing the checks if they felt the research didn’t help their bottom line. 

Frighteningly, the Biden administration has already stuffed itself with CNAS alumni, as Heinz and Jung show in this chart:

As In These Times documented, CNAS isn’t the only hawkish, arms-industry funded think tank the Biden administration has drawn from. And Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, is coming straight from the board of Raytheon, and reaping a boatload of money by doing so

The Revolving Door Project’s report recommends increasing accountability and transparency, so that we know who exactly is giving money to CNAS and have a better sense of the links between policymakers and the weapons industry. My own recommendations would be a little different, and stronger: nobody ever affiliated with the arms industry, or who has worked for a group funded by the arms industry, should be allowed to participate in the making of foreign policy. Period. Nobody who has ever had even the remotest ties to for-profit weapons-making should be confirmed to a government position. By willingly affiliating themselves with sociopathic institutions they have shown compromised moral judgment and made it clear they cannot be trusted to make life-and-death policies. 

We are in the midst of a giant global arms race, albeit one that is rarely discussed. Autonomous weaponized drone swarms are coming, and they are terrifying. One extreme difficulty in curtailing this arms race is that even if nations could overcome the severe “prisoner’s dilemma” that leads to the adoption of “mutually assured destruction” as a way of keeping the peace, private for-profit weapons manufacturers are going to do whatever they can—in fact, have to do whatever they can—to ensure that the arms race does not slow down. Hence, instead of pushing for international agreements restricting the manufacture and use of armed drones, CNAS says that “further drone proliferation is inevitable,” and because it is “inevitable,” we must embrace it by increasing drone exports (and allowing our domestic companies to reap the profits). 

We must, if humanity is to have a future, keep the for-profit arms industry as far away from policy-making as possible. Their interests are directly contrary to our own, and it is deeply alarming that they have already penetrated so far into the Biden administration. 

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