Masquerading as advisories, these organisations are really operating as lobby groups – and their influence is growing
Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga has warned that the European Union has become a stumbling bystander of history and is increasingly unable to resolve the challenges of its citizens. Varga blames the malaise partly on the absence of political leadership. She believes that the bloc is run by think tanks and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) which dictate how it should be led. Meanwhile, Clare Daly – an Irish MEP – similarly stated recently in the EU Parliament that “the paranoid imaginations of the security sector think tanks that parade here day after day” are able to dictate policies based on the “flimsiest of evidence.”
NGOs have long been used as an instrument to gain influence in the civil society of various nation states. The US has been an innovator in developing cutouts which it funds and ensures are often also staffed by people linked to official Washington. Eventually, the EU adopted the same practice, albeit in a different way, mainly focused on Europe itself. As a result, state-funded NGOs are now increasingly manipulating Western policies.
As think tanks and NGOs increase their influence over EU policymaking, it begs the question: What are the consequences of outsourcing political leadership to these entities?
Adopting the Anglo-American model of privatizing policymaking
Think tanks – when they work in the classic sense – can play an important role in policymaking processes by providing expertise, representing diverse interests, and advocating for specific causes. As the world becomes increasingly complex, politicians must make decisions on a wide variety of complicated topics on which they often have limited knowledge. It is simply unrealistic to expect that elected leaders would have sufficient expertise and in-depth understanding in all areas of policymaking.
However, by relying increasingly on the expertise of think tanks and NGOs, power shifts from elected officials to what can be considered lobbyists and advocacy groups. As the EU emulates the Anglo-American model of think tank governance, it is also necessary to explore its weaknesses and consequences.
In the US, think tanks have acquired an immense influence over policymakers and the public. They provide research reports and analysis for politicians which they base their decisions on. The think tanks also function as a waiting room for politicians who are out of government in a revolving door system, enabling the groups to put their own “fellows” into the highest positions in Washington. Think tanks also provide analysis for Congressional hearings and dominate in the media as a source of expert opinions. As a result, they have become an important center of political power.
As the power of think tanks continues to grow, it begs the question: who funds them – and why? Overwhelmingly, both liberal and conservative think tanks in the US are financed by the arms industry. This is related to the sheer power of the military-industrial complex in America. As a consequence, even with the extreme political polarization in Washington, there is nonetheless reliable bipartisan support for warfare as the solution to most problems as the business places its bets on both political parties. The option of demilitarizing American foreign policy and reducing the military budget is thus increasingly outside democratic control. President Dwight Eisenhower warned against the intrusive influence of the “military-industrial complex” during his farewell speech in January 1961. Eisenhower initially used the term “military-industrial-congressional complex,” although revised it to avoid shaming and provoking Congress.
Several investigations by the New York Times revealed that the think tank industry has grown immensely over the past decades and has corrupted politics with a business model that sells access and influence. Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center, sounded the alarm by warning that think tanks “have become advocacy groups, or even lobbyists, by another name,” simply as a function of market forces given that “political parties want loyal propagandists, not niggling, equivocating academic hangers-on. And potential donors want veteran sharpshooters to fire their policy bullets into exactly the right target at precisely the right moment.” Think tanks have subsequently become a symptom of hypercapitalism in which all aspects of society have become an appendage to the market. Nowadays, even political influence is regulated in this way and think tanks are an important component.
European security and ceding control to think tanks
These military-funded think tanks have also made a powerful entry into the EU, where NGOs have traditionally relied more on government funding than their American counterparts. However, with the growing relevance of security and military issues in Europe, the arms industry has made inroads. During the Russiagate years, NATO-affiliated think tanks strengthened their influence in the EU under the guise of countering Russian interference. Daly pointed out the irony as the authority granted to “Atlanticist and NATO think tanks, lobbying for interests that benefit from conflict, is a bitter irony for a committee intended to investigate and address foreign interference in the democratic processes of the European Union.”
As the EU prepares itself for prolonged military tensions with Russia, more political power will be transferred to think tanks. Concerns about the absence of political leadership in the EU will thus become a more common theme in the coming years.