Leading DC Nonproliferation Think Tank to be Led by Official Fresh out of the US State Department

Readers will know that I have on several occasions criticized the U.S. nonproliferation epistemic community for being too closely associated with the U.S. government. Here’s how I put in in a post a couple of years ago:

A colleague in D.C. once said this to me about the U.S. nonproliferation epistemic community – and by this community we both meant the entirety of the various NGOs and think tanks and the few University based centers that focus on nonproliferation studies in the U.S.:  that the community is very D.C. centric, cliquish, incestuous and self-referential, to its detriment. These words have really stuck with me, because I find them to be absolutely true, and both insightful and parsimonious as I’ve observed the community over the years.

I would take it even further and say that in addition, in my opinion, the whole U.S. based nonproliferation experts community – with few exceptions – is systemically biased toward support of USG positions on all the top nonproliferation issues. They maintain an essentially common narrative and set of emphases that is in line with, and that provides support for, the narrative and emphases of the USG, with only the smallest amounts of quibbling around the edges (Albright will talk all day long about his “aluminum tubes” work).  I think that there is in the work of the U.S. nonproliferation epistemic community far too little real, independent evaluation and criticism of USG positions. As I see it, the U.S. nonproliferation community almost acts as a second wave of apologists for U.S. policy, after the USG itself – though it sometimes shrouds this effort in a lot of technical and sometimes academic-looking jargon. But in the end what the U.S. nonproliferation community ABSOLUTELY DOES NOT DO  is serve in the role of an independent, rigorous, analytical check on USG nonproliferation positions, as it could and should do, and as the nongovernmental nonproliferation community in other countries does.

And I think there are some clear reasons for this. Much moreso than in other countries, the members of the U.S. based nonproliferation community tend, with very few exceptions, to

1) have been employed by the USG in the past;

2) want to be employed by the USG in the future;

3) be funded by or hope to be funded by the USG; and/or

4) want to maintain the access and good favor they have with USG officials, for the sake of information and for the sake of invitations to cool events, etc.

Basically what I’m saying is that they are biased towards the positions of the USG, because of their overly close personal and institutional associations with the USG, and because they see their own professional success as being tied to the favor of the USG.

I’d say the news that William Burns, the outgoing U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, will be the new President of the Carnegie Endowment, falls nicely into line with my observations. Under his leadership, can you imagine that work by Carnegie staff will be allowed to cross certain lines of criticism of the U.S. government’s nonproliferation policies? Me neither.

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2 Comments on “Leading DC Nonproliferation Think Tank to be Led by Official Fresh out of the US State Department”

  1. yousaf says:

    I think they could have made a worse choice than Burns but I agree there is revolving door problem at the think tanks in DC.

    Another problem is sources of funding, often foreign, which slants their analyses:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/at-fast-growing-brookings-donors-help-set-agenda/2014/10/30/a4ba4e8e-48ef-11e4-891d-713f052086a0_story.html

    ===========

  2. Johnboy says:

    Hardly new, though, is it?

    The tradition of senior State Department flunkies flipping between Foggy Bottom to the Carnegie Endowment (or vice versa) dates from at least John Foster Dulles, and that was in 1945.


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