DC Think Tanks Learn Hard Lessons About Koch Funding

The Atlantic Council parts ways with Koch-funded scholars who caused an internal uproar last year 

Charles Koch / AP

When the Atlantic Council accepted a $4.5 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation in 2020 to "challenge prevailing assumptions" about American foreign policy, no one in Washington batted an eye.

Liberals had long ceased scapegoating the Koch Brothers, Charles and David, as dark money villains, once the Kochs embarked on a public-relations campaign to repair their image, which involved teaming up with progressives to campaign for criminal justice reform and a supine foreign policy. Just watch this 2015 interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe, where the bogeymen themselves receive a warm embrace from the Washington establishment.

The tide is turning once again. The Atlantic Council on Wednesday announced that the Koch-funded New American Engagement Initiative, which caused an uproar, will move to the much smaller Stimson Center. They were just two years into a five-year grant.

"With this transfer to Stimson, we will say thank you and goodbye to a small but strong team," wrote Fred Kempe, the council’s CEO, in a letter to staff, adding that their "global foresight work has challenged us to strategically think through and frame policies for the future." Put another way, the Atlantic Council loves your passion, but don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

For a think tank founded on the idea that America and Europe should be leading the free world, there was an inherent tension in taking money from a philanthropist who supports appeasing the enemies of America and Europe, and it was becoming unsustainable. The council weathered an uproar last year when nearly two dozen scholars took the rare step of publicly disassociating themselves from an essay published by two members of the Koch-funded center, Emma Ashford and Matthew Burrows, who had argued that the United States should not make human rights a priority in its relationship with Russia.

It’s becoming a pattern. The Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, which has in the past taken Koch money, did not apply for any Koch grants this year. The institute’s president, Carol Rollie Flynn, told us, "We decided not to reapply last year because their funding priorities for work on Eurasia and China did not interest our scholars."

This follows a crackup at the Koch- and Soros-funded Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, where earlier this month a close ally of the Soros network, Joe Cirincione, resigned in a huff, telling Politico that his former colleagues "excuse Russia’s military threats and actions because they believe that they have been provoked by U.S. policies."

There are still think tanks and universities willing to take money from the Kochs to fund scholars who espouse these ideas: the RAND Corporation, the International Crisis Group, and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace among them. But the restrainers are no longer pushing on an open door in Washington, which is learning the hard way that engagement is no substitute for deterrence.