In the last of this series examining the contemporary relevance of Noam Chomsky’s thesis on “Manufactured Consent”, Richard Butler says there is a sharp division between Think Tanks that mainly think and those that target specific interests.
The clearest way to identify which is which, is to try to discover where their funding comes from. In different ways, they both contribute to the “manufacture of consent”.
Think Tanks have been around forever, in ancient China for example. Plato ran one in Athens, at around the same time. People and groups in power or wanting it, people who want to understand mechanisms and trends in economic, political, scientific fields, in fact in virtually all fields, have routinely assembled groups of experts to think, to help them understand their world and to look into the future.
This phenomenon is well developed in Australia. A Pennsylvania University study has identified 8248 Think Tanks in the world, 42 of which are in Australia. In the field of foreign affairs, it ranks the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) at 42nd in the world.
(See: SMH, 7 January 2020 , Nick O’Malley: “Making the Radical Seem Reasonable. What is a Think Tank”?)
The earlier essays in this series have focused, in some measure, on the interaction between Australia, UK and USA. The same approach in considering Think Tanks, in the area of foreign affairs, would highlight the roles and standing of: the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA, Chatham House), London and, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), New York.
These three institutions share a common origin. Each were created immediately after the end of the First World War in response to the recognition by a group of scholars, following the Versailles peace conference, that the world had changed radically and that thought had to be given to how it might be managed in the future. There was also a fundamental concern that popular understanding of these circumstances, amongst domestic populations, was slight. Education was required.
These three are examples of Think Tanks of the first type; those given mainly to thinking. Naturally, they would prefer the products of their research, discussions and publications to influence policy makers and leaders. Where they address specific contemporary problems, they hope that the solutions they suggest are applied, or at least, found to be helpful.
This guiding philosophy may sound a touch soft. But it has repeatedly produced results; mitigating disputes or hostility between international antagonists. It has also ensured the maintenance of the prestige of the Think Tank.
I had direct experience of the methodology and approach of the CFR at which I served as Diplomat in Residence, in New York for two years, almost 20 years ago. As an Australian, I had initial concerns that the pressures of US interests, patriotism, would make it difficult for me to produce fully objective work and advice, as I saw it. This never proved to be the case even though, naturally, CFR is clearly an institution attuned to American interests.
I had arguments, including a very public one with John Bolton but, overall, my experience was that the Council believed deeply that its own reputation rested upon its intellectual integrity and independence and that of its scholars. This remains the case today, in spite of the pressures, in the time of Trump, for it to be more nationalist.
The same is true of AIIA. It is significantly smaller than CFR and Chatham House, but its standing in the world is justified. Its published work is of the highest quality. Its journal, Australian Outlook, is read around the world and is influential.
These three premier institutes for the study and analysis of international affairs, in English, are clear examples of Think Tanks in which thinking has the highest value. The contribution they can make and often have made to the “manufacture of consent”, has been important. They seed the understanding on a more popular level, and through the media, of complex issues in international relations.
The other kind of Think Tank is much harder edged. Typically, they have a much narrower agenda. Key examples of these are the organisations which have national defence or national security as their stated field of interest, expertise and, concern.
It would be wrong to suggest that what distinguishes them from the first category of Think Tank is that they do no thinking. They do a great deal of thinking, often deep thinking but, within narrow boundaries such as which weapons systems are best for particular military purposes: more submarines or more fast, guided missile frigates or destroyers?
These Think Tanks are often, elementally, lobbying organisations. That is, the papers they publish, the meetings and conferences they organise, the staff they appoint, are not directed to advancing understanding of issues leading to new policy development but, towards changing government decision making in favour of their interests. Government budgetary and purchasing and regulatory decisions are their central targets.
Lobbying operations dressed up as Think Tanks usually have opaque names. For example, “national defence” or “national security” in fact means arms sales; “United States Studies Center” means defending the Alliance, under all circumstances.
This practice of masking the pursuit of interests in a lofty or more benign pseudo- academic enquiry is now commonplace. The critical area of the environment provides an outstanding example, where the purported study of “energy issues” can in fact have the purpose of seeking to influence government policies on investments in and subsidies to the continuing use of fossil fuels.
There are also purely ideological affinity groups through which particular political, social or, indeed, religious objectives are pursued. This can result in heavy pressure on legislatures and courts.
In sum, there is a spectrum of Think Tanks ranging from the deeply and genuinely academic at one end to the specifically goal directed on the other. The main way in which the latter can be usefully understood is by discovering their source of funding and related activities sponsored by them. Direct financial support, for example by arms exporters, tells its own indelible story.
More subtle is the provision to supporters of the Think Tank of trips to conferences, study tours, in the country providing financial support to it. Such largesse is deployed repeatedly by the US and China, targeting particularly parliamentarians and others seen to be opinion formers, particularly journalists, and officials working with the intelligence community. This sort of activity is designed to manufacture consent to the interests of the Think Tank.
One approach to all of this is to say, “So what?”. In any open or relatively open society, people will form affinity groups, talk about their interests and beliefs, and work out how they might pursue them. That’s true and there shouldn’t be a law against it, in such a society. But that interpretation, alone, of what we see plainly, today, of how consent is manufactured, would be wildly naïve.
There is a confluence between the actions and interests of: the media, the intelligence community, the uses to which the internet is put and, the lobby groups acting in the guise of Think Tanks. This often defines the issues on which social consent is sought. It would be an unwelcome simplification to declare all of this wrong but, equally, it would be ludicrous to declare it simply the consequence of individual freedom and the price we must pay for it. And this is to say nothing of the attendant phenomenon with which we are so seriously confronted today: the dramatic increase in public lying by elected leaders.
The question is asked now, at every turn: Why have people, in unprecedented numbers, lost faith in politics – their leaders, their institutions, public discourse?
A large part of the answer to this question is: because they know they are being manipulated, lied to. They don’t want their consent to be taken for granted or worse, manufactured.
See earlier posts from this series:
Richard Butler AC is a former Australian Ambassador to the United Nations and Head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq. He has since held academic posts at the New York University and Penn State University.
Richard Whitington was a member of Gough Whitlam’s staff from 1974 to 1977. After a subsequent career in advertising, corporate communications and executive recruitment, he now does some freelance writing. Website: richardwhitington.com
Richard Butler and Richard Whitington worked together on Gough Whitlam’s staff during Whitlam’s final term as Leader of the Opposition: the two years between the 1975 dismissal and election defeat, and his retirement as Leader of the party, following the 1977 election loss.