WASHINGTON — Serious strife has broken out in the halls of power this week, after NATO-cutout organization The Atlantic Council published an opinion piece that was slightly less anti-Russian than usual. Some 22 Atlantic Council staffers revolted against it, claiming that it “missed the mark” and its argument was beneath contempt.
The article, entitled “Reality Check #4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia,” was written by two members of the New American Engagement Initiative, a subdivision of the Atlantic Council paid for and established by controversial libertarian multi-billionaires the Koch Brothers. Its authors, Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows, argue that there is a “tension” between U.S. interests vis a vis Russia and pursuing human rights inside the country. While decrying the treatment of anti-Putin campaigner Alexey Navalny, they maintain that President Joe Biden should seek to build a “less aspirational policy toward Russia” and “minimize the use of sanctions,” at least until new nuclear weapons treaties can be signed with Moscow.
While acknowledging that U.S. intentions are benign, they contend that securing anti-ballistic missile treaties with Russia should be prioritized over “largely symbolic sanctions” over human rights abuses.
Their article elicited a chorus of condemnation and an open revolt from other staffers of what might be the world’s most influential think tank. Twenty-two council employees signed a denunciation of the piece, claiming that it was “premised on a false assumption that human rights and national interests are wholly separate,” and insisting that “U.S. policy toward Russia was and remains driven by human rights concerns.”
A think tank of two minds
Charles Koch and his late brother, David, who traditionally favored more isolationist policies, gave $4.5 million to the Council to set up the New American Engagement Initiative. This stance strongly conflicts with the rest of the Atlantic Council, who have consistently been among the most extreme hawkish voices on Russia and other foreign affairs.
Speaking to Politico, many staffers felt that Koch money was poisoning their pristine organization. “The Koch industry operates as a Trojan horse operation trying to destroy good institutions and they have pretty much the same views as the Russians,” said one employee, adding that they were disappointed their bosses had accepted money from such a questionable source.
The controversy even brought in former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, who commented:
So the people who know anything about Russia disassociate themselves from the Koch-funded, sinecured isolationist shills who do not, and who say the U.S. should not, care about human rights violations in Russia. Follow the money. It’s not a pretty path.”
The Atlantic Council is funded by the U.S. government and multiple Middle Eastern dictatorships; weapons manufacturers Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin; Wall Street banks such as Goldman Sachs; and petrochemical giants like BP and Chevron. It was also given a six-figure donation by Ukrainian energy giant Burisma, which gave Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, a $50,000-per-month spot on its board.
“It closes the eyes on a bipartisan tradition of integrating our values and human interests from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. It’s Cato Institute meets Donald Trump,” one scandalized employee said of the article. Another senior fellow told Politico that it could “undermine the credibility of some of the work that the Atlantic Council is doing on the Russia issue.”
In 1986, the International Court of Justice found the Reagan administration guilty of 15 counts of international terrorism. A U.S. court also convicted senior Reagan official Oliver North of selling weapons to Iran and using the money to fund death squads that rampaged across Central America. Meanwhile, when he left office, President Obama was bombing seven countries simultaneously. Thus, it is not clear what exactly these values are.
Positions with real-world consequences
Founded in 1961 as a NATO offshoot, the Atlantic Council has risen to become the pre-eminent foreign policy think tank. Situated less than 700 yards from the White House, its board of directors is a who’s who of high state officials, including Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell as well as senior military commanders such as Wesley Clark, David Petraeus, H.R. McMaster and James “Mad Dog” Mattis. Also on the board of directors are no fewer than seven former CIA directors. As such, it could be said to represent the collective opinion of the national security state. This is why this incident is not simply a minor tiff, but a disagreement with potentially profound repercussions.
On Russia, the Atlantic Council has been the source of many of the most hawkish and bizarre conspiracy theories that have dominated the news cycle over the past four years. In a series of reports, the Council has gone so far as to claim that virtually every European party challenging the centrist establishment is secretly controlled by Vladimir Putin. From Labour and UKIP in the U.K. to Syriza and Golden Dawn in Greece and PODEMOS and Vox in Spain, all are actually the “Kremlin’s Trojan Horses” in the Council’s estimation.
This has had real-world consequences, with tensions escalating to arguably their most dangerous point in history. In 2020, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — a scientific organization including 13 Nobel laureates — moved its famous Doomsday Clock to just 100 seconds to midnight, meaning they believed that the world is currently in a more perilous situation than at any point in history — even at the height of the Cold War. Aggressive U.S. actions against a nuclear-armed Russia are a principal reason for their estimation, the scientists explain.
The Atlantic Council is also behind much of the most hawkish anti-China sentiment emanating from Washington. Last month, it published an anonymous, 26,000-word report advising that Biden dramatically ramp up military efforts against Beijing, drawing a number of “red lines” around the country. These include Chinese attempts to expand into the South China Sea, a move to take the disputed Senkaku Islands, a cyber attack on the West, or even a North Korean strike on one of its neighbors. If any of these red lines are broken, the U.S. must use the power of its military; otherwise, the Council insists, it would lead to national “humiliation.”
The council also has enormous influence over what the world sees and reads online. In 2018, the organization announced that it was partnering with Facebook to help it decide what the mega-platform’s 2.7 billion users see in their news feeds. A senior council member also holds a directorship position at popular social media website Reddit. The council claims that its digital forensics lab is uniquely placed to be able to distinguish between fake news and genuine information online. Yet much of the most questionable information on foreign affairs is emanating from the Atlantic Council itself.
Good will to power
The entire argument between different factions of the Atlantic Council is premised upon how much the United States’ foreign policy should be based around human rights, rather than its own interests. However, serious analyses of U.S. foreign policy have concluded the opposite: that human rights never come into question. The U.S. supports three-quarters of the world’s dictatorships with military aid, while it attempted to overthrow foreign governments 72 times during the Cold War alone. Professor Lars Schoultz of North Carolina University also found a close correlation between U.S. foreign aid distribution and human rights violations in Latin America. The worse a state treated its citizens, the more money flowed to the country.
Henry Kissinger is a director of the Atlantic Council. In 1969 he ordered the U.S. military to kill “anything that moves” in Southeast Asia, a command that directly led to the deaths of millions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. “It is hard to find a declaration with such clear genocidal intent in the archival record of any state,” remarked political theorist and dissident Noam Chomsky. That an organization boasting Kissinger on the board could be concerned with human rights is highly questionable. Yet so powerful is the ideology of American exceptionalism that any suggestion that the U.S. is not uniquely and fundamentally benevolent all the time is met with a storm of denunciations from Washington insiders. Hence the reaction to the recent Atlantic Council report.
Feature photo | A man waves a Russian national flag with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Sevastopol, Crimea, March 18, 2020. Photo | AP
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.