Getting Realist: Charles Koch Ramps Up Efforts to Reshape U.S. Foreign Policy

photo: tsuneomp/shutterstock

photo: tsuneomp/shutterstock

As a general rule, the Koch Brothers' higher ed giving aims to advance the pair's free market libertarian views. Conservatives cheer, but left-leaning critics caution that such gifts are often Trojan Horses for more nefarious and self-centered purposes.

Consider a recent $5.76 million grant from the Charles Koch Foundation to Montana State University to expand research on "regulation and policy have on societal well-being, particularly in the areas of regulatory economics."

The Koch industrial empire is heavily regulated. Could the gift be part of a larger plan to weaken the regulatory state for the brothers' collective financial benefit? Perhaps. But it's also true that Charles Koch has embraced these same ideas since he was a young man, long before he found himself duking it out with the EPA. 

At the very least, such libertarian-leaning higher ed gifts provide Koch critics with a clear line of argument. But what happens when the brothers' higher ed priorities actually align with those of its critics?

The Washington Post's Greg Jaffe reported recently that the Charles Koch Foundation is making "major investments" in foreign policy programs at elite American universities, including a $3.7 million grant to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That news comes on the heels of roughly $10 million in similar grants the Charles Koch Foundation has given in recent months to Notre Dame, Tufts University, Catholic University, and the University of California San Diego—with much more on the way.

The grants, according to Jaffe, are part of a "larger effort to broaden the debate about an American foreign policy Koch and others at his foundation argue has become too militaristic, interventionist and expensive." Longtime watchers of Koch philanthropy won't be surprised here; the Cato Institute, which the Kochs helped found in the 1970s, has long made these same arguments.  

An Ever-Evolving Brand

I'll delve a bit deeper into the nuts and bolts of the Charles Koch Foundation's newest spending spree in a moment. But first, I'd like to frame the gifts within the jumbled and ever-evolving Koch philanthropic brand.

On one hand, Charles and David Koch are plutocratic villains straight out of central casting. They preside over a $100 billion conglomerate with 120,000 employees in 60 countries. They're egregious polluters. They donate to extremist politicians. They've recently set aside their animus toward President Trump to enthusiastically push his tax plan. 

And as you read this, they continue to fortify their cross-campus network of like-minded free market thinkers and academics. All that's missing from the picture are top hats and monocles.

And yet.

David Koch is a huge supporter of dance, an anti-cancer crusader, and pledged $100 million for the preservation and renovation of the State Theater of New York at Lincoln Center. In 2014, the Kochs made a gift of $25 million to the United Negro College Fund.  

These gifts, mind you, came before what David Axelrod, the former political adviser to President Barack Obama, dubbed the brothers' "extraordinary exercise in rebranding," an effort that dovetailed with work in the area of criminal justice reform. Here, too, though, it should be noted that the Kochs have real principles: They've long been wary of an expanding criminal justice system because it extends the reach of the state over people's lives. (And, yes, they also want more leniency for white-collar crooks, as critics note.) 

Meanwhile, back in January, the brothers gave the Thurgood Marshall College Fund close to $26 million to support its Center for Advancing Opportunity. And in June, we learned that Charles is quietly backing a new national anti-poverty group, Stand Together.

Many of the brothers' fiercest critics will find a lot to like about these recent developments, and the same can be said for their desire to extract America from unnecessary and costly foreign commitments. After all, it's generally folks on the left side of the political spectrum that argue that hundreds of billions of dollars in endless foreign interventions could be better spent at home.

Which brings me back to Charles' line of thinking.

"This is Not About Politics"

Charles has never been aligned with Republicans on foreign policy. He was against the Vietnam war and more recently "raised doubts" about the wisdom of America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, as mentioned, Cato has long been among the leading voices challenging the globalist security dogma largely embraced by both political parties. 

To that end, according to Jaffe, the grants are "aimed at generating new ideas about how America should use its military power and vast economic influence," and adhere to a "realist school" of foreign policy that is leery of humanitarian interventions, nation building, or other causes that are tangential to American interests.

The gifts will primarily pay for graduate-level and postdoctoral fellowships.

"This is not about politics," said Barry Posen, the director of MIT’s Security Studies program. "This is about policy and training graduate students and scholarship."

Of course, this giving is very much about politics, just like all philanthropy that aims to influence policy (as Barry Posen well knows.) Charles' expanding anti-interventionist grantmaking aims to intellectually bolster a strain of thinking that's lately gained steam on an increasingly populist right and has fans on the left, too. While Trump's crude America First rhetoric isn't very persuasive, the arguments made by realist scholars like Stephen Walt carry more heft. Walt, who's getting in on this new Koch funding, has lately emerged as a leading critic of a national security strategy that has America embroiled in multiple wars, with 200,000 U.S. troops stationed in 177 countries.

Walt's views haven't gained much traction in a capital long dominated by a bipartisan consensus that America must, as JFK put it, "bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty." But there's no question that new opportunities have emerged in our war-weary era to question this orthodoxy, even if Trump himself has largely scrapped his campaign pledge to be the guy who does that. It's a promising moment for new Koch giving on this front. 

An Area Ripe for Impact

The Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG) and the Foundation Center recently found that conflict, national security, and peace garner less than 1 percent of total global philanthropic dollars. But such grantmaking has historically had influence far beyond what such numbers might suggest. 

The study noted that peace and security funders have made an "outsized impact" in a "number of key areas" by engaging with the professional foreign service officers and experienced global experts that play an outsized role in crafting foreign policy. Such high-leverage giving goes back decades, but it's typically been supported by donors who embrace an expansive U.S. role in the world, and that's still largely the case. 

According to PSFG and the Foundation Center, funders in this space have been especially successful in areas like preventing atrocities in several African countries and peacebuilding on the Korean Peninsula and in Colombia.

Now it's fair to say that such funders are going to have some competition. These success areas are precisely the kinds of foreign entanglements that Charles Koch, armed with an impressive Rolodex and billions in the bank, would like the U.S. to avoid.