The murder of Jamal Khashoggi has put the spotlight on think tanks and universities receiving funding from the Saudi regime. Under pressure by media reports, a few think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution, the Center for International Studies and the Middle East Institute, have decided to return Saudi money. Top universities such as Harvard, MIT and Georgetown have so far gotten away with their ties to the Saudi regime without confronting much public scrutiny. This makes it clear that most will act only when a questionable source of funding blows up in their faces.
Saudi funding is just the tip of the iceberg. Money from authoritarian governments is flowing into scholarship, not only from the Persian Gulf but also from the likes of China and Turkey. If leading think tanks and universities want to regain their credibility, they need to change course and commit to a “democracy pledge” to accept funding only from democracies.
The work of think tanks and universities is premised on independence, integrity and the search for truth. They are part of the very fabric of liberal democracy and embody the values of open societies. They stand for everything authoritarians despise: open debate, independent judgment, freedom of thought and freedom of speech. If think tanks and universities sell their brands to authoritarians, that has a corrosive effect not just on their own credibility. It also erodes their role as trustworthy pillars of liberal democracy.
It is high time for top universities and think tanks to change course and sign a democracy pledge to accept funding only from fellow democracies (i.e., countries classified as “free” in the Freedom House index). Some think tanks, such as the Hudson Institute and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, already subscribe to such a policy.
Since many of the US's top think tanks continue to heavily rely on foreign money, it is fairly unlikely that any of them will commit to the pledge. That said, there will likely be more pressure and more internal debate within think tanks to do so in the years ahead as think tanks continue to lose credibility due to funding sources.