Debates happen all the time at think tanks as scholars debate other scholars both within their own think tank and outside the think tank.
But what happened this week at the Atlantic Council went beyond the norms of think tank debate and spilled out into the open, highlighting simmering tensions within the highly-regarded think tank.
The tensions came to a boiling point after Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows published a piece entitled "Reality Check #4: Focus on interests, not on human rights with Russia," in which they argue that the Biden Administration should focus on more important issues in the US-Russia relationship rather than human rights-related sanctions.
Of course, that is a no-no for most within in the NATO-friendly think thank, whose scholars almost unanimously take a very aggressive stance toward Russia and favor a pile-on of more sanctions. Plus, the think tank gets major funding from a number of foreign governments that have imposed and are continuing to impose more sanctions on Russia.
As a response to Dr. Ashford and Dr. Burrows, 22 Atlantic Council scholars penned a piece, published on the think tank's website, saying that that the article is "premised on a false assumption that human rights and national interests are wholly separate and the US policy toward Russia was and remains driven by human rights concerns principally."
The 22 scholars added that they "disagree" with the article's "arguments and values" and "disassociate" themselves from the report.
It was a breathtaking move of dissent that is rarely seen in the think tank world.
New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter called the situation "really odd." She added: "Think tanks typically differentiate [between] an 'institutional view,' which most of us rarely take, and views of individual experts/programs. Healthy disagreement is normal, but it should manifest in public debate or some internal process, not public disassociation."
Dr. Douglas Ollivant, a Senior Fellow at New America, said he can't recall anything like this happening before at a think tank.
Mr. Daniel Larison, who writes a Substack newsletter, called the incident bizarre. "Atlantic Council published a sensible report on Russia calling for fewer sanctions and focusing on areas where the US and Russia can cooperate. Then almost two dozen people at AC denounce one of their own publications. Bizarre."
Mr. Bill Browder, CEO of Hermitage Capital and head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign, said "if they didn't have American names I would swear they are Russian," referring to Ashford and Burrows.
Mr. Abe Silberstein says that he sympathizes with the views of the letter signers, but "that isn't how you conduct a professional policy debate." He added: "It should go without saying that if your byline is not [on] an article or paper, then you are not responsible for it (hence no need to disassociate)."
Ms. Loren DeJonge Schulman, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), said that "fostering intellectual diversity does not mean people get to engage in unsound attacks on one another with the institutions resources."
Dr. Daniel Drezner has a new piece on three ways of looking at the incident. In it, he notes that some of the 22 signatories of the letter sounded like high school mean girls."
In a move to mitigate the turmoil, Atlantic Council EVP Damon Wilson suggested it is completely normal and healthy. "Atlantic Council is a place where debate over the most critical foreign policy issues is welcomed and encouraged," adding that the think tank's management does not review the 1,000+ papers it publishes annually for content.
Wilson noted that the think tank will host a Russia-related event soon so that competing arguments within the think tank can be heard out in the open.
Update: Politico has published a new piece on the Atlantic Council kerfuffle. Here are some excerpts:
One person who signed the statement told POLITICO that they worried the article was, or might be viewed as, a shoddy work product influenced by a $4.5 million donation over five years to the Atlantic Council from Charles Koch, who advocates for less American intervention abroad.
After Koch gave that money to the Atlantic Council, the money was used to set up the New American Engagement Initiative, which aims to study new ways to address foreign policy issues. Ashford, who was at the Koch-funded libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, started at the Atlantic Council on the NAEI in September and was joined by Chris Preble, another prominent former Cato foreign policy scholar who had started at the think tank a few months before.
It goes on to note that most of the people who signed the statement are affiliated with the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, which has traditionally taken the lead on articles and reports about Russia.
John Herbst, a former US ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan and one of the signatories of the letter, is director of the Eurasia Center.
Besides Ashford and Burrows, those within the NAEI program include: Erica Borghard, Evan Cooper, Aude Darnal, and Chris Preble.
Nonresident Senior Fellow Dylan Myles-Primakoff has penned a piece (also on the Atlantic Council website) attempting to refute the arguments made by Ashford and Burrows.
It appears that the issue of funding has played the largest role in this fiasco, with the Koch-funded people on one side and the EU government-funded people on the other. Sadly, the merits of the debate are tainted by that fact.
What it had led to, at least for the time being, is essentially two separate think tanks within the Atlantic Council that are catering to their respective donors while simultaneously weakening the institution as a whole.