My weekly column for the Guardian appears today:
The ABC TV Lateline interview with Kurt Campbell, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, was cordial, even reverential. It was conducted in the middle of March this year, more than a month after Campbell had left the state department.
Interviewer Emma Alberici asked Campbell about the transformation of Burma and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. He gushed that it was remarkable, and gave some folksy anecdotes about a “better future” for the Burmese. The interview then swiftly moved on to focus on the prospects of Hillary Clinton running for president in 2016. There were no questions about Campbell’s push for greater ties with the Indonesian military despite its shocking record of abuse in West Papua.
There were also no questions about Campbell’s Washington and Singapore-based investment organisation, the Asia Group, and its efforts to win lucrative contracts across the Asia-Pacific region. After all, his company had been launched before this interview took place and surely warranted some questions about the appropriateness of setting up a company so soon after leaving government.
It might be considered an example of the unwillingness of the mainstream media to challenge potential conflicts of interest when it comes to the murky melding of business and politics. With the announcement in August by the Lowy Institute that Campbell was its 2013 distinguished international fellow, it’s vital to question the ways in which our media has drunk the thinktank kool-aid.
The Lowy Institute sees itself as Australia’s leading foreign affairs thinktank. Its fellows and staff routinely appear in the media pontificating about global affairs, including a push for greater defence spending that would allow countless contractors to earn billions of dollars. Its head Michael Fullilove, who’s also a non-resident senior fellow in foreign affairs at the Brookings Institution, writes longingly about former US national security advisor Henry Kissinger as a “realist”, despite there being questions over Kissinger’s record of foreign policy. Kissinger endorsed Fullilove’s recent book, a love letter to Franklin D Roosevelt. Fullilove has also been an outspoken critic of the release of the Wikileaks cables.
When former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard recently announced that she had been made a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, I could find no local news story that explained what the thinktank was. Glenn Greenwald has pithily written that “Brookings is a classic example of that sprawling strain of Washington thinktank culture that exist for little reason other than to serve and justify government power.”
The US-based Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting group investigated the influence of corporate and foundation money on thinktanks and their spokepeople, and urged an examination of their fundings in the areas of climate change, war, arms manufacturing and energy policy. Frustratingly, interviewers rarely get past the bland soundbite from their guests. As an example, the Public Accountability Initiative released a report this month that found a number many of the expert voices calling for military action against Syria in the US were linked to the weapons industry and would financially benefit from a US strike. However, in the vast bulk of media appearances, outlets failed to disclose these business interests.
In Australia, the questions around the independence of thinktanks started with the establishment of Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre in 2006. At its launch dinner, Rupert Murdoch said that “Australians must resist and reject the facile, reflexive, unthinking anti-Americanism that has gripped much of Europe”. The media today laps up its views, despite questions around the Centre Sydney University allowing itself to be funded by politically friendly parties.
The US Studies Centre is supported by a range of corporate interests, including the Dow Chemical Company Foundation, “to support a three-year research program on sustainability.” A key aim of Dow is to push genetically modified foods, and to oppose complete labelling of GM foods in the US. People should take these connections into account when evaluating any US Studies Centre face that appears in our media to talk dispassionately about the environment.
But back to Kurt Campbell. In May 2013, his company the Asia Group was one of the bidders on Yangon International Airport, a $1bn project. In July 2012, Campbell had successfully convinced the Obama administration while he was still in government to lift an investment ban on Burma, allowing US firms to make a fortune in the country.
This led to Foreign Policy’s The Cable wondering whether The Asia Group had some conflict of interest questions to answer, leading company COO Nirav Patel to claim that Campbell’s activities in the country had been “extremely consistent” for years. “This is intrinsically about supporting reform,” he said. “You can’t get to supporting reform without people taking [investment] risks. That’s something we’re very passionate about.” In the end, a Korean consortium, Incheon, won the airport tender.
There are no suggestions of illegal behaviour by Campbell or his company. But questions can be asked over the appropriateness of setting up a consulting firm shortly after leaving government, and then potentially making money from relationships established during his time as a public servant. My many requests for comment from Campbell and the Asia Group went unanswered.
I asked the Lowy Institute a range of questions about Campbell’s possible conflicts of interest. They sent me a statement that ignored these issues:
“Dr Campbell has long been one of the United States’ foremost policymakers on Asia. As assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, he played a leading role on issues such at the US “rebalance” towards Asia, US-China relations, and efforts to promote democratic change in Burma. This fellowship will provide the international policy community in Australia with an opportunity to draw upon Dr Campbell’s experience and insights on the defining political, economic and strategic issues in Asia at a time of great change in the region. It will also be an opportunity to expose Dr Campbell to Australian perspectives on these issues.”
Business and politics rarely mix without controversy; the media needs to be careful not to be seduced by smooth thinktank talkers.