Swans Commentary » swans.com June 30, 2008  



Sharp Reflection Warranted
Nonviolence in the Service of Imperialism


by Michael Barker





"In the control of scholarship by wealth, it is neither necessary nor desirable that professors hold a certain orientation because they receive a grant. The important thing is that they receive the grant because they hold the orientation." (David Horowitz, 1969)


(Swans - June 30, 2008)   On June 27, 2008, Professor Stephen Zunes penned a commentary piece for Foreign Policy In Focus, a US-based group that describes itself as a "Think Tank Without Walls" which seeks to "make the United States a more responsible global partner." The title of Zunes's article was "Sharp Attack Unwarranted," and within this article he outlined why he considered recent criticisms of Gene Sharp's Albert Einstein Institution (emanating from progressive media outlets) to be baseless. Having personally debated Zunes about his uncritical support of the related activities of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict -- within the online pages of the Australian-based Green Left Weekly -- I was not surprised by his most recent defense of the Albert Einstein Institution.

To summarize Zunes's basic argument: he suggests that progressives challenging US foreign policy -- which he falsely equates to President Bush's foreign policy, not imperialism more generally -- have failed to "distinguish between the very real manifestations of US imperialism and conspiratorial fantasies." These apparent fantasies are, however, based in reality, and in my mind have in large part been fueled by the Albert Einstein Institutions long history of obtaining funding from key parts of the US power elite. This is something that Zunes alludes to within his article, as he notes how (many years ago) the Albert Einstein Institution "received a couple of small grants from the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) to translate some of Gene Sharp's theoretical writings." This information is no secret (for example, see their online annual reports), but nevertheless in December 2007, the Albert Einstein Institution's executive director, Jamila Raqib, wrote that: "The allegation of funding and support for the Albert Einstein Institution from... any... government body, is categorically false." Something is clearly amiss here.

The problem of elite manipulation of ostensibly progressive groups is not a new problem. However, the overemphasis in Leftist literature on aggressive aspects of imperialism (waged through both overt and covert military, economic, and diplomatic domination) has unfortunately meant that little attention has been paid to the equally important "friendly face" of imperialism that is waged by democracy-manipulating groups like the NED, and liberal foundations (e.g., the Ford Foundation and the Gates Foundation). Thus, when combined with the near total media blackout of critical analyses of elite funding of progressive groups (via liberal foundations), it is little wonder that there is minimal discussion of this phenomenon. This is not to say that there have not been a number of excellent critiques of the hijacking/colonisation of civil society by elites (1) -- although information on the funding practices of liberal elites tends to be ignored in favour of a focus on manipulations by conservative elites. Thankfully this has began to change in recent years, and James Petras's 1999 landmark article, "NGOs: In the Service of Imperialism," has inspired much critical reflection among the Left; while an excellent, although rarely cited book on the subject is Professor Joan Roelofs's Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (State University of New York Press, 2003).

Needless to say, given the Albert Einstein Institution's elite funding ties, it is not surprising that alongside the many progressive people who have worked for the Institution over the past few decades, others have been well connected within elite circles. For example, former directors of the Institution include Joanne Leedom-Ackerman (who is a director of the NED-linked Human Rights Watch and the NED-funded International Center for Journalists, and along with her husband Peter Ackerman funds the work of the "democratic" International Center for Nonviolent Conflict); Stephen Marks (who has served as program officer for international human rights at the Ford Foundation -- a major liberal foundation that has a long history of colluding with the CIA); Hazel McFerson (who is a director of the US Agency for International Development-funded group, Pact); and Thomas Schelling (who is a famous economist from the imperial think tank, the Rand Corporation). Likewise the late Connie Grice who served as the Albert Einstein Institution's executive director from 1986 to 1988 was married to William Spencer, a person who was instrumental in guiding the creation of the NED's sister organisation, the US Institute of Peace.

Despite such clear elite connections, Zunes argues that the work of the Albert Einstein Institution is unaffected by elite geostrategic interests. In fact, Zunes notes that the Albert Einstein Institution's "consulting policy explicitly prohibits them from taking part in any political action, participating in strategic decision-making with any group, or taking sides in any conflict." Thus to determine whether there is any truth in the allegations that the Institution is working in the service of imperialism, here is it useful to turn to the Albert Einstein Institution's document, "Report on Activities 2000-2004," which provides a historical overview of their global activities.

The Albert Einstein Institution report points out that they have "conducted consultations with groups in more than 20 countries" around the world; and countries specifically listed in the Consultations section of this report are Serbia, Venezuela, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Tibet, the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), Burma, Iran, and Iraq. (2) Thus given the evident importance the Institution has attached to supporting civil disobedience in these countries this article will briefly compare and contrast the Institution's work in the first five countries mentioned in their report with the work of the key democracy manipulating organization the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). (Click on the following links for further details of the NED's activities in Burma, Iran, and Iraq.)

In Serbia, in March-April 2000, the Albert Einstein Institution's president, Colonel Robert Helvey, ran a workshop in Budapest, Hungary, that was funded by the International Republican Institute (one of the NED's core grantees) for members of the US-funded opposition group Otpor. Additionally, the Albert Einstein Institution observes that in 1999 a Serbian nongovernmental organization called Civic Initiatives "coordinated the publication of a Serbian edition of AEI's booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy." This is particularly significant because from 1997 until 2001, Civic Initiatives served as one of the major project partners of the NED-funded Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe's Civic Bridges program. Moreover, as I noted elsewhere, the international democracy-manipulating community were heavily active in Serbia throughout the 1990s (and beyond), and:

"In 2000, the US government provided approximately US$40 million to 'promote democracy' in Serbia and 'US-funded consultants played a crucial role behind the scenes in virtually every facet of the anti-Milosevic drive.' US$40 million is a significant amount of money, especially if you consider that the Serbian population is less than fifty million, which means it is equivalent to giving more than US$200 million in foreign aid to US social movements to "promote democracy" domestically. Such an amount of aid would no doubt have also enabled opposition groups in the United States to successfully challenge the results of an election (for example, the 'stolen 2000 election')."

Moving to the next country, Venezuela, the Albert Einstein Institution notes that since Hugo Chávez was elected president of Venezuela in 1998, his "regime has become increasingly authoritarian," a verdict that stands at odds with nearly all progressive commentators, but not with the corporate media or the US government. So contrary to most progressive writers, the Institution observes that since December 2001 "Chávez's popularity began to wane" and they point that in order to retain his hold on power his "government responded with violent repression against... protesters." Consequently Gene Sharp and other Albert Einstein Institution staff have met with citizens opposed to Chávez's democratic presidency to "talk about the deteriorating political situation in their country," and these talks led to the Institution organizing a nine day in-country consultation in April 2003 in order to -- with no irony evidently intended -- "restore democracy to Venezuela." Given the close links that exist between the work of the Albert Einstein Institution and the NED, it is fitting that the NED provided aid to Súmate, the key "nongovernmental" organization that coordinated the unsuccessful coup against President Chávez in 2002.

Belarus is another country in which the U.S. is attempting to manipulate via proxy "nongovernmental" cohorts. Keeping in line with the US administration's thoughts on Belarus, the Albert Einstein Institution writes: "Since 1917, Belarus has been almost completely controlled and operated by the Russian security service... [and] Alyaksandr Lukashenko, the autocratic President of the Republic for the last decade, is himself a former KGB Major," and in late January 2001, Gene Sharp led a workshop in neighbouring Lithuania to help facilitate "democratization in face of a dictatorial regime." Belarus provides an interesting example of a country that has so far resisted the best efforts of the NED-led democracy manipulators, as in 2000 alone, the US government provided opposition groups with US$24 million and according to US officials even more in 2001. In addition to such financial aid, at around the time that Sharp was present in Lithuania, diplomatic aid was also used in an attempt to oust Lukashenko, and the skills and knowledge of the US Ambassador in Belarus, Michael Kozak, were of critical importance in organising the opposition. This is because Ambassador Kozak was an old hand at promoting "democracy," having gained invaluable experience overseeing the "democratic" replacement of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections, while acting as the US Ambassador in Nicaragua (1990 and 1992).

Next up: "In February 2002, [Albert Einstein Institution] consultants... met with Zimbabwean opposition groups" on two occasions, once with leaders of the Movement for Democratic Change, and another time with representatives from other assorted civil society groups. Again, as in Serbia, these consultations were sponsored by the International Republican Institute, and so it is fitting that the NED's British counterpart, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, has been one of the most influential democracy manipulators in Zimbabwe, busy channelling strategic funding to the Movement for Democratic Change. As in the previous cases, the NED has been very active in Zimbabwe manipulating democracy, and in 2006 alone they provided civil society groups with $1 million.

Finally, in 1996, the Albert Einstein Institution began a series on consultations in India with Tibetan democracy activists, and the Institution point out how in 2002 they held a strategic workshop at the invitation of the Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Center. This is significant because this Center was formed in 1991 as a "joint project" of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and Tibet's Parliament in exile. The Friedrich Naumann Foundation is one of Germany's leading democracy-manipulating foundations whose longstanding international success inspired the creation of the NED. It is also important that one member of the Tibetan Parliamentary and Policy Research Center's governing council, Samdhong Rinpoche, also serves on the international advisory council of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), as this group is a regular recipient of NED funding. Furthermore, like many groups that obtain NED aid, the International Campaign for Tibet are not afraid to boast of their "democratic" connections: thus in 2005 they awarded one of their annual Light of Truth awards to the president of the NED, Carl Gershman; while the year before (in 2004), they gave the same award to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

In the light of the dubious geographical overlap evident between the educational activities undertaken by the Albert Einstein Institution, and the democracy-manipulating priorities of the NED it seems fitting that activists committed to replacing imperial plutocracies with participatory democracies begin to critically reflect upon these connections. This is because it appears that in many ways activist education is being cynically utilized by political elites as a powerful tool in the service of imperialism. Of course this does not mean that valuable information cannot be gleaned from the research of government funded activist educators like the Albert Einstein Institution: in fact, much of the Institution's research is very useful to progressive social movements. However, given the pragmatic adoption of civil disobedience by foreign policy elites to facilitate the ouster of "unfriendly" governments, progressive activists must recognize and theorize about the potential limitations of the research undertaken by government-funded groups like the Albert Einstein Institution. For instance, an important question to ask is "are there certain subjects, tactics, or countries that are under-theorized by researchers attached to the Albert Einstein Institution?" Moreover, "how do such groups studies compare to more explicitly political activist researchers like Ward Churchill and Peter Gelderloos?" (3)

As a matter of urgency, progressive activists need to determine whether they want to help legitimize the work of a group that is so closely tied to the interests of capitalist elites. This includes well known writers like Noam Chomsky, who recently signed an online petition that "call[ed] upon people of conscience to reject the false allegations leveled against Gene Sharp, the Albert Einstein Institute and other groups promoting strategic nonviolent action." Indeed, considering the evident connections that exist between the Albert Einstein Institution and the National Endowment for Democracy, it seems sensible that concerned activists should distance themselves from both groups, and facilitate a public debate that thoroughly investigates the problems associated with both groups' activities. Only once such forms of critical reflection becomes the norm within progressive social movements will activists be sure that their work is not being subtly manipulated, abused, or deradicalised by imperial elites.



1.  Older examples include Richard E. Brown, Rockefeller Medicine Men: Medicine and Capitalism in America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979); Ferdinand Lundberg, The Rockefeller Syndrome (Secaucus, N.J.: L. Stuart, 1975)l Ben Whitaker, The Foundations: An Anatomy of Philanthropic Bodies (London: Methuen, 1974).  (back)

2.  Other countries that the Institution has worked with that are mentioned in the same overview report include Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Haiti, Ukraine, and Israel.  (back)

3.  Ward Churchill, Pacifism as Pathology (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 1998); Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State (South End Press, 2007).  (back)


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Internal Resources

The Circle of Deception: Mapping the Human Rights Crowd in the Balkans - Gilles d'Aymery, July 2001.

Activism under the Radar Screen

Patterns which Connect


About the Author

Michael Barker is a doctoral candidate at Griffith University, Australia. His research interests primarily revolve around examining the relations between liberal foundations, the mass media, and progressive social change. He is currently co-editing a book relating to criticisms of liberal foundations with Professor Joan Roelofs and Professor Daniel Faber.



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Published June 30, 2008