Conspiracy Philanthropy

Are the big foundations really the agents of American imperialism?

Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power
by Inderjeet Parmar
Columbia University Press, 2012
368 pp., $40

Many Americans have lamented the long, leftward drift of the large philanthropic foundations. While their original benefactors and namesakes may have been fiercely committed to free enterprise, limited government, orthodox religious faith, and similar priorities, with the passage of time and changes in foundation leadership, more statist and secular values often emerge to govern granting priorities.


So it is somewhat jarring, even at times amusing, to read an attack from the opposite direction: that large American foundations have become insidious agents of capitalism and American global domination. Yet that is the main argument of a new book by Inderjeet Parmar, Foundations of the American Century: The Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller Foundations in the Rise of American Power. Parmar is a professor of government in the United Kingdom and author of previous books on the Anglo-American relationship and the role of think tanks in foreign policy.

Parmar’s basic argument in this new book is straightforward: Despite their stated purposes of political neutrality and disinterested philanthropy, the Ford, Carnegie, and Rockefeller foundations have for the past 80 years been engaged in a systematic project to develop elite networks that perpetuate the empire of American power and global business. The “Big Three,” as Parmar calls them, did this originally by creating academic programs in international relations and American studies at Ivy League universities in the 1930s and 1940s, and then in the postwar years by funding think tanks and research programs such as the Council on Foreign Relations that were closely linked to the U.S. State Department, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Council. The Big Three underwrote major economic and political development projects in developing countries judged to be in the American strategic interest—such as Indonesia, Nigeria, and Chile, each of which receive their own chapter.

The book then traces developments from the Cold War up through the present day, by looking at the Big Three’s support for ideas such as democratic peace theory, initiatives such as the Princeton Project on National Security, and institutions such as the German Marshall Fund of the United States (where, in full disclosure, I am a non-resident fellow). The theme that Parmar uses to tie together all of these foundation activities over eight decades is support for elite networks that promote American internationalism, globalization, and thus American dominance in the world.

Parmar has researched extensively in the archives of these foundations, and the book occasionally has some genuine insights. In one sense his basic argument has the ring of truth: these three foundations did indeed work closely with American universities and the federal government to create networks of top leaders and promote America’s growing global involvement during and after World War II, a role that included support for democratic institutions and free markets. Most Americans, indeed most people worldwide, would find this unremarkable, even positive. But in Parmar’s treatment, it is a Very Bad Thing.

He repeatedly in-vokes the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci as his intellectual model. A primary tenet of Gramsci’s thought is the concept of “cultural hegemony,” by which Gramsci believed a coalition of government, academic, and commercial elites come together in a network, create the main ideas defining a society, and together maintain the dominance of the capitalist system over the unenlightened masses. Parmar applies this theory to the work of the Big Three foundations, which he contends maintained power over American society at home, and created “the American Century of imperial hegemony” abroad.

In telling his tale of this foundation conspiracy, Parmar virtually bludgeons his readers with a mind-numbing litany of conferences, associations, study commissions, reports, and individual names, and somehow manages to make them sound boring and sinister at the same time. A typical paragraph will engage in a lengthy recitation of this dense web of connections, and conclude with the dark assertion that all were involved in projecting “American hegemonic power.”

Just a few quotes can summarize much of the flavor of the book. Describing the creation of the Yale Institute of International Studies in the 1930s and selectively referencing the writings of one scholar there, he concludes derisively: “Permanent war on a global scale: here is Yale’s contribution to U.S. grand strategy.” On the Big Three’s granting activities in Africa in the 1960s, he describes American “elitist, racist, and imperial assumptions” toward Africa, and asserts that “U.S. strategic interests wanted an Africa that was dependent, backward, helpless, and devoid of initiative and ideas.” He derides American support for global trade, which he says generates “huge social and economic inequalities within and between nations and has led to impoverishment on a massive scale.” And so on.

This agenda, and his determination to unwind what he is sure is a nefarious conspiracy, sometimes leads Parmar to demonstrate little discernment. For example, in discussing the Ford Foundation’s recent channeling of millions of dollars to the World Social Forum (WSF), an anti-globalization organization, Parmar suggests that support from Ford and other philanthropies for WSF is cynically intended to act “as a brake on WSF’s critique of capitalist globalization.” He then notes that the WSF “is the subject of much criticism,” and as evidence quotes approvingly a scorching attack on the WSF from a group called “Mumbai Resistance.” Not having heard of Mumbai Resistance myself, and curious what made Parmar deem them an authoritative critic, some brief research revealed it to be a ragtag collection of radicals inspired by communist icons (Mao, Lenin, Che Guevara) who gathered in Mumbai in 2004 spouting anti-capitalist agitprop and calling for violent revolution. Much criticism, indeed.

In discussing democratic peace theory—the finding that democratic nations do not go to war against each other—and its embrace by both Democratic and Republican administrations, Parmar observes that it “coincided with the Reagan administration’s aggressive anticommunism, providing an ominous warning about the uses of academic theories by policy makers.” Elsewhere he snidely derides “the dramatic loss of state legitimacy associated with Reaganomics and Thatcherism.”

He does not confine his distaste to Republicans and conservatives, but is equally dismissive—perhaps even more so—of Democrats, whom he sees as just as guilty of the sins of globalization and American empire. Thus he paints the Clinton administration’s foreign policy as imperialistic, and more recent projects led largely by Democrats, such as the Princeton Project on National Security, as mere tools in the box of “the American hegemonic project to reshape the post-9/11 world.”

Taken together, these assumptions point to a fundamental flaw in the entire book. Parmar presents absolutely no evidence that American foreign policy has been harmful to the world, that American power is a retrograde or malevolent force, or that American-led globalization has wrought more damage than brought good to the global economy and billions of human beings. These are all just treated as self-evident truths, or tossed off as assertions that he expects his reader either to already agree with or to embrace on his vouching.

But what if these assumptions are wrong? What if American foreign policy and global leadership have, on balance, been positive goods for the world? What if American leadership against fascism in World War II and against communism in the Cold War actually contributed to the expansion of liberty and prosperity for hundreds of millions of people? What if globalization has, on balance, improved the living standards, life expectancy, and opportunities of hundreds of millions more? Such possibilities are not even entertained by Parmar. But if they are true, then his entire argument collapses.

Sadly, the book’s few merits are further obscured by its ponderous style. Wooden writing, gratuitous jargon, and a thicket of acronyms, commissions, and study groups make for plodding reading. Almost completely absent is any human element—the characters and personalities who developed and implemented these foundation initiatives. Also missing is any narrative of how foundations helped shape the postwar world, and were themselves shaped in turn by the shifting tides of international politics and the domestic convulsions at home in America.

The other dimension missing from the book is any sense of historical and geopolitical context. Parmar treats Big Three efforts to promote American power and combat anti-Americanism as if they occurred in a vacuum—when, in reality, the American rise took place in response to threats from the twin totalitarianisms of the 20th century: fascism and communism. Many American leaders and much of the rest of the world perceived Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as grave threats to American security and the values of liberty, democracy, free enterprise, and human dignity. Perhaps Parmar disagrees, but fairness and accuracy call for acknowledging that these mortal threats motivated much of what Americans, including U.S. foundations, did abroad over the last century.

Parmar also shows little appreciation for either the diversity within the Big Three or the significant evolutions that each has made in recent generations. As just one example, he glosses over how the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s transformed not just mass culture but also American elite society, including its foundations. In the aftermath of the 1960s much foundation giving shifted sharply leftward, a turning point lost in Parmar’s flat and linear history.

After spending his entire book characterizing evil machinations by U.S. foundations and government, Parmar, perhaps feeling some chagrin at the tone and implications of his argument, meekly offers the caveat that “the foundation-state relationship . . . is not a conspiracy” in the sense of being a “criminal enterprise.” I doubt that the boards and staff of the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Ford foundations will find much reassurance in being absolved by Parmar of gangsterism. Moreover, this disclaimer is disingenuous, for the entire thrust of the book argues that there was systematic, deliberate, and deceptive collusion to promote America’s global dominance.

This is not to say that the Big Three foundations are blameless paragons of philanthropic virtue. Critiques of their wrongheadedness can be made on various grounds, including ineffective or ideologically driven projects, inefficient use of resources, and deviation from donor intent. Unfortunately, Parmar manages both to obscure the good that these foundations have accomplished and to miss opportunities to enter fair critiques of their real failings.

At his best, Parmar has performed diligent archival research and managed to document the role that large U.S. foundations played in supporting America’s arrival as a world power. At his worst, Parmar peddles the conspiracist worldview of Julian Assange, Noam Chomsky, and the fringes of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the mixture of good and bad, the latter eclipses the former. Ultimately, this is less a book about American philanthropy than an academic’s jaundiced view of America.

William Inboden is assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a distinguished scholar at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law.

Roundtable Roundup

Get the latest news and analysis from Philanthropy Roundtable. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, the Roundtable Roundup.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.