Think Tanks, Disarmament, and Peace Movements in the U.S.: A view from the Grassroots
August, 2004

by Andrew Lichterman* English language version of an article which appeared in the journal Wissenschaft und Frieden (Science and Peace)
        “Think tank” is a vague term. It encompasses any organization whose main function is public policy research and analysis. Most “think tanks” do such work with the principal aim of directly or indirectly informing or influencing governments. To the extent that these organizations also attempt to inform a broader public, they generally use two broad approaches. One is to provide the public with simplified versions of the materials they produce to influence governments. The other is to employ the modern tools of “public relations”-- the polite term for propaganda– to influence “public opinion” in support of their initiatives.

        Organizations of this kind focus on information that will be useful and forms of analysis that will be persuasive in the government forums where decisions are made. They seldom take into consideration the role that social movements might have in changing the limits of the politically possible. Very few “think tanks” do work to inform and assist social movements that are working for any kind of fundamental social change.

        This general pattern is even more pronounced in the fields of “arms control and disarmament” and “national security,” which are the areas of mainstream professional discourse in the United States that focus on issues of war and peace. Further, in the United States today, there is little left of the “disarmament” element in “arms control and disarmament”-- unless the topic is how to disarm one or another potential adversary. Arms control for the most part is about neither disarmament nor peace. In most countries most of the time, it is about the pursuit of military advantage by other means, the use of treaties and diplomacy to retain one’s own military capabilities to the maximum extent possible while limiting those of others. Most arms control professionals work for governments, or for organizations that explicitly or implicitly see their role as advising the governments of the countries where they are located. In contrast, the pursuit of disarmament and peace requires that people around the world act to bring the violence-prone elites and armed bureaucracies in each of their countries under control. It is likely that this will require very large and determined peace movements that are genuinely internationalist, and that are increasingly interwoven with broader movements for economic justice and ecological balance. Both are essential to removing current and future causes of war.

        Yet in the United States, the distance has grown steadily greater between the people participating in social movements and those who claim to speak for them in centers of power on issues of war and peace, “arms control and “disarmament.” This is partly the result of a broader decline in the level of political mobilization in the United States, visible at every level from local volunteer activity to voter participation. The “new social movements” which gained momentum during the 1960's brought about significant social reforms in the United States, expanding civil rights, putting in place a variety of environmental protections, and placing some limits on U.S. military intervention around the globe. In retrospect, it appears that these movements reached the peak of their influence and had begun to recede by the mid-1980's.

        Many factors contributed to this decline, not the least of which was a vigorous and self-conscious counter-movement from the Right. In addition, over the past two decades, few resources and little systematic thought have gone into the local organizing and institution building that provide the foundation for social change. The preponderance of resources on the “progressive” end of the political spectrum, and even more so on peace and disarmament issues, has been channeled into initiatives aimed at influencing legislation or electoral politics in the near term. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, several large U.S. peace organizations de-emphasized their local and regional activities, scaling down local offices while maintaining and “professionalizing” their Washington, D.C. operations. Change was forced upon them, to be sure, by the end of the Cold War, and with it the fear that motivated many Americans to choose “peace” or “disarmament” as causes to support. In response, the choice most organizations made was to preserve professionalized research and lobbying activities in the centers of power, even when that meant reductions in organizing activities throughout the vast and diverse political landscape that is the United States.

        To a certain degree, these choices were foreordained. The trend towards the “mainstreaming” and professionalization of the peace movement was well on its way during the 1980's. The Nuclear Weapons Freeze was an explicit attempt to “market” nuclear disarmament to Congress and to the public without raising broader questions about militarism and empire. U.S. charitable foundations pushed peace and disarmament organizations further in this direction, providing substantial funding for groups willing to stay within the boundaries of an increasingly professionalized “arms control and disarmament” discourse. Groups which sought to make connections between the vast U.S. military establishment and economic and social injustice either at home or abroad were marginalized. The arms race, both nuclear and conventional, was portrayed for the most part in mainstream discourse as motivated only by the need to “deter” the “Soviet threat.” So when the Soviet Union ceased to exist, for the general public, the “threat” seemed to vanish--despite the fact that thousands of nuclear weapons remained deployed, and despite the fact that the massive U.S. military machine rolled on. Much of the “grassroots” support for mainstream peace and disarmament organizations, predictably, disappeared. Furthermore, because the only reason advanced by most mainstream arms controllers for controlling arms was to manage the dangerous competition with the Soviet Union, they were left with little grounds (besides the unnecessary expense) for criticizing the retention of a “superpower” military by the United States.

        As activity at the local and regional level was allowed to wither, the relationship between expert groups located in the centers of power and grassroots peace and disarmament groups deteriorated. Grassroots groups often find the professionalized, lobbying-focused organizations to be unresponsive to their needs, and uninterested in their perspectives and the insights they can provide about the social and ecological impacts of the military and the arms industry. Professionalized arms control and disarmament groups, faced with a shrinking constituency for disarmament, operate more and more within the narrow range of policy choices and ways of justifying them that appear “credible” in Washington. Their focus has largely shrunk to very limited efforts to prevent one or another of the most extreme manifestations of an out-of-control military industrial complex. They seldom question the prevailing national security narrative and definition of “American Interests,” but instead focus on technical and cost concerns.

        Furthermore, the vast majority of the “think tanks,” lobbying firms, and public relations agencies that inhabit the capitol cities of empire represent concentrated wealth and power. The American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the National Institute for Public Policy, and dozens of other lavishly funded right-wing think tanks and institutes provide a highly visible podium and an institutional home for American militarist idealogues when out of power, and an endless supply of “experts” to support their initiatives when in office. In the rarified world of institutions that are considered sufficiently “reasonable” to be taken seriously in the capitol of the most powerful empire the world has ever known, those who will speak even for moderation in the use of arms are in a distinct minority. Rarely will anyone speak publicly against the project of global military domination in the service of empire. The few who do so are considered outside the boundaries of the “reasonable.”

        In this climate, not only “think tank” intellectuals but the Washington-based professional staffs of most peace and disarmament organizations have asked for less and less, with the rationale that this is the only “practical” strategy available. Whether intended or not, the absence of a broader, more fundamental policy critique implies that U.S. global military dominance is acceptable, but can be achieved more cheaply, effectively, and perhaps with less risk. Unable or unwilling to give voice to an alternative vision of U.S.-- and global-- human security, the “mainstream” arms control and disarmament groups provide little that can be used to inspire and mobilize those most likely to support disarmament, much less a politics that addresses the social, economic, and ecological roots of global conflict.

        The result, from the end of the Cold War to the present, has been a series of compromise “strategies,” none of which have done much for either disarmament or peace. Positions calculated to be “winnable” on issues like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and ballistic missile defenses conceded much at the outset, and proved not to be winnable after all. The CTBT and missile defense were among the main disarmament issues that Washington D.C. arms control and disarmament groups took on in the 90's, yet almost all took positions that failed to challenge the basic legitimacy of the weapons or the real purposes they are intended to serve.

        In the debate over the CTBT and the future of nuclear weapons, most organizations refused to oppose the government’s “Stockpile Stewardship” program, which was sold to Congress and the public as necessary to preserve the “safety and reliability” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the absence of underground tests. In reality, the program proved to be a vehicle for the technological, economic, and ideological re-consolidation of the nuclear weapons establishment, and for the retooling of the nuclear arsenal for new post-Cold War missions. Disarmament groups acquiesced because of a judgment that accepting “Stockpile Stewardship” was politically essential to obtaining ratification of the CTBT. This approach challenged neither the massive modernization of the nuclear weapons complex nor the legitimacy of nuclear weapons. And it was taken immediately after the end of the Cold War, at the most propitious possible time for such a challenge. Those who wanted a deeper debate largely were criticized and marginalized. Today we have no CTBT, the economic and political power of the nuclear weapons establishment has been reinvigorated and consolidated by billions of dollars in annual budgets, and we are drifting inexorably towards the production of nuclear weapons with new capabilities.

        In the case of missile defenses, the mainstream critique had two tracks. The first, and most commonly heard, consisted of technical critique: mid-course defense against strategic ballistic missiles won’t work, costs too much, and can easily be eluded or overwhelmed by any moderately sophisticated adversary. The second track was that missile defenses threatened the stability of “nuclear deterrence,”-- an argument which implicitly endorsed the legitimacy of deterrence. The notion that the sole purpose of missile defense is to protect U.S. land and people against a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack also went largely unchallenged. Few were willing even to mention the actual goal of allowing the U.S. to achieve “escalation dominance” at any level in any war, including those started by the United States. Shorter range missile defenses, intended to protect U.S. forward-deployed military forces and their bases, received little attention at all. In addition, the prevailing focus on whether or not missile defense would “work” facilitated the legislative compromise chosen by the Democratic Party and the administration then in power: no missile defense deployment, but billions of dollars for continued missile defense research. This “pragmatic” approach failed entirely, and today we have no anti-ballistic missile treaty, research proceeding on numerous technologies for multi-layered global anti-missile defenses, and a rapidly expanding new segment of the military-industrial complex which provides the technological and political base for the further militarization, and likely weaponization, of space.

        These dismal outcomes demonstrate another consequence of accepting “arms control” discourse as delineating the limits of acceptable thought and action. Just as that world view has no place for the transformative potential of social movements, it also has no room for systematic thought about the effects of pouring an enormous share of a society’s resources into the institutions which design, manufacture, and deploy weapons. It is no coincidence that as disarmament activity in the United States has grown more professionalized, the amount of research and analysis on the impacts of the sci-tech-military industrial complex, a popular topic of peace movement research and analysis from the 1960's to the 1980's, has diminished. One can find little on the structural effects that a half-century of high-tech militarism has had on the economy and society of the world’s most powerful state.

        On issues like the CTBT and missile defense, an approach that clearly challenged the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, discussed the relationship between nuclear offense, missile defenses, and the role of both missile defenses and nuclear weapons in backing conventional force projection, and that clearly opposed the drive for U.S. global military dominance in the Post-Cold war world, might not have prevailed. But even in losing, it could have done a considerable amount to educate the American people about the real role of the U.S. military and of its most devastating weapons. And it would have provided far better opportunities for inspiring people committed to a more just and peaceful world to work on these issues, bringing them into the movement, strengthening all our organizations and creating a larger active constituency for peace. We would have been building something along the way. As it is, we lost on just about everything, and are left with almost nothing. We are faced with a resurgent nuclear national security state and little in the way of independent local and regional institutions or organizing capacity to start building the peace movement anew.

        Nonetheless, a growing number of influential organizations on the left-liberal end of the U.S. political spectrum are arguing that we should emulate the methods that the Right has used to gain control over most electoral venues in this country. It is suggested that even more money should be put into developing high powered “progressive” think tanks, and into the more concentrated and “effective” advertising and public relations campaigns. Activities of this kind should not be mistaken for organizing, and the belief that they can be used to advance any genuinely progressive and democratic program ignores the profound differences between progressive goals and those of the funders and institutions of Right. A social movement can’t be built with an ad campaign. It requires real engagement–from everyone. It can only be sustained by the skills and commitment of millions of ordinary people. On the most fundamental level, a social movement is not a matter of “selling” any particular message, it is about helping people learn to think for themselves, to work together effectively, and to develop their own institutions to gain and sustain political power over time. Organizing is about sharing skills and building coalitions, starting at the local and regional level, not about manipulating and indoctrinating, or as some advocates of the new top-down watered-down progressivism suggest, developing a more attractive liberal “brand.”

        Furthermore, taking resources out of local and regional organizing and putting them into even more professionalized propaganda activities will merely accelerate the fundamental structural shifts that continue to undermine both social movements and democracy. These shifts include the decline of autonomous, human scale institutions in which ordinary people can have a voice and find mutual support, and the replacement of real discussion with an increasingly sophisticated array of techniques for manipulating human consciousness.

        Finally, the claim that such techniques can significantly improve the chances of even moderate reforms in the areas most progressives value ignores another difference between the progressive and right-wing project. The modern techniques of mass opinion formation are, if nothing else, extremely expensive. The wealthiest organizations and people in this society, with few exceptions, oppose initiatives which would move away from a militarized economy and society, towards a distribution of wealth that is more fair both domestically and globally, towards technologies and forms of social organization that are more ecologically rational, and towards democratic control of the workplace. They will not give money to advance such goals in anything like the amounts they will pour into advocacy of less unions, fewer regulations, “free markets” (but with ample corporate subsidies), more weapons, and more internal security--the latter aimed increasingly at monitoring and suppressing any “progressive” alternative. They don’t want to promote democracy, and in fact fear it. They are content with a pure politics of propaganda because it is best suited to the rule of the many by the few.

        Those truly working for peace in the centers of power and those seeking to mobilize broader social movements need each other. In the face of the concentrated wealth of the defense industries and those served by an aggressive, militarized foreign policy, there can be no progress in the U.S. Congress or any other governmental forum without large and sustained social movements demanding something very different. Those movements need both good information about what the government and the military are doing, and skilled, responsive representatives to carry their message forward within governmental forums. New thinking and new visions, however, cannot be developed by those whose main focus is a narrow Washington world, limited to options and arguments that are persuasive on the floor of Congress today, a context that has been sliding to the right for decades. A new vision will require a very different kind of relationship between the emerging movements that connect peace and disarmament to global economic equity and ecological sustainability, and the “mainstream” world of think tanks and conventionally organized pressure groups who still dominate what “progressive” discussion there is in this country. The surprisingly broad grassroots opposition to the Iraq war, despite the most relentless propaganda campaign in U.S. history, provides hope that this is possible.

Andrew Lichterman is a long-time peace and environmental activist who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay region of California. He can be contacted at