Philanthropy and the New American Isolationism

GUEST: Peter C. Goldmark, Jr.
VTR: 4/22/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. When today’s guest was last here – urging that American philanthropy focus its now more-limited-than-earlier resources on indispensable rather than just worthwhile subjects – he described the role played by our great foundations as that of “An extra actor that walks on the stage. Nobody authorized it”. And, as he noted: While “That’s an opportunity that can be a cause of arrogance, it should be a cause for modesty and care and humility.”

Peter C. Goldmark, Jr. is the energetic, challenging, even controversial new man on the block in the usually staid world of America’s greatest foundations. He is President of one of the largest, the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation.

Now last time Mr. Goldmark affirmed that whatever their balance sheets, in fact comparatively the power of the great foundations has somewhat been diminished in our times, the influence of even their massive megabucks comparatively smaller as other forces (primarily government) spend increasing millions – even billions – in areas that once were much more private philanthropy’s own precincts.

“The Foundations are smaller in the world”, Mr. Goldmark told us last time, pointing out that actually “There was a time when the Rockefeller Foundation spent more money overseas than the United States government”…to which your dumbfounded host could only reply: “Seriously?”, and he was quite serious, quite emphatically making the further point – as he had in his earlier seminal address celebrating the 150th anniversary of John D. Rockefeller’s birth – that every major foundation should have an important international dimension to its program…devoting a substantial share of its resources to search for a “balanced global development”…”to convert to economic arrangements that close the gap between rich and poor, but which do not destroy the biosphere, and to do it on a global scale”.

Well, Peter Goldmark began our earlier OPEN MIND program by making the generously inclusive statement to me that “you and I probably belong to the first generation of people on the globe who in some sense conceive of themselves as citizens of the planet as a whole, or as members of a global community, rather than primarily as citizens of the West, or of one country”.

But the fact is that a substantial number of our viewers – and by definition for a program like this: they are not unenlightened persons – many wrote to say the equivalent of “never mind the glabaloney…charity begins at home; focus your attention on America’s own problems, not on the world’s…our own are large enough”. And so, I want to begin this program by asking Mr. Goldmark if in the rarer atmosphere of the foundation world these are totally unfamiliar notions. Or does philanthropy, too, reflect a kind of new American isolationism? Mr. Goldmark?

Goldmark: What some people would call the “rarer atmosphere of the foundation” is probably sometimes a bad thing when thinking, and people in foundations are isolated, but it’s also probably sometimes a good thing. And when it’s a good thing it means people in a philanthropy, in a foundation, as is sometimes true in a university, as is sometimes true in a newspaper, are maybe thinking about problems in a way that’s a little bit ahead of the time. And when you’re thinking ahead of your time very often there is someone out there yelling “skip the globaloney”. They did it to Galileo, they did it to Newton, they did it to Columbus when he set sail. The problem, as we talked about when we talked about accountability last time is how do you tell when you’re in the middle of a big plate of globaloney, totally lost, and when are you on to something very important? And what you said…it was a very important thought. You said some people had written into his show and were saying, in so many words, had said, “Let’s stick to the problems closer to home”. Over the history of the human animal, the idea of home has changed. And we’re at one of those thresholds now. Look at what’s happened to the human animal over the past million years or so. Originally “home” was a roving feast for a tribe of hunter-gatherers. That went on for quite a long while. All these people know was maybe their group of nine to 30 people and maybe one or two other groups that they ran into, but more likely studiously avoided. And then something you and I call “agriculture” was invented. That’s really new, that was ten or twelve thousand years ago…many of the people listening to us think agriculture is old – that’s the farm, that’s where their grandfather worked. That’s new. Less than a blink in the course of history – ten to twelve thousand years ago and suddenly home was a farming community. And then it became a city, and gradually it became, as we move up closer to modern times, it became a country or a nation. Now the point I was making and the point I believe and the point I will debate each one of your listeners who disagree with – one by one – is that there is a sense in which in addition to all those important units, “home” is now the globe. You and I are taping this show on Earth Day, by a total coincidence of history. It’s the date you and I can make, but it’s Earth Day. Earth Day is being celebrated all over this globe today. The idea that there could be an Earth Day, which seems not unexpected today, would have been quite foreign half a century ago, or a century ago. The generation I talked about, which is the generation you and I belong to and even more, the one following us, in addition to thinking of their city, of their community, of their nation-state thinks also to some degree of the globe as a whole, and they think that way because of what modern communications has done, and they think that way because many of the problems that they know they’ll have to deal with, and many of the threats, the things they‘re afraid of, those things that shape so much of how we human animals react, many of these threats and fears are now global.

Heffner: You are an extraordinarily articulate and thoughtful person. You express these thoughts with, with brilliance and conviction and you are convincing. But I know that there are many thinking, not thoughtless, persons who are beginning to reflect, not to what you have said, but the opposite of what you have said. They might even grant what you’ve said so eloquently, intellectually, but their feelings have to do with the problems that we have and what we have traditionally described as “home”. And the question I’m asking you, and I’m very serious about it…I see here at this table a kind of new isolationism, and whatever it is that you have expressed so well, the question I have in mind is whether our colleagues largely, in the foundation world, are reflecting, adequately in your estimation, that kind of sense of where home is?

Goldmark: I’d say the general answer to that question has to be “no” in this sense. Roughly only 5% of American foundations have any international program at all. Those foundations were created by their founders and are directed in their charters to pay attention either to a neighborhood problem and if more than an neighborhood or a community problem, they are certainly limited, and in many cases by the legal words of the trust that set them up to activities in the United States. That was one of the reasons I argued in the speech which you referred to that because foundations were animals that should look ahead and that should construe problems in the broadest sense, that more foundations should be challenged to add an international dimension to their program. It seems to me there are really probably several strands to what you’re saying. There is, I would argue, a deep strong current of thought in this country that is nearly isolationist, that says Americans should do most of their business at home, and should try and attend to problems at home. And we keep those foreigners and those international problems and those big morasses where all the do-gooders like to wander in, preach and then eventually bubble down underneath the swamp without a, without a trace. Leave all that alone. There is another strain of thought in the philanthropic world that says those problems are so complicated and so diffuse and so difficult that you can’t really make it different. That’s really an instrumental argument. To make a difference, worry about the quality of healthcare in Los Angles, or worry about rural re-development in Arkansas. The third issue of whether a large foundation, which maybe there are…there are ten or 15 that…have really massive resources by philanthropic standards in this country of whether they should have a global or international dimension to the things they do… that seems to me is up for grabs and that’s where I’ve waded in and that’s where I think I will continue to say what I think. Before we went on the air we were talking a little bit about AIDS. As the foundation world has begun to move into the AIDS problem it has been almost totally domestic. But there is an AIDS problem in countries of Africa that is probably, by many objective measures more serious, or certainly as serious as we have here in the United States. There will probably be, in a couple of years, 20, 30, 50 thousand orphans in Uganda, orphans both of whose parents have died of AIDS. If I would argue, and all the problems we think of as the problems of this decade, and let’s take some of the very topical ones, like drugs, which is on everybody’s mind, we’ve mentioned AIDS… The environment, which is on everybody’s minds these months…all of these is the very “stuff” of the problem itself. No matter what the refrain when the idea log sings his last verse, the very “stuff” of these problems flows and ebbs outside our borders and I would argue we all know.

Heffner: You know, when I look back a half-century ago, and I even have to laugh when I say that because who ever dreamed that one would be able to say “when I look back a half-century ago”, to Wendell Wilke’s One World and then to think about Henry Wallace’s “A bottle, a quart of milk a day for every Hottentot”, there was some real anticipation back in the 40s that we were, as a nation, going to make this shift, recognize what you said earlier. It seem to me that we have never…w never made it, we never turned the bend, we never made it our of the assumption that what happens to us is not going to happen some place else in the world or what happens someplace else in the world is not going to impact upon us. And that’s why I asked the question of…of what you considered the instrumentalist approach to philanthropy. I would assume that that is the one that prevails, and that would continue to prevail. You remain hopeful, or at least determined.

Goldmark: Determined. It’s very important to distinguish between what’s true and what’s operational. You have to act according to what you think makes it different. You have to act according to an operating assumption. You may not know until much, much later whether you were right or wrong. Most of the great leaps of faith have been made that way. Let me go back to what you just said about how we looked at the world in the forties and the years after World War II when the United States had 40% of the worlds’ GNP, and by far its highest standard of living, the only major industrialized economy that wasn’t ravaged by war, and let me contrast for you…little bit in form of a caricature, a difference in mindset that I think is happening; that underlies why I think the issue you and I are discussing is almost moot, that we are in a global arena. I absorbed by osmosis from the generation before me the McCloys, the Atchisons, the people who were the architects of the world after World War II, a picture of the world where the unstated paradigm was the whole world was trying to be like the United States. They were trying to be as democratic, as rich, as industrialized, and as free. We were the model. We were the most of these things and the others were strung out behind us…France was somewhere third or fourth, Great Britain was probably second, and you could sort of see Pakistan and Ecuador elbowing each other to see who would be 17th and who would be 18th, as they followed the Pied Piper. That was our paradigm. The whole world was going to try to be like us.
We had the best mix. Whether we helped them a lot or a little was a minor subset of that unstated paradigm. Whether we chose to exercise that leadership by being isolationist as an end turned inwards on ourselves, or whether we chose to exercise that by being generous and sending technical assistance and aid and overseas consultants and university professors from Nebraska to teach the people in Ghana how to grow corn, that was a debate, but the paradigm was unquestionable. Now what paradigm are we groping to, we’re not quite there, but ten years from today the issues you and I just debated will not be debated on this show because the new paradigm, which is emerging, and which you and I instinctively know is true, is that not only can the world not be like us and work, we can’t be like us if the world is going to work. And Both those assumptions are totally different from the first paradigm, and as we grope towards that world…the world can’t consume as much energy as we do per capita, we can’t generate as much waste, you can’t have as many weapons, you can’t throw as many things away, you can’t consume as many drugs, and we can’t do those things ad infinitum. So the path we thought we were on for three to four decades after World War II and that unstated paradigm are dead. And the new one is…you take it apart and look at what it consists of…it is global, not national.

Heffner: But if you take the new paradigm it is focused, it seems to me, on fear. Fear is the spur.

Goldmark: Quite right.

Heffner: We are not what we used to be. We can never again be what we used to be, and I’ll be darned if I can see, coming out of fear, a kind of constructive approach to the problems that you have been discussing. What I see is the drawing back into ourselves. Fearful people do that. They don’t venture out.

Goldmark: Could go either way, would be my guess. We’re doing the worst thing of all now. We’re speculating about what’s going to happen when we’re living at a moment of discontinuity, probably poised between two generations of history and of thinking about the world. But I’m, you know, this is a TV show and we’re, we’re here talking off the top of our heads. I think it could go either way. Could very well imagine the world when the United States lost some of its confidence, turned inwards upon itself, became less important, less effective, less competitive, and less vibrant, intellectually and less generous in its ethical ideas. One could also see, out of the pressure of competition and out of “fear”, your word; you could see rallying to meet the problems. This is a very resilient and strong and pluralistic and energetic country that is capable of amazing things. This is a country…we talked about this last time…this is a country that conceived and proposed a Marshall Plan, an act of scope and generosity and…brilliant not only in that respect, but effective in its execution. Probably unparalleled in, in modern history. Now, which way will we go…I don’t know, you can almost feel both hanging in the balance. I could easily flip the argument…you could argue to me that there is hope and that we’ll probably take the high road, and I could make devastating arguments that we won’t – that we’ll respond to the fear by pulling back and becoming more selfish. That, that will be one of the great adventures of the next four or five years to live through that and foundations should aim for the highest and the best in that debate. That’s our job.

Heffner: If you had to make a bet, you know, an act of faith, what would it be? That the foundations will or will not? Now, that’s putting you on the spot, that’s precisely what I mean to do.

Goldmark: Will or will not become more global…

Heffner: Yes.

Goldmark: …in their orientation and their activities? I bet they will.

Heffner: Not just wishful thinking?

Goldmark: You asked me to bet. I bet they will.

Heffner: Okay.

Goldmark: Now if I’m right, I ought to be able to see the first signs of that in 18 to 24 months. We’ll be able to sit here and say, “If we ought to talk about some foundations and what they’re doing, we ought to be able to say, ‘well, this one, which had a very small international involvement, took this small step since I was here last. This one, which had nothing, is exploring with a cooperative effort in international’” I mean, if I’m right, you know, if I’m going to be…if my bet is going to be right within four or five years, the first steps ought to be visible within 18 months to two years.

Heffner: Peter…

Goldmark: I went further out on the limb than you invited me to.

Heffner: yeah, I…Peter…it never occurred to me, of course, because I just throw out these questions, and then wait for the answer to come in…it never occurred to me. What you’re saying now is so true, that we’ll really be able to see which way they’re…

Goldmark: Won’t see the final version, but you’ll see early footprints on one road or the other. And you’ll see if any pulled back.

Heffner: You know, we talked as you said, largely about accountability last time, or we focused on accountability…that still has to come into “the act” at this point, not just in terms of whether the foundations will step ahead of the level of isolationism, if I may call it that, or neo-isolationism…it’s “neo” everything these days. But when I was reading your report, the foundation report for last year, again, on the question of accountability…and I do need you, your input beyond what you have written here. You were writing about China, and you, you dealt forthrightly with the question of Tiananmen Square, what happened there, and what, what position the Foundation would take because after all, the president is under attack now for not doing enough by way of saying to the Chinese, “We’ll have nothing to do with you unless you do…function the way we think you should function”, unless you make redress, in a sense. You said, “We decided not to withdraw from programs we were supporting in China following the events of last June. But our first representatives to visit that country after those events conveyed in public settings our deep unhappiness a the events of June and the repression that has followed, and stated our insistence that joint projects could command support and promise success only in an atmosphere of free inquiry”. Now, on this matter of foundations doing what governments don’t do, or what your foundation does that our government will not do, where and when do you draw the line? What are you waiting for? Have you seen signs of a resurgence of free inquiry that enable you to stay where you are and continue your projects, your joint projects in China?

Goldmark: What we’ve seen so far are two things. Number one, we have seen in the projects we’re involved in an absence of any closing off of freedom of inquiry or room for the scholars and managers who are involved in it to do what ought to be done to make those programs work well. We’ve seen no attempts at thought-control, or at people being mysteriously arrested and removed from the projects…to choose an extreme example. So in the projects we’re involved in, we have not seen that. That would be…I don’t want to be general until you face the event, but that would certainly be a cause for considering action far more serious and far…of a far more retreating nature than any we’ve taken so far. The other thing we’ve seen is a reaching out on new issues, and a new set of issues on which there’s been some reaching out between the Chinese and the Rockefeller Foundation is the issue of the environment, interestingly enough. Now there are dangers here. There are those thoughtful observers of the scene who say the Chinese as a matter of international strategy may try and trade in their old credibility in human rights for a new credibility on the environment, so that they have some currency of international discourse. That will make it very difficult for us, since, as you know, we intend to be active in the issues of the international environment. We decided to speak our mind in China. We know that would incur displeasure, the very annual report, the very passage from which you are reading…we have been told indirectly has been the source of displeasure from Chinese officials who have heard of it and read it. Our decision was we have to say what we think. We have to uphold the values we consider most important and challenge the Chinese with them. But if we stick to those values and we articulate them, we’re going to make it their burden, if at all possible, to decide whether they want us there or whether they’re going to throw us out.

Heffner: Well, of course, it does bring us back to that same question we discussed last time…do you run the State Department? Does the Rockefeller State Department function this way, or do you have some responsibility to what public policy is?

Goldmark: Ah, Mr. Heffner, I did my homework before this show, too. I went back and watched the tape you sent me of the last show, and one of the things that struck me was you’re…the way in which you open a show and talked about the self-proclaimed authorities on this and that, and I didn’t challenge that in that show…I thought you were right. I still think you’re right. The foundation is a self-proclaimed decision-maker, or carrier of certain banners, and that’s behind that whole issue of who are you accountable to? We talked about accountability last time…the more I thought about it, the more I thought that wasn’t something to be embarrassed about, although people often try and put us on the defensive about it. One of the great things about American society is that there are all sorts of self-proclaimers. What about the editorial page in your daily newspaper? Who appointed the person who wrote that to preach to you and me?

Heffner: But…it’s not tax exempt.

Goldmark: No, but some of the…my next category is, which is the fellow who gets up at that pulpit every Sunday and preaches at you. That’s tax exempt. And some of the artists who are communicating to you, in fact a lot of them, by act, by music, by painting, on the stage, a lot of them are functioning in tax-exempt opportunities. Now the fellow on the editorial page is First Amendment protected. I might rather have that protection than the tax-exemption. The Foundation is tax-exempt. Church and state are separated by the very act that created our country. So each of the self-proclaimers has his curious contract with society. The foundation’s contract is among the most fragile. It probably has to be re-thought and re-forged by every generation, and that may yet happen in, in the generation of which I’m a member in philanthropy. But it is one of the wealths and the sources of strength in American society to have these essentially independent sets of institutions and the only way they can be silenced or effectively driven into the ground is through the power of ideas – open competition of ideas and programs.

Heffner: But you see, no one’s talking about silencing those voices. The question is the responsibility…the responsibility of semi-public institutions taking the…I’m getting the signal, we have one minute left…I don’t want to monopolize this because you obviously came loaded for bear on this question. Tell me why, what concerned you as you watched that tape?

Goldmark: What concerned me was at the very essence of this society is that it’s pluralistic and our conception of government is that there should be many forces and centers of energy that are not governmental, that are in the private world, attempting to do things, to improve the situation for the homeless, to worry about the global environment, to perform and conduct a symphony at Lincoln Center. And that that is the proper way to conceive of foundations in this country and that many of these self-proclaimed institutions have a special contract with society and that special contract is usually the condition of their survival.

Heffner: You know it’s interesting…not that I want to have the last word…but that that argument is usually reserved for those who do not have very much power, very much influence…

Goldmark: Foundations have less than anybody thinks. Less than anybody thinks.

Heffner: Obviously we’re going to have to continue this discussion…

Goldmark: (Laughter)

Heffner: …you’re going to have to come back. But I do want to thank you so much for joining me today, Mr. Goldmark, on this program again about foundations, their power, their responsibilities, their opportunities.

Goldmark: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s intriguing guest and his ideas, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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