Rostow Addresses the Role of Money in Politics

Caitlin Gilligan

On Thursday, April 27, Democracy Matters hosted a brown bag featuring Professor Nicholas Rostow who spoke about money in politics. Professor Rostow currently holds the Charles Evans Hughes Visiting Chair of Government and Jurisprudence in the Political Science Department. He has previously served as the Legal Adviser to the National Security Council and as Special Assistant to Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush for National Security Affairs, among other distinguished positions.

Rostow started the discussion by exploring the different ways in which America likes wealth. He noted that one way in which this manifests is that our presidents are always rich. Rostow claimed that Abraham Lincoln being poor is a myth, as he was in fact a very successful lawyer. 

Rostow also discussed other ways money can influence politics, especially through campaign donations. 

“It’s too difficult to construct or limit campaign finance,” Professor Rostow said. He then predicted that in the future money would be just as important as in the past. His solution to the problem is complete transparency. Professor Rostow suggested that the names of all donors to places like the Clinton Foundation and Colgate University should be available. 

“Money is a very important reality,” Rostow said. He then listed examples of money making a difference in the United Nations Security Council, where votes had been bought for large sums of cash. One example Rostow cited was when Japan, Germany, Brazil and India wanted to become permanent members of the Security Council in 2005. When these countries were trying to win other state’s support, many small states’ debts to the UN were mysteriously paid for. 

“The UN has the ethics of the world. Most people have a crux,” Rostow said, indicating that the international organization was not a place above the law. He recognized that there was no internal monitoring system and the diplomats are immune from U.S. criminal charges. 

The conversation then turned away from money towards issues students cared about. Students asked questions about Syria, North Korea, Trump and actions that they can take to decrease the role of money.

Rostow discussed President Trump’s foreign policy, claiming it was difficult to know. He predicted that Vice President Pence was the person everyone should pay attention to, comparing him to a Chief Operations Officer while Trump would be the Chief Executive Officer out playing golf.  

Rostow then discussed North Korea and China’s relationship. He claimed that China is annoyed by the Democratic People’s Republic of China (DPRC). According to Rostow, China lost millions of people in the Korean war and the Vietnam wars combined and isn’t willing to commit to conflict. He also discussed that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has artillery pointed at Seoul in South Korea.

“That’s been the real deterrent for years,” Rostow said of the artillery pointed south across the Demilitarized Zone. “In a war, the United States and allies would win, but South Korea would most likely perish.”

Ultimately, students wanted to know how they could help change the role of money in politics. Rostow encouraged them to be active and reach out to their representatives.

“The main thing is for citizens to be engaged,” Rostow said. “Write your congress critters because they pay attention to mail.” 

Junior Jing Chu appreciated Rostow’s presentation style. 

“He’s a storyteller type of professor,” Chu said.