By Will Banyan (Copyright © 22 September 2021)
“The directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, make up a sort of Presidium for that part of the Establishment that seeks to control our destiny as a nation.”
Richard Rovere, “Notes on the Establishment in America”,
American Scholar (Autumn 1961).
“The leading non-official private organisation, virtually summing up the efforts of capital tycoons in the formulation and implementation of US foreign Policy is undoubtedly the Council on Foreign Relations.”
Richard Ovinnikov, “US Foreign Policy ‘General Staff’”,
International Affairs (Moscow) (November 1979)
Amongst other events in this tumultuous period, is the small matter of the 100th anniversary of the founding of a private American organization that manages to be, in certain quarters, both highly consequential andcontroversial; and yet is quite obscure to the general public. An organization that has long seemed to best embody the so-called “foreign policy establishment”, or what now more commonly described, albeit disparagingly, as “The Blob”1 or the “Deep State” in the United States. That organization is, of the course, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), first established in New York on July 5, 1921, growing out of “The Inquiry”, a group of scholars that had been gathered together to advise US President Woodrow Wilson at the Paris Peace Conference in the aftermath of the First World War.
For the CFR the centennial is a major milestone that warrants both high-level acknowledgement and celebration (see Figure 1). In its news release about its centennial, the Council describes itself as “the country’s most prestigious organization devoted to international relations and foreign policy”, and modestly claims to have maintained “unparalleled influence and relevance throughout the years.” This triumphal theme is repeated in The Council on Foreign Relations: A Short History (2021), the CFR’s official centennial history, written by George Gavrilis, a former CFR fellow, academic, and currently an “independent consultant”. According to Gavrilis’ glowing account:
On its one hundredth anniversary, the Council has much to celebrate. What began as a small membership organization created around a male, white elite of foreign policy practitioners, business titans, and academics has evolved into a twenty-first-century institution that is more than the sum of its parts. More than a membership organization, think tank, publisher, and public educator, the Council is, above all, an institution that represents American talent and nonpartisan ingenuity in addressing the toughest foreign policy dilemmas facing the United States and other countries (The CFR, p.177).
Additional adulation has come from the usual suspects. The David Rockefeller Fund, founded by its late namesake in 1989 (who was also a CFR member from 1941 and Chairman of its Board from 1970 through to 1985, and eulogized by the CFR leadership in 2017 as a “pillar of the institution for more than half a century”), for example, congratulated the CFR for its “100 years of nonpartisan contributions to U.S. foreign and security policy.” The Council, the Fund noted, had been “one of David Rockefeller’s great commitments in life.” At a recent Council event, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi offered his “warm congratulations” and credited the CFR for having made “important contributions to China-U.S. relations.” The centennial was an “impressive milestone”, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a Council audience earlier this year. Supposedly reformed neo-conservative pundit and resident CFR senior fellow Max Boot also had some kind words:
Taking the opposite view to this chorus of exaltation, is William F. Jasper, Senior Editor of the John Birch Society’s (JBS) weekly magazine, The New American. Jasper maintains that the centennial is hardly cause for celebration as the CFR is, in fact:
[T]he public face, the brain trust, and the central nervous system of what critics refer to as the Deep State — the unelected “permanent government” that has hijacked our country (The New American, Jun. 7, 2021, p.11).
According to Jasper, the Council’s hundred-year history, is a “sordid record of treachery, treason, subversion, and betrayal.” Contrary to its benevolent front, the CFR has actually been engaged in a “century-long war against national sovereignty” as part of an “unremitting effort to build an all-powerful world government, which CFR globalists have frequently referred to as their ‘New World Order’” (ibid, p.12). Jasper accuses the CFR of being the “primary moving force behind virtually every destructive policy that has been undermining America on all fronts, while simultaneously aiding our enemies.” The CFR, he asserts, are the “main promoters of, and cheerleaders for” the following policies:
open borders, unsustainable spending and taxing, foreign aid, LGBTQ “diversity,” racial polarization and discord, election thievery, gun confiscation, feminization and politicization of our military, fanatical environmentalism, global-warming hysteria, COVID panic and medical dictatorship, Trump Derangement Syndrome, Fake News, Big Tech censorship, oppressive regulation, trade policies that are outsourcing our industry and technology, communistic cancel culture, federal usurpation of state and local authority, indoctrination of our children and youth in immorality and Marxist ideology — and much, much more.
For some keen critics and observers of what is now more commonly known as the “Deep State”, it might be tempting to posit Jasper’s incendiary critique as a useful corrective to the CFR’s excessive self-congratulation. But Jasper’s account, which conforms with the JBS caricature of the Council as a sinister cabal devoted to “world government”, largely misses its target in favour of lazy fantasizing about the CFR as a key driver of US domestic politics, including anti-Trumpism and the malaise of “wokeness”.
And yet this conspiratorial account of the CFR’s power and influence does contain some elements of truth. While not quite the demonic globalist coterie that some may imagine, the CFR is also hardly the humble educational, think-tank it claims to be, but a private, exclusive, well-connected, unaccountable institution that has long played a critical role in shaping and influencing the direction and execution of US foreign policy since the 1920s. Moreover, contrary to its claims of being both “non-partisan” and not beholden any particular views, the CFR that was founded by internationalists has been both a key driver of a bipartisan consensus in favor of US global leadership, whilst effectively excluding isolationists, non-interventionists and left-wing anti-imperialists from its ranks. Moreover, as this article will seek to demonstrate, in its eagerness to celebrate its milestone, the Council has promoted a version of its history that actually fuels the conspiratorial account.
Origins and Mission
The origins of the Council can be traced to a meeting May 1919, at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, between members of the “Inquiry” and their British counterparts at the Paris Peace Conference. At this gathering a proposal was made (as noted in an earlier official CFR history), to form “a permanent Anglo-American Institute for International Affairs, with one branch in London, the other in New York.” 2 The proposer was Lionel Curtis, a member of the British delegation, but also a leading member of the Round Table (a British organization established to advance the cause of imperial federation) and an early advocate of world government.3 Curtis had argued that the future of the settlements reached at the Peace Conference were dependent on public opinion being “right or wrong.” “Right public opinion”, he maintained, “was mainly produced by a small number of people in real contact with the facts who thought out the issues involved.” He considered the combination of officials and specialists who had come to Paris as best suited for the “production of sound public opinion.” The proposed institutes were to achieve this objective by convening groups the right people would develop discussion papers about various international issues that would be of use to government officials.4
Although Curtis’ vision of a joint Anglo-American institute was not to be realized, the US and British participants of the meeting did see value in establishing organizations that were, in essence, partially modelled on the Round Table. In service of its goal of imperial federation, the Round Table had attempted to shape elite opinion by promoting its ideals through its quarterly journal The Round Table, but also through its select membership, many of whom occupied influential positions in academia and the press, or were in government. Despite the ultimate failure of its effort, the Round Table’s model as both a political movement and a think-tank, arguably shaped Curtis’ proposed institutes.
As it was the British delegation returned home to establish the Royal Institute for International Affairs based at Chatham House, but it would take another two years before their US comrades would fulfil their commitment in the form of the Council on Foreign Relations. The result was an institution that was, as per Curtis’ formulation, ostensibly devoted to educating the public about international affairs, but was in practice focused on changing the minds of those in power. Indeed, the founders of the CFR were not just the area specialists of the Inquiry, but also comprised New York financiers, industrialists, lawyers and former senior diplomats. In short, they represented the economic, political, legal and financial elite of the US whose primary focus was on engaging with and influencing the foreign policy-makers in the White House, Congress and the State Department.
Since then, the membership of the CFR has expanded and become more diverse, but its essential objective of shaping and influencing elite opinion around the core goal of advancing US global hegemony, and providing a congenial home for aspiring policy-makers in future administrations has remained intact. The Council, though, has continued to portray itself as a benevolent and stately New York-based think-tank or educational institute, motivated by the highest ideals of serving the public good and working with some of the most talented and experienced people with foreign policy expertise in the US. On its centennial webpage, for example, the CFR modestly describes itself as:
an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution dedicated to informing the public about the foreign policy choices facing the United States and the world [emphasis added]
In its current Mission Statement, the CFR also insists that it “takes no institutional positions on matters of policy”, making it seem like a benign and uncontroversial organisation, perhaps no more effective at influencing foreign policy thinking than a university policy centre. Similar sentiments can be found in the CFR Mission Statement from twenty years ago:
Unelected and Invisible
But, much to the chagrin of its architects and leadership over the past century, the Council has long been seen by certain segments of the US population as a sinister organization rather than benign; as a tool of elite enrichment and empowerment rather than public good; and its claims to non-partisanship little more than a cynical cover for its “real” agenda of “one world government.” As far back as 1933, for example, the CFR was publicly accused by Republican Congressman George Tinkham of “constantly attempting to influence the foreign policy of the United States, contrary to the best interests of the United States” (The Courier-Journal, May 29, 1933). Anglo-American radio personality and syndicated columnist Boake Carter claimed the CFR was involved in a coordinated campaign to promote greater US involvement in “League of Nations internationalism” (Dayton Herald, Mar. 30, 1938). According to Merryle Rukeyser, a syndicated finance journalist, the CFR was a “internationalist propagandist” agency (The Star-Tribune, May 2, 1940).
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the CFR’s allegedly subversive methods and “internationalist” aims were targeted by the Chicago Tribune. Leading the charge was Walter Trohan, the Tribune’s Washington correspondent, who alleged that:
The interlocking mesh of directors of banks, insurance companies, and industrialists into internationalist organizations is woven tight in the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc. of New York City (Chicago Tribune, Sep. 26, 1948).
The Council was actually one out of the “leading dozen ‘British fronts’ and internationalist groups”, according to William Fulton, that were based in New York and devoted to acting “on behalf of his Britannic majesty’s foreign office and almost invariably in line with the American State Department” (Chicago Tribune, Jan. 06, 1951). The Tribune’s editor and publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick, also weighed in to accuse the CFR, along with the Carnegie Foundation, Rockefeller Foundations, and other organizations that had been “activated by men of common financial interests in internationalism”, of “pouring out tax-exempt funds to promote globalism” (Chicago Tribune, Aug. 12, 1951).
The first book-length contribution to this genre was Emanuel Josephson’s Rockefeller “Internationalist” – The Man Who Misrules The World (1952). Josephson described the CFR as the “Foreign Office of that [Rockefeller] Empire, and the Rockefeller-dominated Invisible world government” (p.132), and devoted two chapters to detailing how the Rockefellers had hijacked the Council. In 1925, claimed Josephson, its members were “weighted in favor of internationalism” (p.240), but after the Rockefellers took control of the Council “the character of the membership changed sharply and strangely”:
Communist agents, pro-Communist proteges of the Rockefeller interests, Reds of all complexions, “liberals” and frank, subversive high priests of the Marxist “social sciences”, and New Dealers swelled the membership list, assumed key roles in the Council’s activities and filled its conferences and publications with pro-Communist propaganda and the Party “line” (ibid, p.241).
Josephson was also unpersuaded by claims the Council was merely an institution devoted to the “study and research” of international relations; it was in fact the leading part of a “gigantic lobby and pressure group serving to influence and warp the nation’s policies” (p.242). Indeed, in its annual reports, he noted, the CFR “boasts about its shady lobbying tricks and of its control of the foreign policy of the United States” (p.243).
This narrative of a sinister, globalist and pro-communist CFR received further amplification by the 1954 Special Committee to Investigate Tax-Exempt Foundations, headed by Congressman B. Carroll Reece (known as the Reece Committee) (see Figure 2). The Reece Committee claimed the output of the CFR, funded by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation, was “directed overwhelmingly at promoting the globalism concept” (Reece Committee Report, p.176). The Reece Committee also asserted there could be “no doubt” that CFR (and Carnegie Endowment) personnel were providing most of the thinking and policy direction at the State Department (ibid, p.178).
The findings of the Reece Committee inspired and were cited by a host of conspiracists, many of them affiliated with the John Birch Society, to accuse of CFR of promoting a subversive agenda aimed at dissolving US sovereignty (Figure 3). This included Dan Smoot, who traded on his brief, but less-than illustrious FBI career, to claim in his book The Invisible Government (1962) that:
The Council on Foreign Relations, together with a great number of other associated tax-exempt organizations, constitutes the invisible government which sets the major policies of the federal government; exercises controlling influence on governmental officials who implement the policies; and, through massive and skilful propaganda, influences Congress and the public to support the policies.
According to Smoot, the secret aim of the CFR and its “Invisible Government” partners was to “convert America into a socialist state and then make it a unit in a one-world socialist system.” In their book America’s Unelected Rulers (1962) conservative activists Kent and Phoebe Courtney claimed the Council had “become a super-governing hierarchy, not subject to the control of Congress or the American people.” They accused it of exerting a “Machiavellian influence on the policies of the government of the United States” (p.5).
John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason (1964) identified the CFR as the “force operating to merge the United States into a one-world socialist system” (p.209) and which had “largely controlled the United States government and its foreign policy” since 1945 (p.212).5 Gary Allen and Larry Abraham’s bestselling paperback, None Dare Call It Conspiracy (1971), claimed the “semi-secret” CFR had “unquestionably…become the most influential group in America” (p.83). It “dominated the State Department” and was “active in working toward its final goal of a government over all the world” (p.87).
In their massive tome, Kissinger on the Couch (1975), conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly and former Council member Admiral Chester Ward, alleged that the majority of CFR members “visualise the utopian submergence of the United States as a subsidiary administrative unit of a global government” (p.146). Former Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, in his 1979 memoir With No Apologies, attributed to the CFR the belief that “national boundaries should be obliterated and one-world rule established” (p.128). James Perloff’s The Shadows of Power: The Council on Foreign Relations and the American Decline (1988) described the Council as “the Establishment’s chief link to the U.S. government” (p.5), one that had “exercised [a] decisive impact on U.S. policy, especially foreign policy” (p.7). Perloff claimed the CFR’s sinister agenda involved supporting the “creation of a world government” (p.10) and being “‘soft’ on Communism” (p.12).
Even the Soviet Union’s propagandists focused on the CFR accusing it of directing US foreign policy on behalf of the capitalist class. Senior Soviet diplomat Richard Ovinnikov, writing in the Soviet journal International Affairs (November 1979)6, for example, claimed both the Council’s leadership and broader membership reflected “the complete dominance of people in some way connected to the American financial oligarchy” (pp.64-65). According to Ovinnikov, the CFR was “the main internal testing ground for US foreign policy”, providing a venue for the development of “strategic doctrines that later form the basis of the administration’s foreign policy—regardless of who happens to be in power…” He offered this particularly sinister take on how the CFR drove the policy process:
The CFR is far more than a discussion club, however; it is a businesslike organisation. The results of the discussions, conclusions and proposals are, after further development, handed on for consideration not only of the Council’s heads, but also of the leading officials in the US State Department, the Pentagon, the National Security Council and the CIA. This means a particular idea is approved and set in motion as part of state policy. At the same time, the press organ of the CFR, the journal Foreign Affairs and its sister journal Foreign Policy, published by the Carnegie Fund, begin to advertise sanctioned doctrines to the broad public as being in the “national interests of the USA” (ibid, p.65).
Over the past thirty years, the CFR has remained a fixture in most conspiratorial accounts of the US Establishment, with the Council placed at or near the centre of the plotters behind the looming “New World Order”. For example, in his first foray into “New World Order” theories, British conspiracist David Icke claimed the CFR was a “front organization” for the “Brotherhood”, a secret society he claimed had been manipulating the human race for thousands of years. The Council had “infiltrated its people and policies throughout the United States government” (The Robots Rebellion, pp.12, 39 & 154).7 In a widely distributed essay, written in 1995, researcher William Blase observed:
If one group is effectively in control of national governments and multinational corporations; promotes world government through control of media, foundation grants, and education; and controls and guides the issues of the day; then they control most options available. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), and the financial powers behind it, have done all these things, and promote the “New World Order”, as they have for over seventy years.
The CFR is the promotional arm of the Ruling Elite in the United States of America. Most influential politicians, academics and media personalities are members, and it uses its influence to infiltrate the New World Order into American life. Its’ “experts” write scholarly pieces to be used in decision making, the academics expound on the wisdom of a united world, and the media members disseminate the message.
The CFR is one of the “elite organizations at the heart of the New World Order”, wrote Mark Dice in The New World Order: Facts & Fiction (2010), adding that the Council “usually gets what it wants.” The CFR is the “public face” of the “establishment”, also known as “the Deep State—the shadow government”, writes syndicated columnist Harold Pease; the Council is “the nation’s major proponent of the New World Order.” According to US researcher Joachim Hagopian, writing in Global Research:
[T]he Council on Foreign Relations has been controlling US foreign policy for almost a century, and chief among its most obvious agendas has been building and maintaining US Empire’s global unipolar hegemony and military strength at all cost.
Former John Birch Society CEO Arthur R. Thompson in his recent book-length treatment of this topic, In The Shadows of the Deep State: A Century of Council on Foreign Relations Scheming for World Government (2019), informed readers that the CFR was at the “forefront of implementing” a sinister agenda “by a concerted organized group to bring about socialism, not only in America but around the world.”
The CFR has also been treated critically by many mostly leftist academics, particularly those engaged in Marxist analysis of ruling class power structures in the United States. For example, in his book, Who Rules America? (1967), University of California Professor of Sociology G.William Domhoff characterized the CFR as the “most influential” of the private policy-planning groups operating in the US,8 and he credited its members with being “deeply involved” in the State Department during World War Two (p.71). According to Domhoff, through the CFR “the power elite formulates general guidelines for American foreign policy and provides the personnel to carry out this policy.”9 In Who’s Running America? (1976 edition), Florida State University political scientist Thomas R. Dye, described the CFR as the “most influential policy-planning group in foreign affairs” in the US (p.126). Its accomplishments, he observed, were “dazzling”:
It developed the Kellogg Peace Pact in the 1920s, stiffened US opposition to Japanese Pacific expansion in the 1930s, designed major portions of the United Nations charter, and devised the ‘containment’ policy to halt Soviet expansion in Europe after World War II. It also laid the groundwork for the NATO agreement and devised the Marshall Plan for European recovery (ibid, p.127).
The first most substantial academic study of the CFR was Laurence Shoup and William Minter’s Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations & United States Foreign Policy (1977), which found that:
[T]he Council on Foreign Relations, despite its relative public obscurity, plays a key part in molding United States foreign policy. In the Council, the leading sectors of big business get together with the corporate world’s academic experts to work out a general framework for foreign policy.
Since the Second World War at the latest, the Council has had remarkable success in getting its point of view across to the government, regardless of the administration in office (p.5).
In his more recent book Wall Street’s Think Tank (2015), Shoup described the Council as the “world’s most powerful private organization”; it was “the ultimate networking, socializing, strategic-planning, and consensus forming institution of the U.S. capitalist class.” The CFR was the “most important U.S. and global center of ‘deep politics’ and the ‘deep state’ that rules behind the scenes…”; in fact its members “propose, debate, develop consensus and implement the nation’s key strategic policies” (p.7). And in an article arguing that the Biden Administration was beholden to the “plutocratic capitalist ruling class”, Shoup described the CFR as “the most important U.S. policy think tank, which has helped set grand strategy for the country for one hundred years…” (Monthly Review, May 2021, pp.2, 3).
To be continued in Part Two.
1 The use of the term “the Blob” to describe the foreign policy establishment first emerged in a profile of Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications in Obama’s National Security Council, that appeared in the New York Times Magazine (May 15, 2016). Rhodes was reported to have:
“referred to the American foreign-policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.”
In his post-Obama Administration memoir, The World As It Is (2018), Rhodes tried to clarify his use of the “Blob” as an attempt to “capture that sense of groupthink that always seemed to lead inexorably to more military intervention in the Middle East, to ‘bomb something’” (p.376). Members of the foreign policy establishment did not react kindly to Rhodes’ characterization – he was dismissed for his “supreme arrogance”, for being a “little schmuck”, and was accused of hypocrisy – and they insisted the Establishment “was not a closed cabal”, but was “more open-minded and accountable” than its critics realized, and it had an “impressive” track record (Foreign Affairs, Apr. 29, 2020). But the term has remained in use, a recent article in the New York Times (Sep. 16, 2021), for example, defined “the Blob” as:
“members of the mainstream foreign-policy establishment — government officials, academics, Council on Foreign Relations panelists, television talking heads and the like — who share a collective belief in the obligation of the United States to pursue an aggressive, interventionist policy in the post-9/11 world. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are seen in this context as Blob-approved.”
2 Peter Grose, Continuing the Inquiry: The Council on Foreign Relations from 1921 to 1996, (CFR, 1996, 2006), p.5. Grose’s volume was originally published to mark the CFR’s 75th anniversary.
3 Curtis had first articulated his support for a “world government” or a “Government speaking and acting in the name of mankind” at the end of the war in the Round Table’s journal (see “The Windows of Freedom”, The Round Table, December 2018). This would become a theme of his latter works in the inter-war period. In his three-volume Civitas Dei (1935), for example, Curtis had presented the formation of an “international state” and “international commonwealth” as both desirable and historically inevitable. Speaking before the CFR in 1939, Curtis declared he was “certain” that in a thousand years hence the human race would be organized into a “world-commonwealth, with a federal government for the planet as a whole” (quoted in Deborah Lavin, From Empire to Commonwealth: A Biography of Lionel Curtis, p.283).
4 Quotations in M.L. Dockrill, “Historical Note: The Foreign Office and the ‘Proposed Institute of International Affairs 1919’”, International Affairs, Autumn 1980, pp.665-666. International Affairs is the journal of Chatham House. Dockrill’s account mainly focuses on response of the British Foreign Office to Curtis’ proposal, noting that some senior government officials objected to the idea of their officials engaging with journalists and other “busy-bodies” in the proposed institute (ibid, pp.669-670).
5 The influence of Smoot’s book, among others, can be seen in the letters written to local papers across the US in the 1960s decrying the CFR’s influence. One particularly interesting example is a letter published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Apr. 02, 1964) from Stanley Montieth, the future founder and host of Radio Liberty and author of Brotherhood of Darkness (2000). According to Montieth’s earnest missive, the “purpose” of the CFR “is the establishment of a one world government.” He maintained that the Council, was “so powerful” it had been able to “conceal its very existence from the American public”, and also guide America’s “domestic and foreign policies” through its control of both the Democrats and Republicans.
6 Some readers might note the now defunct Soviet periodical (now renamed International Affairs: A Russian Journal of World Politics, Diplomacy and International Relations and published by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) shares the same title as the journal published by Chatham House. The content of the two competing issues of International Affairs was and remains quite different though.
7 Icke has recycled this language in most of his books since then. In the 741-page Everything You Need To Know But Have Never Been Told (2017), for example, Icke reproduced it with some minor modifications: “The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)…was established by the El-ite Rockefeller family. CFR manipulators and members have driven much of US foreign policy since it was formed in New York in 1921” (p.203). The “El-ite”, Icke informs the reader, are the “Archontic Reptilian network within global society that appears to be human, but isn’t” (p.193).
8 Domhoff’s comments were in reference to the claims made by Dan Smoot in The Invisible Government in regards to the Foreign Policy Association, the Business Advisory Council, the Committee for Economic Development, and the National Advertising Council. Domhoff disagreed with Smoot’s theories about the CFR’s motives, but agreed that the Council was both influential and tied to the “corporate elite”.
9 Quoted in J. Anthony Lukas, “The Council on Foreign Relations—Is It a Club? Seminar? Presidium? Invisible Government?”, New York Times, Nov. 21, 1971.