Imperial Brain Trust

The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy

by Lawrence H. Shoup and William Minter

Authors Choice Press, paperback, 2004


The 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.

The origins of the Council on Foreign Relations lie in the reactions of a small number of American "men of affairs" to the First World War. At the Versailles Conference a group of American and British participants began discussing the need for an organization which could engage in the continuous study of international relations.

The conception of the scheme was primarily that of British historian Lionel Curtis, formerly a colonial official in South Africa. 3 For the previous nine years Curtis had been in charge of setting up a network of semisecret organizations in the British Dominions and the United States. 4 These bodies, called the Round Table Groups, were established by Lord Milner, a former British secretary of state for war, and his associates in 1908-1911. "The original purpose of the groups was to seek to federate the English-speaking world along lines laid down by Cecil Rhodes and William T. Stead, and the money for the organizational work came originally from the Rhodes Trust."

Rhodes was an extremely wealthy imperialist whose will to power is illustrated by a statement he once made to a friend: "The world is nearly all parceled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered, and colonized. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that." Rhodes declared that his life ambition was "the furtherance of the British Empire, the bringing of the whole uncivilized world under its rule, the recovery of the United States of America, the making of the Anglo-Saxon race into one Empire." To achieve this grandiose end in 1891 Rhodes proposed the founding of a worldwide organization for the preservation and extension of the British Empire. The original purpose of the Round Table was thus to establish an "organic union" for the entire British Empire with one imperial government, and to try to associate other nations with the empire.

The object of the Council on Foreign Relations is to afford a continuous conference on foreign affairs, bringing together at each meeting international thinkers so that in the course of a year several hundred expert minds in finance, industry, education, statecraft and science will have been brought to bear on international problems.

The [Council on Foreign Relations] was composed almost entirely of 'high-ranking officers of banking, manufacturing, trading and finance companies, together with many lawyers... concerned primarily with the effect that the war and the treaty of peace might have on post-war business."

The Council, dominated by corporate leaders, saw expansion of American trade, investment, and population as the solution to domestic problems. It thought in terms of preservation of the status quo at home, and this involved overseas expansion. As [Isaiah] Bowman put it in 1928, "foreign raw materials, imports, and exports were necessary if we are to avoid crises in our constantly expanding industries." Since the era of cheap land was over and population was increasing, "eastern social and industrial problems cannot be solved in the historical manner by a flow of population to another region."" Thus the United States had to increase its exports, "sell something abroad in greater degree-if not wheat or maize, then steel or copper. "

The Second World War and the subsequent cold war ... marked a move on the part of the United States toward a full-blown imperialism-a largely successful attempt to organize a single, world-spanning political economy with the United States at the center.

Council on Foreign Relations principal goals

To help in the education of American public opinion to understand and support ... the right kind of American foreign policy.

Council on Foreign Relations, 1951 report

In speaking of public enlightenment, it is well to bear in mind that the Council has chosen as its function the enlightenment of the leaders of opinion. These, in turn, each in his own sphere, spread the knowledge gained here in ever-widening circles.

[Council on Foreign Relations] members and leaders had a key role in the tactical decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson was President Roosevelt's senior adviser on atomic questions, and headed the special Interim Committee which President Truman established in late April 1945 to recommend action on the bomb. The eight-man committee was dominated by five Council members, including Stimson, the chairman, who had been active in Council programs for over ten years. 61 One of the five Council men, scientist Karl T. Compton, president of M.I.T., stated at the time that the bomb should be used to "impress the world," giving credence to those who have argued that the bomb was used on Japan primarily to intimidate the Russians, and thereby reinforce the American position of world dominance.

Decisions on the proper postwar political economy for Germany also occupied a key place in United States foreign policy between 1944 and 1946. The choices made by the Council and American officials played a central role in the development of the cold war. The basic question facing the policymakers was whether a moderate or harsh peace should be made with Germany. A corollary to this issue involved a decision as to which nation-Germany or the Soviet Union was the main long-term threat to the United States, and thus which nation should be given preference in allocating resources to rebuild from the extensive devastation both countries suffered during the war.

Two positions on these interrelated questions emerged in the 1944 -1946 period. One was the famous Morgenthau Plan proposed by Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Morgenthau, which envisaged Germany as the main enemy and proposed a harsh peace. Such a settlement involved the creation of a deindustrialized, agrarian Germany incapable of conducting a modern war. The second American position on this question was put forward mainly by Council members and the War and Peace Studies groups. It involved a "moderate" peace for Germany -denazification, destruction of war potential, some reparation, but also the reintegration of Germany into the American-dominated postwar world economy, and the avoidance of measures which might cause political instability or unrest. The Council position implied that Germany was not a long-term threat to the United States and that Germany's economic reconstruction should be given precedence over the needs of the Soviet Union. The conflict with the Soviet Union over reparations and the rebuilding of the German economy was the crucial reason for the break with the Soviets over Germany and the consequent partition of that nation.

[Council on Foreign Relations] goals remain, as always, to influence the government and public opinion in favor of an imperial role for the United States. Since World War II, such a role has involved being the leading counterrevolutionary power, the policeman of the world.

The Council Foreign Relations and the New York financial oligarchy, which it primarily represents, have a leading position in molding United States foreign policy.

Near the end of the Second World War, two of the Council's senior directors wrote that the CFR had "served an increasingly useful function in the period of the twenties and thirties; but it was only on the outbreak of World War II that it was proved to have come of age." They were referring to the Council's successful efforts, through its special War and Peace Studies Project, to plan out a new global order for the postwar world, an order in which the United States would be the dominant power. The War and Peace Studies groups, in collaboration with the American government, worked out an imperialistic conception of the national interest and war aims of the United States. The imperialism involved a conscious attempt to organize and control a global empire. The ultimate success of this attempt made the United States for a time the number one world power, exercising domination over large sections of the world-the American empire.

Leaders of the United States have always declared that the foremost objective of their policies has been the promotion of the country's collective interest-the "national interest." As Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes put it in the 1920s, "foreign policies are not built upon abstractions. They are the result of practical conceptions of national interest." The national interest is rarely an objective fact, however, as is indicated by the truism that in every country it is always redefined after a revolution.

The very idea of "national" interest assumes that everyone's interests are identical, or nearly so, and this is far from

true in a capitalist society. The working class and upper class have very different interests at home and abroad. The working class is most concerned with domestic society and change: redistribution of income and wealth, full employment, worker control of industry, and more egalitarianism generally. The capitalist class, on the other hand, has an interest in preventing basic changes in society, and a desire to maintain the socioeconomic system from which it greatly benefits. Since domestic problems can be solved through foreign expansion, without alteration of the existing domestic system from which the corporate upper class obtains its power and privilege, it has a much greater interest in foreign policy.

The concept of the national interest put forth by the Council on Foreign Relations laid the basis for American war aims in the Second World War. The nation's interest was first of all defined and discussed within an economic framework, focusing on the most basic facts and long-term trends: the type of economic structure existing in the United States, its requirements, and the regions of the world crucial to the satisfaction of these needs. It was therefore inherently a status quo formulation, aimed at preservation rather than change. If one accepts the set of assumptions, values, and goals implied in the Council's sketch of the national interest - a capitalist system with private ownership of the productive property of the society, resulting in inequality in the distribution of wealth and income and attendant class structure - the analysis cannot be refuted. The Council planners had identified the basic needs of such a system, and any discussion o the national interest necessarily had to address itself to these requirements. Since those in power define the national interest as the preservation of the existing set of economic, social, and political relationships and of their own rule, the national interest in a capitalist society is little more than the interest of its upper class. The Council, as a key organization of this class, was in the lead in defining its class interest. One has to transcend its values, assumptions, and goals in order to question its formulation of the national interest.

The American capitalist class, through the Council, had proposed to preserve and extend American capitalism by a policy of empire-building-overseas expansion of United States power. This necessarily meant conflict and possible war ...

For the past several years there has been, within the Council and among ruling-class leaders, a "great debate" over the future of American foreign policy. Two main conceptions have emerged. The first, the "power-realist" or balance-of-power approach, stresses national sovereignty and the traditional concerns of international relations-the balance of power and maintenance of stability and military strength. Secretary of State Kissinger and conservative nationalists generally have been leading exponents of this perspective. Kissinger's policy, central in his term of office, of manipulating the balance of power-especially the United States-Soviet-Chinese triangle-is a classic example of this approach. It attempts to combine the flexibility of a Bismarck within a Metternichian alliance framework, to have the best of both worlds.

The second perspective, liberal internationalism or "transnationalism," is now emerging as dominant within the CFR. It sees the era of the nation-state drawing to a close and transnational forces joining various regions of the world together in political and economic federation. Arguing that the world is becoming increasingly economically and environmentally interdependent, it places primary emphasis on cooperative relations with Western Europe and Japan, as well as certain compromises with the Third World. Trilateral commissioners Zbigniew Brzezinski, George W. Ball, Edwin 0. Reischauer, and, on a practical level, David Rockefeller are a few of the leading exponents of this perspective.

Brzezinski, Ball, and Reischauer have all criticized Kissinger's balance-of-power approach in recent articles or books. Council director Brzezinski is representative of the approach of the Trilateral Commission, which he directs. Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Brzezinski argues that Kissinger has neglected both the Third World and traditional allies in his efforts to achieve détente with the Soviets and Chinese and in relations with the Middle Eastern nations. Summarizing present world trends, Brzezinski states that a "profound transformation" of the present global order is now taking place and nation-states are losing their centrality, although for the present time their role remains crucial.

There is a basic crisis in the present international system because of the challenge of a stronger Western Europe and Japan, and because of an upheaval in economic relations between the rich advanced capitalist nations of the North and the poor Third World nations of the South. Because of these trends, Brzezinski concludes, the old political and economic ) system created by the United States during and after the Second World War is now "severely shaken. "

The emerging Council perspective is thus one of transnationalism. This has been made even more evident in the first publication of the 1980's Project, The Management of Interdependence; A Preliminary View, by Miriam Camps. Camps, a senior research fellow at the Council, wrote the book after heading a CFR study group op the subject, which met for almost two years in l971-1973.

... Central to Camps's book is a vision of a world political economy where power to manage or "steer" the global order is shared by the United States, Western Europe, and Japan. In her conclusion, called "Collective Management.

... Camps argues that no nation today can play the determining role that the United States has played in the past and that therefore collective management on the part of the advanced industrial capitalist powers is required. The "United States, Western Europe, and Japan will in effect share leadership." 41 These three regions, the "Trilateral World," make up the core / of the highly industrialized, rich capitalist nations.

... a global system is the goal, with far-reaching coordination of domestic and foreign policy among the advanced capitalist nations - collective management - and the "steering" of the structure by the Trilateral World-the United States, Western Europe, and Japan." A free-trade perspective is also evident. This, Camps argues, would be "desirable on many grounds. "

Another of the central focuses of the Council [on Foreign Relations] -Trilateral Commission's planning for the future concerns the role of the Third World in the new international economy. Active Council member C. Fred Bergsten, a former National Security Council staff member under Kissinger and presently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has taken the lead in defining the importance of and the "threat" from the Third World. Bergsten chaired a discussion group at the Council during 1972 and 1973 on "American Interests in the Third World," and continued as the discussion leader of a similar Council group during 1974 -1975. Bergsten published his views in the summer of 1973, criticizing the Nixon administration's neglect of the Third World and its treatment of this region of the globe "solely as pawns on the chessboard of global power politics." Bergsten argued that the Third World is currently very important to the United States, Europe, and Japan. The United States "is rapidly joining the rest of the industrialized countries in depending on the Third World for a critical share of its energy supplies and other natural resources." Oil, copper, natural rubber, bauxite, timber, and other Third World raw materials were mentioned as vitally important to the Trilateral World. American investments in the Third World are of "strategic importance" for the United States balance of payments and important for corporate profit levels. The real market value of American investments in the Third World is "at least" $46 billion. The United States, Bergsten concluded, faces a serious threat from the Third World. Supplies could be withheld or the Trilateral World could be forced to compete for scarce resources, dividing the Trilateral World and driving up prices. The Third World, therefore, should be higher on the list of American foreign policy priorities. Trilateral Commission director Brzezinski also said at the commission's spring 1975 meeting in Japan: "The main axis of conflict at most international conferences today is not between the Western world and the Communist world but between the advanced countries and the developing countries. The Third World wants an equal distribution of gains from a world economic system, and its general strategy is to use its control over many raw materials to break the traditional patterns of world trade and thus create a new international economic order.

The Council's present plans for the Third World involve no real changes in the global distribution of wealth and power. The most that can possibly be expected by the Third World from Council blueprints is more access to the markets of the advanced countries, some shift in older industrial technology from the Trilateral World to the Third World, higher raw material prices, a somewhat greater voice in the management of some world economic institutions, and little else. Developing nations are still viewed primarily as sources of raw materials and export markets for the Trilateral World. An international division of labor would be maintained which would give the Third World little chance to develop the manufacturing which produces wealth. The overall aim of Council planning efforts for a new world economy is, thus, to preserve, as much as possible, the existing structure of Western power and predominance. Council plans include, as a prime goal, increasing integration of the world capitalist system, a structure which perpetuates underdevelopment in the Third World ...

There is a large body of evidence ... that the actual result of multinational corporate capitalism in the Third World is poverty and repressive governments.

The real problem, which Council on Foreign Relations leaders in general cannot recognize because of their class interests, is that it is capitalism itself and capitalist institutions like the IMF which perpetuate poverty and underdevelopment.

This study has revealed the roots of United States imperialism in the economic, political, and strategic needs of the dominant sector of the American ruling class, led by the Council on Foreign Relations. Their will to power, a drive for world hegemony, has made the United States the largest imperial power in human history, deploying forces on every continent and controlling the economics and politics of much of the world. The basic reason for these policies has been, as we have shown in our case studies, the need of American capitalism for a world order open and receptive to its expansion. In contrast to the die-hard ultra-right perspective of laissez-faire and nationalistic competition, there is a measure of realism on the part of the Council in accepting irreversible changes, rejecting the extreme anti-communist "roll-back" position, and showing a willingness for détente. But there is an(equally)firm determination to maintain a world in which United States capitalism will feel at home. War in Indochina, the fantastic waste of vast military spending, the encouragement of assassinations of foreign leaders, support of reactionary regimes the world over, bribes and corruption, as well as the domestic repression necessary to maintain imperialism abroad-political trials of dissenters, FBI-CIA harassment of radicals, and wiretaps-are all the result of and testimony to the destructive nature of imperialism.

In the Council on Foreign Relations the leading sector of the upper class has a very useful instrument. There it can get together, and bring in others of its choice recruited from academia and government service, to discuss just what sort of foreign policy it judges to be reasonable. There corporate leaders can set the agenda of issues to be discussed and the terms of debate. Through their media connections and in other ruling class-sponsored organizations they can widen the debate. When Council leaders take up government office, they have the opportunity to implement the ideas of the capitalist class, while keeping in touch with their peers currently not in government office. If it does happen that a policy alternative emerges from some other source that deviates too radically from their assumptions, the weight of ruling-class opinion can be brought to bear to label it foolish and unrealistic, unworthy of serious consideration. It is these men who deem themselves competent to judge what is the "national interest" in foreign relations. If, as invariably happens, their idea of the national interest corresponds with what serves their own interests as a class, then to such men this state of affairs is only natural, and the way things should be.

The Council's War and Peace Studies Project established the framework for a stable capitalist world under United States leadership following World War II. This framework lasted almost a quarter of a century, although the world's self-appointed policeman was unable to enforce complete stability on a troubled world. By the 1970s the postwar system was obviously inadequate, and the opinion leaders of the United States ruling class are ... planning a new global structure, engineering a new consensus which might ensure another quarter century of relative stability, enhancing cooperation among the advanced capitalist powers, and attempting to hold off revolutionary change for yet another generation.

New World Order

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