Vanguard of the ‘Deep State’? The Council on Foreign Relations Centennial & the Future of the New World Order (Part 2)
By Will Banyan (Copyright © 07 October 2021)
“The CFR is the prime organization that today constitutes what has become known as the Swamp or the Deep State”
Arthur R. Thompson, In The Shadows of the Deep State (2019)
“In the wake of World War II, there were few institutions and few publications devoted to international affairs. The Council on Foreign Relations and its quarterly Foreign Affairs were dominant.”
Richard N. Haass, The Reluctant Sheriff: The United States After the Cold War (1997)
Numerous Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) luminaries have had, over the years, some sport mocking conspiratorial views of their organization. Hamilton Fish Armstrong, editor of the CFR’s periodical, Foreign Affairs for nearly fifty years, dismissed as “deranged” Emanuel Josephson’s allegations the Council was a conduit for Communism.1 In the 1970s Council member Zygmunt Nagorski rejected “the tirades” that painted the CFR as “subversive and bent on the destruction of American values…” Far from being a “conspiracy”, he insisted, the Council was actually a “community of intellectual freedom” and a “useful melting pot of policy critiques and policy options…” (National Review, Dec. 9, 1977). In his autobiography David Rockefeller also took issue with such theories:
[t]he quality of its membership, its central location, the excellent staff and facilities, and the tradition of rigorous debate and nonpartisanship—rather than a secret pipeline into the White House and the State Department—are the reasons that the Council on Foreign Relations continues to influence the formulation of American foreign policy (Memoirs, p.408).
The academic critiques have not fared much better. Shoup and Minter’s Imperial Brain Trust, for example, received a brief but withering review in the Council’s journal that suggested its picture of the CFR bore “a striking resemblance to that often painted on the Far Right” and “may seem remote from reality” to Council members (Foreign Affairs, Oct. 1977, p.234).
Such disdain has been carried over into Gavirilis’ book, which briefly reviews how the Council “became a target of conspiracy theorists”, with the CFR variously accused of having a “Bolshevik agenda” or “controlling American foreign policy”, and even being intimately involved in keeping an “alien invasion a secret from the American people” (The CFR, p.123).
But in making these seemingly trite observations, we are faced with a curious contradiction where the Council’s defenders both profess to be mystified by the conspiratorial accusations, whilst simultaneously verifying them. We can see this in the CFR’s publicity material for the centennial and Gavrilis’ official volume where the three key elements of the much-derided conspiratorial account are repeatedly affirmed and celebrated.
The ‘School for Statesman’
A particular concern for CFR critics was that membership appeared to be an essential pre-requisite for entering the highest levels of US Government’s national security apparatus. Most conspiratorial accounts tend to obsessively track how many politicians, political appointees and senior military and intelligence figures are CFR members. A key source cited in support of this view, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, was Joseph Kraft’s article about the CFR in Harper’s Magazine (July 1958), that characterized the Council as having “repeatedly served as a recruiting ground for ranking officials.” It was Kraft’s article which furnished countless conspiracists and other CFR critics with this money quote from then CFR Chairman John J. McCloy, who was recalling his time working for the US Secretary of War in the early 1940s: “Whenever we needed a man […] we thumbed through the roll of Council members and put through a call to New York.”
Other journalists, commentators and CFR members have, over the years, also confirmed this. “If you want to make foreign policy, there’s no better fraternity to belong to than the Council”, wrote New York Times journalist J. Anthony Lukas. He also quoted Council member Richard Barnet’s observation that Council has traditionally been “a way of certifying who the responsible foreign policy leadership is; it defined the recruiting pool” (NYT, Nov. 21, 1971). Half a century later the CFR’s own public relations literature now embraces the idea that Council membership has helped to further many a government or political career and that its members have dominated the highest rungs of the US Government, particularly in the national security sphere. For example, the CFR’s centennial news release, not only happened to mention the Council’s current 5000-strong membership, but also duplicated the derided conspiratorial view by noting that its members have included:
seven U.S. presidents, thirty-seven secretaries of state, twenty-two secretaries of defense, twenty-five secretaries of the treasury, twenty-one national security advisors, six Supreme Court justices, twenty-four Nobel Prize winners, and many other notable citizens.
Gavrilis’ account expands on these themes, starting with the preface by current CFR President Richard Haass, who boasts:
The Council has also become an important engine of talent development. Over the years, literally thousands of young men and women have received their start in the field through some program, internship, or fellowship administered by CFR. (The CFR, p.viii).
This is echoed by Gavrilis himself who acknowledges that Council membership, particularly from the 1950s onwards, was a critical boost to many a career:
Getting a spot on the [CFR] membership roster or a place at a study group table was a sign that one had arrived (ibid, p.xi).
Later, in his account of the Council’s post-war work on a range of issues, Gavrilis observes this activity “created opportunities for a younger generation to join the ranks of the policymaking establishment and shape American foreign policy.” The “ultimate example” of this being the career of a certain Dr. Henry Kissinger, then an aspiring but humble historian of diplomacy at Harvard until he was recruited to lead the CFR’s study group on nuclear weapons and foreign policy in 1956. According to Gavrilis, until this moment Kissinger “had no route to career in government service, let alone a plan for becoming secretary of state.” His leadership of this study group, as most students of Dr Kissinger’s illustrious career would know (save for his most craven and sycophantic admirers) provided a critical avenue for his future advancement. Indeed, Gavrilis even quotes Kissinger: “Had I not wound up with the study group at the Council, I would have been a historian” (p.33). The CFR published Kissinger’s book on the findings of the task force – Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957) – which “placed him in the national spotlight, and his future as national security advisor, secretary of state, and global statesman was set into motion” (p.45).
In his account of other periods of the CFR’s history Gavrilis lauds its unique role in “catapulting writers and hidden experts to fame” (p.37); as well as being “a source for talent that the government occasionally tapped”, such as when the Carter Administration appointed three Council members to senior positions (p.81). In 1993 the newly installed CFR President Leslie Gelb identified “nutur[ing] the next generation of foreign policy leaders” as one of the Council’s goals (p.106). Gavrilis even concludes the book on a high note about the CFR playing an “ever-greater role as a talent developer, educating and training the policymakers and foreign affairs experts of the future” (p.177).
Also lauded by Gavrilis is the CFR’s International Affairs Fellowship (IAF), launched in the 1967, ostensibly aimed at “bridging the gap between the study and the making of U.S. foreign policy and creating the next generation of scholar-practitioners.” This program, would become the “most consequential”, helping to launch a number of significant academic and government careers (p.51). According to the CFR’s own website devoted to the program:
The IAF program now has more than six hundred alumni. They constitute a who’s who of the U.S. foreign policy community, and include a former secretary of state, several undersecretaries of state and defense, ambassadors to NATO and the United Nations, and many other influential leaders in government, academia, and the private sector.
Gavrilis, himself a former IAF fellow, briefly profiles some other alumni including Robert Solomon, who became Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Pacific Affairs in President George H.W. Bush’s administration (p.53); Donald F. McHenry, a fellow in the early 1970s, who went on to become the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations in the Carter Administration (pp.54-55); Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who used her fellowship in 1985 for a stint at the Joint Chiefs of Staff (p.153); and then there is Samantha Power:
[I]n 2005 the Council placed [Power] as a fellow in the office of an Illinois senator who wanted to understand the range of policy options for ending violence in places such as Darfur. When that senator, Barack Obama, became president of the United States in 2009, he appointed Power to the National Security Council. In 2013, she became U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (p.54).
In her recent autobiography, The Education of an Idealist (2019), Power relates how she had received the fellowship in 2000, but had deferred it until 2005, using the generous stipend to fund her yearlong stint as the “foreign policy fellow” in Obama’s office (p.151).2 Her CFR-funded year with Obama certainly paid dividends with Power later joining his presidential campaign and, as noted above, receiving two successive high-level appointments in the Obama Administration. Addressing the CFR back in 2019 Power praised the CFR-funded IAF program as “wonderful” and “amazing” because “you can use them to test out whether you have a liking for public service or for different forms of foreign policy work.” Although not a CFR member, the doors first opened with Council help have remained open: Power was recently appointed Administrator of USAID by the Biden Administration.
The ‘Invisible Government’
The second part of the conspiratorial account is that the CFR acts an “invisible” or “shadow government”, or in current terminology, as a critical component of the “Deep State”, directing US foreign policy, but largely out of the public eye, and immune from Congressional oversight. As some John Birch Society commentators have argued: CFR is the “leading Deep State institution in America that has dominated foreign policy for generations” (TNA, Jan. 06, 2020, p.20); and has “acquired unparalleled power and influence not only in our government, but also in virtually all of our society’s principal institutions” (TNA, Aug. 10, 2020, p.11). This accusation is mainly an inference drawn from the fact that many policies deemed objectionable and injurious to US sovereignty by its critics are devised by Council task forces, study groups and promoted in Foreign Affairs, and then executed by senior officials with CFR membership in their resumes. Or as Soviet diplomat Richard Ovinnikov put it: “the CFR has been consistently putting its ‘own people’ into the state apparatus, thus making any deviation from [CFR] recommendations impossible” (International Affairs, Nov. 1979, p.66).
Yet, far from repudiating such notions, for its centennial celebration the CFR seems intent on claiming a pivotal role in shaping and influencing US foreign policy. In the CFR’s centennial news release, for example, the Council is hardly demure:
Much of the most important thinking about U.S. foreign policy in the last century—from questioning the isolationist instincts of the 1920s, debating entry into World War II, and navigating the Cold War; to promoting understanding of the choices before the country and the world—has come from CFR’s Think Tank, meeting rooms, and the pages of its flagship publication, Foreign Affairs [emphasis added].
The CFR news release also included current CFR Chairman David M. Rubenstein’s assertion the Council had “played a critical role in shaping U.S. engagement and leadership.” Gavrilis’ volume confirms the true focus of the Council, true to its roots as a ruling class organization, is on access and influence to the “policy-makers”, not educating the general public:
By 1923, the first study groups were launched to research crucial diplomatic matters. These led to the publication of books and articles intended to inform policymakers (The CFR, p.14; emphasis added).
Membership meant an audience with policymakers and economic titans at dinner events; participation in the study groups that formed the core of the Council’s work meant access to power and the possibility to shape the course of U.S. foreign policy (ibid, p.32; emphasis added).
The Washington office would grow slowly but steadily to serve membership in the capital and bring the Council’s work closer to policymakers who worked in the White House, Capitol Hill, the State Department, and other federal agencies but did not have time to travel to New York for Council events (ibid, pp.70-71; emphasis added).
But the changes were not systemic or substantive enough to capture the attention of policymakers, particularly in an ecosystem that was populated with more think tanks (ibid, p.99; emphasis added)
[CFR Chairman Peter G. Peterson]…was determined to work with [CFR President Leslie] Gelb to change the Council to make it younger, more dynamic, and more impactful to policymakers and the public (ibid p.107; emphasis added).
The Council needed to improve and refine its traditional work—the events, meetings, reports, and studies aimed at its members and foreign policy elites (ibid, p.136; emphasis added).
Of course, influencing policy-makers rather than the general public is generally the purpose of think-tanks; though it seems that only the CFR, as one of the oldest of such institutions in the US, has maintained the fiction that educating the public is its noble, core objective. Gavrilis’ account provides quite a few examples of the CFR influencing policy-makers. For example, during the Second World War, there was the War and Peace Studies (WPS) project, a major CFR exercise funded by the Rockefeller Foundation that supported the State Department’s efforts to devise US war aims:
It was a beast of a project, crowded with nearly one hundred experts and personalities that needed to be managed… The experts were divided into thematic groups: Security and Armaments, Economic and Financial Issues, Politics, Territorial, and Peace Aims. Over the course of five years, the experts took part in 362 meetings and produced 682 memos for the State Department (ibid, p.25).
The Armaments group, headed by lawyer, former diplomat and future CIA Director Allan Dulles, had a plan for the occupation of Nazi Germany that came in useful when it was defeated. Dulles was later recruited by the CIA-precursor the Office of Strategic Services to “implement the plan” (p.25). In addition, a WPS memorandum on the strategic importance of Greenland prompted President Roosevelt to declare the Danish territory part of the American continent (p.27). Peter Grose’s earlier official CFR history also attributed to the WPS’s Political Group a role in the development of the post-war world order with its members:
active in the 1944 Dumbarton Oaks conference on world economic arrangements and in the preparations for the 1945 San Francisco conference to establish the United Nations (Continuing the Inquiry, p.25).
Gavrilis also credits the CFR with influencing development of the Marshall Plan noting that in 1947 it had held “a series of general meetings and discussion groups” about the plan, and that at least three Council members – Dean Acheson, William Clayton and George Kennan – were among the US Government’s “architects” of the plan. He adds that Acheson would go on to become “Truman’s secretary of state and architect of postwar institutions such as NATO and the International Monetary Fund” (The CFR, pp.37-38). In the 1950s, he writes, the CFR was “the most influential or predominant institution of international affairs” if measured in terms of its ability to “create leaders and statesmen [and] shape debates on what is and is not possible in international affairs (ibid, p.45).
Other achievements of the Council (Figure 1), as recorded by Gavrilis, include:
- During the 1960s the Council embarked on a study program that sought to re-evaluate US policy towards Communist China, with one of the books produced by the program finding that “the educated American public was not against rethinking relations with Communist China”, apparently putting “the American people ahead of their government” (p.50).3 Grose’s earlier volume provides a more detailed review of the CFR’s China efforts, including its recommendation the US must “abandon” the “fiction” that Taipei was the government of mainland China. Grose also links the CFR to the actual normalization of US-PRC relations under Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations, pointing to the key roles played by CFR members Henry Kissinger and Cyrus Vance (Continuing the Inquiry, pp.42-44).
- In 1987, a visit to Moscow by a high-powered CFR delegation, apparently affirmed that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was “serious and trustworthy and that a major transformation was on the way” in the USSR. This visit also apparently conveyed to Council members, including those who,
worked in government to formulate policies in regions that the Soviet Union touched, that Gorbachev’s reforms—though they could have an uncertain path—would create unprecedented potential for cooperation (The CFR, p.95).
- After Foreign Affairs ran a couple of articles on the policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq in 1997, its editor James Hoge reportedly received a call from Secretary of State Madeline Albright, who said “Jim, we got the message…You don’t need to do another piece. We got the message. We’re not changing our policy” (p.119).
- The CFR’s 2001 Independent Task Force, U.S.-Cuban Relations in the 21st Century, proposed changes to the US-Cuban relations, including gradually lifting restrictions on trade and travel. According to CFR Chairman Peter G. Peterson the objective of the task force was to “prompt new thinking, in Washington, in Miami, and on the island itself. The Task Force did just that” (p.113).
- The CFR’s Studies Program is also credited with influencing US foreign policy. For example, Stephen Flynn, author of America the Vulnerable: How Our Government is Failing to Protect Us from Terrorism (2004),which “painted a worrying” picture of America’s ability to deal with future terror attacks”, went on to “brief many government officials and his work informed Bush’s and Obama’s policies of domestic security.” On the strength of his book The Shia Revival (2006), CFR Studies Program fellow Vali Nasr was invited to “brief President Bush on Iraq, while other [CFR Studies Program] fellows testified before Senate and House committees in Washington, DC.” And Micah Zenko’s Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (2015) “became a critical part of war college syllabi” (pp.140-141).
Although lamenting the Council being frozen out by the Trump Administration (even though a number of CFR members occupied senior posts in his administration), Gavrilis suggests CFR prescience on the pandemic. For example, there was Thomas Bollyky’s book Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World Is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways (2018) which had “pointed out serious gaps in global health well before the COVID-19 pandemic” (pp.140-141). A more significant investment was Laurie Garrett, who had been CFR’s first global health fellow some fifteen years before the outbreak, and who went on to become:
one of the media’s most sought-after experts when it came to pandemics and global health crises, and she became known as a fierce critic of lapses in global health institutions and insufficient preparedness in the United States (p.173).
Perhaps more remarkable was that:
Nearly one month before the pandemic shut down much of the Northeast, a February 18 Council meeting “Threats to Global Health and Bio Security”, forecasted that the pandemic would accelerate.
On the panel at that meeting was Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who apparently predicted that responding to the pandemic would require “social distancing, keeping people at home, using teleworking, closing schools.” This panel, Gavrilis claims, “was a sign of things to come” (p.174). As indeed it was…
Parallel with these concerns about the CFR’s ability to dominate the US national security state, many conspiratorial critics have long been convinced that under its “nonpartisan” exterior, the Council was in fact devoted to a more sinister goal of “world government.” Numerous examples of this belief were reviewed in Part 1 of this article, but this suspicion is best articulated by John F.McManus, currently President Emeritus of the John Birch Society. In his book The Insiders: Architects of the New World Order (2004 edition), for example, McManus asserted that “right from its inception”, the purpose of the CFR, “was to destroy the freedom and independence of the United States and lead our nation into world government” (p.8). In a recent article in The New American (Sep. 05, 2021) McManus again denounced the CFR as a “world-government favoring organization” that was founded by “globalists” and “traitors” whose ultimate goal was to “cancel U.S. independence and take the United States into a UN-controlled world government.”
Amongst more academic critics, in contrast, the Council’s outlook is seen as broadly “internationalist” rather than devoted to world government. Shoup and Minter, for example, found that amongst the Council’s founding members there was “general agreement…that the United States had to have a large, even dominant global role” (Imperial Brain Trust, p.19). In his recent book The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy (2018), Harvard foreign policy specialist Stephen Walt argued that amongst the US foreign policy community “there is a strong consensus supporting the active exercise of American power” (p.113). The CFR was a prime example of this, as it has been “committed to promoting an activist foreign policy” since it was founded (p.115). Walt cites as evidence of the Council’s internationalism former CFR President Leslie Gelb’s comments in the preface to Grose’s volume (celebrating the Council’s 75th anniversary) that: “If the Council as a body has stood for anything these 75 years, it has been for American internationalism based on American interests.” It is surely noteworthy that Gelb also wrote that “Council members have shared the conviction that Americans must know about the world and play a leading role in its affairs” (Continuing the Inquiry, p.xiv; emphasis added).
The Council’s commitment to “internationalism”, based on US global leadership, has been reaffirmed by the current CFR President Richard Haass, as he explained in his “President’s Message” in a recent CFR Annual Report:
Formed in the aftermath of World War I amid a growing tide of isolationism, the Council emerged as a rare voice championing greater U.S. involvement in the world. This internationalism is built into our institutional DNA. It stems from the reality that the fate of this country and its citizens is inextricably linked to the fate of the world (CFR Annual Report 2018, p.8; emphasis added).
Not surprisingly, Gavrilis’ book provides little evidence if any to support the John Birch Society claims the CFR is a “world-government favoring organization”, but it does confirm its support for an activist global role for the United States. The scene is set in the preface by Haass, who claims the Council’s founders believed the US “could only be safe if it embraced a leadership position in the world.” He goes on to observe that the Council’s activities have been focused on that cause, although not always successfully:
But they failed to persuade their fellow citizens that their country’s security was best served by an active role in global affairs. To the contrary, over the succeeding two decades, isolationism and protectionism emerged as the prevailing ideologies. It took World War II and then the Cold War to convince Americans of the need for significant, sustained U.S. international involvement (The CFR, p.v; emphasis added).
For Haass, it is obvious that US leadership is not only inherently desirable, but a force for good, one that has delivered numerous benefits:
many Americans along with others around the world have been on the whole well served over the past three-quarters of a century by international developments that would not have materialized absent sustained U.S. effort and leadership (ibid, p.vi; emphasis added).
Gavrilis’ account supports this narrative, portraying the “concerned businessmen, policymakers, and academics from the Northeast” who founded the Council back in the 1920s as being “eager to pursue a multilateral, internationalist approach rather than one of isolationism” (p.x; emphasis added). “The directors of the Council”, he later writes, “were conscious of the responsibilities CFR ought to undertake for the United States to play an expanded role in the world” (p.13). As evidence of this sentiment, Gavrilis quotes from an article in Foreign Affairs (Jun. 15, 1923), written by “Colonel” Edmund House, a Council founding member and former advisor to President Woodrow Wilson (and long a sinister figure in “New World Order” conspiracy theories), who claimed the American people,
will not be content until the United States has again assumed the leadership and responsibilities in world affairs commensurate with her moral, economic, and political position (House quoted in The CFR, p.xi; emphasis added).
Further evidence of this internationalist bias is contained in Gavrilis’ summation of the Council’s debates during the 1950s, where it seemed there was no dissent on whether the US should pursue an activist foreign policy and assert its global dominance:
The Council fostered animated debates during the early Cold War years, but the disagreements were mostly about details of how, not whether, America should lead abroad. Over time a consensus emerged on the necessity of encouraging American internationalism, investing massive sums into rebuilding Europe, forging alliances through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), adopting containment as an overarching strategy to deal with the Soviet Union, and fighting in the Korean War (p.xi; emphasis added).
As a measure of the persistence of this internationalist ideology at the CFR, we might note the remarkable unanimity amongst CFR members who went on to serve at senior levels of the US national security state, on the necessity of US global leadership, rejecting the siren call of the dreaded “isolationists”. Many of these notable CFR alumni have reaffirmed their internationalist sympathies in Council conferences and publications:
- Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State, maintained that since the end of the World War Two, US foreign policy had become “by necessity, a positive and activist one.” Its policy has been “one of attempting to draw together, through various groupings, that Western area which must be the center of a free and open world system”, providing it with “military security”, to help foster trade and economic growth (Foreign Affairs, April 1958, p.373).
- “World leadership is inherent in America’s power and values”, claimed Nixon’s National Security Adviser and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger in his book Diplomacy (1994). America’s allies have a “vital…stake in America’s confident leadership”, he observed in a 1977 speech, noting how the “world balance of power” had been sustained for decades by the United States.4
- Carter Administration Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance, a former Director and Vice-Chairman of the CFR Board, told the US Senate in 1980, the US was a “global power” that needed to “maintain a military balance of power” so it would be strong enough to “help shape world events.” Various global challenges, he added, would require, “full American engagement in the world.”5
- “Americans have good reason to be proud of the leadership our country has exercised in world affairs over the past 40 years”, claimed Reagan’s second Secretary of State, George P. Shultz, a former Director of the Council in a letter to the CFR’s journal Foreign Affairs (Winter 1987); through being “actively involved in world affairs”, it had “made the world a better place” (p.426). In an earlier contribution Shultz had insisted that America had “a duty” to “help construct a new pattern of international stability that will ensure peace, prosperity and freedom for coming generations” (Foreign Affairs, Spring 1985, p.705; emphasis added)
- “America must lead”, declared President Clinton’s first Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a former Vice-Chairman of the CFR Board (eulogized by the Council as a “dedicated member of [the] CFR for close to 40 years”) in a 1993 speech, adding the US “must be more engaged internationally, not less.”
- In 1998 Christopher’s successor, CFR alumni (and future CFR Director) Madeline Albright, offered this unique formulation: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”6
- “Foreign policy in a Republican administration will most certainly be internationalist”, wrote Condoleezza Rice, a CFR alumni and adviser to future President George W. Bush, in Foreign Affairs (Jan/Feb 2000, p.62). Later, as Bush’s Secretary of State, Rice affirmed the necessity of US “global leadership”; the US needed to be engaged as there were “few problems in the world that can be resolved without us.” Fortunately, Rice observed, “we have never accepted that we are powerless to change the world” (Foreign Affairs, Jul/Aug 2008, p.25).
- Also hewing to the Council’s line though not a member herself (but Bill and Chelsea Clinton are) is Obama’s first Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, who told the CFR in a 2010 speech, the US “can, must, and will lead in this new century”, she stated; in this “new American moment… our global leadership is essential” (emphasis added). Reviewing Kissinger’s book World Order (2014), Clinton noted that despite their political differences she, Kissinger and Obama, shared “a belief in the indispensability of continued American leadership in service of a just and liberal order.” There is “no viable alternative”, she added; no other nation “can bring together the necessary coalitions and provide the necessary capabilities to meet today’s complex global threats” (Washington Post, Sep. 14, 2014; emphasis added).
- H.R. McMaster, a CFR member who served as Trump’s second National Security Adviser, (2017-2018), wrote a blistering critique of those who advocated a massive reduction in America’s global military presence. Fresh from his failed efforts to dilute Trump’s “America First” approach, McMaster denounced these “Retrenchers”, as “out of step with history”, whose proposals were “based on emotion rather than reason”, and would only “increase dangers to the United States”; it could also “result in a failure to deter aggression and prevent a disastrous war” (Foreign Affairs, Jul/Aug 2020, pp.183-186).
This litany arguably confirms historian Robert McMahon’s observation CFR influence is best measured, not by which policy recommendations are carried out, but rather how “participation in Council meetings, dinners, and study groups helps shape the world view of participants, many of whom may later be in positions of power.”7 In this case, it seems the roster of CFR members who have achieved high office have absorbed a worldview in which US global leadership is considered essential for world order. A viewpoint that is maintained in a plethora of current CFR publications to this day (see Figure 2).
Beware ‘The Blob’?
When plutocrat David Rockefeller died in 2017 I noted a curious paradox in the mainstream coverage of his demise: conspiracy theories about him were being both derided and affirmed in the obituaries. Many journalists seemed mystified by the conspiratorial accounts of David Rockefeller’s life, treating it as no more than a bizarre fixation with the Trilateral Commission, whilst at the same time they fuelled it with their accounts of Rockefeller’s remarkable access and influence to leaders across the world, his clear internationalist sympathies, and his leading role in informal elite groups such as the CFR and Bilderberg. We can see almost the same situation in Gavrilis’ official CFR history, which briefly mocks conspiratorial accounts that claim the CFR is “controlling American foreign policy”, whilst simultaneously affirming that despite its claims to being a nonpartisan education institution, the Council has been successful for much of the past century in both influencing and producing policy-makers that will support its broader internationalist aims.
Of course, within the ranks of the US foreign policy establishment, or the “Blob”, it is considered a self-evident truth their power is overstated, while their aims are both modest and good. According to one incensed commentator, in this case Bloomberg Opinion columnist Hal Brands (and also the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a former CFR Fellow), many “proud members of the foreign policy community” actually “object” to being labelled “the Blob”. He added:
What I find troubling about the idea of the Blob is that it taps into this old conspiratorial mind-set about what produces American foreign policy. It makes it seem that American foreign policy has been so disastrous and foolish that it must have been foisted on the American people by some elite that doesn’t have their best interests at heart (New York Times, Sep. 16, 2021; emphasis added).
Brands commentary, though, has occurred in the midst of a major foreign policy controversy that has exposed the “Blob”, including the CFR, to a great deal of criticism. That event was the recent Taliban victory in Afghanistan, that followed Biden’s decision to follow through on his predecessor’s agreement with the Taliban to withdraw all US troops. The rapid collapse of the Afghan National Army, after billions of dollars and nearly two decades of US troop deployments, has been portrayed as evidence of Establishment’s incompetence, if not dishonesty, and its powerful hold over policy-making in Washington DC.
“America’s failure in Afghanistan was bipartisan,” observed Stephen Walt, and a “searing indictment of the foreign policy establishment” (Financial Times, Aug. 30, 2021). Journalist Mattathias Schwartz, who spent five years inside the ‘Blob’, explained how the policy debates carried on behind closed doors by the CFR and other Establishment think tanks always “occur within carefully managed boundaries”, excluding opinion that dissented from the consensus favoring “liberal international order” or “war is good.” According to Schwartz, the inevitable result of this subtly, but carefully enforced consensus is that:
The ideologically correct opinion will organically percolate through the network. This is known as social contagion, and it goes a long way to explaining why America’s leading foreign-policy experts keep producing disasters like Afghanistan.
Biden has been feted by many critics for successfully resisting Establishment pressure to keep US troops in Afghanistan (Figure 3). According to the New York Times (Sep. 01, 2021), Biden’s decision was not only in defiance of contrary advice from the Pentagon, but also put him “at odds with much of the foreign policy establishment, on the right and left, in Washington and across Europe.” Despite a CFR-heavy band of national security appointees in his administration, in taking this decision Biden had “jettisoned the band of analysts, diplomats and advisers who got us waist-deep in the big sandy: the foreign policy elite” (Politico). Unlike Trump who “fought the Swamp (in theory)”, observed Politico journalist Alex Ward, “Biden is fighting The Blob (in practice). Some analysts even suggested that in shutting down one war, Biden had “ opened up another: with a dangerous foe at home”, specifically the “Blob” and the “Deep State.”
Certainly the paragons of “The Blob”, particularly those “thought-leaders” who had diligently worked on maintaining the pro-war consensus seemed mystified by Biden’s course of action. Afterall Biden, though not a recent CFR member, had written in its august journal, Foreign Affairs (Mar/Apr 2020) that if elected, he would overturn Trump’s bankrupt foreign policy that had “abdicated American leadership” and “diminished” America’s “credibility and influence” (p.64). He promised to take “immediate steps” to “once more have America lead the world” (p.65); to put it “back at the head of the table” to “mobilize collective action on global threats” (p.71). Indeed, CFR President Haass had seemed hopeful noting that Biden’s first foreign policy address in February on “America’s Place in the World”, had outlined an agenda that put him, “squarely in the largely successful post-World War II American foreign-policy tradition repudiated by his predecessor, Donald Trump.”
And yet Biden had gone on to ignore the recommendations of the Afghanistan Study Group’s 88-page report that withdrawal should be delayed and US troops retained “to help create conditions for an acceptable peace agreement.” Though overlooked in their resumes, seven out of the 15-member Study Group were also CFR members, as were nine out of the 26 “Senior Advisers”. A minor detail, to be sure. Nevertheless, one of those members, Dr Meghan L. O’Sullivan from Harvard (and also the North American Chair of the Trilateral Commission), had joined with Haass in the Washington Post (Apr. 16, 2021) to advocate for retaining US troops “to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist safe haven.” Following the drama of the fall of Kabul and the mass evacuations, Haass was scathing; it was a “withdrawal of choice” and its “results promise to be tragic.” Aside from the “local consequences”, noted Haass, “the grim aftermath of America’s strategic and moral failure will reinforce questions about US reliability among friends and foes far and wide.”
Some thirty years ago journalist John B. Judis argued that as the “Cold War continues to ebb and as consensus further erodes”, the “major Establishment institutions”, including the Council on Foreign Relations, seemed destined to be reduced to “debating societies.” The Establishment, he opined was in “severe disarray”, the CFR and other groups had been supplanted by “narrow lobbies and pressure groups” that “represent no underlying consensus but only their own separate interests” (The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 1991, p.55). Now in 2021, the CFR faces a different environment where despite its persistence, a new emerging anti-internationalist or “America First” consensus threatens the “Liberal International Order” they have created. Gavrilis alluded to this in his otherwise triumphant conclusion:
In many ways, 2021 resembles the year the Council was founded. The specific issues that define international affairs are different, but overarching questions about how much of a role America should play in the world are the same. This makes the Council’s nonpartisan work and mission as important as ever (The CFR, pp.178-179).
The most fulsome expression of this is the latest contribution to Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2021) by CFR President Haass (Figure 4), where he complains that far from being “an aberration” the “America First” foreign policy of Trump now appears to be more permanent. The differences in language between Trump and Biden, he argues, actually “obscure a deeper truth”, that of “continuity” in the foreign policy between the two presidents. And, while this “new consensus” falls short of “across-the-board isolationism”, it does represent a “rejection of internationalism.” For Haass this is a “problem” as the new approach is “woefully inadequate” because of its “failure to appreciate just how much developments thousands of miles away affect what happens at home.” An even bleaker argument has been made by CFR member, and scholar Eliot F. Cohen, that if the US “succumbs to…its desire to withdraw from international politics, the world order, such as it is, will crumble.” The solution to America’s new place in the world, of course, resides in a “new internationalism” (Haass) where the US is able to “exert global influence and pressure to sustain basic norms of decent behavior and governance” (Cohen).
And so, in the minds of its esteemed members, the first century of the Council on Foreign Relations ends much as it first began, with the CFR as the home of enlightened internationalists, running against the domestic tide of populist isolationists and the spectre of global conflict and disorder. Only this time it seems less likely they will prevail…
2 Power’s memoir notes that it was at the urging of former senior official and CFR member Peter Galbraith that she sent a personally inscribed copy of her Pulitzer prize winning book ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide (2003), to then Senator Obama via one of Galbraith’s contacts who was close to Obama. This was in a bid to secure a job with the new Senator (The Education of an Idealist, p.143). According to Power, Obama finally responded six months later, setting up a meeting with her in Washington DC in spring 2005, although she had to press the issue to get him to agree to have him in his team (ibid, pp.149-50). In his memoir, A Promised Land (2021), Obama paints the meeting and subsequent job offer has having been entirely at his own initiative (pp.638-639). He also describes Power as “one of my closest friends in the White House” (p.639). Of note is that Obama makes a “special mention” of Power in the acknowledgements for his earlier pre-election book The Audacity of Hope (2006), crediting her with having “combed over each chapter as if it were hers, providing me with a steady flow of useful comments…” (p.364).
3 For more on the Council’s role in shifting the political climate towards rapprochement with Communist China, following some prompting at the Bilderberg Meetings and actions by some senior Bilderberg members, see Will Banyan, “The Bilderberg Connection: Did the Bilderberg Group Send Nixon to China?”, Conspiracy Archive, (Oct. 04, 2015). A key figure in this effort was Joseph E. Johnson (1906-1990), then a former US diplomat, but also President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Bilderberg’s Honorary US Secretary-General and CFR Director (1950-1974), who was involved in advocating rapprochement with Communist China through at least five initiatives including: both of the CFR’s China projects; the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Special Studies Project; the UNA-USA National Policy Panel study on admitting the PRC to the United Nations; and the National Committee on US-China Relations.
4 Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy, (Simon & Schuster, 1994), p.836; and Kissinger, For the Record: Selected Statements, 1977-1980, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, Michael Joseph, 1981), p.72.
5 Cyrus Vance, Hard Choices: Critical Years in America’s Foreign Policy, (Simon & Schuster, 1983), pp.502-503, & 520.
6 Sidney Blumenthal, a special adviser to President Clinton, claims to have come up with the “indispensable nation” formulation in collaboration with late historian James Chace. The phrase was meant to describe “the concept of the United States as the guarantor of stability as the sole superpower within the framework of multinational institutions” (The American Prospect, Oct. 19, 2004). In his book The Clinton Wars (2003), Blumenthal suggests they were also inspired by Acheson’s notion of being “present at creation” of a new global order in the post-war, although in their case in the aftermath of the Cold War, they too were “at a moment when something new could be created.” The “indispensable nation” meant that “[o]nly the United States had the power to guarantee global security: without our presence or support, multilateral endeavors would fail” (p.155).
7 Robert J. McMahon, “A Question of Influence: The Council on Foreign Relations and American Foreign Policy”, Reviews in American History, (Sep.1985), p.449. McMahon’s article reviews Schulzinger’s The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs, taking issue with its failure to adequately assess the question of the Council’s ability to influence US foreign policy. McMahon considered an obvious metric of Council influence, contrary to Schulzinger’s contention CFR power was in decline, was the presence of senior CFR office-holders holding senior positions in the US Government. As he observed: “Yet Cyrus R. Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and George P. Shultz – certainly among the major architects of American foreign policy during those years – all served as CFR Directors before their appointments to high office. If that is a measure of declining influence then what would be a measure of true influence?” (ibid, p.450).