‘Informal Elites’ and the wielding of power

For years now, the elite of the rich capitalist countries have gathered in specially-established forums. The best known of these are the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission and the World Economic Forum, the last of which was discussed in Spectre No.10 in an article by Henk Vriezen. Below, Vriezen turns his attention to the Bilderberg Group, which most recently (during the first four days of June, 2000) met at a hotel not far from Brussels.

Just before the European Football Championships 120 people from the Premiere League of the Atlantic world gathered at a luxurious hotel on the banks of a lake at Genval, just outside Brussels - the same hotel which would host the French national side. They gathered, presumably, to discuss the great issues of the day, but whether they spoke about the coming football festival or of even weightier matters is hard to say, because their meetings took place entirely behind closed doors, away from the prying eyes and ears of journalists or voters. This evasion of democratic control has been a feature of the group since it first met, in 1954 in the Bilderberg Hotel in the Netherlands, from which it took its name.

Participants came from the United States and Western Europe. In that very first meeting they appreciated the ‘privacy’, though perhaps a better word would be secrecy, which enabled them freely to express their views, to communicate and attempt to reach a consensus - an elite consensus, of course - an approach which American and British participants, members respectively of the CFR and RIIA, made no attempt to deny. CFR and RIIA had already existed for three decades when that first Bilderberg conference met, and the CFR was by then a powerful player in what had become the most powerful country in the world. Both organisations were deeply involved, as was the Bilderberg group itself, in the establishment in 1973 of the Trilateral Commission (TC).

Despite the secrecy, we know that free trade has always featured as an important element in the group’s discussions. As long as forty years ago the Bilderberg group was instrumental in encouraging adhesion to the European Economic Community (EEC) and the British-led European Free Trade Area (EFTA). Political cooperation and free trade between the US and Western Europe has also played a major part in discussions. Gradually, moreover, Bilderberg turned its eyes on the possibility of free trade throughout the world, or, as it is now known, globalisation.


Ever since the foundation of the Bilderberg Group there have been moves to establish a Transatlantic Economic Partnership, one of whose aims would be the removal of barriers to trade. This idea, however, goes even further back, to the ideas for example of the British imperialist politician Cecil Rhodes, around whom gathered an informal community, a so-called ‘Round Table’, of theorists and colonial leaders which became a point of contact for discussion of a possible ‘community of the English-speaking world.’

During the Versailles peace conference of 1919 members of this Round Table formed part of the British delegation and worked in close co-operation with their US counterparts. the American delegation also counted amongst its number members of an elite forum known as the Inquiry. Established in 1917 this group consisted of intellectuals from prestigious universities, and just one person from the press. The Inquiry was the first US attempt to involve such people in the long term planning of foreign policy.

Both British and American representatives came to the conclusion at Versailles that there had to be some institutional follow-up to their activities. As Lionel Curtis, founder of the RIIA, Liberal Imperialist and member of the Round Table put it, ‘Public opinion must be led along the right path...That is the job of a few men in real contact with the facts.’ What was needed was a transatlantic research organisation concerned with international affairs, the influencing of public opinion, and the facilitating of contacts between government officials and the media. The result in Britain was the RIIA, established in 1919 and informally known as Chatham House; and, in America, the CFR, founded in 1921.

The RIIA publishes a journal, International Affairs, organises conferences - most recently on pensions systems in the 21st Century, and counts such luminaries as Shell’s number one honcho, Mark Moody-Stuart, on its board of directors. The CFR began by bringing together Wall Street bankers with journalists, lawyers and academics. Particularly influential are new York Bankers House of Morgan, and since the fifties the CFR has been increasingly dominated by the ‘Rockefeller interests’ - oil, banks and foundations.

The attempt to fuse these strands into a common project did not come to fruition, however. The ‘sister organisations’ often worked together. Structural contacts are confined to the Bilderberg conferences, where every member of the American delegation is invariably also a member of CFR.

The Council on Foreign Relations

During the Second World war the CFR developed extremely close relations with the US State Department. An extended research programme, the War and Peace Studies Project, was undertaken for the Department of Foreign Affairs. Policy makers, amongst them the President, received a total of 682 memoranda.

The establishment of the UN gave the Council a further boost, enabling it to argue the case for the IMF and World Bank. The CFR periodical Foreign Affairs became the magazine of choice of the foreign policy establishment and had enormous influence on opinion formers and on the political leadership. As the Dictionary of American Diplomatic History put it in 1980, ‘the Council took on the appearance of having semi-official status, which has subsequently never fully been removed.’

After the War the demand for expertise to back up the new, more active position of the US on the world stage was huge. It was a vacuum which the CFR helped greatly to fill. The Truman (1945-53) and Eisenhower (1953-61) administrations made extensive use of CFR research and policy recommendations, and CFR members played an active role in both governments.

VIPs came from all over the world to visit the Council HQ in New York. Even Fidel Castro had a quick look before being told to scram. While the US paraded itself before the world as a model of democracy, the reality resided in this elite institution.

As Japan and Europe rose in power, the US economy found itself with an increasing balance of payments problem, culminating in 1971 in Nixon’s retreat into a unilaterally determined protectionism. An unwinnable war in Vietnam exacerbated the problem, weakening the American hegemony.

Against this background, in 1973 the Trilateral Commission (TC) was established. It consisted of 180 people from the US, Western Europe and Japan. They came from international banks, multinationals, universities, thinktanks and political parties.

The initiative for the TC came from David Rockefeller, who approached each of the proposed participants personally, selecting them from a network of 35,000 ‘friends’, people who occupied powerful positions throughout the world. Amongst them was a large number of Bilderbergers, as well as other RIIA and CFR members.

Rockefeller became the first president of the American section of the Trilateral Commission. In the 1980s he was, by some distance, the most powerful person in the United States, playing an active role not only in the TC, but in Bilderberg and, as Chairman, in the Chase Manhattan International Advisory Council.

In comparison to the Bilderberg group, the TC was admittedly a little less secretive. Its agenda was more closely defined by business interests, and following the example of the CFR, it commissioned studies which produced reports containing policy recommendations. The target group of these so-called Task Force Reports consisted primarily of governments and the leaders of international organisations. In 1975 David Rockefeller and two colleagues assessed their organisation’s influence as follows: ‘Sometimes ideas put forward by the reports of the Trilateral Commission have become official policy; always th recommendations were debated seriously outside our membership, and have played a role in the formulation of governments’ thinking and decisions.’

In its thinking in relation to the Third World, the TC propagated a thoroughgoing neoliberalism. Dubbed the New International Economic Order (NIEO), it advocated greater room for manoeuvre for international and transfrontier capital, a sharp contrast to the ideas of justice and redistribution then current. In the TC’s stated view, the free market would, in the long term, benefit all.

The same perspective can be seen in the thought of organisations such as the CFR, the Ford Foundation and the Brookings Institution, as well as by a section of the leadership of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The latter two in particular acted as consultants for TS reports, which in turn were used by these institutions as negotiating tools.

In 1977 the newly-formed administration of US President Jimmy Carter contained no fewer than 20 members of TC. Apart from Carter himself, these included security advisor Brzezinski, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Vance, and Defence Secretary Brown. Both Brzezinski and Vice President Walter Mondale were also active in the Bilderberg Group.

According to later studies the TC had enormous influence over the direction of US foreign policy under Kissinger and in the debate around the NIEO. ‘Confrontation politics’ gave way to an approach based on a range of tactical and strategic negotiating points.