Private councils of power in US foreign policy

Atlas Monitor | 8 May 2016

The thought of Donald Trump in the Whitehouse with his neo-isolationist foreign policy and anti-establishment stance frightens the living hell out of the American power elite. The “Eastern establishment foreign policy elite” who often occupy tenured positions at Ivy League universities such as Harvard, Yale, Colombia and Princeton are apoplectic with rage over the idea of being sidelined by Trump.

This is exemplified in a recent New York Times op-ed article by Evan Thomas entitled Why We Need a Foreign Policy Elite. In it Thomas argues strongly in favour for technocratic control over US foreign policy. He reminds us that

America has relied on a highly trained corps of diplomats, worldly financiers and academics to steer it straight. Get rid of them, as Mr. Trump seems intent on doing, and chaos will follow.

Thomas warns against the folly of allowing foreign policy to be steered by public consensus. Heaven forbid that government aka public representatives-servants should be guided by the will of the people. Quelle horreur!

He acknowledges that the term “elite” has obvious anti-democratic connotations and that the foreign policy establishment certainly have blundered egregiously as in the case of 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam. He admits that

No doubt, the modern foreign policy establishment can be criticized for stale or lazy thinking, or parochial self-interest. But it still includes many men and women with a sophisticated knowledge of the world. To ignore them and their counsel is foolish.

Thomas is effectively arguing for the control of public policy in the hands of private councils of power. Arguably the most recognizable and institutionalized example of a private council of power influencing public policy is the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). It is the most influential think tank with regards to US foreign policy.

Recently CFR president Richard Haass was granted an audience with Trump. According to Trump insider Roger Stone they had a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of US foreign policy. Although the details of the meeting are private, it is likely that Trump raised the issue of special interests and the interpenetration of those interests with the US government.

The origins and extent of CFR influence and interpenetration with the US government can be demonstrated by an analysis of ‘The War and Peace Studies project’ (WPS). This project set the agenda for US foreign policy in the immediate post-WWII period (Shoup and Minter, 2004). The overall agenda was to formulate a policy framework that would establish a sphere of US influence referred to as the ‘Grand Area’. The CFR’s role in maintaining this Grand Area is demonstrated by a series of case studies which include US influence in Western Europe and US policy towards Germany in particular; Latin America as demonstrated by the intervention in Guatemala; policy towards the USSR as illustrated by the Cuban missile crisis; and Asia depicted in the shift in US policy towards China (Shoup and Minter, 2004).

To discern the extent, if any, of CFR influence over US government policy one would expect to see evidence of the CFR imposing and reinforcing a liberal-internationalist philosophy which has been characterized as pro-interventionist and pro-globalist (anti-isolationist). One would expect to see demonstrations of this philosophy depicted in US foreign policy pursuant to global economic integration; interference in the domestic affairs of other sovereign nation states to protect US interests; as well as ultimate control over the agenda in international affairs. One would also expect to see evidence of close collaboration between the CFR and the US government. Emphasis on the interpenetration between US government and the CFR as the mechanism to impose and reinforce the liberal-internationalist, globalist agenda is the key point in examining CFR activities.


The CFR’s involvement in Germany’s affairs goes back to the Paris peace talks in the aftermath of WWI, where the genesis of the CFR is found. One of the delegates who had significant input in the Dawes and Young plans, which dealt with German reparations, was imminent CFR director Owen Young (Hammond, 1963; Kuklick, 1972).  The Bank of International Settlements (BIS) which administered German reparations was headed by another CFR director Leon Fraser (Shoup and Minter, 2004). The Versailles treaty, that stipulated punitive German reparations, which came out of the Paris peace talks, is considered by some commentators as one of the principle factors that led to the rise of Hitler, Nazism and ultimately a major contributing factor to the outbreak of WWII (Mayer, 1967: Hughes and Seligmann, 2002). The economic destruction of Germany that the reparations were predicted to cause was labelled ‘Carthaginian peace’ by John Maynard Keynes (1920: 17). One might argue that the imminent CFR members involvement at the Paris conference as well as CFR presence in the management of the BIS implicates the CFR, albeit somewhat indirectly, amongst the possible causes of WWII.  A perhaps portentous episode that is instructive of the extent and nature of CFR influence. This suggestion is backed up by the analyses of Anthony C. Sutton (1976); Charles Higham (1983); Edwin Black (2001, 2009); and Joel Bakan (2004). Ultimately this demonstrates the CFR’s capacity to impose and reinforce its particular world view.

The conceptual framework for US policy towards Germany from 1944 to 1946 was provided by the WPS. The principle agenda behind the framework was to set the terms for German surrender; integrate Germany into the capitalist world order; and manage the post-WWII reparations program. CFR members were instrumental in undermining the Morgenthau Plan (which included USSR reparations priorities) and ultimately pushing for the adoption of the Marshall Plan. CFR members included secretary of war Henry L. Stimson; assistant secretary of war John J. McCloy; assistant secretary of state for economic affairs William L. Clayton; diplomat John W. Davis who was a chief negotiator at the Potsdam conference; W. Averell Harriman ambassador to the USSR; and Office of Strategic Service (OSS – precursor to the CIA) officer Allen Dulles; as well as James W. Angell who negotiated the reparations framework at the Paris conference that excluded the USSR. “Council members were involved in policymaking on German issues at all levels” (Shoup and Minter, 2004: 193).

When the US high commission was set up in Germany, led by John J. McCloy, it was almost exclusively comprised of CFR members (Kraft, 1958). Allen Dulles (1947) wrote an article entitled “Alternatives for Germany” in Foreign Affairs where he made the argument, along liberal-internationalist principles, for integrating Germany’s economy into capitalist Western Europe rather than a regime of punitive reparations along the Versailles model as demanded by the USSR. Consequently Germany was partitioned East and West as the USSR could not accept the terms set by the US (Kuklick, 1972). East Germany was subsequently integrated into the USSR’s socialist regime and the people were forced to endure the privations imposed by the totalitarian police state.

The extent of CFR influence over US government is discernible in the policy towards Germany. Evidence of CFR liberal-internationalist; pro-interventionist and pro-globalist (anti-isolationist) agenda and philosophy are apparent in the integration of West Germany into the capitalist-Western-global economy. This was conducted by controlling the agenda over the fate of Germany. Close collaboration between the CFR and the US government is evidenced by CFR presence in both US diplomatic delegations and government policy groups.


The 1954 US intervention in Guatemala saw the overthrow of democratically elected and moderate nationalist government as well as the alleged assassination of the president Jacobo Arbenz Guzman (Perkins, 2004). The coup was ostensibly carried out by Colonel Castillo Armas; however, CIA involvement was subsequently confirmed (Barnet, 1968; Perkins, 2004; Tully 1962; Wise, 1965). The reason for intervention cited by the US government was the threat of communism and that Arbenz was Moscow’s puppet. This was categorically denied by Arbenz who suggested the real reason for US intervention was Nicaraguan government land reform legislation that would impact on the operation of the United Fruit Company (Bracker, 1954). This has also been subsequently confirmed (Malkin; 2011; Schlesinger and Kinzer, 2005).

Ultimately the US sponsored coup was about protecting the economic interests of a US multinational corporation using the threat of communism and the promotion of democracy as a pretext for intervention. An agenda was constructed accordingly in which the CFR was deeply involved. The WPS project’s section on Latin America was focused specifically on US economic interests. “Latin America was from the start to be included in the Grand Area scheme of economic integration” (Shoup and Minter, 2004: 195).

Between 1951 and 1952 a CFR study group was set up to investigate political unrest in Latin American which focused on Guatemala in particular. It was led by Spruille Braden a former US assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs and a consultant to the United Fruit Company. The consensus of the group was to emphasize the communist threat posed by the Arbenz regime and to enable and facilitate the overthrow of the regime using a Colonel Armas led fifth column. The implementation of the plan was conducted by a group of men affiliated with the highest levels of US government and CIA as well as the CFR. They included President Eisenhower; Allen Dulles (CIA head and CFR director); Frank Wisner (CFR member and CIA chief of clandestine operations); and John Moors Cabot (US assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs and imminent CFR member) who pushed through a resolution hostile towards Guatemala. (Shoup and Minter, 2004: 196-197).

In 1953 a US government report produced by the National Planning Committee on the situation in Guatemala issued dire warnings on the threat from communist infiltration of Guatemala and called for immediate and drastic action. The committee was led by CFR secretary and vice president Frank Altshuel and 15 out 22 of the committee were CFR members; eight out of 10 top ranking members of the committee were CFR. Henry Cabot Lodge (CFR member as well as US ambassador to the UN) was instrumental in blocking the Arbenz government from raising the issue of an imminent US invasion of Guatemala at the UN (Shoup and Minter, 2004: 197-198).

CFR influence over US government policy towards Guatemala demonstrates characteristics one would expect to see such as the imposition of a liberal-internationalist; pro-interventionist and pro-globalist (anti-isolationist) agenda. Guatemala’s economic integration into the Grand Area of the US government sphere of influence was done at the behest of the United Fruit Company in which the CFR had significant input. The action taken was direct interference in the domestic affairs of another sovereign nation state. Close collaboration between the CFR and the US government was demonstrated by the interlocking relationship between the CFR, US government as well as the United Fruit Company. It illustrates the extent of the interpenetration of private and public spheres.


The overall agenda and policy framework of the WPS that was centred on the Grand Area sphere of US influence would invariably lead the US into conflict with the USSR. The Soviet threat was clearly and unequivocally articulated in CFR studies on Russia and America. The USSR was characterized as a fanatical regime bent on global dominance at any cost (Roberts, 1956). The nature of the threat was made all the more dire from the rapid proliferation of nuclear weapons technology which required constant revision of US policy towards the USSR.

A CFR study group on the Soviet nuclear threat produced a book Nuclear weapons and foreign policy authored by CFR protégé Henry Kissinger (1969) which challenged John Foster Dulles’ doctrine of massive retaliation. Kissinger argued that the preferred strategy of the USSR was an incremental policy of a war of attrition that avoided large scale confrontation. He suggested that recognition of this needed to be reflected in US policy otherwise it would remain vulnerable to the insidious nature of Soviet aggression. Ultimately Kissinger called for a balanced military policy that promoted both conventional and nuclear capabilities. Kissinger’s view was supported by subsequent reports including the government commissioned Gaither Committee report and a Rockefeller Brothers Fund sponsored panel report. These reports were closely connected to the CFR. More than half of the Gaither Committee were CFR members and two-thirds of the Rockefeller panel were also CFR. David Rockefeller was CFR vice president as well as a member of the nuclear weapons study group. Kissinger was also director of the Rockefeller panel (Shoup and Minter, 2004: 200-203).

The policy of ‘graduated pressure’ against the USSR was formulated out of these committees and study groups and this policy was used during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. The group that handled the crisis was the National Security Council Executive Committee (EXCOMM) (Allison and Zelikow, 1999).  Out of the 22 individuals that attended EXCOMM meetings 18 were either current CFR members or imminent members and three of them had been part of the nuclear weapons study group (Shoup and Minter, 2004). The airstrike and blockade options that were debated during the crisis were presented and supported by CFR members on both sides of the debate (Abel, 1969). Soft diplomatic options were taken off the agenda in favour of hard-line brinkmanship.

The CFR’s influence in the decisions made by the US government during the Cuban missile crisis is evident. It is discernible in the reaching of a broad consensus of policy opinion through the various study groups and panels and ultimately setting the agenda over what options would be considered during the crisis. Significant CFR representation in the various groups and committees as well as the authorship of reports by CFR members demonstrates CFR influence over US government policy as well as close collaboration between the CFR and the US government. The decisions and actions taken such as the blockade of Cuba illustrate the CFR’s liberal-internationalist; pro-interventionist philosophy and demonstrate a commitment to interfering in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states to protect US interests as well as impose and reinforce a particular world view.


The Chinese Revolution and establishment of the Peoples Republic of China under a communist regime and the exile of the Nationalist regime under Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan signalled to the US government that its sphere of influence and Grand Area was being challenged in Asia. The loss of China to the communists required a rethink in US policy towards China in which the CFR played an important role.

Secretary of state and CFR member Dean Acheson appointed a three member board in 1949 to review US policy on China. All members of the board were CFR including Phillip C. Jessup who was a CFR director (Shoup and Minter, 2004). CFR members, Arthur H. Dean and Doak Barnett, also led a study group that reached a consensus on a shift in policy towards China that promoted greater flexibility. This was dubbed the “Two Chinas” policy (Horowitz, 1971). Subsequent CFR studies on US-China relations supported entertaining a wide range of new possibilities. “Council studies laid the basis for the change in policy” (Shoup and Minter, 2004: 210).

The National Committee on US and China relations was almost half filled with CFR members of whom the leadership was CFR heavy (Shoup and Minter, 2004). The CFR dominated National Committee was the public face of the China policy debate and laid the groundwork that ultimately set the agenda for the change of policy. Henry Kissinger would be responsible for the rollout of the policy switch from an exclusionary-isolationist stance to a more engaging position with China (Horowitz, 1971). President Richard Nixon had also been a CFR member and had written an article in Foreign Affairs promoting a shift in US policy towards more inclusive and friendly relations with China (Nixon, 1967).

That this shift in long-standing and well established policy was done in spite of right-wing reactionary resistance is instructive of the extent and potency of CFR influence. It demonstrates the CFR’s command of the climate of opinion and an ability to harness that climate as a catalyst for change (Shoup and Minter, 2004).

The extent of CFR influence over US government policy on China was in line with the CFR’s pro-globalist philosophy of global economic integration. The shift in policy towards China set the foundation for China’s integration into the global economy. China now plays a major role in the global economy especially in manufacturing as well as a consumer market. The case study in US China policy also demonstrates evidence of close collaboration between the CFR and the US government through various study groups.

Often the CFR’s influence is justified in terms of the consolidation of expertise it represents. The CFR presents itself as a ‘one stop shop’ for information on world affairs. The case studies presented above imply a unilaterally assumed role by the US as the ‘world’s policeman’ as well as perhaps judge and jury.

Critics of the CFR suggest that this role does not serve US national interests but in fact serves the interests of the global power elite whose imperial hegemonic agenda involves reforming and extending global governance structures into an international federal system. They suggest the capture of America’s political and economic institutions, and ultimately the international system, by the global power elite whose intentions are to exploit America’s economic and military might to pursue their agenda.

Select bibliography

Abel, E. (1969) The Missiles of October: the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, London, Macgibbon & Kee.

Allison, G. T. & Zelikow, P. (1999), Essence of decision: explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, New York, Longman.

Bakan, J. (2004), The corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power, New York, Free Press

Barnet, R. J. (1968), Intervention and revolution; the United States in the Third World, New York, World Pub.

Black, E. (2001), IBM and the Holocaust: the strategic alliance between Nazi Germany and America’s most powerful corporation, New York, Crown Publishers.

Black, E. (2009), Nazi nexus: America’s corporate connections to Hitler’s holocaust, Washington, D.C., Dialog Press

Bracker, M. (1954), “Arbenz attacks foreign critics; Guatemalan leader asserts intervention threat comes from others, not Soviet”, The New York Times, 2 Mar. <;

Dulles, A. W. (1947), “Alternatives for Germany”, Foreign Affairs, 25(3): 421-432. <;

Hammond, P. Y. (1963), “Directives for the occupation if Germany”, in H. Stein (Ed), American civil-military decisions; a book of case studies, University of Alabama Press.

Higham, C. (1983), Trading with the enemy: an expose of the Nazi-American money plot 1933-1949, New York, Delacorte Press.

Horowitz, D. (1971), The making of America’s China policy, Ramparts Magazine, 10(4): 40-47   <;

Hughes, M. & Seligmann, M. S. (2002), Does peace lead to war? Peace settlements and conflict in the modern age, Phoenix Mill, Sutton Publishing.

Keynes, J. M. (1920), The economic consequences of the peace, New York, Harcourt, Brace and Howe.

Kissinger, H. A. (1969), Nuclear weapons and foreign policy, New York, Norton.

Kraft, J. (1958), “School for statesmen”, Harper’s Magazine, 217(1298): 64-68. <;

Kuklick, B. (1972), American policy and the division of Germany; the clash with Russia over reparations. Ithaca N.Y., Cornell University Press.

Malkin, E. (2011), An apology for a Guatemalan coup, 57 years later, 20 Oct, website accessed 16 Aug 2014. <;

Mayer, A. J. (1967), Politics and diplomacy of peacemaking: containment and counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918-1919, New York, Knopf.

Nixon, R. M. (1967), Asia after Viet Nam, Foreign Affairs, 46(1): 111-125. <;

Perkins, J. (2004), Confessions of an economic hit man, San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Roberts, H. L. (1956), Russia and America: dangers and prospects, New York, Harper.

Schlesinger, S. C. & Kinzer, S. (2005) Bitter fruit: the story of the American coup in Guatemala, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University.

Shoup, L. H. & Minter, W. (2004), Imperial brain trust: the Council on Foreign Relations & United States foreign policy, New York, Authors Choice Press.

Sutton, A. C. (1976), Wall Street and the rise of Hitler, (Reprint 2012), California, Clairview.

Tully, A. (1962), CIA, the inside story, New York.

Wise, D (1965), The invisible government, London, Cape.

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