Unelected operatives play an outsized role in crafting foreign policy
Big business in the US supported a coup regime to overhthrow Bolivia's President Evo Morales. The people of Bolivia, however, kicked out the coup regime and in this photo celebrated the return of Morales. | Center for International Relations

It’s probably safe to say that most Americans would hope the major foreign policy actions of the United States would be determined by their elected officials in Congress and the White House. In reality, much of the foreign policy of the U.S. is first crafted behind closed doors by individuals that the public never voted for, and the way in which corporate news media reports on foreign policy is altered to suit the interests of these individuals.

If U.S. citizens ever wondered why the extremely unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for so long, or why the government installs hundreds of military bases around the world, it would do some good to learn more about the influence of the Council on Foreign Relations.

First known as The Institute of International Affairs, the group was formed in 1918 with the goal of protecting U.S. business interests abroad in the aftermath of World War I. It began as discreet meetings in New York that brought together high-ranking bankers, manufacturers, and heads of finance companies who met with policymakers and lawyers. Its first head was a corporate lawyer named Elihu Root, who also served as Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt. These early meetings were concerned with “the effect that the war and the treaty of peace might have on postwar business.”

By 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations was officially formed, comprised of high-level government officials, lawyers, bankers, diplomats, and even more major industrialists, who continued conferring with one another to protect their interests.

One of the Council’s first acts was to create a magazine that would be the “authoritative” source on foreign affairs. Edwin F. Gay, former dean of Harvard Business School, sent out a letter to the “thousand richest Americans” soliciting funds for Foreign Affairs magazine.

The founders of the CFR and of Foreign Affairs seemed to be in agreement that the nature of U.S. foreign policy should not be simply defensive, but offensive and expansive, or in another word, imperialist. Gay had earlier said, “When I think of the British Empire as our inheritance, I think simply of the natural right of succession. The ultimate succession is inevitable.”

This “inevitable succession” of empire was supported from the outset by the country’s most powerful capitalist institutions. The Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, The Federal Reserve Bank, and many other major capitalist institutions all contributed large donations, with the explicit purpose of expanding the Council’s influence on U.S. public opinion. Smaller “committees on foreign relations” were formed around the country, with the goal of helping “in the education of American public opinion to understand and support…the right kind of American foreign policy.”

It quickly became clear that the “right kind of American foreign policy” meant whatever would most benefit the wealthy members of the Council and keep profits flowing into the imperial core. The hawkish ambitions of the Council became even more pronounced after the start of the Cold War, when more than ever before, U.S. capitalist profits were threatened by socialist and workers’ movements around the world.

Came up with “containment”

In fact, it was the Council on Foreign Relations that first came up with the concept of “containment” as a policy to take towards communism. This idea of “containing” communism through means of sanctions, economic sabotage, military intervention, and election interference would go on to shape U.S. foreign policy for over half a century, and indeed still does today.

George Kennan, the member of the Council who coined the term “containment,” even admitted years later that; “I didn’t suspect the Russians of any desire to launch an attack on us. This was right after the war (WWII), and it was absurd to suppose that they were going to turn around and attack the United States.” Despite knowing the Soviets had no desire for a conflict, the idea of “containment” served an important purpose for the members of the Council, ensuring their investments around the globe would be protected from the spread of popular worker’s movements.

During this period, the Council became even more entrenched in the government. Out of a survey of 502 federal government officials from 1945 to 1972, more than half of them were members of the CFR, setting up a system where the heads of U.S. industry had a direct line to officials concerning their policy preferences.

One of the most notable leaders of the Council at this time, with extensive influence, was David Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Rockefeller, who sat on the Council’s board of directors and later became its chairman. As chairman, David Rockefeller placed great emphasis on supporting the Shah of Iran, a military dictator who was placed in power after a CIA-backed coup that overthrew the country’s democratically elected government in order to keep its oil market open to U.S. and British firms. When the Shah was eventually ousted from Iran in 1979, Rockefeller was one of the main figures who convinced President Carter to grant him asylum.

Another example of how the CFR has functioned to benefit the ruling class when it comes to the spoils of imperialism is the story of Dick Cheney. Cheney first served as a U.S. congressman and foreign policy insider, eventually joining the Defense Department and finding his way into the position of director of the CFR twice, from 1987 to 1989 and again from 1993 to 1995.

During the time that Cheney headed the Council, it continued promoting hawkish policies, with a particular interest in the Middle East. Foreign Affairs at the time decried Iraq and Iran as “Outlaw States” that had to be “confronted” by the U.S. After his years of involvement in the CFR and adding to the tensions and conflicts in the Middle East, Cheney became CEO of Halliburton, one of the world’s largest oil field service corporations. Then, in his role as Vice President under George W. Bush, Cheney profited from the disastrous war in Iraq that he had helped promote. Halliburton was given special government contracts to take control of oil fields in Iraq, and Cheney was still receiving paychecks from them. The controversy of Cheney and his war profiteering has been discussed extensively in other publications, but it’s important to point out that his role in the CFR helped him get there by networking with other would-be war profiteers and shaping the narrative around conflict in the Middle East through Foreign Affairs and the various media corporations associated with the Council.

These are only a few examples of the CFR’s involvement in the Cold War and forced regime-change operations, but nearly all the major imperialist moves of the U.S. government in this period, from the illegal embargo against Cuba to the genocidal wars against Vietnam and Korea, were all fervently supported by the Council, carried out by its members, and excused by its compliant media.

Have strengthened their role

Looking at the membership of the Council today shows that the beneficiaries of imperialism have continued and strengthened their long-standing role in determining U.S. foreign policy. The current president of the CFR is Richard N. Haas, another architect of war-for-profit in the Middle East, who played a key role in planning Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, which included war crimes like the notorious Highway of Death. Other notable current members of the Council include the heads of many banks and private equity firms, like David M. Rubenstein of The Carlyle Group, Blair Effron of Centerview Partners, and countless other banking and financial billionaires. Also in top spots on the Council are former CIA and National Security officials like Jami Miscik, Stephen Hadley, along with many corporate media figures like the former Chairman and CEO of HBO, Richard Plepler, and even journalists like Margaret Warner of PBS and Fareed Zakaria of CNN, Time magazine and Washington Post.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney played a major role in CFR interference in the affairs of other countries. | Eric Gay/AP

It’s no wonder then that these corporate media networks report favorably on countries that comply with American business interests, but unfavorably on countries that oppose American business interests. Let’s look to recent events in Latin America for good examples of this. In Bolivia, when the popular indigenous and socialist leader Evo Morales won reelection on a platform of nationalizing certain industries and taking back the countries’ resources from multinational corporations, almost all of those same media corporations involved in the CFR, such as CNN, New York Times and many others, resolutely claimed Evo Morales was committing election fraud, despite no evidence. They claimed he was “authoritarian” as they praised the military coup that ousted him (while referring to it as a genuine, pro-democracy protest). When the right-wing coup regime took power and murdered peaceful indigenous protestors, the corporate media went virtually silent on Bolivia. Hardly any of the major media networks in the U.S. covered the mass protests that called for the return of Morales, or the violence created by the new right-wing government. The left-wing threat to American business interests had been dealt with, so they had no need to report on actual government crimes and human rights abuses.

Venezuela provides another stark example. Similarly, after Nicolas Maduro won an election in 2018 and promised to continue the socialist policies of his predecessor Hugo Chavez, U.S. media condemned him as a dictator and declared his election illegitimate. This is despite the fact that election observers such as the Carter Center have closely monitored and praised the Venezuelan electoral system. Even former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, founder of the Carter Center, said: “Of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” Yet, another right-wing coup attempt engulfed the country, with the open support of the U.S. government and media. It’s clear to many observers that the purpose of the coup attempt has been for American companies to take control of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, as former National Security Advisor John Bolton even admitted in a Fox News interview.

The results of the coup attempt and sanctions have been disastrous on Venezuela, causing an estimated 40,000 deaths, yet the American media continued to blame the crisis on Maduro and his socialist party. Many of the current and former government officials that sit on the CFR have a long history of accepting money from the fossil fuel lobby, so it’s no wonder that the media corporations involved with the Council function this way. After all, they were always intended to make sure the American public supports “the right kind of American foreign policy.”

U.S. politicians often boast about this country having a “free” press, but if there’s any key takeaway from this article, it should be that, at least in the realm of foreign policy, the mainstream American press functions not as an independent check on government power, but as an extension of the imperialist ambitions of the U.S. ruling class, and the Council on Foreign Relations plays a major role in this exploitative world system, as well as the false narratives created to justify it.


Daniel Renken
Daniel Renken

Daniel is a freelance writer, contributor to People’s World, and college student studying for a PhD in history. He has a particular interest in writing from an anti-imperialist and pro-worker perspective.