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Constituted of over three hundred leading politicians, businesspeople, and intellectuals from Western Europe, Japan, and North America, the Trilateral Commission was founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller, then chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank. Rockefeller had called for the establishment of the organization in a 1972 speech before the Bilderberg Group, a secretive post-World War II (1939-1945) discussion forum regularly attended by heads of state and other “influentials” from Europe and the United States.
In the wake of the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in the early 1970s, many members of the Bilderberg Group were concerned that the unilateralist foreign and economic policies of U.S. President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) were jeopardizing the cold war liberal order. Launched in 1946, the system was constituted by a set of multilaterally agreed-upon rules for regulating commercial and financial relations among the world’s most powerful states. Given the rise of Japan and West Germany as economic powers and the decreased capacity of the U.S. state to direct world affairs, they feared a return to the “beggar-thy-neighbor” interstate rivalry that had characterized the interwar years. As such, they believed that the responsibility to lead would now have to be shared among the advanced nations.
The Trilateral Commission was established to bring together leading intellectuals and policymakers from the United States, Europe, and Japan in order to forge among them such consensus as necessary for the successful “collective management” of the world economy. The chairmen of the Commission detailed the group’s philosophy of international cooperation in the foreword to a collection of the Commission’s early Triangle Papers (task force reports). There they suggested that Trilateral cooperation should be based not on “coercion and arm-twisting, but on the mutuality of interest and indeed on the longer-term interest of mankind” (Berthoin, Smith, and Watanabe 1977, p. viii).
The first public statement of the Trilateral Commission was issued in Tokyo in October 1973. It spoke of both the “new problems” confronting nation-states under conditions of complex interdependency and the “special responsibility” of the Trilateral countries for “developing effective cooperation, both in their own interests, and in those of the rest of the world.” Moreover, it set out the agreed-upon rules and procedures to govern the official interactions between Trilateral countries. It stipulated that they should work with each other “on the basis of equality” and avoid any such unilateral interaction as would be “incompatible with their interdependence.” In closing, it elaborated the “creative role” of the Commission in generating consensus among its constituent states through a “sustained process of consultation and mutual education” (Trilateral Commission 1973, pp. 1-2).
The highlight of the Trilateral Commission’s year is its annual plenary meeting. These sessions are supposed to build collegiality among the members, allowing them to develop trust in each other and familiarity with each other’s customs. Among the agenda items generally discussed at plenaries are the reports of special “task forces,” directions in future research, and possible new members. The preparation of task force reports is an essential part of Commission activity. Task forces focus on a variety of topics, from such immediate concerns as currency market fluctuations and arms control, to more long-term issues like the impact of technological transformation on world affairs.
Founded as a nonpermanent organization, the Trilateral Commission must regularly meet to review its purposes and determine if it wishes to continue operation. Such reviews happen every three years (every “triennium,” in the official jargon). The business of each region is steered by a chairperson, with daily activities managed by a director. An Executive Committee provides overall direction and initiates the Commission’s policy studies. There is also a Program Advisory Board that advises the director and regional chairpersons on policy studies.
Criticisms of the Trilateral Commission have been issued from both the left and the right. Left-wing critics see the organization as a booster club for transnational elite interests. Stephen Gill (1990), for example, argues that the Commission is an “ideological apparatus” developed by a transnational capitalist class in response to the general crisis of American hegemony presented by the end of the Bretton Woods system.
Critics on the extreme right, like Lyndon LaRouche, argue that the Trilateral Commission is part of a global network of “Anglo-American Liberal Establishment” organizations that constitute the “shadow government” of the United States. In 1980 LaRouche accused George W. Bush of being an agent of the Trilateral Commission in order to help Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) win the Republican presidential nomination (see Berlet and Lyons 2000).
Large portions of the American delegations to the Trilateral Commission are often drawn from the political elite. Many of the original U.S. delegation went on to serve in the Jimmy Carter administration (1977-1981), including President Carter himself, Vice President Walter Mondale, security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance (1917-2002). In 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney was also a member. Representatives of the U.S. delegation are often also members of the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential Washington, D.C., think tank.
- Berlet, Chip, and Matthew N. Lyons. 2000. Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York: Guilford.
- Berthoin, Georges, Gordon S. Smith, and Takeshi Watanabe. 1977. Foreword. In Trilateral Commission Task Force Reports: A Compilation of Reports from the First Two Years of the Trilateral Commission, 1–7. New York: New York University Press.
- Gill, Stephen. 1990. American Hegemony and the Trilateral Commission. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Trilateral Commission. 1973. Statement of Purposes. Trialogue: A Bulletin of North American-European-Japanese Affairs 2: 1–2.
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