Council on Foreign Relations

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), founded in 1921, is a United States nonprofit think tank specializing in U.S. foreign policy and international affairs. It is headquartered in New York City, with an additional office in Washington, D.C. Its membership, which numbers 4,900, has included senior politicians, more than a dozen secretaries of state, CIA directors, bankers, lawyers, professors and senior media figures. It is known for its neoconservative and neoliberal leanings.[under discussion as of December 2019]

Council on Foreign Relations
Formation1921 (1921)
TypePublic policy think tank
Headquarters58 East 68th Street
Richard N. Haass
Revenue (2015)
Expenses (2015)$69,931,200[1]

The CFR meetings convene government officials, global business leaders and prominent members of the intelligence and foreign-policy community to discuss international issues. CFR publishes the bi-monthly journal Foreign Affairs, and runs the David Rockefeller Studies Program, which influences foreign policy by making recommendations to the presidential administration and diplomatic community, testifying before Congress, interacting with the media and publishing on foreign policy issues.


Origins, 1918 to 1945

Towards the end of World War I, a working fellowship of about 150 scholars called "The Inquiry" was tasked to brief President Woodrow Wilson about options for the postwar world when Germany was defeated. This academic band, including Wilson's closest adviser and long-time friend "Colonel" Edward M. House, as well as Walter Lippmann, met to assemble the strategy for the postwar world.[2]:13–14 The team produced more than 2,000 documents detailing and analyzing the political, economic, and social facts globally that would be helpful for Wilson in the peace talks. Their reports formed the basis for the Fourteen Points, which outlined Wilson's strategy for peace after war's end. These scholars then traveled to the Paris Peace Conference, 1919 and participated in the discussions there.[3]:1–5

As a result of discussions at the Peace Conference, a small group of British and American diplomats and scholars met on May 30, 1919 at the Hotel Majestic in Paris and decided to create an Anglo-American organization called "The Institute of International Affairs", which would have offices in London and New York.[2]:12[3]:5 Due to the isolationist views prevalent in American society at the time, the scholars had difficulty gaining traction with their plan, and turned their focus instead to a set of discreet meetings that had been taking place since June 1918 in New York City, under the name "Council on Foreign Relations." The meetings were headed by the corporate lawyer Elihu Root, who had served as Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt, and attended by 108 “high-ranking officers of banking, manufacturing, trading and finance companies, together with many lawyers.” The members were proponents of Wilson's internationalism, but were particularly concerned about "the effect that the war and the treaty of peace might have on postwar business."[3]:6–7 The scholars from the inquiry saw an opportunity to create an organization that brought diplomats, high-level government officials and academics together with lawyers, bankers, and industrialists to engineer government policy. On July 29, 1921 they filed a certification of incorporation, officially forming the Council on Foreign Relations.[3]:8–9 In 1922 Edwin F. Gay, former dean of the Harvard Business School and director of the Shipping Board during the war, spearheaded the Council's efforts to begin publication of a magazine that would be the "authoritative" source on foreign policy. He gathered $125,000 from the wealthy members on the council, and via sending letters soliciting funds to "the thousand richest Americans". Using these funds, the first issue of Foreign Affairs was published in September 1922, and within a few years had gained a reputation as the "most authoritative American review dealing with international relations".[2]:17–18

[T]he common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.

Former CFR board member Walter Lippman,
Public Opinion (1922)

In the late 1930s, the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation began contributing large amounts of money to the Council.[4] In 1938 they created various Committees on Foreign Relations, which later became governed by the American Committees on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., throughout the country, funded by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation. Influential men were to be chosen in a number of cities, and would then be brought together for discussions in their own communities as well as participating in an annual conference in New York. These local committees served to influence local leaders and shape public opinion to build support for the Council's policies, while also acting as "useful listening posts" through which the Council and U.S. government could "sense the mood of the country".[2]:30–31

Beginning in 1939 and lasting for five years, the Council achieved much greater prominence within the government and the State Department, when it established the strictly confidential War and Peace Studies, funded entirely by the Rockefeller Foundation.[3]:23 The secrecy surrounding this group was such that the Council members who were not involved in its deliberations were completely unaware of the study group's existence.[3]:26 It was divided into four functional topic groups: economic and financial, security and armaments, territorial, and political. The security and armaments group was headed by Allen Welsh Dulles who later became a pivotal figure in the CIA's predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. The CFR ultimately produced 682 memoranda for the State Department, marked classified and circulated among the appropriate government departments.[3]:23–26

Cold War era, 1945 to 1979

A critical study found that of 502 government officials surveyed from 1945 to 1972, more than half were members of the Council.[3]:48 During the Eisenhower administration 40% of the top U.S. foreign policy officials were CFR members (Eisenhower himself had been a council member); under Truman, 42% of the top posts were filled by council members. During the Kennedy administration, this number rose to 51%, and peaked at 57% under the Johnson administration.[2]:62–64

In an anonymous piece called "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" that appeared in Foreign Affairs in 1947, CFR study group member George Kennan coined the term "containment". The essay would prove to be highly influential in US foreign policy for seven upcoming presidential administrations. Forty years later, Kennan explained that he had never suspected the Russians of any desire to launch an attack on America; he thought that it was obvious enough and he did not need to explain it in his essay. William Bundy credited the CFR's study groups with helping to lay the framework of thinking that led to the Marshall Plan and NATO. Due to new interest in the group, membership grew towards 1,000.[3]:35–39

Dwight D. Eisenhower chaired a CFR study group while he served as President of Columbia University. One member later said, "whatever General Eisenhower knows about economics, he has learned at the study group meetings."[3]:35–44 The CFR study group devised an expanded study group called "Americans for Eisenhower" to increase his chances for the presidency. Eisenhower would later draw many Cabinet members from CFR ranks and become a CFR member himself. His primary CFR appointment was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Dulles gave a public address at the Harold Pratt House in New York City in which he announced a new direction for Eisenhower's foreign policy: "There is no local defense which alone will contain the mighty land power of the communist world. Local defenses must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power." After this speech, the council convened a session on "Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy" and chose Henry Kissinger to head it. Kissinger spent the following academic year working on the project at Council headquarters. The book of the same name that he published from his research in 1957 gave him national recognition, topping the national bestseller lists.[3]:39–41

On November 24, 1953, a study group heard a report from political scientist William Henderson regarding the ongoing conflict between France and Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh forces, a struggle that would later become known as the First Indochina War. Henderson argued that Ho's cause was primarily nationalist in nature and that Marxism had "little to do with the current revolution." Further, the report said, the United States could work with Ho to guide his movement away from Communism. State Department officials, however, expressed skepticism about direct American intervention in Vietnam and the idea was tabled. Over the next twenty years, the United States would find itself allied with anti-Communist South Vietnam and against Ho and his supporters in the Vietnam War.[3]:40, 49–67

The Council served as a "breeding ground" for important American policies such as mutual deterrence, arms control, and nuclear non-proliferation.[3]:40–42

In 1962 the group began a program of bringing select Air Force officers to the Harold Pratt House to study alongside its scholars. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps requested they start similar programs for their own officers.[3]:46

A four-year-long study of relations between America and China was conducted by the Council between 1964 and 1968. One study published in 1966 concluded that American citizens were more open to talks with China than their elected leaders. Henry Kissinger had continued to publish in Foreign Affairs and was appointed by President Nixon to serve as National Security Adviser in 1969. In 1971, he embarked on a secret trip to Beijing to broach talks with Chinese leaders. Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, and diplomatic relations were completely normalized by President Carter's Secretary of State, another Council member, Cyrus Vance.[3]:42–44

Vietnam created a rift within the organization. When Hamilton Fish Armstrong announced in 1970 that he would be leaving the helm of Foreign Affairs after 45 years, new chairman David Rockefeller approached a family friend, William Bundy, to take over the position. Anti-war advocates within the Council rose in protest against this appointment, claiming that Bundy's hawkish record in the State and Defense Departments and the CIA precluded him from taking over an independent journal. Some considered Bundy a war criminal for his prior actions.[3]:50–51

In November 1979, while chairman of the CFR, David Rockefeller became embroiled in an international incident when he and Henry Kissinger, along with John J. McCloy and Rockefeller aides, persuaded President Jimmy Carter through the State Department to admit the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, into the US for hospital treatment for lymphoma. This action directly precipitated what is known as the Iran hostage crisis and placed Rockefeller under intense media scrutiny (particularly from The New York Times) for the first time in his public life.[5][6] In his book White House Diary, Carter wrote of the affair, "April 9 [1979] David Rockefeller came in, apparently to induce me to let the shah come to the United States. Rockefeller, Kissinger, and Brzezinski seem to be adopting this as a joint project..."

Current status


The CFR's website states that their mission is to be "a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries".

It convenes meetings at which government officials, global leaders and prominent members of the foreign policy community discuss major international issues. Its think tank, the David Rockefeller Studies Program, is composed of about fifty adjunct and full-time scholars, as well as ten in-residence recipients of year-long fellowships, who cover the major regions and significant issues shaping today's international agenda. These scholars contribute to the foreign policy debate by making recommendations to the presidential administration, testifying before Congress, serving as a resource to the diplomatic community, interacting with the media, authoring books, reports, articles, and op-eds on foreign policy issues.

In the context of critical theory on global capitalism, some social scientists name the CFR prominently among an array of elite planning, or policy-making organizations, such as the Trilateral Commission and the Business Roundtable, that they see as working together with other powerful entities across capitalist society in pursuit of common interests.[7][8][9] Political scientist William Aviles, for example, includes the CFR among a class of "transnational policy-making institutions" that he contends have worked in tandem with Western governments and international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to "expand free trade, reduce regulations upon the investments of transnational corporations, and accelerate the integration of markets through economic blocs (such as the North American Free Trade Association or the European Union)."[7]


There are two types of membership: life, and term membership, which lasts for 5 years and is available to those between 30 and 36. Only U.S. citizens (native born or naturalized) and permanent residents who have applied for U.S. citizenship are eligible. A candidate for life membership must be nominated in writing by one Council member and seconded by a minimum of three others. Visiting fellows are prohibited from applying for membership until they have completed their fellowship tenure.[10]

Corporate membership (250 in total) is divided into "Associates", "Affiliates", "President's Circle" and "Founders". All corporate executive members have opportunities to hear speakers, including foreign heads of state, chairmen and CEOs of multinational corporations, and U.S. officials and Congressmen. President and premium members are also entitled to attend small, private dinners or receptions with senior American officials and world leaders.[11]

Board members

Members of the CFR's board of directors include:[12]

Former board members

Former members of the CFR's board of directors include:[12]

Policy initiatives

The CFR started a program in 2008 to last for 5 years and funded by a grant from the Robina Foundation called "International Institutions and Global Governance" which aimed to identify the institutional requirements for effective multilateral cooperation in the 21st century.[13]

The CFR's Maurice C. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, directed by scholar and author Sebastian Mallaby, works to promote a better understanding among policymakers, academic specialists, and the interested public of how economic and political forces interact to influence world affairs.[14]

The CFR's Center for Preventive Action (CPA) seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention. It does so by creating a forum in which representatives of governments, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, corporations, and civil society can gather to develop operational and timely strategies for promoting peace in specific conflict situations.

Foreign Affairs

The council publishes the international affairs magazine Foreign Affairs. It also establishes independent task forces, which bring together various experts to produce reports offering both findings and policy prescriptions on foreign policy topics. The CFR has sponsored more than fifty reports, including the Independent Task Force on the Future of North America that published report No, 53, titled Building a North American Community, in May 2005.[15]

Charity rating

The council received a three star rating (out of a possible four stars) from Charity Navigator in fiscal year 2016, as measured by their analysis of the council's financial data and "accountability and transparency".[16]

Opposition to the CFR

The Council has been the subject of debates over sovereignty and accusations of undue influence on US foreign policy. This is primarily due to the number of high-ranking government officials (along with world business leaders and prominent media figures) in its membership and the large number of aspects of American foreign policy that its members have been involved with. The Council is also actively opposed by a number of writers and organizations, most of whom are paleoconservative. Their chief criticism of the CFR is its stated policy goal of global integration. For example, the John Birch Society claims that the CFR is "Guilty of conspiring with others to build a one world government...."[17][18]

See also



  • Foreign Affairs (quarterly)
  • The United States in World Affairs (annual)[19]
  • Political Handbook of the World (annual)[19]


  • Tobin, Harold J. & Bidwell, Percy W. Mobilizing Civilian America. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1940.
  • Savord, Ruth. American Agencies Interested in International Affairs. Council on Foreign Relations, 1942.
  • Barnett, A. Doak. Communist China and Asia: Challenge To American Policy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960. LCCN 60-5956
  • Bundy, William P. (ed.). Two Hundred Years of American Foreign Policy. New York University Press, 1977. ISBN 978-0814709900
  • Clough, Michael. Free at Last? U.S. Policy Toward Africa and the End of the Cold War. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1991. ISBN 0876091001
  • Mandelbaum, Michael. The Rise of Nations in the Soviet Union: American Foreign Policy and the Disintegration of the USSR. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1991. ISBN 978-0876091005
  • Gottlieb, Gidon. Nation Against State: A New Approach to Ethnic Conflicts and the Decline of Sovereignty. New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993. ISBN 0876091591



  • Schulzinger, Robert D. (1984). The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231055285.
  • Wala, Michael (1994). The Council on Foreign Relations and American Foreign Policy in the Early Cold War. Providence, RI: Berghann Books. ISBN 157181003X.
  • Parmar, Inderjeet (2004). Think Tanks and Power in Foreign Policy: A Comparative Study of the Role and Influence of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1939-1945. London: Palgrave.


  • Kassenaar, Lisa. "Wall Street's New Prize: Park Avenue Club House With World View". Bloomberg December 15, 2005. [Profile of the Council and its new members.]
  • Sanger, David E. "Iran's Leader Relishes 2nd Chance to Make Waves". The New York Times. September 21, 2006, Foreign Desk: A1, col. 2 (Late ed.-Final). Accessed February 23, 2007. (TimesSelect subscription access). ("Over the objections of the administration and Jewish groups that boycotted the event, Mr. Ahmadinejad, the man who has become the defiant face of Iran, squared off with the nation’s foreign policy establishment, parrying questions for an hour and three-quarters with two dozen members of the Council on Foreign Relations, then ending the evening by asking whether they were simply shills for the Bush administration.")


  1. "Council on Foreign Relations Inc" (PDF). Foundation Center. Retrieved August 24, 2017.
  2. Shoup, Lawrence H. & Minter, William (1977). Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy. Monthly Review Press. ISBN 0-85345-393-4.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  3. Grose, Peter (2006). Continuing the Inquiry: The Council on Foreign Relations from 1921 to 1996. Council on Foreign Relations Press. ISBN 0876091923.
  4. O'Brien, Thomas F. (1999). The Century of U.S. Capitalism in Latin America. UNM Press. pp. 105–106. ISBN 9780826319968.
  5. Rothbard, Murray, Why the War? The Kuwait Connection Archived February 5, 2016, at the Wayback Machine (May 1991)
  6. Scrutiny by NYT over the Shah of Iran – David Rockefeller, Memoirs (pp. 356–75)
  7. Avilés, William (2007). Global Capitalism, Democracy, and Civil-Military Relations in Colombia. SUNY Press. p. 13. ISBN 9780791467008.
  8. Robinson, William I. (2004). A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. JHU Press. p. 126. ISBN 9780801879272.
  9. Barrow, Clyde W. (1993). Critical Theories of the State: Marxist, Neomarxist, Postmarxist. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 33. ISBN 9780299137137.
  10. "Individual Membership".
  11. ""Corporate Program"" (PDF). (330 KB)
  12. "Board of Directors". Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved October 10, 2019.
  13. "International Institutions and Global Governance". Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved June 1, 2010.
  14. "Maurice C. Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies". Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved June 1, 2010.
  15. "President's Welcome". Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved February 24, 2007.
  16. Charity Navigator. "Council on Foreign Relations – A nonpartisan resource for information and analysis". Charity Navigator. Retrieved May 23, 2015.
  17. "Letting the CFR Cat Out of the Bag". Archived from the original on January 15, 2010. Retrieved November 3, 2009.
  18. Letting the CFR Cat Out of the Bag – The John Birch Society. Retrieved on August 24, 2013.
  19. Tobin, Harold J. & Bidwell, Percy W. "Publications of the Council on Foreign Relations." Mobilizing Civilian America. Council on Foreign Relations, 1940.
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