Wall Street’s Think Tank
An interview with Laurence H. Shoup by Paul W. Rea
REA: Larry, tell us about your professional accomplishments and current interests.
SHOUP: My interests cluster around understanding and exposing both global power structures and alternatives to the existing system. I approach this from the point of view of someone who wants to help create a socio-economic and political system worthy of humanity’s best inclinations. This would be a society and civilization without racial, class, sexual and gender divisions and conflicts, one based on authentic democracy, equality, civil freedoms, respect for the natural world, generous social arrangements, empathy, peace, social justice, and solidarity.
When we look at the current monopoly-finance capital power structure, we can see how far we are from such a civilization. This is largely due to the concentrated power of the U.S. corporate plutocracy, led by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
How long have you been interested in the CFR and what about it has especially held your interest?
As a university student in the late 1960s, I first learned about the CFR when I read G. William Domhoff’s Who Rules America? As an anti-war and civil rights activist, I was struck by Domhoff’s exposé of the concentrated power of a few private plutocratic organizations, especially the CFR. So when it came time for me to choose a PhD dissertation topic, I decided to focus on the Council’s War and Peace Studies program during World War II and its important role in planning the post-war global order.
You no doubt have stories to tell—can you recount one or two that speak to the centrality of the CFR?
I have a number of interesting stories, but will just recount two here, the first involving a French student, and the second Dwight D. (“Ike”) Eisenhower, Allen Dulles and Harry S. Truman. When I was working on my dissertation, a student had just arrived from France to pursue advanced study in the U.S. We were having dinner at a mutual friend’s house when the French student asked me about the topic of my dissertation. I answered in vague terms that it was on the U.S. ruling class and foreign policy during World War II. He immediately responded by saying “Oh, you mean the Council on Foreign Relations.” I answered that indeed the Council was the focus of my dissertation, then asked how he knew about the CFR. He then said: “My uncle is the head of the French CIA, and this agency considers the CFR to be the ‘shadow government’ of the U.S.”
Henry Wriston, a former president of the Council, recalled that while Dwight Eisenhower was president of Columbia University and was a member of the Council during the late 1940s-early 1950s, he was part of a study group that also included CFR director Allen Dulles. When Eisenhower arrived at one of the meetings, Dulles noticed the general was out of sorts, angry and swearing. Dulles asked him what was the matter and Eisenhower replied that he had been appointed by President Truman to be NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, but that he intensely disliked the terms of the appointment, which limited his ability to meet with political leaders.
Dulles suggested that Eisenhower calm down, that the Council would find a solution. The first step was for Ike to formulate the terms he would like to have for the appointment. The study group then considered the issue, formulating the Eisenhower draft into a memo for the president. Dulles then took the night train to Washington, DC and arranged to have breakfast with fellow CFR director W. Averell Harriman. A special assistant to President Truman at that time, Harriman was able to present the memorandum to the president as the first item of business that morning. Truman asked Harriman if he agreed with the memorandum and, receiving an affirmative, agreed to change Ike’s terms of appointment.
Former CFR President Wriston claimed that this account only showed that it was the individual members of the CFR that had power, not the Council itself. What Wriston did not want to acknowledge, however, was that the CFR as an organization brings these powerful people together, creates consensus, unity, and action, and thereby concentrates and magnifies their power.
But how are consensus and unity achieved among 5,000 prominent individuals, many of them strong personalities?
Consensus and unity are, of course, never 100 percent achieved in the CFR. But the Council works toward and succeeds in developing a large measure of consensus through a number of means. First, it has a staff of about 80 scholars working on studying and publishing books, magazine articles, op-ed pieces, interviews, and blogs. They work under the top-down direction of a committee of the board of directors of the CFR, which is dominated by prominent leaders of the capitalist class.
Then the Council’s board sets up study groups, usually consisting of several dozen people with economic interests or intellectual expertise in a particular topic—say U.S. policy toward China. These study groups almost always include a scholar or two from the CFR’s own staff. They publish their policy conclusions and recommendations in reports, books, articles, blogs, and web sites and appear as experts on television programs and radio shows.
Next, the Council convenes meetings and conferences in New York, Washington, and around the country where their own members, senior government officials, global leaders, and prominent thinkers debate the major issues that the CFR believes need to be addressed. Then the Council publishes Foreign Affairs magazine and has an extensive website, influencing an attentive public who pay attention to economic and international affairs.
Finally, the CFR offers special programs to target specific audiences with their policy proposals, involving their members and others in developing wider consensus. For example, the Council currently runs programs on Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy; on Congress and U.S. foreign policy; on academic outreach; and on religion and foreign policy.
As the think tank for Wall Street, the CFR is the world’s most powerful private organization. The Council plays a key institutional role for the dominant sector of the U.S. capitalist class by organizing and carrying out strategic planning while fostering consensus within a large network of the powerful. It is the central “high command” organization of the plutocracy that rules the U.S. and much of the world. CFR people continuously carry their plans and policies into government, making the Council the most important center of a deep state that rules behind the scenes—a key way that the 1 percent conducts their class war against the 99 percent.
A focus on the Council is therefore an important way to understand the ideology, policies, sociology, and activities of the central ensemble of power relations of the U.S. and its informal global empire. Such knowledge can help activists, workers, and their organizations oppose this power and its profoundly negative consequences for people and the planet.
What are the origins and key historical facts about the Council?
The original CFR was founded on Wall Street in 1918, as World War I was nearing its end. At that point it was a small, exclusive businessman’s body whose orientation was fostering U.S. economic expansion abroad. Its leading figure was Wall Street lawyer and former cabinet official Elihu Root, who was an early in and outer, seamlessly moving between serving the plutocracy in private corporate life and serving plutocratic interests while in government. An adviser to leading banker J.P. Morgan as well as top industrialists like E. H. Harriman and Andrew Carnegie, Root served as Secretary of State, Secretary of War and as a U.S. Senator during the 1899-1915 period. During these years, Root was the main architect of America’s transformation from an insular continental nation to a major player on the world stage.
This strategic worldview resulted in U.S. participation in World War I. During that war, President Wilson created a post-war planning group called the Inquiry, mainly made up of leading U.S. scholars such as the geographer Isaiah Bowman of Johns Hopkins University, historians James Shotwell of Columbia, Archibald Cary Coolidge of Harvard, and many others. They were coordinated by journalist Walter Lippmann.
The Inquiry operated under the authority of Wilson’s top adviser, Edward House. Wilson and House brought the group to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that dictated several peace treaties—including the Versailles Treaty—to the defeated states. These treaties divided the spoils of an allied victory (including colonies like Syria and Iraq), punished Germany, and set up the League of Nations to try to assure the legitimacy of the new post-war order.
At Paris, the Inquiry planning group met informally with the British delegation and decided to form an Anglo-American Institute of International Affairs. The British side was closely connected with the Rhodes Trust and a related group called the Round Table, which sought to preserve and expand the British Empire.
The London branch became Chatham House, still a leading British think tank, but the American branch floundered until it joined with the original CFR businessman’s organization to create an enhanced Council on Foreign Relations in 1921. This new CFR united scholars with Wall Street businessmen, creating an organization of imperialist-oriented capitalists and their academic allies in leading U.S. universities.
The honorary president of the new CFR was Ehilu Root, who remained in this role until his death in 1937. Thus the CFR’s mode of operation is to bring men (and, beginning in 1970, women) of wealth and economic power together with intellectuals and apply their joint efforts to the problems of empire—especially how the U.S. could benefit from playing a dominant role in the world. Their objective has always been one of economic and geopolitical expansion of U.S. power.
How is their worldview manifested today?
The Council’s framework for world power today can be summed up by the term neoliberal geopolitics—used as part of the subtitle for Wall Street’s Think Tank—which unites the aggressive imperialist vision of CFR leaders like Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Henry Kissinger with less rabid imperialists like George H.W. Bush and Madeleine Albright, together with financial titans like David Rockefeller and Peter Peterson, both former chairs of the Council. These two finance capitalists, and many other CFR leaders, are focused on opening up business opportunities abroad.
The prime 21st century example of the destabilizing worldview and practice of neoliberal geopolitics is the U.S. war on Iraq from 2003-2011. This war was strongly advocated by the CFR, its leaders and members in and out of government— people like Cheney, Wolfowitz, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (who got her start in high-level politics at the Council in the 1980s), Secretary of State Colin Powell, CIA Director George Tenet, and many other CFR power brokers. The geopolitical war aim was to control a key source of the global oil supply, which would give the U.S. vast leverage over potential competitors like China, Western Europe, and Japan.
The neoliberal/neoconservative war aim was to create an Iraqi economy open to domination by U.S. and allied corporations. CFR members like L. Paul Bremer, John Negro- ponte, and David Petraeus were put in charge as dictators of Iraq. Their policies—such as privatization of state enterprises, opening Iraq’s oil industry to foreign corporations, a flat tax, removal of customs duties, and other measures—facilitated the penetration of U.S. and other foreign capital into Iraq. The strong resistance of the Iraqi people forced the modification of this neoliberal program, but also resulted in severe U.S. repression of the Iraqi resistance. The resulting chaos spawned ISIS and other movements of alienated Islamists that are now such a problem for the Middle East and the larger world community.
How does the think tank use its research to influence policy decisions?
It publishes Foreign Affairs magazine, the “Bible of foreign policy thinking,” and sponsors thousands of other publications—books, reports, blogs, articles, op-eds, interviews, etc.—during each decade. Every year the CFR holds hundreds of important meetings, both secret and open, with top U.S. and foreign leaders. Organizationally and through its leaders and members, it also develops networks both in the U.S. and globally, creating a community of the rich, powerful and famous. Finally, in administration after administration, both Democratic and Republican, it supplies far more top federal government officials than any other American private organization. We label these officials “in and outers,” because they go into government from the CFR, private business or academic life, then return to the private sector when their government service is completed.
What are the Council’s main international counterparts and what are the interconnections among them?
The CFR has its own Board of Global Advisers, currently made up of 24 prestigious individuals from key nations, both in developed and what the Council calls “emerging-market countries.” Almost all of those on this advisory board are either from prominent families or business leaders, often billionaires. The CFR has also established a “Council of Councils,” bringing together 26 influential policy institutes from the most powerful nations to foster dialogue and policy consensus.
Other important international bodies of the world plutocracy closely linked to the Council include the Bilderberg Group, the Trilateral Commission (founded and still guided by Council leaders), the Group of 30, the International Crisis Group and the yearly meetings at Davos, Switzerland. Together these bodies work to promote a neoliberal corporate capitalist world order with the U.S. and the CFR at the apex of power.
What do you see as the current threats to humanity’s future and where does the CFR stand on these issues?
I see two main threats today: the danger of major-power conflict that would greatly increase the military’s already very high level of carbon emissions and could lead to nuclear war, and the slow but deadly destruction of the ecological basis of life on earth. The first might involve Russia-China on one side and the U.S.-NATO-Japan on the other. A clash between these forces, for example between NATO and Russia over control of parts of Eastern Europe or between the U.S./Japan and China over control of the seas around China, could spark a nuclear holocaust with dire consequences.
The rise of extremely alienated and desperate groups like ISIS is also unsettling, since they apparently would not hesitate to use a weapon of mass destruction should they be able to acquire one. And CFR policies—aiming as they do at controlling global economic assets to serve capitalist-class interests—have caused wars like those on Iraq, increased the chaos and alienation and thus greatly increased this danger.
The origins of the ecological crisis are located in the nature of capitalism itself, especially its neoliberal version. As I explain in some detail in Wall Street’s Think Tank, the Council has studied this problem numerous times over the past decade and a half and has failed to develop any real solution, for it is first and foremost an institution by and for the capitalist class and its corporations.
What solutions would you offer?
While recognizing that real solutions to these fundamental problems can only come from an organized and active broader population, in Wall Street’s Think Tank I devote the concluding section to the best potential solutions to the rapidly worsening ecological crisis. Our genius as human beings is that we can dream and envision a world that has never existed and struggle to bring it into being, making concrete the slogan “another world is possible.” An active, informed minority always takes the lead in creating such a new and better world. As Margaret Mead once expressed it: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.”
The current ecological crisis—due to the impacts of capitalism and militarism based on massive fossil fuel use on the biosphere, oceans, fresh water systems, forests and soils—represents an epochal crisis of the existing system. This means that a revolutionary paradigm shift like the one that took place centuries ago from feudalism to capitalism is now necessary. In my view, this new revolutionary shift must now go from capitalism to ecosocialism, and must recognize that humans and nature are closely interconnected. Preserving all forms of life must now center on valuing, and restoring the natural world, fulfilling human needs within that new framework.
As the word itself indicates, ecosocialism combines ecological consciousness and practice, including nature valued for its own sake, as well as the ultimate source of life, with socialism, best defined as a fully democratic form of self-government with the vast majority—the associated workers and peasants—in control of the economy, politics, society, and culture. An ecosocialist society would be characterized by the full logic of life, with equality, social justice, peace, solidarity, and human development as central foci. Ecosocialism is, in many ways, the opposite of our current CFR fostered neoliberal geopolitical world order, characterized as it is by the logic of large-scale private capital accumulation for the rich, resulting in competition, alienation, inequality, rivalries, war and ecocide.
As Einstein remarked, “We shall require a substantially new mode of thinking if mankind is to survive.” Now more than ever, we urgently need such fresh thinking and action as well. Humanity can only have a future if we, the people, the great majority, take that future into our own hands by asserting our right to alter a destructive and undemocratic system, to make it into one that both saves the planet and serves the needs of all.
Would you see attempts at the UN Climate Change Conference to reduce government subsidies for fossil-fuel industries as a necessary step? More broadly, what are your thoughts on the COP 21 Conference?
Eliminating fossil-fuel subsidies is an important initial step, but organized mass movements of committed people who will fight for their own and humanity’s future are most necessary now. We need such movements to push for the much more fundamental changes needed for the survival of our own and other species on this planet.
I view the United Nations-led effort as one gigantic public relations fraud, aiming to convince people that the leaders in charge of today’s world both know what they are doing and have the best interests of the people and the planet at heart. Even if all the commitments made at the Paris Climate Conference were to be completely fulfilled in a timely fashion (something very unlikely), capitalist ecocide would continue, only at a slightly slower pace. We would still be driving rapidly towards the precipice represented by out-of-control global warming.