The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) ‘evolved from a monthly dinner club’ in 1921. By the 1970s, when business mobilized, it was the largest of the policy organizations and by 2008 it had around 4500 members, many of whom were not active participants doing little more than receiving reports and attending banquets. Its links with the corporate class have been well documented. ‘In a study of the directors of 201 large corporations, it was found that 125 of these companies had 293 interlocks with the CFR. Twenty-three of the largest banks and corporations had four or more directors who were members.’
As its name suggests, CFR is concerned with foreign affairs policy. CFR is considered non-partisan because it does not favor either the Republicans or the Democrats, however its partisanship lies in its links with the corporate class. Its corporate members (See Corporate Members) have included Alcoa, American Express, AIG, BP, Citigroup, Coca-Cola, ExxonMobil, Ford Motor, General Electric, GlaxoSmithKline, JPMorgan Chase, Lockheed Martin, McGraw-Hill, Nike, Pfizer, Shell Oil and many others.
CFR has an annual revenue of $69 million (2016) and is funded by corporations, wealthy individuals and subscriptions to its magazine, Foreign Affairs, as well as large foundations for special projects (see Funding Sources). Its main activity is holding discussion and study groups that bring together small groups of business leaders, senior government officials and members of Congress, academics and military officers to discuss specific aspects of foreign policy. Speakers are invited from governments around the world. Discussion groups, held about one a month, can lead to more intensive study groups and then books and other publications.
In 1973 the CFR chair, David Rockefeller, founded the Trilateral Commission. Rockefeller became co-chair of the Trilateral Commission with Zbigniew Brzezinski, also a CFR member.
In 1979 G. William Domhoff noted that 'Many council members are directly involved in the making of foreign policy in Washington. "Over a third of the Council's 1500 members have been called on by the government during the last 20 years to undertake official responsibilities," reports a council publication.'
Unlike many think tanks, CFR is based on an invited membership of "the most prestigious and best connected of the nation's financial and corporate institutions, universities, foundations, media and government bodies" rather than the employment of 'scholars' and former government personnel. Its aim is to build an "elite consensus on important foreign policy issues" through meetings, networking and publications. Thomas Dye wrote in 1990 that "every person of influence in foreign affairs" in the US, including presidents, had been members of CFR and that is still the case.
The revolving door between government and the CFR has included:
Think Tank Watch counted more than 90 members or personnel of CFR who had gone into the Obama Administration.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, the CFR is one of the top two think tanks in the US in terms of influence.