Readers of this column will know all about the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) by now. The CFR’s influence in setting Washington’s foreign policy agenda was once derided as “conspiracy theory.” But, as is often the case, that “conspiracy theory” is now a simple truism that is openly joked about by the conspirators themselves.What you may not know, however, is that the CFR is in fact a branch of a slightly older, slightly less-known organization: the Royal Institute of International Affairs. The idea for the group was hammered out at an informal session during the 1919 Paris peace conference. The Institute was formalized the next year, first as the British Institute of International Affairs, and then, after receiving its Royal Charter, as the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
The group has become synonymous with Chatham House, its headquarters in St. James’ Square, London, and is widely recognized among foreign policy experts as the most influential think tank in the world.
In the years since its inception, the RIIA has opened branches in countries across the British Commonwealth and around the world, including the Council on Foreign Relations, born largely from the same 1919 Paris meeting that birthed the Institute itself, the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the South African Institute of International Affairs, the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, the Canadian International Council, and similar organizations.
Officially, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, like its various branch organizations, is a non-profit, non-governmental think tank that promotes analysis of international issues and world affairs in topics such as energy, environment and resources, international economics, international security, and international law. Also like its branch organizations, the majority of the group’s publications and proceedings are open to the public and freely available via their website or their journal, International Affairs. (Of course, that’s “free” as in speech, not “free” as in pizza. You’ll need an “Oxford Academic” account if you want to access International Affairs online to read hot takes like “World politics 100 years after the Paris peace conference” by David Lloyd George’s great-granddaughter and former Rhodes Trustee Margaret MacMillan.)
The organization is funded by partners, patrons and a list of corporate members that read like a Who’s Who of the corporatocracy, including Chevron, AIG, Bloomberg, Toshiba, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Lockheed Martin, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil, and dozens of other corporations, institutions and foreign governments. Chatham House consistently attracts some of the best known speakers on a wide range of topics, releasing reports that set the global policy agenda, not only for Britain, but for much of the rest of the developed world as well.
Although the majority of its activities are publicly accessible, it is, perhaps tellingly, for its policy on keeping certain meetings private that the organization is best known. The policy is called The Chatham House Rule and states:
“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”….