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.”
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.”
The rule is ostensibly invoked to encourage debate on contentious issues, the theory being that prominent individuals would not be willing or able to discuss their full views on these subjects if their identity and affiliations were to be publicly known.
Some of the most infamous and criticized secretive meetings in the world, including the Bilderberg conference, adhere to Chatham House Rules, inviting charges of secrecy and hidden influence.
When it comes to a group like the Royal Insitute of International Affairs, it is hard to argue that such charges are misplaced.
That the group publishes its International Affairs magazine under the auspices of Oxford University speaks to the think tank’s historical roots.
Born from the ashes of WWI, the RIIA was brought into existence by the same people that brought about “The WWI Conspiracy.” As viewers of my work on the subject will know by now, the “Great War” was in part engineered by a (not-so-secret) secret society formally created by Cecil Rhodes in 1891.
Rhodes’ society was designed to function on what G. Edward Griffin has termed “The Quigley Formula,” wherein a small clique creates a larger organization that they populate with like-minded collaborators from whom they keep the real aims and goals of the society. By this method, groups of hundreds or even thousands of people can be directed towards certain ends by a small group of conspirators.
As G. Edward Griffin points out, Carroll Quigley’s work, especially The Anglo-American Establishment, alerted the public to the existence of this group and some of its key members, from Alfred Milner and Lord Esher to Lionel Curtis and Lord Lothian.
Largely excluded from the history books today, Alfred Milner was a journalist who was plucked from obscurity by Stead, who appointed him as assistant editor at the Pall Mall Gazette.
Stead and Rhodes used their influence to have Milner appointed High Commissioner for Southern Africa in 1897, an important and influential position in the years leading up to the Boer War. Milner mentored a group of young lawyers and administrators, mostly affiliated with Oxford University, who became known as “Milner’s Kindergarten.”
These figures went on to become some of the most influential figures in the foreign affairs of the early 20th century British Empire, including Lord Lothian, Philip Henry Karr, Robert Henry Brand of Lazard Brothers, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, and Lionel Curtis, the acknowledged founder of the Royal Institute of International Affairs.
From its inception, the group was intended to be a talking shop for the leaders of the Anglo-American establishment to debate, decide on, and implement their agenda, which could then be hand-delivered to whichever politicians happened to be in office at the time.
This elitist attitude towards governance was baked into the cake from the moment the group was founded. As Jim Macgregor and Gerry Docherty note in their book, Prolonging the Agony: How the Anglo-American Establishment Deliberately Extended WWI:
“They [the members of Rhodes’ secret society] took the successful Round Table Group and remodeled it into The Institute of International Affairs. Smothered in words which when decoded meant that they would work together to determine the future direction of a fast-changing world, Lionel Curtis advocated that ‘National Policy ought to be shaped by a conception of the interests of society at large.’
By that he meant the interests of the Anglo-American Establishment. He talked of the settlements which had been made in Paris as a result of public opinion in various countries, and spelled out the need to differentiate between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ public opinion.
With chilling certainty, he announced that ‘Right public opinion was mainly produced by a small number of people in real contact with the facts who had thought out the issues involved.’
He talked of the need to ‘to cultivate a public opinion in the various countries of the world’ and proposed the creation of a “strictly limited’ high-level think-tank comprising the like-minded ‘experts’ from the British and American Delegations.
A committee of selection, dominated entirely by Secret Elite agents was organised to avoid ‘a great mass of incompetent members.’ What quintessential British ruling-class thinking. A new Anglo-American Elite of approved membership was self-selected.”
In recent years, the RIIA, the most visible mouthpiece of this secret society’s legacy, has been responsible for reports on why gold is not a viable alternative to the current international monetary system, an analysis of the 2009 Iranian election that informed reports around the globe about the “irregularities” of that election, an op-ed from the British Foreign Secretary urging for a thoroughgoing weaponization of cyberspace, and many other influential documents, publications, conferences and presentations.
In the end, what is perhaps most intriguing to those who are interested in examining how power functions in society is not necessarily the secretive origins of a group like the Royal Institute of International Affairs, or even the way that it has covertly manipulated, shaped and controlled British foreign policy for decades, or how it has managed to wield such considerable influence over world affairs through its various branch organizations.
Instead, what is most fascinating about Chatham House is that it is so very much open.
Many of its meetings and proceedings are publicly available. Its partners and corporate members are published on its website. Its journal is published openly and made available to the public.
Its history, once shrouded in mystery, has been laid bare for over half a century now. And yet still, for all that, the RIIA is rarely discussed as an important power center in 21st century society.
In some ways, perhaps this is its greatest accomplishment: to hide its enormous influence and its ongoing role in steering global geopolitics, not by hiding under a blanket of secrecy like the Bilderberg Group, Skull and Bones, or other secret societies, but by putting itself so much in the public spotlight that it seems mundane.
It should be noted, after all, that this is precisely the way that Rhodes envisioned such an organization to function, and the continued existence and influence of that idea, manifested most openly in Chatham House, the CFR, and their brethren think tanks around the world, might serve as the perfect example of how some of the world’s biggest secrets are hidden in plain sight.
By James Corbett, Guest writer