Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thinking About the Trilateral Commission

The Trilateral Commission arouses many conspiracy theories. A recent story about the number of Trilateral appointments in the current administration reignited a longstanding interest in the organization. Its fascinating.

First, amazingly for an organization that is supposedly a secret cabal, you can apparently get a membership list from their website. That's right the Trilateral Commission is on the internet! So I requested a membership list, and assume I'll receive one tomorrow via email.

Second, I really think they need to hire a marketing expert. Their logo really sends all the wrong messages. It is at left. If you look carefully there is an obscure even twisted peace symbol in there. But, whatever, the real problem is the converging arrow heads look somewhat menacing and sneaky, as if to surround and pressure, in a vaguely militaristic way. Man, I do not want to mess those arrow heads.

Third, the stated purpose of the organization is innocuous if not laudable: they basically recognize the reality of national interdependence, the need for transnational cooperation, and the special responsibility of the Western democracies (Japan, Europe and the US) to reduce conflict and create conditions conducive to prosperity. In fact, their express goals includes recognition of this challenge: "shortages in world resources could breed new rivalries, and widening disparities in mankind's economic conditions are a threat to world stability and an affront to social justice."

Fourth, although the organization keeps a low profile, it cannot really be termed secretive. Its senior officials write openly about the organization in places like the New York Times . Its agenda is relatively transparent with an emphasis on free trade, but with common sense concerns on issues such a global warming.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the organization includes many high-powered leaders. It was founded by David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzeziniski. Brzezinski advised both the Carter and Bush I administrations regarding foreign policy issues. Rockefeller is a legendary billionaire. Presidents Carter, Bush I, and Clinton were members before becoming president. Fed Chairs Volcker and Greenspan were members. Apparently, Timothy Geithner, Susan Rice, and a bevy of other current administration members are Trilateralists. Lawrence Summers is a member.

About the worst that could be said of the Trilateral Commission is that one very powerful member, David Rockefeller, admitted possible ambivalence regarding the US, when he said in his Memoirs: "Some even believe we (the Rockefeller family) are part of a secret cabal working against the best interests of the United States, characterizing my family and me as 'internationalists' and of conspiring with others around the world to build a more integrated global political and economic structure---one world, if you will. If that's the charge, I stand guilty, and I am proud of it." I happen to remain convinced that for all of its many shortcomings the US still stands as humanity's greatest hope for human rights, prosperity and peace. But I fundamentally agree with Rockefeller that further global integration is inevitable and desirable. One of the key elements, for example, of the subprime mortgage crisis is the lack of a global regulatory authority for financial regulation. Isolationism does not work, and neither does global laissez faire.

But the uber-elite nature of the group's membership invites this kind of criticism. By definition you cannot have any shot at diverse viewpoints when your membership is limited to about 300 elite leaders. Moreover, when a nation as great as the US has less than a hundred members shuttling between high level government posts and lucrative private positions, it is bound to lead to accusations that your group is a cabal.

In an echo chamber of free marketeers, it is also likely that policies would tilt too far in favor of deregulation and non-regulation and financial crises would follow. Look at what the Trilateral Commission's work has wrought: Long Term Capital Management, the East Asian Crisis, Enron and the subprime debacle. Its not a cabal, its an ideological narrowness that borders on intellectual obsolescence. They all ignored the plain lessons of history (1929) and embraced market fundamentalism is unison, right off the cliff like lemmings. Some globalization!

Of course, like all organizations the Trilateral Commission is neither monolithic nor all-powerful. They notoriously failed to stem the neocon stumble into Iraq (The Proud Internationalist, 61-63), which seemingly made the Trilateral Commission appear far less powerful than the now discredited Project for a New American Century. Member George Soros has long been a voice against market fundamentalism.

Ultimately, the Trilateral Commission is a highly influential institution among many. Their dialogue needs expansion. Their intellectual underpinnings require refurbishment based upon the past 30 years of economic science. I urge my fellow bloggers to think about the Trilateral Commission as another opportunity to educate elites. Interest convergence theory suggests this narrow and hyper elite organization may be more open to new ideas in the wake of the catastrophe sown by market fundamentalism, largely pursued under the tutelage of the Trilateral Commission. Think of the Trilateralists as a transnational uber-congress. They have no formal power. But they clearly wield great influence in creating ideological heuristics that govern the behavior of their members and former members.

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