Informal elite network changed international politics in the 1970s

November 07, 2013

In the 1970s, a network of businessmen, politicians, and academics from the US, Europe, and Japan, also known as the Trilateral Commission, changed the way international politics was conducted. Informal links between Commission members, governments, and organisations paved the way for recognition of the new economic superpower Japan as an equal partner in international politics, concludes University of Copenhagen historian Dino Knudsen, who is the first researcher to get access to the Commission's own archives.

In 1973, American financier David Rockefeller formed the Trilateral Commission out of fear that the world's three industrial centres - the US, Europe, and Japan - were drifting apart. The aim of the Commission was to ensure that particularly the American government understood that it had to collaborate and negotiate with Europe and new economic superpower Japan. The Trilateral Commission is still active and has headquarters in Washington, Tokyo, and Paris.

"The Trilateral Commission must be credited with the inclusion of Japan as an equal partner of Europe and the US; the launch of the G7 meetings, which Japan took part in, was in many respects merely a formalisation of the Commission's informal political and diplomatic efforts," explains PhD Dino Knudsen, the first historian who has gained access to the Trilateral Commission's own hitherto closed archives.

He has just published the results of his extensive archival research in the PhD dissertation 'The Trilateral Commission - The Global Dawn of Informal Elite Governance and Diplomacy', which he defended at University of Copenhagen 4 November 2013.

Hidden elitist governance

In the beginning of the 1970's, in the context of the Vietnam War, many Americans began to voice demands for a democratisation of foreign policy decision-making processes. But with the foundation of the Trilateral Commission, elite circles got a refuge from public scrutiny, where they could seek influence on foreign policy without being held accountable.

"The Commission's modus operandi constitutes an obvious democratic dilemma; it is an exclusive, elitist organisation that attempts to exert influence on the political sphere - but secretly," Dino Knudsen points out and adds:

"It is important for the Commission to strike a balance between being independent from state bodies but at the same time having strong ties to formal political power. Many members hold or have held political office or top positions in businesses, and many are influential opinion makers with important networks in formal political circles, e.g. Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, George W. H. Bush, Mario Monti, and Romano Prodi.""

Dino Knudsen concludes that we need to reconsider the way we think of decision-making in international politics in light of the Trilateral Commission's work. Today, politics and diplomacy are, thanks to the Trilateral Commission and similar organizations, the results of collaborative processes in transnational elite networks. And these networks are informal but highly influential actors on the political stage.

PhD Dino Knudsen
University of Copenhagen
Phone: + 45 28 14 44 38

Press officer Carsten Munk Hansen
Faculty of Humanities
Phone: + 45 28 75 80 23

University of Copenhagen

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