The origins of the CFR Council can be traced to a meeting in May 1919, at the Hotel Majestic in Paris, between members of the “Inquiry” and their British counterparts at the Paris Peace Conference.
At this gathering a proposal was made (as noted in an earlier official CFR history), to form “a permanent Anglo-American Institute for International Affairs, with one branch in London, the other in New York.” The proposer was Lionel Curtis, a member of the British delegation, but also a leading member of the Round Table (a British organization established to advance the cause of imperial federation) and an early advocate of world government.3 Curtis had argued that the future of the settlements reached the Peace Conference was dependent on public opinion being “right or wrong.” “Right public opinion”, he maintained, “was mainly produced by a small number of people in real contact with the facts who thought out the issues involved.” He considered the combination of officials and specialists who had come to Paris as best suited for the “production of sound public opinion.” The proposed institutes were to achieve this objective by convening groups of the right people would develop discussion papers about various international issues that would be of use to government officials.
Although Curtis’ vision of a joint Anglo-American institute was not to be realized, the US and British participants of the meeting did see value in establishing organizations that were, in essence, partially modeled on the Round Table. In service of its goal of imperial federation, the Round Table had attempted to shape elite opinion by promoting its ideals through its quarterly journal The Round Table, but also through its select membership, many of whom occupied influential positions in academia and the press or were in government. Despite the ultimate failure of its effort, the Round Table’s model as both a political movement and a think-tank arguably shaped Curtis’ proposed institutes.
As it was the British delegation returned home to establish the Royal Institute for International Affairs based at Chatham House, but it would take another two years before their US comrades would fulfill their commitment in the form of the Council on Foreign Relations. The result was an institution that was, as per Curtis’ formulation, ostensibly devoted to educating the public about international affairs but was in practice focused on changing the minds of those in power. Indeed, the founders of the CFR were not just the area specialists of the Inquiry but also comprised New York financiers, industrialists, lawyers, and former senior diplomats. In short, they represented the economic, political, legal, and financial elite of the US whose primary focus was on engaging with and influencing the foreign policy-makers in the White House, Congress, and the State Department.
Since then, the membership of the CFR has expanded and become more diverse, but its essential objective of shaping and influencing elite opinion around the core goal of advancing US global hegemony, and providing a congenial home for aspiring policy-makers in future administrations have remained intact. The Council, though, has continued to portray itself as a benevolent and stately New York-based think-tank or educational institute, motivated by the highest ideals of serving the public good and working with some of the most talented and experienced people with foreign policy expertise in the US. The CFR modestly describes itself as:
an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution dedicated to informing the public about the foreign policy choices facing the United States and the world [emphasis added]
In its current Mission Statement, the CFR also insists that it “takes no institutional positions on matters of policy”, making it seem like a benign and uncontroversial organization, perhaps no more effective at influencing foreign policy thinking than a university policy center.