Continuing the Inquiry

The Second Transformation

“PERHAPS 50 YEARS is all a select organization can last, especially in these permissive years,” mourned the Council’s Walter Mallory in retirement, at the height of membership unrest over Vietnam. A quarter-century has passed since Mallory’s lament, and the Council has more than lasted. It remains a select organization, to be sure, but one that has responded to the changing face of American society and the demands of international responsibility upon that society.

Susan E. Rice, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Sharon Wilkinson (from left) at the 1996 Diversity Program Conference, “Defining the National Interest: Minorities and U.S. Foreign Policy in the 21st Century.”

The Council on Foreign Relations is no longer unique in its purpose. A dozen or more research institutions around the world attempt to analyze the changing global scene without partisan bias, but with a clear focus on the policy implications for their respective governments. They publish rich and admirable journals that expand the understanding of their populace, just as the lonely voice of Foreign Affairs set out to do 75 years ago. Study and discussion groups among experts and concerned citizens, which the Council pioneered in the 1920s, are now commonplace—in university research institutes, on television and the Internet, forums that the founders could not have begun to contemplate in their dedication to spreading public understanding of complex matters of diplomacy.

David Rockefeller and Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir at a 1973 black tie function at the Harold Pratt House.

Early in the 1970s, Foreign Affairs made a modest one-word change in its mission statement. From the founding, the journal had set out, among its purposes, to “guide” American public opinion. The verb was changed; the purpose became to “inform” public opinion. Public interest in international relations is no longer in need of guidance or stimulation, as Elihu Root argued it was in 1922. The typical American no longer needs to be told that developments across the globe reflect upon his or her daily life. But the busy public does seek and need information that is reliable and unvarnished.

There sometimes lurks among experts in high office a sense that they need not respect the opinions of those lacking access to the detailed information available within the “classified” preserves of government. The Council has never offered itself as a repository of classified diplomatic or military files. But those on bureaucratic staffs who base their actions on information that cannot be shared (in some form) with the public have learned over the years that they do so only at the peril of their policy goals. Discussions at the Harold Pratt House remain confidential—not because they deal with secret information, but largely because members and invited guests often use the occasions to test tentative opinions they have not yet fully thought through and developed.

David Rockefeller escorts Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat (left) through the doorway of the Harold Pratt House in 1981, the year of the latter’s assassination.

The turn of the 1970s brought a fundamental renovation of the Council’s leadership. David Rockefeller, head of the Chase Manhattan Bank and an active Council member for 30 years, became chairman of the board in 1970, succeeding John J. McCloy, who had served for 17 years. Leadership of Foreign Affairs passed from Armstrong to Bundy, and the board decided to seek out a full-time chief executive officer. Working closely with Rockefeller in modernizing the Council’s management was Cyrus R. Vance, retired from service in the Defense Department to resume his New York law practice. “There comes a time in the life of every institution when things just need to be shaken up,” Vance explained many years later, “and that is what we set out to do.”

As the first president, Rockefeller and Vance chose Bayless Manning, a Council member since 1961 who had recently lived on the West Coast as dean of the Stanford Law School. Just before Manning’s arrival, the board finally resolved the issue of admitting women as members; by 1971, 18 women had been invited to join. At the same time, the directors created a category of term members, those aged between 21 and 27 who showed promise in the Council’s purposes, for five-year terms, without commitment (as with the rest of Council members) to life-long participation. Nine of the 48 members elected in 1971 were term members.

David Rockefeller (left) and Bayless Manning in conversation at the Harold Pratt House. A Council member for 30 years, Rockefeller assumed the chairmanship in 1970. He and Cyrus R. Vance created the new post of full-time president, a position first filled by Manning in 1971.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Council member Rita Hauser at a 1994 study group session.

King Hussein Bin Talal and Queen Noor of Jordan (shown here on the left) are received by former Washington Post publisher and Council member Katharine Graham (far right) and Director of the Council’s Middle East Forum Judith Kipper.

The median age of the 1,600 Council members in the early 1970s was 58. By 1975, 28 percent of the membership had been elected within the past three years, and through a conscious effort to enlarge and diversify, the trend toward youth and variety of background gained momentum. The membership rolls doubled over the next 20 years. In terms of occupation, members from business and banking dropped modestly as a fraction of the whole (from 28 to 25 percent), as academic members, foundation executives, officers in the not-for-profit sector, and media representatives increased their numbers. The average age of newly elected members now tends to be about 47, fully 10 years younger than the membership as a whole.

In 1972, the new Council leadership took another controversial step: it opened an office in Washington to supplement the established membership and research facilities in New York. This modest outpost, as it was considered when it began, has burgeoned into a full program of meetings and fellows for the growing number of Washington-based members, including representatives from both the executive and legislative branches of government. By the mid-1990s, more than two-thirds of Council members lived and worked beyond a 50-mile radius of New York; Washington and Boston retain the largest share, but a significant increase in membership has taken place on the West Coast, in the Midwest, and in such southern cities as Dallas and Atlanta.

While approaching Chinese airspace during Secretary of State Kissinger’s 1971 secret mission to the People’s Republic of China, Winston Lord (on the left) moved to the front of the plane in order to be the first American diplomat to enter communist China. He was later President Reagan’s ambassador to the PRC. Serving as Council president from 1977 to 1985, Lord was succeeded by President Pro-tempore John Temple Swing. The two converse over drinks in 1983.

Geographical dispersion of the Council’s membership seemed a natural response to the evolution of American society as a whole. Interest and expertise in international affairs is no longer clustered in two or three large eastern cities, as it was when the Council was young. But this dispersion presents obvious logistical and financial problems for an institution dedicated to the convening of knowledgeable professionals for continuous personal contact. Winston Lord, who succeeded Manning as the Council’s president in 1977, launched a major effort at long-term national outreach through regional membership meetings and ever more frequent travel by Council officers and fellows. Lord’s successor, Peter Tarnoff, continued these experiments during the 1980s and promoted the novel departure of opening occasional Council meetings to public television coverage. Leslie H. Gelb, who became the Council’s president in 1993, carried these activities further by establishing regular programs for members throughout the country and staging hearings and debates for television.

Peter Tarnoff (right, shown here with Oscar Arias Sánchez, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and former Costa Rican president) succeeded Lord as Coun- cil president in 1986 and instituted a number of innovations, including the opening of certain Council events to public television coverage. Tarnoff and Lord went on to serve in Warren Christopher’s State Department as undersecretary for political affairs and assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs respectively.

The substance of the Council’s program was transformed in parallel with its membership and operating style. Starting early in the 1970s, Richard H. Ullman, the director of studies, and Manning designed a major research effort, to be called the 1980s Project, to define the new issues and policy responses of an international society evolving beyond the East-West conflict. Unlike its predecessors, the Inquiry and the War and Peace Studies, the 1980s Project opted for full participation by members and non-members alike, and planned for publication of its research to stimulate a broad professional audience, not just those with government responsibility.

Between 1977 and 1982, the Council published nearly two dozen policy-oriented books that collectively served to define what became known as “global issues,” many of them unfamiliar to conventional diplomatic thinking. With the Cold War still the fundamental fact of international life, study groups produced monographs on the military balance, regional conflicts, and arms control, both nuclear and conventional. But fully one-third of the Council’s papers dealt with economic and other issues that earlier diplomatic generations had considered beneath notice. The variety of titles revealed the broadened agenda of foreign policy: Beyond the North-South Stalemate, International Disaster Relief, Enhancing Global Human Rights, Controlling the Future Arms Trade.

“The product was anything but splashy,” wrote Leonard Silk, economics columnist of The New York Times and an active Council member. “Prose tended toward the dull and academic; conclusions toward the inconclusive.” As it turned out, the title of the project was a little premature; not until the 1990s did the issues explored truly dominate the international agenda. But many 1980s Project authors were by then installed in government policymaking positions, and when the Cold War came to its unexpectedly sudden end the Council had provided for the public record an impressive database for the global issues confronting coming generations.8

Among the Council’s directors, Chairman of the Board Peter G. Peterson (above center, flanked by former Secretaries of State Cyrus R. Vance and Henry A. Kissinger), Vice Chairman of the Board Maurice R. Greenberg (shown at right), and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick (shown below at left with Council President Leslie H. Gelb and Senior Vice President and National Director Alton Frye at a Washington, D.C., Council meeting) “perpetuated the nonpartisan leadership that had governed the Council since the years of Elihu Root and Hamilton Fish Armstrong.”

David Rockefeller stepped down as the Council’s active chairman in 1985 to be succeeded by Peter G. Peterson, an investment banker and former secretary of commerce, who had brought creative management to the Council’s soaring endowment and an appreciation for its longstanding intellectual stimulus to businessmen and scholars alike. Lord and Tarnoff, both having been career Foreign Service officers, moved from the Council presidency into senior government offices—Lord to become ambassador to China and then assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, Tarnoff to be President Clinton’s undersecretary of state for political affairs. Council members continued the “in-and-out” progression, established by the previous generations, through changing American administrations.

Rigoberta Menchú Tum (right), the Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a member of the International Advisory Board, with Council Board member Mario L. Baeza at a 1994 meeting, “The Peace Process and the Mayan Communities in Guatemala and Chiapas.”

The sudden end of the Cold War at the turn of the 1990s brought the Council on Foreign Relations, in common with foreign-policy thinkers the world over, to a dramatic juncture of regrouping and redefinition. The sense of purpose stimulated by the X article of 1947 was, virtually at a stroke, annulled. But the Council, after all, had carved out a leading role in international affairs for a quarter-century before the Cold War. Thanks to the 1980s Project, its members and fellows were not unprepared for the intellectual demands of the postCold War era. In 1990, the Council published an important survey entitled Sea Changes: American Foreign Policy in a World Transformed, in which 17 influential experts showed how global relations were not merely in transition but on the brink of fundamental transformation.

Among the directors, Peterson, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, and Maurice R. Greenberg perpetuated the nonpartisan leadership that had governed the Council since the years of Elihu Root and Hamilton Fish Armstrong. At Foreign Affairs, Bundy’s successor, William G. Hyland, passed the editorship to James F. Hoge, Jr., in 1992, who, in the Armstrong tradition, came in as a journalist rather than an officer of government. Under Hoge’s guidance, the flagship journal expanded its scope of coverage and offered a new variety of content without sacrificing the authority that its major articles had long conveyed. The professional background of the new president, Leslie H. Gelb, bridged the old divides; Gelb had been a scholar and one of the 1980s Project authors, a Pentagon and State Department official, and then a correspondent and columnist for The New York Times.

Along with former Foreign Affairs editor William G. Hyland, Lenin’s last heir inspects a copy of the Council’s journal annotated by the founder of Bolshevism. Gorbachev has yet to contribute his own annotated copy of Foreign Affairs to the Council archives.

Under Gelb’s leadership, the Council has focused its efforts on nurturing the next generation of foreign policy leaders, expanding the Council’s outreach through national programs and the regular use of television for hearings and debates on major policy issues, and enlarging the Studies Program division with two stated purposes: figuring out the rules and rhythms of foreign policy and developing new ideas for America and the international community.

James F. Hoge, Jr. (left) assumed the editorship of Foreign Affairs in 1992 upon William G. Hyland’s retirement. The two pose in that year with Council Director Theodore C. Sorensen (right).

“Even the best and most open of minds reared in times as searing as the past 50 years cannot be rewired to today’s startlingly different world,” Gelb wrote in the annual report as the Council turned 75. Building for the 21st century, the Council is pursuing a conscious campaign, extending the effort begun in the 1970s, to locate and engage the new thinkers of the next generation. “We believe that they will have special insights into our new world,” Gelb argues. “They have grown up with computers, worked hand-in-hand with Russians and others on joint business ventures, and run nongovernment organizations more powerful than many governments. Our challenge is to bring them together regularly, to address the future.”

Novel techniques for defining and disseminating ideas nurtured at the Harold Pratt House have been developed to supplement the traditional study and discussion groups: the Council started sending high-level groups of directors and members to meet with foreign leaders in Russia, China, Hungary, Poland, Vietnam, and the Middle East. The Council’s board of directors now meets regularly with an International Advisory Board, composed of leading figures in business, government, and scholarship overseas, to help define issues for attention and add international perspective to the evolving Council program. Though most of the Council meetings continue in the tradition of confidential exchanges, critical public issues and distinguished speakers, like Clemenceau long before, are presented before a wide audience sometimes through national television, in the form of debates between speakers of opposing viewpoints.

This momentum springs from a firm grounding in a long and illustrious history. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last head of the Soviet Union, visited the Harold Pratt House in 1992. The heir to the twentieth century’s Bolshevism paused over a display of the opened copy of Foreign Affairs’ first 1922 issue with Lenin’s and Radek’s penciled annotations. Gorbachev remarked that he, too, had made some marginal notes in an issue of the Council’s journal that had been translated for him. (Gorbachev has not yet offered to contribute that annotated copy for the Council’s archives.) From the Inquiry to the incubator of ideas, the Council on Foreign Relations is continuing to test itself—in growth, adaptation, and respect for a unique heritage.


8. For an independent analysis of the 1980s Project, see Robert D. Schulzinger, The Wise Men of Foreign Affairs (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), pp. 22735.

to top  |  « previous chapter  |  next chapter »