The Council on Foreign Relations Marks Its One Hundredth Anniversary

January 5, 2021
2:47 pm (EST)

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The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), the country’s most prestigious organization devoted to international relations and foreign policy, marks its one hundredth anniversary this year. Founded in 1921, CFR has remained distinctly nonpartisan and independent from government, maintaining unparalleled influence and relevance throughout the years.

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Much of the most important thinking about U.S. foreign policy in the last century—from questioning the isolationist instincts of the 1920s, debating entry into World War II, and navigating the Cold War; to promoting understanding of the choices before the country and the world—has come from CFR’s Think Tank, meeting rooms, and the pages of its flagship publication, Foreign Affairs.

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“The Council’s history has closely paralleled the country’s involvement in the world, and it has played a critical role in shaping U.S. engagement and leadership,” said David M. Rubenstein, chairman of CFR’s Board of Directors. “As it enters its second century, CFR is in a strong position to put forward analysis and prescriptions sure to be of value to those in the executive branch and Congress entrusted with the responsibility to design and carry out this country’s foreign policy.”

Associated with some of the most illustrious names in international affairs, CFR has grown and evolved since its founding, now comprising more than five thousand members across the country and abroad. Among them have been seven U.S. presidents, thirty-seven secretaries of state, twenty-two secretaries of defense, twenty-five secretaries of the treasury, twenty-one national security advisors, six Supreme Court justices, twenty-four Nobel Prize winners, and many other notable citizens.

Some of the many prominent members over the decades include George F. Kennan, David Rockefeller, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Condoleezza Rice, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Sandra Day O’Connor, Henry A. Kissinger, Madeleine K. Albright, Brent Scowcroft, Gita Gopinath, Ajaypal Singh Banga, Eduardo J. Padron, Vernon E. Jordan, Minxin Pei, Rajiv J. Shah, Virginia M. Rometty, John S. McCain, Cesar R. Conde, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Colin L. Powell, Carl E. Sagan, Diane Sawyer, Elie Wiesel, Fei-Fei Li, and Janet L. Yellen.

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With headquarters in the historic Harold Pratt House in New York City, a LEED gold-certified green building acquired in 2009 in Washington, D.C., and a staff of nearly 400, the organization has expanded its reach to engage corporate members, educators and students, state and local government officials, religious leaders, local journalists, the diplomatic community, and members of Congress and their staffs.

CFR has also expanded its intellectual reach. It now covers topics beyond diplomacy, great power rivalry, alliances, and trade pacts and encompasses climate change, global health, the role of women, immigration, and internet governance, as well as issues including education and infrastructure, which are often thought of as domestic but have national security implications.

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“Over the course of one hundred eventful years, the Council has helped interested citizens better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries,” said CFR President Richard N. Haass. “Our goal over the next one hundred years is to help even more people appreciate how what happens in the world affects them and how U.S. foreign policy in turn affects the world.”

Recent initiatives for educators and students include Model Diplomacy, free simulations that invite students to step into foreign policy–making roles, and World101, a library of multimedia explainers on how the world works.

CFR plays an important role in identifying and developing the next generation of talent in the foreign policy field, including the International Affairs Fellowship created in 1967 that gives younger scholars an opportunity to test their thinking in policy-oriented environments; the Stephen M. Kellen Term Member Program launched in 1970 that allows promising young women and men from diverse backgrounds to engage in sustained conversations on international affairs; and the Blavatnik Internship Program launched in 2019 that brings college students to CFR for paid work and research opportunities.

The organization grew out of “The Inquiry,” an academic effort convened by President Woodrow Wilson as he prepared for the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and a postwar world. After World War I and the defeat of the Treaty of Versailles that would have established a League of Nations, a concerned group of internationally minded Americans concluded that U.S. citizens needed to be better prepared for significant responsibilities and decision-making in world affairs. They founded the Council on Foreign Relations to “afford a continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States, by bringing together experts on statecraft, finance, industry, education, and science.”

A new centennial website celebrates CFR’s accomplishments over the last century:

  • The Council on Foreign Relations at 100: The History: watch a video on its origins and history.
  • From the Think Tank: browse a list of notable publications from 1921 to the present.
  • Foreign Affairs: From the Archives: read twenty-five of the magazine’s greatest hits.
  • Award-Winning Multimedia: dive into a broad array of subjects including child marriage and deforestation.
  • 100 Years of Speakers: discover the newsmakers CFR has hosted over the years.
  • This Day in History: find a historical event in global affairs each day.
  • Timeline: 1921–2021: survey the important moments that shaped the institution.
  • A Changing Membership: witness CFR’s membership growth and evolution over the century.
  • Reaching Out: learn how CFR is engaging audiences beyond the traditional foreign policy community.
  • Growing the Talent Pipeline: explore the ways that CFR has played a role in building a pathway for future leaders in foreign policy.

Visit the centennial website at https://www.cfr.org/celebrating-a-century/.

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