New Book Traces CFR’s 100-Year History

April 8, 2021 8:00 am (EST)

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America’s preeminent organization devoted to international relations and U.S. foreign policy has released a new book assessing its first century: the events that led to its founding in 1921, the many world leaders and experts who spoke under its roof, and its value to policymakers and audiences eager to understand the world from an authoritative source. “The Council is, above all, an institution that represents American talent and nonpartisan ingenuity in addressing the toughest foreign policy dilemmas facing the United States and other countries,” writes author George Gavrilis, in The Council on Foreign Relations: A Short History

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Drawing on a wide range of oral histories, interviews, and documents, Gavrilis depicts where, how, and why the institution changed and where, how, and why it stayed much the same. “What began as a small membership organization created around a male, white elite of foreign policy practitioners, business titans, and academics has evolved into a twenty-first-century institution that is more than the sum of its parts,” he writes.

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Today, the Council includes more than 5,000 increasingly diverse individual members, another 150 corporate members, nearly 400 staff, offices in both New York and Washington, DC, and an ever-expanding digital presence and reach.

The Council on Foreign Relations: A Short History traces the Council's history through three distinct periods:

Part One: From War to Peace to War, 1918–68: As the United States debated what direction to take after World War I, a core of concerned businessmen, policymakers, and academics from the Northeast were eager to pursue a multilateral, internationalist approach rather than one of isolationism and hoped to foster an informed debate on America’s role in the world. This lack of consensus motivated the group—headed by Elihu Root, a Nobel laureate and former secretary of state under President Theodore Roosevelt—to establish the Council in 1921, with a mission “to afford a continuous conference on international questions affecting the United States.”

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The creation of Foreign Affairs that same year is particularly notable, and in 1947 the magazine published the most influential article of the Cold War era, written by George Kennan under the pseudonym “X,” which provided the intellectual basis for the containment of the Soviet Union. In 1957, the Council published Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy by a young Harvard scholar named Henry Kissinger. The book was a culmination of his work in a CFR study group and placed Kissinger in the national spotlight—his future as national security advisor and secretary of state was set into motion.

Part Two: A Council and a Country Divided, 1969–92 examines a prolonged period of disagreement within the country and the Council. The Vietnam War fractured American society and triggered bitterly divisive debates. Much of the Council’s leadership was relatively hawkish on Vietnam, and dissident voices did not find its environment congenial. With time, though, many changes followed: in 1970 eight women were approved for life membership, including Katherine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post, followed not long after by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was a human rights lawyer at the time. Membership expanded to include younger voices as well as minorities. Study groups produced nearly two dozen books and many papers on what were for the time less conventional topics—disaster relief, global human rights, and international political economy.

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Part Three: A New Council Emerges, 1993–2021 focuses on the CFR presidencies of Leslie H. Gelb and Richard N. Haass, which restored the organization’s economic vitality and refined its mission. “Globalization was picking up speed, and American foreign policymakers had not yet found principles to cope with the challenges of terrorism, civil and ethnic conflict, and nuclear proliferation,” Gavrilis writes. Gelb “brought in younger members with broader professional, geographic, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, and he expanded the Council’s range of work to reaffirm its commitment to nonpartisanship, including through Independent Task Forces.”

President since 2003, Haass revitalized the David Rockefeller Studies Program and opened a new building in Washington, DC, to increase activity in the nation’s capital. At the same time, Haass dramatically expanded outreach across the country with nontraditional audiences. “The institution has taken on additional roles. One is to make international developments and foreign policy choices understandable to a much broader cross section of Americans and others, be they students and their teachers, congregational and religious leaders, state and local officials, or average citizens,” Haass explains in the foreword. “The Council has also become an important engine of talent development. Over the years, literally thousands of young men and women have received their start in the field through some program, internship, or fellowship administered by CFR.”

In 2014, the Council launched a program for educators and students, with a mission to encourage institutions of higher learning in the United States to integrate international relations and world politics into their curricula for all students, no matter their intended major. To that end, the Council introduced Model Diplomacy, which features simulations of National Security Council meetings for students, and World101, an online library on the fundamentals of international relations, which the American Association of Librarians named one of the best digital tools of 2020.

The result is a unique hybrid institution: a think tank, publisher, educator, and meetings venue. What has not changed over the years is its independence and its commitment to producing and providing a forum for serious, policy-relevant analysis.

“In many ways, 2021 resembles the year the Council was founded. The specific issues that define international affairs are different, but overarching questions about how much of a role America should play in the world are the same. This makes the Council’s nonpartisan work and mission as important as ever,” Gavrilis concludes.

To learn more about The Council on Foreign Relations: A Short History and order your copy, please visit

For more information, please contact the Global Communications and Media Relations team at 212.434.9888 or [email protected].

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