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“Masterful work of critical scholarship”: Wall Street’s Think Tank reviewed in Socialism & Democracy

Wall Street's Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014

Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics, 1976-2014
400 pp, $34 cloth, ISBN: 9781583675519
By Laurence H. Shoup

Reviewed by Peter Seybold in Socialism and Democracy, vol. 30, no. 3

Wall Street’s Think Tank is a masterful work of critical scholarship. Using a well-trained historian’s lens, Laurence Shoup is able to document the workings of one of America’s most important elite policy planning groups. He establishes that the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has been at the forefront of a complex network of institutions, both public and private, which set the limits of debate on foreign policy issues. By carefully investigating the CFR’s machinations, Shoup brings out the role that it plays in anticipating the power elite’s short-term and long-term needs by defining research agendas, recommending policy positions, recruiting new intellectuals, and developing strategies which will ensure capitalist hegemony. He thus enables us to see how the US ruling class actually rules.

The CFR is a critical meeting place for top corporate officials, elite politicians, academic policy analysts, foundation officials, and representatives of think tanks. It plays a critical role in forging a consensus among this group and establishing the range of acceptable opinions among them on specific issues. In addition, it performs an important ideological function in mapping out strategies and tactics to influence public opinion.

Since the 1950s there has been a long-standing debate about the structure of power in the United States. The debate has been between those who contend that the US is a democracy, although an imperfect one (elite pluralists), and power elite theorists such C. Wright Mills and G. William Domhoff, who suggest that a cohesive elite dominates key political decisions. In the late 1960s these two camps were joined by Marxist theorists who questioned the assumptions and theoretical perspectives which framed the power structure debate.

For many years the power structure debate was bogged down by different conceptions of power, debates over methodology, and a number of false dichotomies which shaped the interaction between different theoretical camps. It was also affected by differences in the approach taken by academic political scientists, sociologists, and historians.

A critical question which received considerable attention from academics of various stripes concerned how the ruling class ruled. Elite pluralists contended that elites were always in competition in the US and they needed public support in order to advance their policy prescriptions. Democracy was preserved based on the assumption that economic, political, social, and cultural elites had very different agendas and could not coordinate their interests. Democracy survived in a brokered system which depended on mobilizing public opinion in support of elite policy preferences. The left countered by citing important research by Domhoff and others which examined the similar social backgrounds of elite members, the importance of elite policy planning groups in forging consensus, and the structural imperatives of capitalism as reasons for coherence among the power elite.

Laurence Shoup’s earlier book with William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and U.S. Foreign Policy (Monthly Review Press, 1977), was groundbreaking in developing an understanding of how the ruling class developed unity on foreign policy. Domhoff, Shoup and Minter, Baran and Sweezy, Lukes and others helped fill the gaps in the left’s critique of elite pluralism. The counter-arguments to pluralism came from a variety of left perspectives—structuralist Marxists, power elite theorists, and more traditional Marxists.

Shoup’s comprehensive historical account of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Wall Street’s Think Tank builds on new information demonstrating the key role of the CFR in the maintenance of US hegemony. Shoup extends the tradition of power structure research by exhaustively examining the CFR and showing how its leadership advances neoliberalism abroad. In short, he describes exactly how the ruling class rules the foreign policy arena. As he remarks early in the book, capitalism is a system of dynamic disequilibrium and therefore there is a need for an organization like the CFR to coordinate the response of the ruling class. It is the CFR’s task to provide intellectual leadership and networks of information that the ruling class can call on in confronting a rapidly changing geopolitical environment.

Part of the task of the CFR is to bring intellectuals into a dialogue with the capitalist class and to assimilate them so as to insure capitalist class hegemony. By engaging intellectuals the Council is able to assess the range of debate, allow scholars to interact with capitalist class members and sort out policy options and create ideological justifications for particular policy alternatives. The Council thus plays a vital role in manufacturing an elite consensus by critically examining ruling-class options and developing strategies to advance the interests of the US empire.

Of course the CFR does not do this alone, but it provides the glue that binds the network together. This network consists of private investment groups, for-profit political risk and advisory groups, elite universities, philanthropic foundations, elite media institutions and international organizations such as the Bilderburg Group, the Trilateral Commission, the World Economic Forum, the G30, and the International Crisis Group.

Coordinating this complex network is partially the responsibility of the CFR. It manages responses to short-term crises by defining the basis for understanding strategic choices. More importantly, the CFR, through organizing study groups and conferences and publishing the journal Foreign Policy, also mobilizes elite resources for long-term projects to defend the interests of the ruling class. Examples include its involvement in the Project for the New American Century, the Iraq Study Group, and study groups on issues related to hot spots around the globe such as China, Ukraine, the Middle East, and the Global South. The CFR has also investigated specific issues such as the use of drone strikes by the US, the Ebola crisis, and the question of global climate change.

Shoup argues that the ruling class is well represented on the CFR and that policy planning groups perform a unique service in coordinating responses to crisis situations. Much like Domhoff, Shoup contends that the process of hammering out elite consensus is largely done in the private sphere and is shielded from the democratic process. Once an elite consensus is developed, the policy prescriptions are transmitted to the public sphere for ratification by Congress. Shoup maintains that the CFR controls the US government in an undemocratic fashion in the interests of the capitalist class. It does so by controlling the agenda for debate, defining the limits of acceptable policy options, developing legitimating ideologies, and providing experts who support policies which have been constructed in an atmosphere filtered by capitalist concerns.

Policy planning groups like the CFR thus play an important part in an ideological state apparatus that insures, at every turn, that capitalist hegemony will be preserved. Shoup demonstrates that the CFR has done the necessary groundwork to clarify the policy options of the capitalist class. Through its efforts the CFR has enabled the ruling class to rule. As Shoup says in the Preface:

No matter who is elected, people from the Council propose, debate, develop consensus, and implement the nation’s key strategic policies. The deep state, in the form of the CFR, operates behind the scenes, making and enforcing important decisions outside of those publicly sanctioned by law and society.

It is important to recognize that what Shoup has detailed in this book is the normal operation of the policy planning apparatus of the US. The influence exerted by the CFR and other policy planning groups has been embedded in a set of institutions that is outside the reach of the democratic process. By the time that the policy prescriptions have reached the public sphere they already reflect capitalist class interests that are presented as being in the national interest. The author shows that characteristically the policy ideas that ultimately win out bear the imprint of the prior definition of the limits of acceptable opinion worked out by the CFR. This is not an accident, but it is also not evidence of a conspiracy. As Shoup makes clear, dissenting opinions are marginalized by the organizational structure of the CFR. Moreover, the rewards available to scholars involved in developing policy ideas insure that they work within the established limits of debate. The CFR has simply been given a privileged position in the policy network, and it acts accordingly. Shoup’s remarkable achievement is to document the significance of the CFR in this network of institutions.

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