Book Review - Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank

Bruce Edwards, November 9, 2018

Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015).

Revolutionaries seek to end capitalism and move to the next stage of human development. That’s a tall order. In order to carry it out we have to know exactly what forces are arrayed on the political battlefield. That means we have to know the political enemy thoroughly.

So every revolutionary – without exception – should read – at minimum – the Preface to this book, which is less than 20 pages. It outlines the thrust of the book: that the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is the Central Committee of the U.S. capitalist class. The rest of the book outlines in detail who the central players in the CFR are and have been, how the CFR works, and which organizations and corporations it works through. Along with Domhoff’s The Powers That Be (see my review), this is essential reading on understanding who and what we are up against.

Shoup’s book is divided into two parts. Part I examines the internal organization and leadership of the CFR from 1976 to 2014. It clearly displays the fact that the leadership of the CFR comes directly from the capitalist class. It lists the Directors and Officers by name, giving short biographies of each, and showing their roles within the organization. The leadership can be divided into three groups: the capitalists themselves like David Rockefeller; the hired guns, like Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice; and the academic experts like Joseph Stiglitz. David Rockefeller, for example, was a Director of CFR from 1949, the Chairman of the Board from 1970 to 1985, and the Emeritus Chairman from 1985 until his death in 2017. Kissinger and Rice are not only members, but have consultancy businesses that “advise” both CFR and the government as well as their private clients. Stiglitz, of course, is a Nobel Laureate, a Professor at Columbia University, and a prolific and influential writer of both books and articles for popular consumption.  

The second chapter details the CFR’s organization: the Board and its role, the membership, the three main types of Study Groups it uses to research issues it deems crucial to capitalist rule, the meetings it holds, and its Corporate Program. For example, the CFR held 110 meetings – about one every three days – in the 2005-2006 period; the number has increased since then. These meetings range from discussions of books and articles in journals and magazines to full-blown conventions bringing together CFR members and major governmental officials from the U.S. and abroad. Speaking of articles, from 1987 to 2014, the CFR published 1,796 academic and journal articles. From 1998 to 2014, it published 4,457 Op-Ed pieces. And members brief governmental officials – foreign and domestic – on the topics covered. In 2011 they conducted 438 such briefings. Furthermore, all 196 NPR stations carry CFR programming. Given their meetings and myriad publications, Shoup notes that the CFR is conducting an “organized dialogue mainly within the United States and world capitalist class, connecting the powerful but also the expert from many nations.”

Shoup goes on to detail the “in and outers” from every administration from Carter (1977 to 1981) to Obama (2009 to 2014). These are the CFR members who go into government service from their corporate positions and as CFR members, and then leave governmental service to return to the private sector, usually in the same area they were to regulate while in the government. He also details the connection of the CFR to Advisory Committees. There are over 1,000 such committees that are supposed to be “independent” and advise governmental bodies ranging from the huge (e.g., the Department of Defense) to the more mundane (e.g., the Federal Highway Administration) on technical points of importance. And, his being a totally thorough analysis, he lists and details the workings of the numerous think tanks, lobbying groups, universities and international forums with which the CFR is intimately connected. In short, the influence of CFR is pervasive.

The initial chapter in Part II is aimed at giving an overview of how the CFR has purposefully developed the ideology of neoliberalism and implemented it as a practical program for the capitalist class. The remainder of Part II develops case studies that go into the influence CFR wields in the realms of politics, war, economics and the environment.

Shoup traces the development of neoliberalism from its roots in the Chilean coup that overthrew Allende in 1973 and the fascist repression instituted under Pinochet. Chile was guided by “the Chicago Boys,” a group of economists adhering to the philosophy and economic policies of Milton Friedman of the University of Chicago. Tellingly, the recently installed Finance Minister of Brazil, Paulo Guedes, has lauded the Pinochet policies instituted in Chile at that time. The CFR continues to publicize this ideology through its organs and connections.

The following chapter deals with Iraq from 1982 to 2013. This is a detailed analysis of what was actually happening behind the scenes in making the decision to go to war, in conducting the war itself, and in trying to suppress the Iraqi resistance after the 2003 invasion. He details the effects on the Iraqi people and the barbarism of the war, and then lays out what he calls the “midterm correction.” By 2005 it had become clear that the policy in Iraq was failing and that in the U.S. the 2006 midterm elections were looming. The Bush administration set up a blue-ribbon Iraq Study Group (ISG). The ten members were evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, but four Democrats and three of the Republicans were members or former members of the CFR, including former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Of the officials and experts they interviewed, 23 of the 43 were also CFR members; nine were current or former directors. 

The report of the ISG confirmed the strategic importance of Iraq and focused on the privatization of the crucial oil sector. The neoliberal policies in Iraq were reaffirmed, but the group “stepped back from a longer-term goal of making Iraq a military colony and central base in a U.S.-dominated Middle East.” The “surge” – an increase in troop deployment – was supported and so was the need to turn the war over to the Iraqi Army. In short, the CFR recommendations to the ISG carried the day and became U.S. policy in Iraq. Shoup details all this and then shows how the success of the Iraqi resistance led to the continuing military presence of the U.S. that has not been resolved to this day.

Further case studies review the CFR positions and influence on policy toward the Atlantic Partnership, China, the Ukraine, and Israel. There is an entire section on the CFR and the Global South. 

The final chapter is a devastating condemnation of the CFR and its position on the environment, titled, tellingly, “Fiddling While the Earth Slowly Burns.” The influence of the energy industry is laid out. It is clear that while the reports and experts available to the CFR exposed the fundamental severity of the environmental dangers the world faces, the CFR adopted and continues to adopt positions – that then become governmental policies – that are far short of what is needed and are literally dangerous to human survival. In short, the CFR understands the problems and still places the interests of profits before the welfare of the earth and its inhabitants.

Shoup has done a superb job of detailing the organization, ideology and operations of the Council on Foreign Relations. Combined with Domhoff, the two definitively show the CFR to be central to the decisions of the capitalist class and the U.S. governments (federal, state and local). This is how the capitalist class rules.

There are two issues that I would like to see addressed. First, Shoup has titled his book, Wall Street Think Tank. The entire book is presented from the position that the financial sector of the capitalist class is the leading and decisive sector. But sections of his book raise questions about that. The energy sector was clearly a dominant aspect of the Bush administration. This was evidenced not only by the President himself, but also by numerous other members of the administration and the policies that were carried out, particularly in Iraq. Shoup’s discourse shows the importance of the Military-Industrial-Intelligence industry, which was dominant in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but also in Yemen, Sudan and other areas of the world. Also, the tech industry is barely mentioned, but several tech companies are Corporate members of the CFR and tech  today seems to wielding substantial influence over national policy. What are the battle lines within the CFR and capitalist class for influence over its positions and proposals?

Second, there seems to be opposition to the CFR as the ruling center of capitalism in the U.S. and abroad. Trump, for example, is not a member and his policies are often (not always) at odds with those of the CFR. Furthermore, while there are members of the CFR in his administration – we can see this as an effort to “surround” him and “corral” his policies (with limited success) – they are not as ubiquitous as in previous administrations. Do Trump, the Tea Party and other very conservative (boarding on fascist) elements represent a resistance within the capitalist class, a shift in class policy, a need by the capitalists to move to the right? I have detailed elsewhere that the economic forces underlying the transition in the economy toward the ever-deepening implementation of electronic technology and telecommunications have and will continue to force such rightward political movement. Is there a challenge to the leadership of the CFR? Shoup does not address that possibility.

But these are questions to be debated and discussed by revolutionaries as we assess the class enemy and the  situation we face. We can only benefit by reading Shoup’s outstanding exposé. He has pointed directly to the enemy’s headquarters, and it is the CFR. We must understand not only our forces, but the forces of the enemy we face – the capitalist class. We need to learn from them and about them and see not only their strengths, but their vulnerabilities. In this way, we learn how to most effectively oppose them. Our actions must be guided by serious study. This book is a central to that study.