What Is the Trilateral Commission?

The term Trilateral Commission refers to a non-governmental forum that brings together prominent citizens from North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. It was formed in 1973 by American banker David Rockefeller and includes members—all private citizens—from North America, Europe, and Japan.

The commission's goal is to provide an open and global platform to discuss policy issues that impact nations in the three regions. Members include distinguished leaders in business, finance, banking, academia, labor unions, non-profits, and various non-government organizations. The commission seeks to foster an open dialogue among its members with the purpose of finding solutions to social, economic, geopolitical, and globalization challenges.

Key Takeaways

  • The Trilateral Commission was founded in 1973 by David Rockefeller as a non-governmental forum bringing together prominent citizens from Western Europe, North America, and Japan,
  • The commission now includes people from other countries, including emerging market economies, such as India and China.
  • The commission aims to encourage an open dialogue among its members to find solutions to social, economic, and geopolitical problems.
  • Members have included leaders in business, finance, banking, academia, labor unions, non-profits, and various non-government organizations.

How the Trilateral Commission Works

The Trilateral Commission is led by three regional chairs for Europe, North America, and Asia-Pacific. The regional chairs have several deputies and an executive committee. The entire membership meets annually in rotating locations to consider their strategies and organizational platform. Regional and national meetings are held throughout the year. The commission's regional headquarters are located in Washington, D.C., Paris, and Tokyo.

Membership is by invitation only. Each regional group is responsible for selecting its members using criteria established by the region's chairs and deputy chairs.For the American group, applicants must be nominated by an existing member and approved by the trustees and executive committee. Accepted members serve for six-year terms. The length of membership varies among groups, but a rotation policy ensures there are openings for new members each year.

Members originally came from Western Europe, North America, and Japan. It has now expanded to include people from countries outside of the original three locations. The commission also includes members from emerging market economies. Of the approximately 415 members, 175 are from Europe, 120 from North America, and 120 from Asia-Pacific.

History of the Trilateral Commission

The principal founder of the Trilateral Commission was the American banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller, who began the commission in mid-1973 to address the challenges represented by the growing interdependence between the United States, Canada, Japan, and Western Europe.

From 1973 to 1976, the commission's first director was U.S. international relations scholar Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as foreign affairs adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and later became national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter.

The commission espouses support for private enterprise, economic freedom, and stronger collective management of global problems. The Trilateral Commission’s agendas sync with those of the Group of Seven (G7) summits between the leaders of the world’s largest economies. Members have held key positions in U.S. administrations and in the governments of other member countries.

Members of the Trilateral Commission have included former chair of the Federal Reserve Board Paul Volcker, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Thomas Foley, and Henry Kissinger.

Criticism of the Trilateral Commission

The commission has garnered controversy over its existence. Detractors cite the levels of influence some commission members wield in politics and their associations with government entities as reasons to question the commission's activities. Critics say this influence helps the commission prop up the world's financial and political elite rather than the best interests of the general public.

The commission responds to this criticism by stating it is an independent organization and is not part of any government agency or the United Nations (UN). Its members may have associations with organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group, and the Brookings Institution, but the commission itself has no formal ties with these organizations.

Trilateral Commission Membership

In 2001, the Trilateral Commission began to incorporate economically smaller but emerging countries within its regional structure. For example, Mexico was accorded a handful of members, as were Asia-Pacific countries such as Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Phillippines, Singapore, South Korea, and Thailand. Members from China and India were first admitted in 2011.

North America is represented by 120 members (20 Canadian, 13 Mexican, and 87 U.S. members). The European group reached its limit of 170 members from almost every country on the continent. The quotas for individual countries are 20 for Germany, 18 for France, Italy, and the United Kingdom, and 12 for Spain. The remaining nations range from one to six members.

At first, Asia and Oceania were represented only by Japan. However, in 2000 the Japanese group of 85 members expanded, becoming the Pacific Asian group (changing its name again in 2012 to the Asia-Pacific group). The group has over 100 members from Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the ASEAN nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand), India, and the People's Republic of China.