What Is the Trilateral Commission?

The Trilateral Commission is a non-governmental forum that brings together prominent citizens from North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific. The goal of the Trilateral Commission is to provide an open and global platform to discuss policy issues that impact the nations of the three regions.

Members of the Trilateral Commission include distinguished leaders in business, finance, banking, academia, labor unions, non-profits, and various non-government organizations. The commission seeks to foster an open dialog 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 American banker David Rockefeller as a non-governmental forum bringing together prominent citizens from Western Europe, North America, and Japan.
  • The Trilateral Commission has since expanded to include people from countries outside of the original three locations and now includes members from emerging market economies, such as India and China.
  • The goal of the commission is to encourage an open dialog among its members with the purpose of finding 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. Regional headquarters are in Washington, D.C., Paris, and Tokyo.

Membership in the Trilateral Commission is by invitation only. Each regional group is responsible for selecting its members using selection criteria established by the region's chairmen and deputy chairmen. For the American group, applicants must be nominated by an existing member and approved by the Trustees and Executive Committee. If accepted, the member serves for a six-year term. The length of membership varies among the groups, but a rotation policy ensures there are openings for new members each year.

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

The Founding 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 had 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 Trilateral 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 (G-7) 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 Paul Volcker (former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board), Thomas Foley (former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives), and Henry Kissinger (former U.S. Secretary of State).

Criticism of the Trilateral Commission

This 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.

In response, the Trilateral Commission has stated it is an independent organization and not part of any government agency or the United Nations. 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.

The North American continent is represented by 120 members (20 Canadian, 13 Mexican, and 87 U.S. members). The European group has reached its limit of 170 members from almost every country on the continent. The allowed quotas for individual countries are 20 for Germany; 18 each 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 itself, 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.