The postbipolar ideal and its limits: The trilateralist approach of the Carter Administration

Between the late Sixties and the first half of the Seventies the United States military defeat in Vietnam, the Bretton Woods system’s collapse and the Watergate scandal undermined the cold war liberalism. Public opinion and U. S. policymakers had to deal with the limits of the American superpower, which was no more capable to guarantee an unrestrained economic expansion and an absolute anti-communist commitment as well. The demise of the butter and guns model produced a broad academic and social debate to define a new political agenda and to restore a wide consensus.

In the spring of 1972 David Rockefeller, inspired by the writings of Zbigniew Brzezinski, proposed the creation of the Trilateral Commission, where academic experts, economists, politicians and journalists from the three poles of the industrialized world – North America, Japan and Western Europe – discussed the major problems of the international system in order to improve public understanding of such issues through the support of the media.

According to the trilateralists, since the late Sixties the rigid bipolarism of the last twenty years was inadequate in a more interdependent and fragmented world. Instead of insisting on the Est-West confrontation through a pragmatic and unilateralist approach, the Trilateral Commission opted for a new agenda. In the first place trilateralists focused on the North-South relations, particularly on the essential contribute of the Most Advanced Countries to Low Developed Countries’ growth. Moreover they promoted more coordination between the leading economies of the world, the development of the alternative energies and the oil conservation policies. The tools for implementing these objectives were cooperation, multilateralism, and concerted decision within international organizations.

The democratic candidate Jimmy Carter joined the Commission from the beginning and during the 1976 presidential campaign there was an intensive information sharing, specially about foreign policy and economics, between the election committee and trilateralists. After victory, the president and other 25 trilateralists in his administration tried to realize the so-called trilateralist approach promoting the North-South relations, the regional approach in local conflicts, a renewed economic and political cooperation between the allies, as new priorities in the U. S. foreign policy. By the 1979 the escalation of tension in the superpower relations, the Iranian Islamic revolution and the hostages crisis forced Carter to re-establish a classic global containment approach, failing the aim to regain the public consensus against the rise of neoconservatives.

New available documents from the Jimmy Carter Library and the Rockefeller Archive Center allow to reconstruct the history of the Trilateral Commission and to define the role of the trilateralist approach in achieving some goals like US-China Normalization, Israel-Egypt peace treaty and the Panama Canal treaties. Furthermore the Trilateral Commission and the Carter Administration contributed to carry out some important and still relevant aims: reducing air and water pollution, improving environmental policies, promoting multilateralism and cooperation in the international system, developing alternative energies, reducing oil consumption, focusing on North-South relations.

In 2009 I have conducted my research in various U.S. archives. I have spent about two months at the Jimmy Carter Library to consult new declassified material, particularly working on the following collections. National Security Affairs File provides a detailed overview about specific issues of U.S. foreign policy. Within this collection there are many key memos of the National Security Adviser Brzezinski to the President including the Subject File, the Geographic File and the Country File. Moreover the Pre-presidential papers are essential for reconstructing the 1976 presidential campaign, specially the collaboration between Jimmy Carter’s staff and some trilateralists, including Richard Gardner, Henry Owen, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Cyrus Vance, Hedley Donovan, Richard Holbrooke and Leonard Woodcock. Furthermore the Plains Files are useful to define the President’s view about foreign policy issues and how he managed pluralism within his Administration. The handwritten notes of the President show the meticulous care that he paid to the decision-making. Finally, the meetings’ transcripts from November through January of 1976–1977 shed light on the administration members’ appointing. The White House Central Files and the Handwriting Files are a valuable contribution to defining, on the one hand, the Jimmy Carter’s management of internal debate on various issues, on the other hand, the process of decision-making. Finally I have consulted the papers of some trilateralists, who joined the administration: the Brzezinski Collection, Hedley Donovan Papers, Walter Mondale Papers and Harold Brown Papers. At the Eisenhower Presidential Library I have examined the Gerard C. Smith File, which includes papers of a founding member of the Trilateral Commission and an administration’s member as well. At the Minnesota Historical Society Library, I have consulted the Papers of Walter Mondale, trilateralist and vice president in the Carter Administration. At the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, I worked on the Papers of Elliot L. Richardson, another trilateralist who joined the Administration. The papers of the Council on Foreign Relations held at Princeton University Library and the documents recently catalogued at the Rockefeller Archive Center provide crucial informations on the formation of the Commission, its internal debates and its members.

The Trilateral Commission, often associated with an unfounded conspiracy theory, which supports the idea of the existence of a group of multinational corporations determined to overthrow the international order, promoting a transnational authoritarianism, has often been overlooked by historians, or, at most, analysed in a few dated works. Formation, goals, and members of this organization, represented a new response to changes, that took place in the late Sixties and in the early Seventies. As “Nixingerian” pragmatism, thirdworldism, new leftism and neoconservatism, the trilateralist internationalism was a product of a fundamental social and cultural debate which had followed the political crisis of the American superpower after military defeat in Vietnam and the economic decline of the Bretton Woods system.

Without a comprehensive analysis of the history of that Commission is extremely complicated, in our opinion, to understand the cultural and political background of the 1976 presidential democratic candidate Jimmy Carter. Thanks to the support and advice of the trilateralists, Jimmy gradually defined his project for a new U. S. international role, which went beyond the classical agenda of containment and used its power and its geopolitical influence to manage the rising global problems. According to Jimmy Carter and the trilateralists, the rigid bipolar vision forced the United States to spend more and more resources in an outdated ideological challenge, far from the complex reality of the Seventies. Moreover, the study of the trilateralist approach, arose from the interactions between trilateralism and the candidate’s background, allows to understand the Carter Administration’s post-bipolar commitment, partly failed because of unfavorable circumstances. The trilateralist approach represented a new awareness about the changes which occurred in the Seventies to national and international level. Internationally the growing interdependence rendered gradually obsolete the rigid bipolar perspective of international relations and, simultaneously, brought out new problems that could be faced only through the concertation and multilateralism, against a new unilateralist protectionism. Domestically, on the one hand, arose a new collective consciousness that transcended national borders, thanks to the growing mass communication and the new awareness on issues such as environmentalism and nuclear disarmament, on the other hand, there was the growing phenomenon of cultural social and political fragmentation.

To sum up, trilateralism allowed a first post-bipolar approach to global transformations, which changed the international system in the initial stage of globalization in the Seventies, undermining the rigid cold war system. During the long decade, the hard power, characterized by military power, geopolitical influence, and the balance of power, was gradually challenged by a new soft power, characterized by the rise of interdependence, massification of information, the rising of the movements for nuclear disarmament and the environmentalism. Furthermore, if we analyze the history of the Carter administration exclusively through the lens of bipolarism, the escalation of tension between the superpowers, and the U.S. containment of communist destabilization in the Third World, the importance of social, cultural, economic and political transformations in the United States appears only partially clear. Despite the decline in the public’s confidence in the executive during the Carter’s last year in office, caused by stagflation and Iranian crisis, in the conclusions we will focus on Carter Administration’s accomplishments, specially on the relevance of the approach in a long term perspective. Current world’s problems are very similar to those which trilateralism tried to deal with in the late Seventies.

The project is in its final stage. After an extensive bibliographic research, completed in the first year of doctoral school, and having carried out the work in the US archives, where I spent four months of 2009, in the early 2010 I started the drafting of the five chapters of the thesis, which will probably be discussed before next spring at the latest. The division of chapters follows a chronological structure: the first chapter examines the historiography on the administration and the Commission, the second deals with the creation of the Trilateral Commission and its first 3–4 years, paying particular attention to the role of trilateralists who joined the administration, the third focuses on the 1976 election campaign and the interactions between the democratic candidate and the trilateralists, the fourth considers the implementation of the new approach between 1977 and 1980 focusing on foreign policy issues, in the fifth we discuss the Jimmy Carter’s last year in office and the decline of the trilateralist approach until the election defeat, without forgetting the goals achieved and the legacy of the trilateralist approach. In the conclusion we reflects on the relevance of the trilateralism for the comprehension of the changing role of the United States in the post cold war international system.