The Trilateral Commission was formed in 1973 by private citizens of Japan, North American nations (the U.S. and Canada), and Western European nations to foster substantive political and economic dialogue across the world. The idea of the Commission was developed in the early 1970s, a time of considerable discord among the United States and its allies in Western Europe, Japan, and Canada.
To quote its founding declaration:
"Growing interdependence is a fact of life of the contemporary world. It transcends and influences national systems... While it is important to develop greater cooperation among all the countries of the world, Japan, Western Europe, and North America, in view of their great weight in the world economy and their massive relations with one another, bear a special responsibility for developing effective cooperation, both in their own interests and in those of the rest of the world."
"To be effective in meeting common problems, Japan, Western Europe, and North America will have to consult and cooperate more closely, on the basis of equality, to develop and carry out coordinated policies on matters affecting their common interests... refrain from unilateral actions incompatible with their interdependence and from actions detrimental to other regions... [and] take advantage of existing international and regional organizations and further enhance their role."
"The Commission hopes to play a creative role as a channel of free exchange of opinions with other countries and regions. Further progress of the developing countries and greater improvement of East-West relations will be a major concern."
The Trilateral Commission initiated its biannual meetings in October 1973 in Tokyo, Japan. In May 1976 the first plenary meeting of all of the Commission's regional groups took place in Kyoto, Japan. Since the ninth meeting in 1978, plenary meetings have taken place annually. Besides annual plenary meetings, regional meetings have also taken place in each of the Asia Pacific Group, the European Group and the North American Group. Since its founding, the discussion group has produced an official journal, Trialogue.
Membership is divided into numbers proportionate to each of the think tank's three regional areas. North America is represented by 120 members (20 Canadian, 13 Mexican and 87 U.S. citizens). The European group has reached its limit of 170 members from almost every country on the continent; the ceilings for individual countries are 20 for Germany, 18 for France, Italy and the United Kingdom, 12 for Spain and 1–6 for the rest. At first Asia and Oceania were represented only by Japan, but in 2000 the Japanese group of 85 members became the Pacific Asia group, comprising 117 members: 75 Japanese, 11 South Koreans, 7 Australian and New Zealand citizens, and 15 members from the ASEAN nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand). The Pacific Asia group also included 9 members from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The commission now claims "more than 100" Pacific Asian members.
While Trilateral Commission bylaws exclude persons holding public office from membership, the think tank draws its participants from politics, business, and academia. It has three chairpersons, one from each of the regions represented. The current chairs are former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Joseph S. Nye, Jr., former head of the European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet and Yasuchika Hasegawa, chair of Takeda Pharmaceutical Company.
Social critic and academic Noam Chomsky has criticized the commission as undemocratic, pointing to its publication The Crisis of Democracy, which describes the strong popular interest in politics during the 1970s as an "excess of democracy". He described it as one of the most interesting and insightful books showing the modern democratic system not to really be a democracy at all, but controlled by elites. Chomsky says that as it was an internal discussion they "let their hair down" and talked about how the public needs to be reduced to its proper state of apathy and obedience.
Essentially liberal internationalists from Europe, Japan and the United States, the liberal wing of the intellectual elite. That's where Jimmy Carter's whole government came from. [...] [The Trilateral Commission] was concerned with trying to induce what they called "more moderation in democracy"—turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don't put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the indoctrination of the young (that's their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on—they're not doing their job, [the young are] not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They're too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you've got to control them better.
Critics accuse the Commission of promoting a global consensus among the international ruling classes in order to manage international affairs in the interest of the financial and industrial elites under the Trilateral umbrella.
In his 1980 book With No Apologies, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater suggested the discussion group was "a skillful, coordinated effort to seize control and consolidate the four centers of power: political, monetary, intellectual, and ecclesiastical... [in] the creation of a worldwide economic power superior to the political governments of the nation-states involved." Right-wing groups such as the John Birch Society and conspiracy theorists such as Alex Jones have also promulgated this idea.
Conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer sardonically alluded to the conspiracy theories when he was asked in 2012 who makes up the "Republican establishment", saying, "Karl Rove is the president. We meet every month on the full moon... [at] the Masonic Temple. We have the ritual: Karl brings the incense, I bring the live lamb and the long knife, and we began... with a pledge of allegiance to the Trilateral Commission."