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Off the Record: Spilling the Bilderberg Secrets

Published: October 11, 2011 in Knowledge@Australian School of Business
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The straight-shooting, hard power of elected leaders and the impact of the business tycoons who more or less overtly lobby them are widely understood. But what about those forces that bring about subtle transitions of preference within this privileged community? What hidden influences are at work within the transnational power elite? Intrigue and conspiracy theories surround the annual invitation-only gathering known as the Bilderberg Conference (or meeting) where 120 people from across the world converge to discuss major trends affecting Western nations. One-third of participants are from government and politics, and two-thirds from finance, industry, labour, education and communications. Meetings of this Bilderberg club are closed to the public and often feature future political leaders well before they become household names.

Formally described as a small, flexible, off-the-record forum with a keen focus on European and North American concerns, the Bilderberg Conference covers critical areas from trade to monetary policy and investment and matters of international security. Consensus in power circles is "not simply a product of collective common sense among the elite group; rather, it is a consequence of subtle power relationships within the elite circle", says Andrew Kakabadse, a management professor at the UK's Cranfield Universityand visiting scholar at the Australian School of Business. Kakabadse interviewed 13 attendees of the most prominent of all informal power networks, including Bilderberg's chairman, the Belgian politician Viscount Etienne Davignon, for a new book, Bilderberg People – Elite Power and Consensus in World Affairs.

Kakabadse and his co-authors, Nada Kakabadse, a professor in Management and Business Research at the University of Northampton and Ian Richardson, a researcher at Stockholm University Business School, also used other sources to provide a unique insight into the opinion-creating habits and motivations of the world's most influential people. Their book is an attempt to understand what US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meant in January 2010 when she cited the support of the Russian and Chinese governments in regards to Iran's program of enriching uranium, saying: "We believe that there is a growing understanding in the international community that Iran should face consequences for its defiance of international obligations." The implication of Clinton's words became clear quickly: an international consensus was emerging. "But such consensus doesn't just emerge accidentally, it is determined. The power to act is driven by the power to influence prevailing consensus," says Andrew Kakabadse, who believes that many of the efforts to organise the world at the beginning of the 21st century are influenced by what happens at the annual Bilderberg Conference. The most recent one was held in St Moritz, Switzerland, in June. "(Bilderberg) is `a way to shape how people think, modelling the mindset. That's one of the most critical tools of policymaking today," Kakabadse notes.

What Conspiracy?

Obviously, the rich and powerful have more than one meeting point. The World Economic Forum, the International Business Council, TED, the European Round Table of Industrialists, and the Trilateral Commission are also debating clubs for the world's power brokers. Less prominent is the family run New York boutique investment bank, Allen & Company, which specialises in high-level connections between investors and the power players and has invested in or done deals for globally influential businesses such as Coca-Cola, News Corporation and Google. Allen & Co. also runs a conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, each year for business and political leaders, philanthropists and major figures in the arts. However, Bilderberg is the most important "forum for powerful people who understand each other", according to Kakabadse.

Founded in 1954 in the Hotel de Bilderberg in Arnhem in The Netherlands to promote peace, "Atlanticism", and to counteract rising anti-US feelings in Western Europe, the conference is the debating club for today's decision-makers, where both the immediate and long-term issues facing the West are considered. The secrecy of its meetings polarises the ideological spectrum: left-wing media columnists have accused the Bilderberg people of protecting capitalism, right-wingers claim the group conspires towards the imposition of a planned economy.

There is no conspiracy in Kakabadse's eyes, as Bilderberg has no formal influence whatsoever. "On the other hand, it has the most tremendous influence since it shapes opinions at the highest levels. Bilderberg is for leaders what the annual medical conference is for doctors. In the latter, certain delegates are more active than others and at some stage the prevailing medical thinking is driven in one particular direction. These regular meetings shape the way the dominant medical theory and practice develops, to the point that the way things are going feels normal and nobody asks for the alternative to the dominant medical paradigms anymore." The same can be said for world leadership, Kakabadse argues.

British journalist Jon Ronson, who was invited to a conference by Bilderberg organisers, described the relationship between conference organisers and aspiring political leaders in attendance: "They'll get an up-and-coming politician who they think may be president or prime minister one day, and as globalist industrialist leaders who believe that politics shouldn't be in the hands of politicians, they try and influence them with wise words in the corridors outside sessions." Kakabadse calls this process "smart power". The shaping of the prevailing opinions amongst the world's leading decision-makers is "so smart that people don't even know that they are being led", he says. "In the end, they don't even realise that there are alternative questions to be asked."

More Big Questions

But what are the goals of Bilderberg, a circle that is wide and diverse, comprising such unlikely bedfellows as Russian steel magnates, members of the US government, trade union leaders and royals from Britain, Spain or The Netherlands? Officially, they are to promote better understanding of the complex forces and major trends affecting Western nations. Discussions are confidential to allow participants to openly speak their minds, claim the organisers.

However, Kakabadse suggests Bilderberg raises more questions than it answers and it's the reason for many of the world's inexplicable happenings. "Why are almost all political leaders supporting shareholder capitalism, even if it is visibly falling apart, share prices are dropping and the income divide is rising?" he asks.

The academic also queries the faith that many have shown in policies of economic liberalisation as a solution to problems of poverty and inequality and he points to a growing body of evidence that suggests quite the opposite. "Why is the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, undermining her own power and the traditional consensus-driven model of wealth creation in her fatherland by bailing out banks and other, much less well-managed economies?"

And, why is globalisation still the "flavour of the month", even if open competition between national economies is affecting the behaviour of individual states in ways that make political solutions to global problems fairly unlikely? Kakabadse's examples range from "the cynical horse-trading of developed nations and trade blocs in the ill-fated Doha trade talks" and the "dismal spectacle of the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009 – touted as the final chance for developed and developing nations to come to a binding agreement on carbon emissions and global warming – failing to reach any kind of meaningful accord".

"This is where the 'Bilderbergers' come in … It's basically a group of people meeting to protect their own wealth, world views and philosophy," concludes Kakabadse following the research. This is why "the world leaders only rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic", instead of seizing the opportunity for reform in the wake of the recent global financial crisis, says Kakabadse, quoting US economist Joseph Stiglitz.

Faced with the current problems of the global economy, what would be the alternative to the powerbrokers' world view? An "alternative question" is no longer asked due to the Bilderbergers' ceaseless spin, notes Kakabadse. In his eyes, it is a system of "social capitalism along the German or Scandinavian model", with a focus on long-term investments instead of short-term speculation, driven by family companies instead of huge corporations. "Make no mistake, both ideas are market-driven," Kakabadse insists. The differentiating factor lies in the allocation of resources, "which is either in short-term deals driven by cash flow to cater to the few or in infrastructure and highly innovative family businesses that deliver long-term wealth to society as a whole. Nobody takes notice of this second model, which has by far the greatest wealth creation potential in the world, despite everything that is happening".

Following a policy of socialised capitalism, a united Europe could be the richest area in the world within five years, Kakabadse claims, with healthy defence, agriculture transport and green energy sectors. But Bilderbergers doggedly promote a Europe that remains disunited. The reason? "The moment Europe unites the dominant philosophy there would not be shareholder capitalism," says Kakabadse. "Bilderberg is predominantly US and – partly due to doctrine, partly economic interest – is shaping European thinking against the nature of Europe."

Why No Dissenters?

So why do attendees comply? It seems a simplistic assumption that an annual conference can shape and streamline the mindsets of people as diverse as the Prince of Wales (invited in 1986), the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger (who's attended nine times) and the Russian CEO of resources giant Severstal, Alexey Mordashov (who was at the 2011 conference). "For members of elite networks, personal interest – however it is defined – is as critical to an understanding of motivation as any sense of global civic-mindedness," write the authors of Bilderberg People. These meetings have the effect of establishing a subtle sense of inclusion for those entering the network. Paddy Ashdown, a British politician, demonstrated this when he noted in his diaries in 1989: "Went to Heathrow to catch a flight to Santiago de Compostela for the Bilderberg Conference – described to me as '50 people who run the world and 20 hangers-on'. No doubt which category I'm in!"

After attending a Bilderberg conference many doors open – and if the attendee is not careful, many will close. "To fraternise or be seen to fraternise with some of the most influential people in the world, serves as an extraordinary psychological aphrodisiac. It propels the participant into the most revered of circles and increases the reverence with which such individuals are perceived," Kakabadse says. The management professor asserts this is the reason why almost no attendee ever speaks out against the Bilderberg club and the opinions it promotes. "The desire to make a good impression, to be affirmed in some way by those we hold in high regard, might be seen to be a natural enough human response," write the authors. "But, within the context of the collaboration that is taking place, these personal tendencies have important implications, notably related to the unconscious absorption and dissemination of dominant forms of consensus." Or as Andrew Kakabadse sums up: "In this particular world not to be reinvited to Bilderberg is social death."

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