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Trilateral Diplomacy: the United States, Western Europe and Japan

Trilateral diplomacy refers to an idea promoted in the 1970s, that the countries of Western Europe, the United States, and Japan shared common interests as democracies and industrialized nations. The idea inspired the formation of a Trilateral Commission to promote cooperation between the three regions to achieve common goals related to security, politics and economics.

In the 1970s, the U.S. economy was weaker than it had been in recent years. Faced with a recession, rising inflation, and declining manufactures, the U.S. role in the world economy appeared to be shifting. At the same time the economies of Japan and Europe, especially Germany, had grown stronger in manufactures and banking. Emerging nations also sought revisions to the international economic system, encouraging cooperation among the economies of the developed world. In 1970, Columbia University professor Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote a book in which he proposed trilateral cooperation between Western Europe, Japan, and the United States as an effective way of addressing global economic issues that the United Nations, which was perpetually split by North-South divisions, had a difficult time addressing.

In response to these developments a fellow proponent of this idea, David Rockefeller, chairman of the board of directors of Chase Manhattan Bank, founded the Trilateral Commission in New York City in 1973. Rockefeller hoped to encourage business leaders, academics and politicians to cooperate more closely in defining economic and security problems shared by all three regions and seeking solutions to them. To demonstrate the equality of the three sides of the triangle, the Commission established three headquarters, in New York, Tokyo and Paris, and rotated the locations of annual meetings.

In its early years, the Trilateral Commission placed a great deal of focus on the issues of trade and finance, as it received support from major corporations with an interest in such questions. At the first meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Japan in 1973, the members discussed monetary reform and trilateral politics. The second meeting, held in Belgium in 1974, expanded this agenda to include relations with developing countries and the global energy crisis. At this meeting, the Commission issued a statement calling for increased aid from the industrialized countries of the North to developing countries, for market-oriented free trade, and also for a cooperative approach to dealing with the organization of the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

When Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency, he tried to apply the trilateral approach to his foreign policy. Carter had served as a member of the Trilateral Commission from 1973 to 1976 before he became President, and Brzezinski, a founding member of the Commission, became his National Security Advisor. Many of Carter's top advisors were also fellow members. Nevertheless, Carter's efforts to promote the principles of trilateralism in his foreign policy were limited by the energy crisis of the 1970s and the failure of the Trilateral Commission's efforts to address them. Cooperation on this issue proved difficult given that Japan and Europe were heavily dependent on imported oil and were more willing to compromise on Middle Eastern issues than the United States. Beyond the question of oil, when the U.S. Government engaged in bilateral talks with the Soviet Union, European nations left out of the talks became uneasy, and it was difficult to form a trilateral consensus on economic controls toward the communist bloc and nuclear policy. In spite of the efforts of the Commission to encourage a trilateral approach to world affairs, U.S. interests did not coalesce easily with those of the other members, and President Carter ultimately shifted his policies away from cooperation with Europe and Japan to focus on facilitating détente with the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China as well as his campaign to promote international human rights. During the 1980s, the Trilateral Commission continued to meet, although it did not enjoy close ties to the Reagan Administration.

Although it did not achieve everything its founders had hoped for, this effort at trilateral diplomacy did promote stronger ties between Japan and Europe, a relationship that had previously been limited in scope. After the end of the Cold War, the Trilateral Commission has expanded its scope to include a wider sample of developed nations in Eastern Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Although formal attempts to use trilateral diplomacy to solve problems have declined, the three regions maintain shared interests and the Trilateral Commission continues to meet annually.


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