The Bilderberg Group has an enigmatic aura. One often wonders what exactly gets discussed at these meetings. Perhaps the most important issue is how and why the group exists and how it affects global political economy; or conversely how global political economy affects the activity of the group. The Bilderberg Group and the controversy that encapsulates it are complex phenomena. One very much doubts whether it is logistically possible for an organization of elite men and women to control world events in a smoke filled room akin to the X files' iconic Cancer Man. Of course conspiracies exist. Those that do can be classed as single point conspiracies, existing at isolated points in history such as Watergate or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. However Meta conspiracy theories of the Bilderberg type seldom make pragmatic sense.
What must be noted is that The Bilderberg Group's activities are in an interlocked and reciprocal relationship with global political economy. That is the group has the potential to shape aspects of International Relations whilst simultaneously being shaped by International Relations. The most appropriate way to understand the Bilderberg Group's purpose and activity is from a realist perspective of International Relations. Therefore at its most basic level The Bilderberg Group is composed of agents, whether in corporations or policy making, representing their interests on a global stage, reacting to events and being pragmatic in the absence of supranational regulations. I will argue that this realist analyses provides an account for why the Bilderberg Group exists and why they operate in the manner that they do.
To understand how The Bilderberg Group can be explained from within a realist IR paradigm one needs to counterpoise this with what the Bilderbeg Group Conspiracy Theory is, why it distracts from realist explanations and is therefore a form of distorted politics. Many in America and Europe sincerely believe and perpetuate the thesis that historical events, economic crashes and assassinations are the result of pre-planned agendas executed by esoteric agents. Over the years this Meta hysteria, that in part finds its psychological appeal in the volatile concoction of mystery and tragedy, has grown exponentially. Why is it that these Meta conspiracy theories are so alluring? A pioneering study carried out by psychologist Bruce Scheiner explored a way of thinking called "major event - major cause" reasoning. Essentially, people often assume that an event with substantial, significant or wide-ranging consequences is likely to have been caused by something substantial, significant or wide-ranging itself and is unlikely to be interpreted as being a simple or one-off causal event. Consequently from a facile psychological position, the more wide reaching the event is, the broader in the range the cause must be.
The economic downturn of the last few years, particularly in Europe and America, has seen this reasoning and mistrust continue. The persistence of not just recession but a war of ideologies attempting to fix the problems in question; compounded with austerity measures and high unemployment has caused growing apathy and disconnect with current political and economic discourses for those most affected by the polices. This coupled with widespread digital communication in a globalized world has resulted in an increasing number of people proposing that unparalleled international events are the consequence of deliberately pre-planned conspiracies regarding secret world rule - born out of the age of cynicism and cultural mistrust following 911, the Iraq War and the global recession.
Today we find ourselves in a world where terms such as The New World Order, The Illuminati and The Bilderberg Group are common parlance and part of the conspiratorial lexicon. What The Bilderberg Group conspiracy Theorists are conveying, whether intentionally or unintentionally, is a political message of their own. Yet this message is distorted politics because what appears to be corrupt or conspiratorial activity can be explained by the social sciences, in particular Realism in International Relations and Elite Theory in Political Science.
How does an organisation like The Bilderberg Group come to find its way in the world and what is its purpose? We live in a globalized and interdependent world but one where a sovereign global government is conspicuously absent. Relations between agents are thus determined by their levels of power and influence primarily derived from their economic and agenda setting capabilities. Nation States also have these resources but with the added dimension of military might. The contemporary world now has many more treatise and organizations than it did sixty years ago. Yet despite institutions such as the IMF, The World Bank and The United Nations there is no international sovereign authority to impose laws directly on Nation States, the international climate remains potentially chaotic and anarchic. Thus the global horizon, both economically and politically, remains unstable. Events in the Middle East over the past year and China's continuing economic and military ascension are the most recent examples of this constant dynamism.
A prominent face-off is National Laws and corporate expansion. Corporations need to be sensitive and responsive to national differences and government requirements. Country by country, host governments define national laws that the multinational must obey. However if one country's laws are too constraining then the multinational can go elsewhere. Consequently corporations must arrive at negotiations with national policy makers. This political and economic game is not hard to comprehend. Corporations need to expand internationally for profit maximization which means they will inevitably encounter constraints in national legislatures. At the same time however Nations need the presence of corporations in their country for the growth of GDP. Thus agreements must be reached where each party involved defends their interests whilst being willing to cooperate and produce mutually beneficial outcomes.
The above is a defining feature of realist international political economy. The fact that there is no formal international body to resolve global and political issues with overarching political and economic authority is one of the very reasons why the Bildeberg Group was initiated. It remains a unilateral mechanism that attempts to discuss both individual and shared interests with mutual rewards in a world void of determining international frameworks. The Bilderberg group itself is not a formal authoritative body only an organization whose sole purpose is informal discussion; allowing for a potential framework of consensus to emerge that is non-binding or determining because the group has no sovereign power in and of itself.
These nuances of The Bilderberg Group can be assimilated into different branches of realism. For instance, The English School of Realism maintains that there is an international society of some sort despite the condition of a-priori anarchy. The English School stands for the conviction that ideas, rather than simply primal aggressive dominance can shape the conduct of international politics and economic relations. The standard portfolio of idea tends to be Liberal Democracy and capitalist enterprise. However whilst these common norms and interests allow for more order and stability than what might be expected in a strict realist view it should be noted that international conventions and norms do not guarantee stability in and of itself and these idioms do not have to be fully adhered to by those that come to The Bildeberg Dinner Table. A prime example that Democracy is not a necessary condition for The Bilderberg group is Chinese participation at these meetings.
How can one further understand the process that forms the collection of these individuals in the yearly meeting and what and how they informally discuss? International Elite Theory can account for how consensus is formed and why certain subject matters are informally discussed by focusing on the power relationships and the ability to exert influential soft power in international society. This theory posits that a small minority, consisting of members of the economic elite and policy-planning networks, holds the agenda setting power in terms of what is discussed and what should be implemented at the national level that affects the macro international domain of all the players. Through positions in corporations and governmental executive roles, members of the "elite" are able to exert significant power and influence over the policy decisions of corporations and governments. This is exactly how The Bilderberg Group operates. Located at the centre of the group is the steering committee that represents their countries financiers and policy planners. They have the ability to select who is invited and what topics are discussed. This produces an interdependency complex in which corporations need to influence domestic policy makers and policy makers need the support of corporations. Consequently through a process of bargaining, representing both individual and collective interests as well as national and international interests, a type of informal consensuses can be formed producing outcomes that are more predictable and stable.
Again in the international domain National States are not obliged to accept any proposals or implement any polices. However external forces and pressure for some sort of consensus can be best captured by The Neorealist perspective. This allows one to understand The Bilderberg Group in the following manner: While policy makers and corporations remain the principal actors, attention is also given to the forces above and below the States through levels of analysis or structure-agency debate. The international system is seen as a structure acting on the State with individuals below the level of the State acting as agency on the State as a whole. This illustrates how in a globalised world Nation States and corporations are not isolated from the International environment but are prominently part of its fabric. This means that Nation States and corporations must react to external forces outside of their control. At the same time Nation States and corporations are composed of agents seeking to propagate their national or sectarian interests. The result is a balancing act of realism in which Nation States and corporations have to defend their interests whilst attempting to reach a general agreement on a set of widely shared international interests. This is exactly what occurs at The Bilderberg meetings and is the whole point of the informal discussions held.
The above firmly places The Bilderberg Group within a realist paradigm of International Relations. Contrary to the conspiracy theorists proposal that the group dictates world events - they conversely respond to them. The Bilderberg Group has not produced but only responded to the real international domain. Its focus on financial and political contingencies, annual informal discussions, flexibility and pragmatic revision firmly places it within the mould of what one would expect a non formal and non legally binding institution to be in a realist IR world. The Bilderberg Conspiracy Theory is distorted politics because it misdiagnosis how elite networks exist and how and why promote their interests. The conspiracy theory encompassing the group often perceives the group as being corrupt. However legal boundaries define what constitutes corruption and in the absence of International Law a meeting of individuals representing national governments and international corporations with no formal legality to implement any binding decisions at the macro international level cannot in itself be legally defined as a corrupt activity. The absence of a supreme international body is the very reason that self interest is required in international affairs due to potentially chaotic developments that reflect an international Hobbesian State of Nature. In the face of this The Bilderberg Group attempts to facilitate a framework in which both individual and shared interests can be informally discussed with an attempt at reaching some form of consensus.
The Bilderberg Conspiracy Theory drastically oversubscribes the power available to The Bilderberg Group and overestimates how micro phenomenological occurrences such as informal annual discussions can be equated into macro consequences such as economic crashes, wars and famines. Most importantly The Bilderberg Conspiracy Theory is distorted politics writ large because it fails to understand the complex and non local conditions of the international world and thus presents The Bilderberg Group as a preplanning agent. Such misplaced political paranoia draws attention away from suitably understanding the role of The Bilderberg, Group and other informal international groups, from the perspective of realism in International Relations.
Follow Tony Sobrado on Twitter: www.twitter.com/TonySobrado