Paris, 1919: Lionel Curtis, a British diplomat, delivered a barnstorming speech to the British and American delegates to the Paris Peace Conference, championing a vision that was to alter the course of international politics.
Curtis’s idea was for an organization whose purpose would be to foster mutual understanding of and between nations through debate, dialogue and independent analysis. Bodies already existed for the advancement of science, medicine and the arts. Why not, with Europe still reeling from the First World War, create one for international relations?
Out of this idea, two organizations were born. In London, the British Institute of International Affairs – later to be known as Chatham House – and in New York, the Council on Foreign Relations. Robert Cecil, British Conservative politician and an architect of the League of Nations, chaired the inaugural meeting on the evening of July 5, 1920, at the Royal Society of Arts in The Strand, in central London.
Early contributors included politician Nancy Astor, prime ministers Arthur Balfour and Ramsay MacDonald, Middle East expert Gertrude Bell and suffragist Millicent Fawcett, who joined business people, academics, writers and journalists to understand and discuss the issues of the day.
In 1923, Canadian philanthropists Colonel RW Leonard and Kate Rowlands Leonard acquired Chatham House, at 10 St James’s Square, previously home to three prime ministers including William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. They donated the building as a new home for the rapidly growing organization which increasingly became known as Chatham House.
In 1926, King George V granted the institute its Royal Charter, which underpins the independence, impartiality and global outlook of the organization to this day. The leading thinkers of the time used the institute’s resources to develop their ideas. John Maynard Keynes led a study group that began to shape many of the institutional mechanisms that were to play a central role in creating international financial stability after the Second World War.
Arnold Toynbee, the institute’s first director of studies, and others, including Nobel Prize winners Robert Cecil and Norman Angell, championed the ideas that led to the founding of the United Nations, pursuing their belief that international cooperation within a rules-based system offered the best route to global peace and prosperity.
The Chatham House Rule, now in common currency around the world, was devised in 1927 and the institute quickly became a magnet for leading politicians including Mahatma Gandhi and Winston Churchill. Since then, the Rule’s wording has subtly evolved alongside politics and society, while its spirit has remained the same: to foster open and inclusive dialogue on the most important issues of the day.
One hundred years on, Chatham House continues to foster mutual understanding between nations through debate, dialogue and independent analysis. And as international debates have branched out beyond small groups of senior policymakers to the wider public, so too has Chatham House moved to engage directly with diverse global audiences through new technology.