Chatham House Rule and Other Civilities

Last week I participated in a number of forums operating under the Chatham House Rule—a large dinner in Washington with experts on Afghanistan, another in New York focused on the United Nations, panel discussions on North Korea, Myanmar, Ukraine and Iraq and a full day meeting focused on troubled spots around the globe attended by former prime ministers, foreign ministers, ex-military officials and experts.

What struck me in this compressed tour of world conflicts was the civility and richness of the discussions which wrestled with problem-solving compared to the public discourse these days that sometimes seems reminiscent of a high school lunchroom.

In a meeting held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use information, but the identity and affiliation of the speakers are confidential. The purpose of the rule, first established in 1927 at Chatham House: The Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, is to encourage openness and the sharing of information. Anonymity is not to encourage personal gossip and rumor.

No problems were solved in last week’s meetings, but analysis from multiple points of view, which were not always in agreement, were debated and iterated. Issues, not personalities held the focus. To the extent personalities framed the problem, steps towards engagement or containment were set on the table.

Throughout the discussions, I recalled Albert Einstein’s counsel: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.” It is a challenge to think outside traditional corridors of thought and even more challenging when respect for ideas is subsumed by attacks on people.

Many of today’s conflicts spring at least in part from the politics of identity—be that identity defined by religion, political party, gender, race or nationality. The aggregating principal of nations appears to be fragmenting in many areas of the world with authority breaking down or hardening into authoritarianism.

There never have been easy solutions for mankind living together, but the Chatham House Rule offers at least a momentary space for ideas to cross borders and barriers before being shot down.


  1. MK Zuravleff on October 30, 2017 at 9:15 am

    I yearn for “civility and richness of discussions”–glad you found a space for that!

  2. Steve on October 30, 2017 at 9:52 am

    Wish this approach could be universally adopted.

  3. Kristin T. Schnider on October 30, 2017 at 2:58 pm

    Thank you for sharing, dear Joanne. Allow me to disagree on the point of view about “politics of identity”. I don’t think that today’s problems – or parts of them as you say precisely – truly _stem from that approach, but rather suspect that it is a specific treatment of symptoms of inequality, which does not go to the roots of power politics, and does not analyse and fight the primacy of the economy. “politics of identity” moreover has become a term used to demean efforts to create equality for minorities of many”denominations” (I don’t use this term in its religious sense, although sometimes the defenders of minorites use close to religious terminology with which I certainly don’t agree). “politics of identity” have, in my mind, become a distraction for those advocating it as well as for those fighting it – thence those dangerous and sometimes lethal “muddles” we find ourselves in. But how more fruitful it must have been to be in such a space you describe… uttering ideas without “being shot down” and without, as trying to avoid weighing in on and with the status of the participants, which can’ t have been totally hidden inspite of the confidentiality accorded to it – as far as the wider public goes, or am I wrong – as I am sure the participants must have known each other to an extent. Best wishes to you, and thanks for your relentless engagement! Kristin

    • Joanne Leedom-Ackerman on October 30, 2017 at 3:27 pm

      Of course, Kristin, you are right that causes are complex and “politics of identity” can over simplify without a fuller discussion. Good to hear from you and appreciate your thoughts. Hope our paths might cross.

  4. Julia Malone on October 31, 2017 at 12:03 pm

    Thanks, Joanne, for introducing me to the Chatham House Rules, which would be so welcome in our public discourse today!

  5. Sally Howell on November 1, 2017 at 3:29 am

    Joanne, I appreciate learning about a structure which, when agreed upon, guides and supports participants in bringing their better selves to a discussion and how information is shared afterward. Thank you! May it become a model widely applied!

  6. David N. Smith on November 8, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    Welcome information. I look forward to reading more. Also, happy to see that your son is writing as well.

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