BERN, Switzerland — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on a weeklong trip to Europe where he is raising sensitive issues with national leaders — from Iranian missiles to Chinese technology to the economic collapse of Venezuela — but the most colorful conversations could take place this weekend out of public earshot in a secretive conclave at a Swiss lakeside resort.
In Montreux, on the eastern shore of Lake Geneva, political and business leaders from Western nations are gathering for the 67th Bilderberg Meeting, an annual forum in which participants agree not to reveal exactly what was said or who said it. It is a shadow version of Davos, the elite annual winter conference in the Swiss Alps that President Donald Trump has attended once but has also criticized.
The State Department has not even put the Bilderberg Meeting on Pompeo’s public schedule, although a senior official confirmed he was attending.
Pompeo landed in Zurich on Friday afternoon after a morning of meetings with German leaders in Berlin, then took a helicopter to Bern, where he spoke at a gathering of department employees at the U.S. Embassy. Pompeo was traveling with his wife, Susan.
“Big cheese and chocolate fan,” Pompeo joked to reporters on the airplane Thursday when someone asked about the three-night stop in Switzerland.
No doubt those culinary treats will be on hand at venues in Montreux, to fuel discussion on 11 central topics now hotly debated in countries around the globe: the future of capitalism, the weaponization of social media, artificial intelligence, Brexit, China, Russia and so on.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, is another top administration official planning to attend. The 130 or so participants also include King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands; Stacey Abrams, the U.S. politician; Henry Kissinger, the former senior U.S. foreign policy official; Eric Schmidt, the former chief executive of Google; and David Petraeus, the retired general. Some top bank executives are on the list, too.
On at least one subject, climate change, many of the participants are expected to have radically different views than Pompeo. In early May, the U.S. secretary, speaking at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland, praised the changes caused by the melting of ice in the Arctic Circle.
“Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade,” Pompeo said, while noting the abundance of undiscovered oil and gas, uranium, rare-earth minerals, coal, diamonds and fisheries in the Arctic.
Pompeo and the Trump administration have also found themselves at odds with European nations on Iran. Trump withdrew from a nuclear deal that world powers reached with Iran in 2015, but European governments still abide by the accord and have urged Iran to stay in.
In fact, it was at Lake Geneva, in the city of Lausanne, that U.S. negotiators led by Pompeo’s predecessor John Kerry, worked with foreign officials to complete the 2015 deal.
The current split between the Trump administration and Europeans became apparent again Friday, when Pompeo met in Berlin with Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister.
“It’s no secret that we have differences with regard to the right approach to pursue,” Maas said at a news conference afterward.
Pompeo said he also urged Maas to ban Hezbollah, the Lebanese military and political group supported by Iran, from Germany, as Britain did this year. Tensions between the United States and Iran have soared since early May, when the Trump administration announced military movements to counter Iran.
What Pompeo, Kushner and the other Bilderberg attendees actually say to each other will be a mystery to most of the public, thanks to the meeting’s use of the Chatham House Rule, which states that although attendees can tell the public what was discussed, generally, participants must not reveal who said what.
The rule was devised in 1927 by the eponymous policy institute in London, when many people feared that the practice of “secret diplomacy led to the horrors of the First World War,” said Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House. The idea, he said, was to encourage officials and experts to speak frankly together, in private, and then to share what they discussed with the public.
“It’s actually not a rule of secrecy, it’s a rule of openness from an era when everything was secret,” he said.
Still, the Bilderberg’s reputation for secrecy fed conspiracy theories soon after the first meeting, in 1954, at the Hotel de Bilderberg in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands. In a book published a decade later, right-wing activist Phyllis Schlafly wrote that the “secret kingmakers” of America and a “select assortment of foreigners” met at Bilderberg events and exercised influence over U.S. affairs.
In 1971, “Bilderbergers” appeared in “None Dare Call It Conspiracy,” a book by Gary Allen that argued that international bankers and politicians had taken decisions out of elected officials’ hands. Allen’s book has been cited as an inspiration by Alex Jones, the internet conspiracy theorist who has ranted about “globalists” trying to engineer a “new world order.”
Most of the conspiracy theories around the group center on fears that a “one-world government” will take control of a nation’s domestic government, said Anna Merlan, a journalist and the author of “Republic of Lies,” a book about conspiracy theories.
“You can see a lot of the same concerns about Masons or communists,” Merlan said, adding that there was often an anti-Semitic cast to the theories. Some are more esoteric than others. Jones’ version, she said, “is like a medieval conspiracy, the idea that elites meet in secret to undertake occult rituals to solidify their bonds.”
The Bilderberg press office did not return a request for comment. On its website, the organizers expressed regret, anonymously, about the tenacity of the “wild allegations” against it.
“While these claims lack any and all merit,” the site said, “we regret to see that many continue to flourish online and in social media groups.”