Robert Zoellick Explains How The History Of US Diplomacy Can Shape Foreign Policy

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Robert Zoellick during a press conference at the World Bank office on September 5, 2011 in Beijing, China. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)
Robert Zoellick during a press conference at the World Bank office on September 5, 2011 in Beijing, China. (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

In his new book, "America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy," Robert Zoellick tells the story of American diplomacy and the traditions that shaped it.

Since the country’s founding, the former World Bank president says U.S. foreign policy has been defined by five traditions: the continent of North America; trade, transnationalism and technology; alliances and order; public and congressional support; and America’s purpose.

The key to successful diplomacy is for each of these traditions to come together, says Zoellick, who served in the administrations of former Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and is a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“America does exist not only for what we do at home, but also trying to shape the global environment. That's the purpose in the world,” he says. “You can't do it unless you've got a strong North American base, and what's interesting is many foreign policy people ignore that.”

While America’s relationships with Europe and Asia are important, it’s equally as important to build strong ties on the North American continent, Zoellick says.

“Having a strong continental base will be important in our role in the world,” he says. “Trade and economic relations [are] fundamental to partnerships.”

Many foreign policy experts have criticized President Trump’s foreign policy for its lack of strategy. His meetings with North Korean President Kim Jong-un didn’t yield what was promised. He failed to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin about election interference during their talks in Helsinki. And on top of that, Trump has insulted America’s allies.

Zoellick describes Trump’s style as “very transactional.”

“It doesn't focus much on building economic arrangements or alliances or long-term institutions for America's influence,” he says. “It's very personal. It's narcissistic, and other players, including authoritarian ones, are able to play into that.”

Trump’s strategy with world leaders also reflects the needs of his domestic political base, in that he is the first protectionist president since Herbert Hoover, Zoellick says. Trump has also tried to differentiate himself from his predecessors.

“He's kind of the anti-historical president, so whether it's the Bushes or whether it's Obama, he has to be different,” Zoellick says. “So I think that's one reason why the book might be, while historical, [it might] offer some insights for where we go from here, because in some ways, Trump has been the disrupter.”

Interview Highlights 

On how the founding fathers shaped foreign policy today 

“Insofar as people talk about America's history in the world, they tend to focus only on the post-World War II period. ... There's a lot of interesting ideas and experience from the first 150 years. So when I look at each of these individuals, each one I try to associate with a perspective. So for [Alexander Hamilton], it's the role of economic statecraft. With [Benjamin Franklin], it's a wonderful story, if you think about it, about moving from war to peace, the challenge of working with allies in Congress. So one of the points of this book is I try to go beyond the intellectual frameworks that are often debated and talk about the practical work of diplomacy. And I try to add my insights from my experience or how I read events based on that, and I think many of those experiences from those earlier periods still offer guidance today.”

On if tariffs are a good lever for diplomacy 

“It depends if your goal is to lower tariffs or not. But Trump in his inaugural said he was a protectionist. That's a pretty good hint. And on the top of that he said he's a tariff man. So if you take, say the relationship with China, after three and a half years, he finally negotiated sort of a purchasing package agreement, and really they're only about half way to sort of the targets they set. He didn't change the rules. He didn't try to open the markets more effectively, and the tariffs are still in place. But equally so, claiming that Canada is a national security threat to raise aluminum tariffs. This just raises costs for Americans and frankly, hurts our exporters, farmers, others, and hurts our role in the world.”

On what he would advise on the U.S. relationship with China

“When [President Xi Jinping] took office in 2012, he created a documentary film about the end of the Soviet Union, and he ordered all the party cadres to see it. Now if such a film were shown in Europe, [Mikhail Gorbachev] would be the hero that helped end the Cold War. Well, the Chinese version is fundamentally different. Gorbachev is the fool who abandoned the Communist Party, led to ruin in his country and the not so subtle message is it's not going to happen here. The Cold War, which is a historical event for most Americans, casts a very long shadow in China, and it's important to understand that.

“Having said that, I think I would start by working closely with my allies, which Trump has not done. In the past months, we've had this verbal attack that I think has led to quite a serious freefall, quite danger in that sort of relationship. And I would go back to the pragmatism that I talked about in the book, which is what do you want to accomplish here? If you take intellectual property rights, which are discussed, China's created intellectual property rights courts. They're actually giving a lot of awards to foreign companies now, but the penalties are high. In the case of Hong Kong, if we want to send a serious message, well, maybe we should allow people from Hong Kong to come to the U.S. That would show the difference between the two systems. So in a complex relationship like China, you're better off if you're working with our allies, and frankly, people within China who see the need for change. I think the administration's policy is largely based on their political desire to have an enemy in the election.”

On the idea of American exceptionalism 

“First, I distinguish a little bit between exceptionalism and purpose, but I do think that whether it was a case of a founding republic, whether it was preserving the union, whether it was [Woodrow Wilson's] idea about making the world safe for democracy or the role that we played as the leader for the free world in the Cold War, that is part of the American spirit.

“It has to start at home. The basic model that we send to the world is not necessarily what we tell others. It's how we represent ourselves. And that's not been a good story recently. However, what I often tell people abroad is, you can't just look at the White House. America is a society of people and organizations. So it's the Gates Foundation working on coronavirus, second biggest funder in the [World Health Organization]. It's even the Federal Reserve, which has done an amazing job with the swaps program in the process of the global financial crisis or now. It's the SpaceX for this summer as well as other things. So I believe there's a resiliency in America, and the question is how our leadership and how our people sort of reshape that for challenges such as biological security, inclusive economic growth, environmental and energy security, data security, but also opportunities. I believe it's possible, but that's one of the things that America's debating.”

On looking back on American diplomacy in regards to the Iraq war

“To give you the context, I was the U.S. trade representative during that time, so I was working on the trade and economic issues and creating free trade agreements. But I think the context, I would say is number one, I think historians will look back on 9/11 and recognize that of the anxiety it created for [former] President Bush 43 and those around him. Second, I don't believe President Bush would have gone to war except for his belief that Iraq did have nuclear weapons.

“That leads to, I think, a third important issue, which is your role of intelligence agencies. And this will be much debated, but I personally think it's very important to have your intelligence agencies be independent and willing to be straight and be the unpopular person in the room, because clearly there was a mistake there. Some would argue it was pushed from the administration on the intelligence agencies. But I think that's what led to what became a very long and difficult and tragic war and conflict. And then there's the question which I also deal with in the book, is that, you know, it's one thing to fight a war, it's another thing to try to reach peace, going back to my story with Ben Franklin.”

Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O'Dowd. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

Book Excerpt: 'America In The World'

By Robert Zoellick

Historians reflect the debates of their age. Our experience colors how we view people of earlier times. For example, during the Cold War, proponents of realism viewed Teddy Roosevelt’ s—and even Alexander Hamilton’ s—appreciation of power politics through the prism of mid-twentieth-century challenges.

Our own time period is an unstable one, both for the direction of American diplomacy and because of shifts in world order. President Donald Trump has promised sharp breaks with the past. He proclaims that past policies have failed. Readers who are struggling to understand what lies ahead might reasonably ask why they should turn to a book about the past. Kissinger’s wonderful response is that, “History is the memory of states.”

America’s diplomatic experience has accumulated traditions. Although these five traditions involve topics that are also part of other countries’ foreign policies, U.S. diplomacy has given the application of these ideas a distinctly American flavor.

First, the United States has concentrated on North America, its home continent—to determine the country’s geography, size, borders, population, nature as a republic, security, economy, and relations with neighbors. Some European and Asian states tried to dominate their regions; only the United States succeeded in winning control of its continent. Today, Americans are again interested in their borders, security, and transborder flows of people, commerce, information, and the environment. In the twenty-first century, North America will be the base of power for U.S. global reach, especially across the Atlantic and Pacific. We want it to be the best possible foundation.

At times, U.S. leaders have expanded their continental perspective to include visions of special bonds among American republics. They hoped that the states of the New World might change the ways of the Old World. The United States is likely to continue to pursue the promise of Western Hemispheric partnerships.

Second, America’s trading, transnational, and technological relations have defined the country’s political and even security ties—as well as its economic links—with the rest of the world. The United States arose out of protest against the British Empire’s infringement of liberties, including taxes on trade. From America’s founding, the country drew a connection between economic and political freedoms and embraced the idea that private parties should be the agents of commerce. America’s merchants became practitioners of a new type of transnational internationalism. Over time, Americans pressed for “open doors” to trade. In the twentieth century, U.S. officials recognized the connections between trade and finance and healthy economies, politics, and security. The United States created a model of scientific-technological advances, backed by federal funding, that relied on the country’s universities and private sector; U.S. entrepreneurialism worked hand in hand with America’s transnationalism. In the twenty-first century, America’s ties of trade, technology, and finance will provide the foundations of future orders and partnerships.

Third, U.S. diplomacy has reflected changing American attitudes toward alliances and ways of ordering connections among states. For the first 150 years, Americans heeded Washington’s and Jefferson’s

cautions about alliances with European powers. Looking for alternatives, Americans experimented with a range of ways to preserve national independence within safe international systems. The experience of a union of republican states—especially after the preservation of the Union in the Civil War— influenced American thinking about state order for many decades, even to today. Americans looked as well to trade arrangements, international law, arms control, and the mediation of regional balances of power.

After World War II, the United States responded to fears of global breakdown and Soviet hegemony by building an unprecedented alliance network. The American alliances became a new type of political-security system, providing a framework for mutual political and economic benefits. Most of America’s alliance partners were free republics, or eventually became democratic states. After the Cold War, for more than twenty-five years, the United States adapted its expanded alliance network to fit new designs.

Today, President Trump and others question the costs and usefulness of U.S. alliances. Although my career involved working with these alliances to advance U.S. interests and values, the United States will probably reassess the scope, commitments, and shared responsibilities of its alliance system. Americans might consider public and private alternatives—or complements—to alliances for cooperation and competition among countries and peoples. If so, they will want to examine why the United States initially agreed to certain alliances and how the United States put alliances to good use.

Fourth, the stewards of American diplomacy have to understand how to lead—and reflect— public attitudes. Fashioning a foreign policy in a democratic republic, and recognizing the powers of Congress, has confounded many exceptional diplomatic thinkers, including George Kennan. The most skilled U.S. statesmen courted key congressional allies. Successful leaders of American diplomacy need to work with the political factors that will establish the foundation for U.S. foreign policy.

Finally, American diplomacy has reflected the belief that the United States is an exceptional, ongoing experiment, both at home and in international relations, that should serve a larger purpose. The founding generations of the United States were attentive students of the world order of their era. They sensed that their republican experiment, if successful, might have the capacity to change the existing imperial order—to “begin the world over again,” in the words of Thomas Paine.

Americans are now debating again whether and how they should synchronize the national experiment with international purposes. Historically, America’s nationalism and internationalism have been two sides of the same coin. The United States again faces the question of whether and how it will shape a “New Order of the Ages.”

From the book AMERICA IN THE WORLD: A History of U.S Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. Copyright © 2020 by Robert Zoellick. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All Rights Reserved.

This segment aired on August 17, 2020.


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