© 2021 Iowa Public Radio
IPR20012_Website_Header_Option2_NewsNavy.png
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

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 lays out five traditions of America’s relations with the world.

Zoellick has served in the State Department, Treasury and White House. He was also the president of the World Bank from 2007 until 2012.

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 article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.