Ranging from Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson to Henry Kissinger, Ronald Reagan, and James Baker, America in the World tells the vibrant story of American diplomacy. Recounting the actors and events of U.S. foreign policy, Roberty Zoellick identifies five traditions that have emerged from America's encounters with the world: the importance of North America; the special roles trading, transnational, and technological relations play in defining ties with others; changing attitudes toward alliances and ways of ordering connections among states; the need for public support, especially through Congress; and the belief that American policy should serve a larger purpose. These traditions frame a closing review of post-Cold War presidencies, which Zoellick foresees serving as guideposts for the future.
Robert B. Zoellick, Author, America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy
Moderator: Matthew R. A. Heiman, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary, Waystar Health; Senior Fellow and Director of Planning, National Security Institute
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Greg Walsh: Welcome to The Federalist Society’s teleforum conference call. This afternoon’s topic is a special book review episode on America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy with author Bob Zoellick. My name is Greg Walsh, and I am Assistant Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society. As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the experts on today’s call.
Today we are fortunate to have moderating Mr. Matt Heiman, a General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Waystar Health, and Senior Fellow and Director of Planning at the National Security Institute. After our speakers give their opening remarks, we will go to audience Q&A. Thank you all for sharing with us today. Matt, the floor is yours.
Matthew Heiman: Thank you very much. I’m delighted that Bob Zoellick has agreed to join us today to talk about his new book called America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. Before I get into questions with Bob, he is entitled to an introduction. And he’s got a long and impressive bio, and I’m going to give you the highlights of it today.
He is a Principal at the Brunswick Group’s Geopolitical Advisory Group, and he’s also a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Bob serves on a number of boards for corporate entities. Prior to this work, Bob had a long and distinguished career in public service. He was the President of the World Bank Group. He was a U.S. Trade Representative during the George W. Bush administration. He was also the Deputy Secretary of State during that administration. And in prior administrations, he served as Counselor to the Secretary of the Treasury and the Under Secretary of State as well as White House Deputy Chief of Staff.
So a very impressive background, and absolutely delighted to be able to talk today to Bob about his book. So Bob, thanks for agreeing to join us. And the first question I want to ask you about this new book is why did you write it?
Robert Zoellick: Well, thank you, Matthew. And thanks for the opportunity to be with all of you. So when I was in government, I often drew on history as I thought through problems. And so I had hoped this book might encourage others, particularly people of an up-and-coming generation. There was a book that Henry Kissinger wrote titled Diplomacy in the ‘90s where he used history to talk about foreign policy. But when I read it, I felt he was writing from the European perspective.
So for a number of years, I’ve been trying to think how might I do this in a way that brings out some of the American experience and ideas. And so the approach I took in the book was to focus on stories in individuals, partly to appeal to people who like biographies, and then particular episodes where I focus on practical problem solving.
So some of the people listening today, if they took foreign policy courses, probably were subjected to a lot of international relations theories. And while those are interesting to play with and they’re intellectually challenging, I found them of limited use on issues that I worked on such as German unification, or NAFTA, or genocide in Darfur, climate, or world bank issues. So in a way, the book is designed to be a series of case studies where I try to explain in a way that meets a historical test what happened — the facts, for lawyers — but also add my assessment. And then I try to ask, what would I do?
And I suppose one of the other thoughts in the back of my mind was I enjoyed taking diplomatic history when I was in college and tried to keep up the reading on it. As some of you may know, it has somewhat faded as a field because of the idea that many historical studies now will bring up underappreciated actors or perspectives. And that adds something to any field, but I feel in some ways we’ve lost some things. So Fred Logevall, who is a historian at Harvard, just produced the first volume of a JFK biography, wrote a piece where he said, “Why have we stopped teaching political history?” And so in a small way, I hope to nudge the field a little bit back.
And then, the last point is in my various executive roles, I often had younger colleagues working with me. And because I liked history, I would often torture them with questions about history. And I learned that insofar as they had learned history, it tended to be from World War II on. And I think the first 150 years of American history are rich with ideas and personalities. And so I partly wanted to bring some great figures back to life.
Matthew Heiman: Well, I’ve read the book, and I think you’ve done an excellent job of that. And I wanted to ask you about a couple of the characters that you mention in the book. Given that we’re The Federalist Society, we’re obviously interested in the thinking of what are sometimes referred to as the Founding Fathers and the organization of government. And one of those who gets particular attention today because of a smash Broadway hit, Alexander Hamilton, figures prominently in the early section of your book.
Can you just talk to us a little bit about the role that Hamilton played in thinking about federalism and thinking about American foreign policy, particularly given that he was our first -- I’m sorry. He was the Secretary of the Treasury, but he had an outsize role in foreign affairs. And I’m just wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about him.
Robert Zoellick: Yeah, well, I’m delighted. Hamilton is such a wonderful figure, and if there’s got to be an icon for The Federalist Society, it certainly should be him. And as you note, after the introduction, I start with Hamilton. And this was not accidental because he’s the Secretary of Treasury, not Secretary of State. And he’s the father of economic statecraft for the United States.
But what I try to draw out is he understood systems of power and how to build them. So he has an appreciation, for example, that the Bank of England, in addition to raising money, was a device that also achieved larger political, social, and economic ends. And in some ways, it’s an amazing epiphany. In 1781, he retreats to the library of his father-in-law. And so the Revolutionary War is still going on. He’s left Washington’s staff. He’ll later return to command a battalion in Yorktown.
But he’s trying to understand the nature of the war, and he focuses on the importance of financial credit. He realizes that the Revolutionary War is fundamentally a war of attrition, and he realizes that part of the challenge will be how long can Britain stretch its credit while the United States is relying on France. And this has an effect when he becomes Secretary of the Treasury. Many of you will have read about the efforts that he made to build the domestic financial system. But he also moved very quickly, in part because he knew the importance of confidence in U.S. credit and debt.
And for those of you that like irony, of course, Thomas Jefferson, his great foe, relies on the U.S. credit and, in fact, bonds when it comes time to purchase Louisiana in 1803. He also, I might say, relies on the constitutional authority that Hamilton establishes because, for a time, Jefferson ponders whether he has the constitutional authority to buy Louisiana. His colleague Madison -- and he considers actually trying to seek an amendment. And Madison convinces him not to wait.
But Hamilton also from the start recognizes that the United States fits within a larger Atlantic world. This is not an isolationist by any means. And in fact, he actually starts what today we’d call a strategic dialogue with Great Britain where he’s trying to establish the United States role within an Atlantic order that Britain reins in.
But he makes clear that to do so, Britain has to treat the United States with respect. It needs to move people out of the forts in the northwest. And interestingly enough, the Lord Shelburne, who was the First Minister, they called it at that time, who signs the peace treaty with the United States, has a similar idea. But they can’t support it publicly. So one of the other lessons throughout the book is the need for public support. And so maybe it takes another 100 years to develop that relationship with Britain.
As a practical matter, then, working with Washington, Hamilton is the author of the neutrality principle. And this has a very practical point. Many people forget that about 90 to 95 percent of the new federal government’s revenues came from the customs system. And in fact, this percentage stays about 90 percent up to the Civil War. So Hamilton has to avoid conflicts, and he also, as may of you will recall, was worried about the effect of foreign powers conflicts, the Napoleonic Wars or the French Revolution, on American politics. It has a little resonance with today. And so he, whether it was with Britain or, frankly, with the undeclared naval war with France, wants to stay out of conflicts that could destroy his credit system.
But also, as a thinker, it’s quite interesting. He draws from other figures of history. He draws from Colbert in France and others with the idea that the best statespeople try to shape events, not just wait and react to them. He understands the need to perceive a whole in the system in relation of its parts. But he also, like Ben Franklin in the introduction, realizes the importance of individuals in that small gestures can make a big difference to important people and events.
Matthew Heiman: Well, as we think about Hamilton, who still remains a prominent name among, I think, most Americans, there are other names in your book that maybe aren’t as prominent, but you certainly give them pride of place in the book. And one of those names I’m thinking about is William Seward. Can you tell us a little bit about how William Seward fits into the diplomatic history of the U.S.?
Robert Zoellick: Yeah. For most people, probably if they ever heard of Seward, it was simply with the purchase of Alaska in 1867, although Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Team of Rivals said it brings him back a little bit. And this chapter really starts with the question of the foreign policy in the Civil War. And again, this is a topic most people won’t have thought about. People have probably read a lot about battles and Civil War and generals and slavery and social effects, but very few on the foreign policy issue.
So Seward was a very effective governor of New York. He was Senator of New York, one of the leaders of the New Republican Party. Probably stronger on antislavery positions than Lincoln that might have actually led to his not being able to get the nomination, but he develops a very close relationship with Lincoln. Remember, they both came up in the Whig party at a difficult time, challenging time in American politics in this Jacksonian era. They both have a sense of humor, relationships, they’re quite pro-immigration, and they really come to develop quite a bond.
But what people will forget is that in 1861, most Europeans thought that the South’s secession would succeed because they used as their reference point our Revolutionary War where Cornwallis could march up and down the Carolinas and Virginia but never take control over such a vast territory. And the outgoing Buchanan administration had basically signaled that secession was going to happen. So Seward and Lincoln together follow what’s a very tricky policy. It’s brinksmanship. They had to create enough threat for Europeans to back off, but they needed to act with restraint because they didn’t want to create -- as with Lincoln, emphasizing one war at a time.
And so many people will not know that in 1861, there was a naval incident that almost led Britain to come into the Revolutionary War; another case in 1862. For lawyers, the 1861 case was quite interesting. The United States Navy had boarded a British ship, took off three Confederate commissioners. There was a question of what were the rights to do this? And there’s some complicated legal questions, but at heart, Britain was ready to go to war.
And what’s wonderful is when it comes time for Seward to come up with an explanation, he finds a letter that Madison had written as Secretary of State that, in an earlier period, had decried the British impressment and taking people off ships without bringing them to ports to go before a court. And so he comes up with the argument, “Well, Britain is just accepting our position now, and so, therefore, how can we disagree?” It was a wonderful way of creative lawyering to deal with the public opinion of the time.
But also, there’s the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation, which is quite interesting because when Lincoln issues it in 1862 in September after the Battle of Antietam, the first reaction of the British government is quite hostile. And it’s interesting to put things always in the historical context. They were dealing with, in their terms, the Indian Mutiny of 1857. So the idea that you would encourage, as they referred to it, a servile population to have an insurrection didn’t seem so popular in London.
But Lincoln and Seward together start to work public opinion in Britain. There’s a famous letter to the laborers of Manchester where they explain the importance of slavery to the Civil War. And you start to develop what becomes the Anglo-American outlook on history. And there’s a similar effort that Seward does.
Basically, some of you may recall, France had moved into Mexico at this time. They’re fighting Benito Juarez. They put Maximilian on the throne. And the United States doesn’t want to anger France, so it doesn’t want France to join the Confederacy. But the policy was compromise nothing, surrender nothing. And after the Civil War, Grant basically wants to kick Maximilian out. And Seward steers them away from the process. He wants to avoid another war with Mexico.
But after Lincoln, Seward’s vision, which some historians have found -- Michael Green at Georgetown talks about -- it’s sort of lost, but he had the very powerful idea of the Union among states. Some of you that have read history will recall almost the mystical notion of Union leading up to the Civil War. But after they believe they’ve dealt with slavery and dealt with this original sin, they also have a very strong sense of notion of the Union as a form of cooperative arrangements among states.
And remember, they’re going back to the Washington-Jefferson warnings about alliances. They’re trying to figure out how to interact with the world without an alliance system. And Seward actually outlines the notion of a North American Union through attraction, not through military force and domination. He puts a big emphasis on the U.S. economy and commerce as a magnet. But he also is trying to secure the borderlands of a continental United States without empire.
So people may recall that he bought Alaska. He tried to get British Columbia, too, one of the great missteps of American history. There were only about 10,000 people living in Columbia. They wanted to actually come into the United States. Some of you may recall the Canadian Confederation was created in 1867, in part because London was worried about the United States’ animosity after winning the Civil War. And the four eastern provinces of Canada reached out to British Columbia and said, “What do you want?” And they said, “Well, we want a transcontinental railway, and we want you to deal with our debt.” So that’s how we lost British Columbia.
He acquires what became known as Midway Island, obviously very important in World War II. He tries to acquire the Hawaiian Islands, the Sandwich Islands; doesn’t succeed at that point. That doesn’t happen until the end of the century, but he does have a trade arrangement. He tries to buy the Virgin Islands, and that also doesn’t quite work at this point, but later, I think 1916, 1917. And remember, all this is occurring when Andrew Johnson is President. So you’ve got impeachment and all these other issues. And this one is kind of a fun one in light of more recent events. He tries to buy Greenland and Iceland to deal with the approaches.
But he also has a very interesting sense for his time about the stream of history. And he actually makes the point that the mixing of races is always the driver of civilization. So whether it’s Pacific, Atlantic notion of the role of a Union, he’s quite an interesting figure.
Matthew Heiman: And another name that features in the book -- in fact, he gets his own chapter, and should be of interest to lawyers, is Elihu Root, maybe even more obscure than William Seward. Can you tell us a little bit about Mr. Root?
Robert Zoellick: So some of you may know, if anybody went to NYU, that you might have heard of the Root-Tilden scholarship. But Root was another sort of wonderful figure. He was a real leader in the international legal movement of his time. He was Secretary of War, Secretary of State, Senator, a mentor of Teddy Roosevelt.
And I use this chapter to describe what I call the venerable but vexed tradition of international law. And what I partly want to emphasize here is, given the travails of international law in the 20th century, some people see this idea as a group of utopians. And what I wanted to emphasize is that Elihu Root was anything but a utopian. He was a very practical man. And they were working in an age where they’re trying to figure out how can the United States engage in the world without the balance of power politics of Europe, without alliances, and, ultimately, without the League of Nations? And they have a view based on their view of the American legal tradition about stages of progress and how it’s institutionalized.
And again, to put this in historical context, when one goes back and looks at the Declaration of Independence, it’s fundamentally set up as an indictment of King George III, and it refers to trying to communicate to the law of nations and of mankind. The law of nations, in a way, in today’s terms, is sort of the first multilateral norms. And the Jay Treaty of 1795 is one of the first treaties to work in arbitration provisions. There is a treaty called Rush-Bagot of 1817 that led to naval disarmament on the Great Lakes and a whole different relationship with Canada.
After the Civil War, some of you may recall, if you like history, the Confederate raiders, including the Alabama. And there was an arbitration done, closed in 1871, had the first foreign arbitrators as part of the process. But throughout this international legal law development, the Senate is always very wary of giving authority to the executive branch to join arbitration or other arrangements and the Senate losing control. And so that’s one of the tensions that has always been in this area.
Now, Root is also interesting in that he’s brought in by McKinley to become Secretary of War. And it’s and interesting early conversation — on a telephone, by the way, which was a new device — where Root says, “Look, I don't know anything about the Army. Why are you bringing me as Secretary of War?” And the reason McKinley wanted to bring him in was he wanted a lawyer to help develop the new colonial policies for the United States, for the Philippines, and Cuba.
And for lawyers, it’s quite interesting to see how American leaders at this point are trying to take in American law traditions, including Bill of Rights and other aspects as they’re trying to -- frankly, they were somewhat uncomfortable as early colonials. It doesn’t last. And in the case of Cuba, as Root later explains, they pledge to give Cuba its independence. But recall, in this age, Cuba is within the American security perimeter. So they condition the independence on something called the Platt Amendment, which allows the United States to intervene in various circumstances.
And Root later says you can’t understand the Platt Amendment unless you understand Kaiser Wilhelm. And what that means that this is an era where Imperial Germany was stretching around the world. And some dominant countries would actually send troops into Venezuela or Mexico to collect debts. And so they wanted to have some protection against that eventuality.
Root is also the man who actually develops the Republican policy, with Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, of reservations. He starts out with amendments, but he’s the one that really tries the idea of reservations, which, as you probably know, Wilson eventually sort of rejected.
And so what I try to do in this chapter is close with the point that when you hear people discuss rules-based systems today, it’s useful to think of Elihu Root because what, again, in today’s political science parlance, this is the question of regimes, whether they are for issues for trade, or whether they’re for energy, or health, or a series of systems. These, of course, for people schooled in domestic law, they don’t have the same full either legitimacy or decision making, but they do lower costs. They do share information. The build institutional capacity. They encourage mediation and cooperation.
And so I close this chapter, actually, with a set of essays from 2006 where three international lawyers are debating what is the role of international law. And one takes the argument that international law really only works among democracies. Another takes the view that international law can actually discipline democracies through public opinion. And the third takes the view that international law can only be based on a realistic assessment of a security order. Unless you have the fundamental securities, international law can’t play a role.
So as in other chapters of the book, Matthew, I try to provide a range of ideas to prod people’s thinking without leaving them with one dominant narrative.
Matthew Heiman: And just on that -- and I noted that you had those three essays. Do you have a point of view as to which one makes the most sense to you, or are you remaining neutral in that argument?
Robert Zoellick: Well, I think there’s kind of a mix. Unless you have fundamental security in a system, for those -- again, since we’ve got lawyers on this call, one of the change was the legal realist movement between Root’s time and, say, the time of Acheson. And so the role of power in a system is obviously fundamental to secure stability.
However, certainly with other democratic societies, and sometimes with societies that are of mixed and other systems, you can find common ground in which it’s useful to have a basis of rules. Obviously, I believe this was true in the trading system. One needs to know it’s not going to operate in the same way as the U.S. federal courts, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t have influence in the process.
Matthew Heiman: Yeah, that makes sense. I just want to switch gears a little bit, Bob. So as we think about some of the leading personalities in U.S. diplomatic history, whether its Hamilton or Seward or Root, or the many others that you profile in the book, one of the things I’m thinking about in our current age -- well, let me back up. When we talk about some of those names in the book, I know the country was in varying stages of crises and tumult, and so there was always something going on. And it wasn’t as if in the past everything was easy and golden, and there was bipartisanship, and everything worked flawlessly.
But I’m wondering in today’s age, drawing from your own experience and the work you’ve done on the book, in this hyper-partisan era and in a era where people’s attention spans for analysis and thoughtfulness and thinking about the lessons of history, what is your assessment of America’s ability to craft an effective diplomacy that advances its interests?
Robert Zoellick: Part of what I hope the stories provide some perspective on this is that it’s always a challenge. And again, to give you a very practical sense, in late 1945, so this is after both Germany and Japan have surrendered, Gallup does a poll about priorities for the American public. And I think when asked about the importance of international affairs, the number hit the striking figure of 7 percent. In 1946, I think it rises up as you start to get the first signs of the Cold War, it rises up to 14 percent.
So part of the message here is that it is, I think, fundamentally a challenge of presidential leadership to shape and direct America’s role in the world through public opinion. You see FDR struggle with this in the ‘30s, particularly with neutrality acts and his quarantine speech. It gets different sorts of public reactions. So as I note in the book, one of the traditions I talk about is the need to build public and congressional support.
But just to give you a little sense today, in the past couple weeks, the Chicago Counsel on Global Affairs came out with its annual survey about American attitudes towards the world. And contrary to what you read in some elite attitudes today, it’s kind of striking. It says when asked about active role in world affairs, 68 percent say yes, 30 percent say no. And by the way, that’s a bipartisan 68 percent. NATO support is 73 percent. Consult with major allies, 71 percent. Is trade good for the economy? Seventy-four percent. Is it good for consumers? Eighty-two percent. Relations with others, 85 percent. U.S. jobs, even, 59 percent.
Now, my point about this is that I understand attitudes on general opinion questions versus specifics. But I do think this is -- in the American system, the executive and the President, particularly, are having a particular role in terms of trying to take that set of general attitudes and shape it for the future.
Now, also, and this is part of the federal system that we’ve created from the start, when I talk with people overseas, however, I often point out don’t just look at the White House or the executive branch or even Congress. And then, obviously, look to governors and states. But you have to look at the private sector to understand America’s relations in the world. And this is a theme I draw to the trade area, what later is called transnational relations. You have to understand that degree of connectivity.
So the U.S. withdraws from the WHO. Who is the second largest funder? The Gates Foundation. If you think about the transformation of world energy markets because of fracking in the United States, and so frankly, it wasn’t a new technology, but people figured out how to apply the technology in a different way. They could tap Capco markets. You had an entrepreneurialism, and it changed the system. Vaccine development today, and then the question is how we use it.
So it’s part of the understanding, the shift from talking just about pure diplomatic history to the very title of the book, America’s role in the world. The missionaries play a key role in our attitudes towards many countries, including China. So part of the richness of the United States from the very Founding is that the Founders obviously had a very important role for the government and the federal government, but they also wanted to free private participants, not only to build our country, but to shape the world.
Matthew Heiman: In writing the book, Bob, what -- did you learn something in the writing of this book that surprised you that you didn’t know before you began the process of writing it?
Robert Zoellick: Well, I’d read a lot of diplomatic history. And obviously, part of the challenge when you write a book like this, Matthew, is you have to figure out which people and incidents. So I wanted to cover a timespan. I wanted to cover different parts of the world. I wanted to cover different roles. Again, for lawyers, maybe because I am a lawyer and I worked with lawyers, to me, there’s some natural legal skills here, whether it’s mediation or negotiation or arbitration or other skills, and so I had a sense of the overall direction.
There were some parts that I guess challenged me more, so I felt I had to deal with Vietnam. I had a seminar that said, look, you can’t ignore the Vietnamese topic. But it’s a field that has obviously been mined by historians quite significantly. So I focused on the decisions in late ’64, early ’65 to really take over the war with American ground forces. And here, I tried to apply my experience and say what were the factors that I would identify of what went wrong? And so that was probably one area of insight.
Woodrow Wilson is a complex figure. I began because the Versailles Peace Treaty has been well done, I focused on the question of the decision to go into war from 1914 and ’17. And I tried to draw out something that I guess I hadn’t focused on before, and a lot of historians haven’t, given their bias, which is that Wilson — it was quite impressive — had a sense of vision and direction. He wasn’t bad on tactics. He missed what I would call the operational art, which is the connection in between.
And I use an idea that’s going to come out in a book next year by a friend, Phil Zelikow at the University of Virginia about Wilson’s inclination to see whether he could have mediated a peace in 1916. And I point out the weakness of his operational skills in doing that.
And I guess the last one is Ronald Reagan is a difficult figure for historians. They see the great success. They see the end of the Cold War. But you could see this with his biographers. They sometimes have a hard time grasping the man. I was very pleased. I gave my chapter in draft to Will Inboden who’s at the University of Texas writing a biography on Reagan, and he thought it was the best single chapter.
What I did is I used the -- how Reagan used speeches, not only to frame a debate of ideas, but also how he used them to focus his own thinking. So I think what’s quite important in understanding Reagan’s development is those years where he did these five minute radio addresses as well as the GE speeches. And you could see he was, in some sense, the classic autodidact. He would dig into these topics. He’d use it to come up with a set of conclusions. He was quite a careful editor and writer. And it gave him a great sense of focus and conviction on what were the important issues.
Now, the reality is where he -- he needed support, so George Shultz helped him, since Reagan actually liked negotiations, in pushing him towards negotiations with the Soviet Union where Reagan’s a very tough negotiator. My former boss, James Baker, played a similar role in domestic policy in the first term, economic policy in the second term. And where that was missing is you saw with Middle East and Iran Contra, there could be deep troubles.
So again, one of the points of this book is it’s not hagiographic, but it does try to recognize, in a sense, how people were effective. And I let the reader draw the conclusion of which skills they think are most useful because we’re at a flux point in American history now and our role in the world. And part of my idea of recovering some of these past ideas is that maybe they’ll be important as we think about the future.
Matthew Heiman: Yeah. Thanks for that, Bob. Greg, I think we’re at the point where we could open the floor up to audience members that have dialed in. I’ve got more questions for Bob, but I’d like to give our listeners a chance to ask him a few.
Greg Walsh: Matt, we don’t have any callers off the bat. Do you want to go to your next query?
Matthew Heiman: Yeah, I would like to. Bob, given your tremendous public service career, and then the book you’ve written, and the wide-ranging view you have on American diplomacy, and what’s been effective and what hasn’t, putting aside particular policy objectives, if someone from either the Trump administration, because they’re preparing for term number two, or the Biden administration, because they’re preparing for the transition, were to give you a call and say, “Bob, we’d really like your advice on some things that we should be thinking about to ensure that our diplomatic efforts over the next four or eight years are as effective as they can be.” Are there any kind of lessons you draw from the book and your own personal experience about what works, and maybe what are the things that don’t work, or what are the watch-outs?
Robert Zoellick: On the Trump administration side, I’ll let listeners draw their own conclusion. I think it’s been very transactional, and obviously, Trump as a leader sees himself as the center of the show. And in some ways, based on his political support as an outsider and a disruptor, he has tried -- breaks from policies on alliances and trade in particular.
But if one takes, say, Biden, there are a couple insights here. As students of American politics will know, he would face a huge incoming agenda. He’s got ongoing pandemic and a frayed healthcare system, he’s got the need for inclusive economic growth, he’s got racial issues, he’s got immigration issues, he’s got environmental issues.
And if you think back about either the Carter, the Clinton, or the Obama presidencies, all three came in with Democratic Congresses, high expectations, and within two years, they had run aground and suffered very serious defeats in the midterm election. And so one lesson here is one that my boss Baker used when he was counseling Reagan in 1981 when he said, “Mr. President, you have three priorities: economic recovery, economic recovery, and economic recovery.”
And the point is, you have to get some points on the board. You have to deal with it where the heart of the issue is to be able to build on it with other topics. Today, I would suggest that’s not just pure economic recovery. It’s a combination of health and economic recovery. Hopefully, we’re going to have vaccines and better treatments, but there’s been a lot of loss of trust in people about how these would be rolled out. So I think that combination will be particularly important for the next President.
But then, what I’d also -- on the foreign policy side, my suggestion is not sort of a “come home, America,” but that you look to your domestic agenda to see how you could leverage it internationally. So, for example, in the area of vaccines and pandemics, there’s no doubt that countries are going to try to take care of their own populations first. But what can you do internationally to restore American leadership? Well, I don't think it’s so smart to withdraw from the WHO. But rejoining that is not enough.
Now, President Bush 43 had a landmark initiative to deal with HIV, AIDS, and malaria and tuberculosis, which probably did more for sub-Saharan Africa than anything the United States had done. The U.S. was capable of doing --
Matthew Heiman: -- This was the PEPFAR, correct?
Robert Zoellick: The PEPFAR part of it, yeah.
Matthew Heiman: Yeah.
Robert Zoellick: But then, more broadly -- and I spend five years running the World Bank. A lot of the challenges in dealing with the developing world in this pandemic are going to be questions of supply and logistics chains, and cold storage and refrigeration. And I would push an effort between the vaccine producers and the vaccine agencies as well as the World Bank in this area.
Or if I take an area of if they do something with carbon and climate change, frankly, it’s not enough to rejoin the Paris Accord. What you’d have to do is try to bring in some other players like sub-Saharan Africa. You can do a lot with soil carbon that would help African agriculture and, frankly, absorb about 13 percent of the carbon needs people talk about or avoid a deforestation or forestation issues.
If you take a change in immigration policy, say, for the Dreamers, connected to a different approach with Mexico, which, by the way is suffering not only from the pandemic but from some political dangers under President Lopez Obrador, reversing some of the institutionalization of democracy that’s occurred over 30 years.
So the point is, leverage the domestic internationally, and then use that as part of a basis for your discussion with your allies because America’s strength is traditionally how it works with its allies. It’s a theme I draw out in the book starting from the ’47-’49 period. But circumstances change, and so, given my experience, I don't think that the old security agenda has passed the boards, whether it be cybersecurity or weapons of mass destruction and regional hegemons. But I think you could compliment it with biological security, some of the environmental issues, the economic recovery. Rebuild your bases with your allies, and then you deal with the two biggest problems, which are the future of free societies and dealing with China. But you need to do that from a foundation, a partnership that I’m afraid we've lost.
Matthew Heiman: Yeah. And as you think about the integration of the domestic and the foreign policy apparatus and how the one supports the others, where do you draw upon people that have the talent to connect those two? In other words, when I think about some of the people that you’ve called out in the book that were particularly effective, whether it was Hamilton that understood both economics and great power competition or any number of other names, if you’re a young person that’s wanting to contribute in some way in public service as you go forward, how would you think about advising someone that might be contemplating graduate school?
It sounds to me like the most effective diplomats for the U.S. are people that understand economics, understand great power competition, have a good general background in terms of all these systems. How would you think about advising someone that aspires to be the next great diplomat for the U.S.?
Robert Zoellick: Well, there’s lots of different approaches, based on personal preferences. But in a way, this is sort of an ongoing debate that I had with Henry Kissinger. Henry Kissinger was very negative about American lawyers and legalist tradition, international relations. What I think he misses, and what’s kind of implicit a little bit in the book, is legal training is actually pretty good training in thinking about drawing the parts together and trying to solve problems.
And again, in the real world out there, you’re going to have some sense of processes and institutions, how they work, how they don’t work. Legal training can give you a pretty good sense of that. So whether it was with Baker, my own experience, or Phil Zelikow and I have discussed this. The lawyer’s skill is partly in taking apart a problem, taking the best arguments, at times, negotiating, and at times, building groups of support. It’s not a bad set of skills, but, of course, in my view, it’s helped if you compliment it by knowing some history, having a sense of economics or finance or organizational issues. So I think a multidisciplinary skill set is useful, and frankly, a legal cornerstone’s not so bad.
In addition, however -- for younger people, this is going to sound odd, but trust me, I’ve given this advice to a number of colleagues that have found it true over the years, and that is pick who you work for. Now, this seems odd because you think your bosses are picking you, which is true. They are. But it’s very important who you can learn from, and not necessarily that you have to admire everything about the person. I’ve worked for a variety of different set of leaders, and some aspects I admire, and some I didn’t. But even in that case, I learned something in the process. But the bosses and the teams they pick are very important as you go forward.
And then I suppose, again, in today’s era, what I would also emphasize is I put a chapter in the book about a man called Vannevar Bush who wouldn’t appear in most foreign policy books, but he’s really the inventor of American science policy after World War II. And in some ways, he imagines the personal computer revolution back in 1945 at the same time he’s dealing with the atomic bomb, I think, thinking about how to integrate science and technology into effective policy.
So one reason I put that chapter in was not only because his story was interesting, but I think that America’s science and technology policy was critical in our success in the Cold War. I think it’ll be fundamental in dealing with the competition with China. And there is a certain art in thinking about how you combine the diplomatic requirements with the science and technology issues.
So I was, just coincidentally, the head of the U.S. effort in 1992 that created the framework treaty for climate change. It’s the only one that’s been ratified by the Senate and other accords based on that. And if somebody digs into it, you’ll see from, again, a federal law perspective, it looks thin because you’re dealing with things like political commitments as opposed to pure legal commitments. But it was designed, in a sense, to promote feedback loops and information and science and technology back into it, in part because there were huge uncertainties about this, as there still are today.
So again, you could apply this to pandemic and biological security issues. How do you think about the diplomacy of scientific issues? So I think that will be a very important and promising field.
Greg Walsh: Matt, we have one caller on the line.
Matthew Heiman: Yes, please. We’d love to take their question.
Michelle Green: Hi. This is Michelle Green in Williamsport. I’m a retired lawyer and a member of the Society. And I have a question about how you view the role of the British Empire in foreign relations with the Unites States over its history. I’m sure you recall that Alexander Hamilton, even though he used the example of the British banking system to create our own banking system, was very suspicious with entanglements with foreign governments. And I don’t believe he and Washington considered Great Britain an ally, especially since they had just finished fighting a war against them.
The British Empire, in my understanding, changed into a financial empire with its current headquarters in the city of London, which is a separate sovereign entity within the city of London. And I’m very surprised at your conclusions when you talk about your views in this book about attitudes towards so-called allies who indeed had been conducting a coup against the President of the United States for the last four years. I think it’s very clear that --
Greg Walsh: Caller, is there a question? Let’s maybe let the author respond to the question.
Michelle Green: Yeah, I’m trying to find out what the opinion is of the writer of this book about the role of the British Empire in American history.
Robert Zoellick: It’s a great question. And it’s interesting, going back to Matthew’s point, when I wrote the book, I didn’t expect to draw in as much of the experience with Britain. But not surprisingly, throughout American history, it becomes quite significant, particularly in the early period, and also, obviously, in later years as well in the Cold War, given the special relationship with Britain.
But to start with your point on Alexander Hamilton, what’s quite interesting -- and remember, Talleyrand is fleeing revolutionary France. He’s actually in the United States at this point, and he makes this observation. And Talleyrand is a shrewd as they come. He actually said Hamilton seems to understand the possibilities of a relationship with Britain better, maybe because he won. And so he said the victor can do this. Jefferson and Madison, the Virginians, are much colder to Britain at this time.
But what I was trying to emphasize was that Hamilton was a great strategic thinker as well as a builder of financial and economic systems. And he understood that if the United States was going to succeed, it had to have an effective government. That means it had to have revenue. It needed to deal with its credit. And you can’t deal with any of that without a trading relationship with Britain.
He also, by the way, was very focused on the Mississippi River Valley. This is one of the things we forget today. At the time, that was American second shore. And so he -- at the same time, he was trying to build America’s military power.
But his point was not that he would subjugate himself to the British Empire. He was basically saying, “Look, America will grow more powerful. We can try to have a partnership.” He makes the point, he says, “We think in English,” as opposed -- although he was quite a good French speaker as well. So he had this strategic sense of how the United States could be part of the Atlantic mercantile world that Britain had created. But in a way, your other observation also fits here, which is that it doesn’t quite fit the American politics. The American animosity towards Britain remains quite strong.
Now, this is also the case with the Monroe Doctrine. So Britain basically reaches out to the United States to say can we reach some agreement to thwart what was considered the holy alliance, the monarchies of Europe, as they threatened to, at least in theory, come back and take away the republics of Latin America. And John Quincy Adams steers away from this, in part because he was seen as being pro-British, which he really wasn’t. And he’s worried about his next election. That’s a point that Ernest May breaks out. But he emphasizes union and independence. So this independent streak you’re talking about is very, very strong.
And then to jump to the Civil War, as I mentioned, there’s this danger of Britain intervening in the Civil War. And one of the interesting little quirks of history was that I talked about this naval incident in 1861. The first letter that was going to be sent was very hostile. And Prince Albert, for people who’ve seen him on TV, he’s only about two weeks away from dying of typhoid. And he manages to suggest to the British government on the Queen’s behalf that they sort of tone down the letter and save face in the process, which they do. And when Seward receives the letter, he acknowledges this and says it makes it much easier in the process.
But then, going to the turn of the 20th century, you see the rivalry with Britain, but Britain basically recedes to the U.S. role, particularly in the Americas and the Caribbean. A quite interesting point, I have a chapter on the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22 when a man named Balfour is the British representative working very closely with Charles Evans Hughes. And you can see, in a sense, the mindset of an Anglo-American perspective as they’re trying to work out some of these problems. So whether one agrees with it or not, you can start to see what really become the foundations of the special relationship with Britain over time. So obviously, probably the high point was the Reagan-Thatcher relationship, and it’s had ups and downs.
But I’ll close with this point, I guess, on Britain. I think that Brexit could be very important in terms of Britain deciding its role in the world. And in my dealing with people in Britain, I want them to remain a force as democracy, as a military power. I don’t want them to become a little England. And one idea that I’ve suggested for whoever is elected would be when Britain pulls out of the European Union, not only should the United States negotiate an agreement with them, but we should do so as North America, do it as a combination with Canada and Mexico and help set a set of rules. So your question is an excellent one in that Britain is a theme that runs throughout the book.
Matthew Heiman: Greg, any other questions on the line?
Greg Walsh: None in the queue.
Matthew Heiman: Okay, thanks. Well, Bob, in our remaining few minutes, I’m going to ask you the old cocktail question that is so often asked. And that is you get to have a dinner with some of the luminaries from American diplomatic history that you profile in your book, but you’ve only got three other seats at the table. Who are you going to have that dinner with?
Robert Zoellick: Well, it’s always hard not to want to have Lincoln. And frankly, for the reasons we discussed, Hamilton would have just been such a fascinating person to talk to, although I can imagine at times, he would have been difficult.
But I partly tried in this book to recall some of these other figures that I think were quite important but not as well known. So I alluded to Charles Evans Hughes. This is a man that becomes, as you know, a quite significant Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He loses the 1916 election by 3,800 votes in the State of California; otherwise, he would have beaten Wilson. And he also has a good sense of humor, as does Elihu Root.
And it’s quite fascinating to watch how after the Senate’s failure to act on the Versailles Treaty, and the Senate of his own party says it doesn’t matter who’s Secretary of State. He said we’re going to run the show anyway. And how Root very shrewdly -- or Charles Evans Hughes very shrewdly manages to reestablish a sort of executive authority and try to reestablish America’s role in the world. In my view, combining an arms control idea with a regional security idea, which might actually be useful to think about as we deal with North Korea and Iran and others today.
So throughout the book, I try to draw in some people that a lot of people might have lost, never read about, or just sort of seen the name in passing. And it’s a shame because they’re part of the American story, and I’ve always been both proud and intrigued with the American story.
Matthew Heiman: Well, thank you so much for your time today, Bob. I really appreciate the discussion. And for those of you listening to either this live or the recorded version, I would encourage you to pick up a copy of American in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. It’s a great read, whether you’re interested in history or diplomatic history or where America came from to be where it is today. I think it would be informative on all counts and would encourage you to purchase a copy. So with that, thanks again, Bob, for joining us. We really appreciate your time.
Robert Zoellick: Thank you for having me, Matthew, and good luck with all your work.
Matthew Heiman: Thank you. And Greg, I’ll turn it over to you to close us out.
Greg Walsh: On behalf of The Federalist Society, I want to thank our speakers for the benefit of their valuable time and expertise today. We welcome listener feedback by email at email@example.com. Thank you all for joining us. We are adjourned.
Dean Reuter: Thank you for listening to this episode of Teleforum, a podcast of The Federalist Society’s Practice Groups. For more information about The Federalist Society, the practice groups, and to become a Federalist Society member, please visit our website at www.fedsoc.org.