TAI’s Jeffrey Gedmin recently spoke with Robert B. Zoellick—former President of the World Bank (2007-2012), U.S. Deputy Secretary of State (2005-2006), and U.S. Trade Representative (2001-2005)—about the coronavirus pandemic, relations with China, and his upcoming book about the history of American foreign policy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jeffrey Gedmin for TAI: Bob, we know you as a voracious reader, so we’re curious—what are you reading these days, and what books do you recommend from the last quarter or so?
Robert B. Zoellick: Well, I’m reading two very different books. I’ve gone back to Sir Michael Howard’s translation, with Peter Paret, of Clausewitz’s On War. I’ve never read it cover to cover, and I’m enjoying that while also trying to think about its possible applications to diplomacy. The other book is The Virginian by Owen Wister, from 1902, an early Western novel, which my wife recommended. I’m reading The Virginian in part because the author was a very good friend of Teddy Roosevelt. I’m getting a little feel of the West as T.R. must have thought about it.
There are two other recent books that I would recommend. One is Narrative Economics by Robert Shiller at Yale. It’s within the framework of behavioral economics; he’s trying to explore how the spread of people’s stories affect economic behavior. In some ways it’s extraordinarily timely, because while Shiller wrote the book ahead of coronavirus, he uses epidemiology as the method to understand how stories spread. It’s an early effort to understand how mass psychology shapes economic behavior. Shiller reviews eight or nine common arguments about how people perceive the economy—which prompts reflection, because you see how these ideas recur time and time again.
The other book is also short. Eric Foner, the historian of Reconstruction, published a book last year called The Second Founding. It’s a history of the Reconstruction amendments—13, 14, and 15—the Civil Rights Acts, and then the judicial treatment of those provisions. Foner offers a perspective on how the rights revolution of that era was turned back by court rulings. His history of the Reconstruction amendments, the debates in Congress, and the divisions in the country is fascinating.
TAI: Speaking of recurring ideas, Tony Judt once said it’s a strange conceit that we have, thinking that each and every moment we experience is unique to us. Is this a distinctly American thing about forgetting and neglecting history? Or is it something broader?
RBZ: The core problem is people’s lack of historical perspective and knowledge. I don’t find that only a U.S. phenomenon. Other countries, as part of their political culture, have their own view of history. One that’s become prominent in recent years is the Chinese view of a “century of humiliation,” which a number of recent historians have reviewed critically, considering the Taiping Rebellion and other aspects of the 19th century and recognizing a far more complex interaction between China and the outside world.
But historical arguments often make for effective advocacy. So if you’re trying to attack corporate America, or you’re trying to attack unions—I’m not sure that people can trace it, but they’re drawing upon arguments that have been used before. With monetary policy, at least in our history, it reaches back to William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896, or maybe even Alexander Hamilton! These ideas and experiences are diamonds in the rough that people rediscover and reuse.
A better sense of history offers one a deeper understanding of how these themes have been used, how they arose, how they may or may not give guidance today. As a lover of history, I am cautious of the overuse of analogies because I think analogies can mislead as much as they clarify. But history certainly presents questions for you to think about and ask so as to better understand the present.
TAI: Now, in the midst of this public health crisis, we’re trying to get the balance right between protecting public health and minimizing damage to the economy. And China figures majorly in the debate. On the one hand, we now have an emergence of China hawks who talk about “hard decoupling” with China; on the other hand, some like Mike McFaul have called for working with China. How do you see the debate evolving, and what guidance would you offer policymakers?
RBZ: Well, a word first on the public health and the economy. I hope we can reach some sensible reconciliation, because the two obviously have to be synchronized. The big challenge is the sequencing. The first order is making sure that front-line medical personnel have what they need in terms of equipment, intensive care beds, and so on; otherwise, they’re overwhelmed, the economy is stressed and can’t revive. The role of testing is critical, so that you can get the data to make assessments of risks. And over time, the testing will need to identify people with immunities. Because as you turn to a recovery stage, you’ll have different protections and risks for different groups. I think that public health planning versus economics is a false choice; they need to work together.
From a political standpoint, President Trump’s instincts told him to appeal to people who wanted a return to normalcy, people who need the wages or wanted to get out of the house. And even as he dials back that position, that intuition will resonate with some people. Now he does run the risk, as some Republicans in Congress are warning him, that he’ll look insensitive to deaths. There are always politics involved.
One of the best pieces that I’ve read came out of AEI. It’s a report by Scott Gottlieb, the former Commissioner of the FDA. The report points to different phases. I think it’s natural, whenever you have a crisis, that people rush to the ramparts to deal with the immediate challenge, but we’re now moving into a phase where people need to think about synchronization and sequencing.
To turn to China, can China and the United States cooperate? They are competitors and at times lapse into acrimony. They reflect different values as societies. And maybe a subsidiary question, is cooperation vital or at least important?
I would offer three lines of inquiry here. One, over the past year or so, a new conventional wisdom has crept in, which is that cooperation failed. That is flat wrong. People may now realize the difficulties and differences we’ve had with China, but to assume that cooperation failed is ahistorical. I discussed some of this in a recent article. Just consider, for example, the proliferation of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. China was one of the worst offenders through the ’70s and ’80s. It facilitated some of the programs in Pakistan and beyond. But starting with Secretary Baker’s visit in 1991, to put relations back on track after Tiananmen Square, the Chinese started to abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime, banned tests, and signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (although because we haven’t ratified, China hasn’t ratified). Ask yourself how you’re going to deal with problems like Iran and North Korea without China; well, you don’t get very far.
More broadly, in the security area, between 2000 and 2018 China agreed with 182 of 190 UN Security Council resolutions on sanctions for violators of international standards. Now, in some of these cases the United States had to work hard to bring China along. But on an issue that I dealt with extensively over 10 years ago, Darfur, China actually turned out to be quite helpful. China is also quite active in peacekeeping. In terms of global growth, China went from a 10 percent current account surplus to zero—that means all added demand. China was the fastest destination for U.S. exports for 15 years. They no longer undervalue their exchange rate. They played an important role in the global financial crisis with the largest global stimulus. When Russia suggested dumping dollars, the Chinese thought that wasn’t a very good idea. Their cooperation with the IMF and the World Bank was excellent. When I was president of the World Bank, I had no difficulty with China across a broad range of issues.
Even on the much debated question of their WTO accession, China performed pretty well where there were quantitative or numerical obligations. When it came to things like enforcement of intellectual property rights protections, which are harder to measure, that’s where you had greater differences. But the real problem with the WTO was that it wasn’t able to keep up with new and better rules for different circumstances, whether state-owned enterprises or services or different types of technology, or even in the environmental sphere. I’m active in animal conservation communities, which were very excited about China’s ban of elephant ivory. The Chinese netizens went after shark fin soup. On the other hand, China is not doing enough to preserve the 3,700 tigers left in the wild. You can’t deal with climate change without China.
The point is not that all is well. I’m not trying to sweep things under the rug. There are significant differences. But if one starts with the assumption that cooperation never worked, you’re misleading yourself, and misleading yourself in policy is a very dangerous course.
The second line of inquiry is that many of the critics or the “decouplers” are missing the real strategic challenge with China. Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment was the first person to bring this to my attention. China has a two-track approach. On the one hand, as I pointed out in the “Responsible Stakeholder” speech in 2005, China is already integrated, whether it’s in the IMF, World Bank, UN Security Council, or treaty protocols. So the question is behavior. On this first track, China is trying to nudge the existing institutions in the direction of their interests and norms of behavior. This isn’t really a shock. All countries try to do it, including the United States. But it does lead one to ask, “What is the United States doing in these institutions to try to promote its interest and values—or is it abandoning them?”
The second track, however, is worth noting. China is preparing the option of “globalization with Chinese characteristics.” This is very much at the forefront of the response to the pandemic. The Belt and Road is an example of their model of growth through infrastructure development. Another Chinese concept revives China’s view of China as the “Middle Kingdom,” with relations with tributary states. The idea of globalization with Chinese characteristics is that China will offer economic benefits, it will offer connectivity, trade, and investment, but one has to treat China with a certain respect and deference as a tributary state. And you certainly don’t criticize the Chinese Communist Party.
If the United States wants to compete, we can’t beat something with nothing. So the idea that we would move to an autarkic system and simply look at the world transactionally, that we disparage allies, that we undermine existing institutions like the WTO—that leaves the U.S. less able to do what it’s been quite good at over 70 years, which is building coalitions, having the world look at the United States as a model, even if there are differences.
So if you ask the hawks, as you refer to them, “What is your strategy?” you don’t hear much of an answer. Containment clearly doesn’t work, nor do old geopolitical concepts of balance of power. What does balancing mean in a world of pandemics or financial crises or environmental issues or proliferation?
And that leads to my third line of inquiry which is, can you cooperate with a country that’s got a different value system? Xi Jinping’s effort to revive the Chinese Communist Party and strengthen its role has highlighted that problem. Here, one can look to Ronald Reagan for a model. Reagan cooperated with Gorbachev, but he also had no hesitation about standing up for our beliefs. The starting point is our own work at home. And the more we emphasize an open society—open to trade and ideas and people and investment—the more appealing we’re going to be to the world. Certainly, we should stand for the free flow of information and for our values. We should push more for information and reporting on China. Part of Reagan’s method was that he didn’t use his presentation of America’s values as an insult. Instead, he used it as an aspiration. In his private conversations with Gorbachev and others, he said, “You know that your people want to have religious freedom. I understand the difficulty in the past, but how can we create openings for freedom?”
Today we are just gratuitously insulting China. It boggles my mind when I see that the United States, Chair of the G7, that our Secretary of State refused to reach a common agreement with the six other democracies because he wanted to call it the Wuhan virus. That’s petty and petulant. One can recognize the differences with China, the conflicts with China, the disagreements with China. But is name calling going to solve your problem? One thing that’s sure is that increasing tariffs and doing phony trade deals is not going to solve the problem.
TAI: There is on both the right and the left a growing conviction that globalization went too far: Free trade had major blind spots, and there’s a need to realign. How would you summarize lessons learned from recent years? Is there any area where the Trumpists or the Bernie Sanders supporters have something right? And where they’re wrong, where are they going off the rails?
RBZ: This will be a huge topic of debate for years to come. I think there will be two basic approaches. One is adaptation, and the other is a retreat to autarky.
So on adaptation, the coronavirus has clearly clarified for countries as well as companies the importance of having diversity of sourcing. It doesn’t mean you have to produce everything in your country, but for certain products or services you don’t want to be totally dependent on one other country—particularly one with which you may have an adversarial relationship. In our case, we have a very appealing alternative. Mexico could be a producer for a lot of the goods that China sells us. We could strengthen our own North American continental base if we treated Mexico as a potential place for investment and growth.
But in addition, whether it’s a company or country, you need flexible and resilient supply chains. Certain products are easier to replace, there are different suppliers, it may entail different costs. You’ll hear debates about inventory management, and whether it’s important to have stockpiles of various goods. You’re already seeing that adaptation. For example, some U.S. producers shifted operations from China to Vietnam. Vietnam is also an authoritarian communist system, so you’re getting diversity, but you’re not necessarily promoting our value system over another.
The autarky alternative, which you now hear in some quarters of the Trump Administration, says that the pandemic shows we need to produce everything at home. Therefore, we need to have barriers and we need to close off people and production. We tried this autarky in the 1930s. It didn’t work very well, for us or the world. The United States actually had a global trade surplus in the 1930s; we also had 25 percent unemployment. It’s very costly because you’re devoting your resources and companies to less productive efforts.
Autarky also opens the door, for people concerned about “the swamp,” to special interests, because every interest group will come up with a justification as to why it needs special protection. It will mean higher input costs. People often forget that about 40 to 50 percent of Americans imports are for intermediate goods or commodities. So if you increase the price of the supplies, you’re going to increase the cost for people and lessen their competitiveness.
And as we discovered in the 1930s, autarky is also very bad for the U.S. export industries. So for years, when I was in the U.S. government, I would fight countries that argued they needed to block agricultural imports for food security. They said they didn’t want to import American farm goods because they needed to produce all the food themselves. Americans would argue that we would provide the food, we would have open agricultural markets. In 2008 at the time of the financial crisis, there was also a world food price crisis. At the World Bank, I worked with the WTO and UN agencies to reduce export barriers, to make sure that food could go to those in need. If you’re in American export industries, including all the farmers and ranchers in America, the idea of autarky will not be so good for you.
And then there’s a more fundamental question. Can we reasonably cut ourselves off from pandemics, from environmental conditions, from financial markets, from the integration of the real economy, from proliferation and cyber issues? I don’t think we can. I think you’ll see that companies will want to make adjustments to give them—and investors, frankly, too—more diversified positions. But the idea that we could cut ourselves off from the world is a fool’s errand.
Traditionally in crises, since World War II, the United States has acted as a leader in trying to focus the world’s attention on what to do. That doesn’t mean we were always right, or that countries always liked our priorities and methods, but countries did get used to the idea that the United States would step forward, whether it was in the 2008 financial crisis or whether it was in Gulf Wars and dealing with terrorism, to focus attention on core issues.
The United States is no longer playing that role. There’s a recognition that U.S. leadership—other countries may call it something else—has been a key component of the international system. So we’re seeing what happens in an international, integrated order, even with its frictions, when the United States fails to play that role. So, globalization with Chinese characteristics versus U.S. autarky: How is that going to compete?
TAI: How do you speak to national conservatives who say, “But you know, Robert Zoellick, it turns out that Americans are not only consumers but they’re citizens, and in all these economic debates we have neglected issues of sovereignty, identity, and national belonging.” And maybe there are instances, national conservatives will argue, where we want to give up efficiency or economic outcomes for other things. How do you respond?
RBZ: It’s an understandable argument. One needs to urge people to make sure they understand what they’re giving up, for what they believe will be an additional degree of control, and the question is whether they will actually have that control.
From the very founding of the United States, when it was less than 3 million people, the founders believed that their new nationalism was also a way of reshaping the international order. So I adamantly disagree with people who try to pit nationalism versus internationalism, and I have the Founding Fathers on my side. They were challenging the mercantile, imperialistic, monarchical order. They also believed that they were creating something new: a Republic. In very practical terms, this showed up in how they designed early trade agreements. They knew that they were part of an Atlantic society, and what happened in Europe mattered to them, but they were going to make their own country stronger. They had, over time, a notion of a continental destiny. Thomas Paine referred to beginning the world anew.
Ever since then, the United States has had the idea that its nationalism and its internationalism are two sides of the same coin. That internationalism is partly self-interest, but it’s partly trying to shape the world in the direction that Americans believed was best for America and the world. That’s a viewpoint that has been lost in this Administration, but I discuss it in my book.
When you read how people spoke about the union in the early 19th century, it was almost a mystical concept. They believed that they had created something extraordinary. And when they preserved the union in the Civil War, which took a huge national effort and slaughter, they looked upon that as a possible model for others internationally, in the words of Seward, among others. They saw this as an interstate compact that created cooperation. These concepts about internationalism change over time. Woodrow Wilson tried to change American neutrality into collective security. Others used international law or arms control; it was balance of power and mediation under Teddy Roosevelt. They used different methods, but it doesn’t take much depth of looking at American history to see that the United States always saw its nationalism was integrated with its role in the world, its internationalism.
More specifically, I’ve long believed that you have to help people adapt to change. So if globalization requires rapidity of change, whether it’s technology or trade or immigration, you have to help people adjust. This is a longstanding part of the conservative debate, whether you do this by empowering people or by relying more on governmental institutions. Over time, a conservative communitarian notion has been added to the individualistic ethos that came out of the Reagan revolution.
I don’t think the Administration has been leading the international response to this pandemic, but that doesn’t mean that the United States isn’t playing a leadership role. The Federal Reserve’s dollar swap lines are absolutely critical in keeping the international financial system going. Adam Tooze’s book Crashed recognized this point about 2008. The U.S. military and our intelligence agencies have been oriented towards an alliance system and cooperation.
Some discussions ignore the private sector. Just to give you an example, I was on a call recently with a number of European commissioners and one of them mentioned the discussions they were having with American technology companies about making sure that the information lines stay open, with secure networks and safe information. This commissioner sang the praises of U.S. technology companies. Or I was reading about work that the Gates Foundation has been doing, and you’ll see that some of the much derided pharmaceutical companies have the potential to become heroes in getting us out of the pandemic, whether it’s testing systems, through treatments, or with vaccines.
Part of the genius of America—and its ability to influence the world—is not what comes out of the White House, it’s what comes out of the private sector and our institutions. Humanitarian aid and support for people around the world are also a part of America’s role in the world.
Leaders have to take care of people at home. They have to help them adjust, they have to help them adapt. I also believe that there’s an important role for a civic culture, essentially a national identity. This should be part of national conservatism, a sense of our own beliefs and stories and history.
Part of that history is that we get things wrong, but then we learn and correct mistakes. If people define conservatism as trying to shut the door on the world or trying to close off from other communities, other states, other countries, they’re doomed to fail. And that has not been successful for American conservatism over time.
TAI: Henry Kissinger has said that alliances are not made out of charity, they enhance the power of a nation. In the U.S. debate, there’s been a challenge to the role of our traditional alliances. How do you see it? Where is the debate going?
RBZ: The American concept of alliances grew out of the 1947-1949 experience. For our first 150 years, after Washington’s warning about “no permanent alliances” and Jefferson’s about “no entangling alliances,” America, in general, tried to stay clear of alliances. When we entered World War One, we didn’t enter as an ally but as an “associated power.”
One question that I probe in my book is if U.S. alliances weaken, what can we learn from other ideas about America’s international relations? I talked about one of these, the experience of the union, along with others like trade, technology, and international law. When Kissinger discusses alliances, one has to be careful to look at the context. Sometimes he refers to alliances as ententes, which means countries cooperate because of overlapping interests but not necessarily a shared value system. That approach characterized the European alliance structure in much of the 19th and early 20thcentury.
The American design of alliances in the 20th century was fundamentally different, because it combined security and self-interest with a structure to encourage democratic values and an open, cooperative system. Not all our alliance partners were democracies, but a lot of them became democracies. We also combined alliances with an economic network. I don’t think you can understand the American alliance system without looking at the trading, investment, and international economic order that was created alongside it—for example, the GATT and eventually the WTO and the international exchange rate system. The Marshall Plan preceded NATO.
Over 70 years these alliances and economic networks enabled the United States to leverage its national and continental power. It wasn’t easy to lead this system. Alliance management is a particular skill. Bush 41 was a master at the end of the Cold War. Dealing with other sovereign states with different perspectives requires listening to others, respecting others, compromising with others. But that can be a good thing.
Kissinger has said that Europe has lost its strategic sense, and risks becoming a strategic appendage of Eurasia. He argues, and I agree with him, that while it can be frustrating to deal with European allies, when we do it effectively, we’re better for it. The allies will bring perspective, they will have ideas, they’ll have different resources. Sometimes your partners can get things done that you can’t. And I certainly discovered that in my career, whether in multilateral institutions like the World Bank or with the U.S. government.
My career also focused on building a strong North American base. I tear my hair out in frustration to see our treatment of Mexico. Not only for our own security, but for our influence globally. If we could act with 500 million people in three democracies—cooperating on energy and demonstrating self-sufficiency, even in exports, with better demographics and integrated economic strength—we would be far better off. And I have Ronald Reagan on my side. In his speech in 1979 launching his campaign, Reagan said, it’s time we stop thinking about Mexico and Canada as foreigners; it’s time we realize that they need to be stronger with us. That was a view not only about discrete problems like immigration or the environment or security in the Arctic, but also a question of adding to our leverage globally.
I think the U.S. government could revive the alliance structure. And let me explain why. First, the U.S. military and intelligence capabilities and their professional cultures are aligned with alliances. Consider how the French military waging war in the Sahel wants to have U.S. intelligence and logistics. Look at the Eastern Europeans. Based on 70 years of experience, the senior U.S. military are trained in this alliance system. They’re trained not only in joint commands but in combined commands. They think in terms of alliances, and that is an incredible asset to have.
Second, consider the geopolitical realities. Does South Korea or Japan, given the uncertainties in East Asia, want to cut loose from the United States? Europeans certainly face serious security risks to their east and to their south. Third, European capabilities don’t match the threat. They are recognizing that they may not be able to rely on the United States as in the past, which prompts certain rhetoric from President Macron, among others. However, Europeans are still far away from developing their own capabilities. All these factors may actually make it easier to revive an effective alliance structure after Trump. Repairing international economic networks could prove harder.
Experience has shown Americans that serious breakdowns around the world eventually end up on our agenda. So we need to try to anticipate more. During my time with Bush 41 and James Baker, I found that when we proposed actions, if you’d listen closely to your partners, you could incorporate a number of their ideas and bring people along. This process can help the U.S. to meet the political need for others to share responsibilities more effectively. This isn’t new. The Nixon Doctrine during the Cold War made this point. We will look for others to contribute to the health and vitality of the alliance system.
The United States should not be taken for granted. One of the ironies is that the Trump Administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been too one-way. The oil policies, the situation in Yemen, the treatment of the Qataris, the chopping up of your critics—even for an authoritarian system, that goes too far. The United States should have a serious conversation with the Saudis privately to explain that their behavior’s going to have to change or our support will change. Given the world energy situation, factors that drove the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia many years ago have evolved.
The skill of alliance management, going back to George Marshall and Acheson, is a critical part of America’s leadership. I don’t know whether President Trump and his team will ever recognize this, but at some point their successors will be faced with the issue. They will have to adjust to the world as it is. And there’s now built-in distrust about U.S. reliability.
TAI: It’s our view that among the many challenges we face today is the need to have stable, healthy political parties—center-right and center-left—which across the West seem to be in trouble. There’s been a flourishing of fringes, with extreme positions elbowing their way into the center, and the broad, healthy center is weakening. How do you see that proposition?
RBZ: First, I would observe that your concern about political parties extends to other institutions in America. So if you consider how America will deal with the pandemic, or our future international role, we will rely on the institutions we’ve developed, whether governmental or non-governmental. The Administration has disparaged some of those institutions: the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and media come to mind. Whatever you want to call it—social capital, or mediating institutions—it’s a distinguishing factor of American society. This is ultimately a key part of America’s resilience.
Political parties have eroded over decades for various reasons. Some reasons pertain to funding. Social media enabled politicians to move outside party structures. Trump used this effectively. Political parties will have to adapt, so as to develop cohesion, and not just at the national level. The Democratic Party has recognized that the Republican Party’s efforts with state legislatures over the course of a decade gave the Republicans influence that the Democrats are now trying to reclaim.
President Bush 43 once related a shrewd assessment of political parties: “When they fail and lose badly, they have to figure out how to adjust.” That’s natural for both Democrats and Republicans. The Republicans lost about 40 House seats. The Trump phenomenon has served Trump; we’ll see if it carries him through this election. One has to ask, when you look at demographic groups by age, ethnic composition, gender, or geography, whether Trump’s formula will win for Republicans in years to come.
A Republican congressman, who was a suburban representative who lost his seat, reminded me: “Politicians are imitative animals. They’ll look at what works.” We will see whether politicians imitate Trump’s style, which is divisive and confrontational, or whether others will succeed with alternative, more cooperative styles.
In the Democratic primaries, African-Americans, starting in South Carolina with Representative Clyburn, revived former Vice President Biden’s campaign. They resisted Sanders, the more extreme candidate. We’ll see if there is an electoral appeal for people who try to pull the country together. Even in dealing with the pandemic crisis, despite clashes, Congress stepped up pretty quickly with big steps. I think there’s more resiliency in the American system than people fear.
Also, populism is anti-expert. Well, we’re seeing now that it’s useful to have infectious disease experts. I noticed that as FEMA brought in an admiral who had logistics experience. Expertise will help the private sector adjust. Maybe people will recall that expertise is valuable.
As someone who has worked a lot with Congress, I often noticed that the members who got a lot of media attention were not necessarily the great legislators. The legislators knew how to put together deals. They knew how to work with their colleagues, how to keep lines of communication open. I hope that there’ll be an appreciation of this, whether at the national level or at the state level with governors.
These comments return to where you began—with history. I’ve been skeptical of the claims that we live in the most acrimonious age. I point to the lead-up to the Civil War, or the early period with Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton, or 1968—those were terrible times of division and acrimony. However, I do think that the political system has rewarded people who posture, as opposed to get things done. People need to compromise to make our system work. I believe the federal system is part of America’s strength and adaptive ability, along with a very important private sector. These are all political strengths that give America an edge over countries like China.
Some fall into the trap of thinking that a strongman will make decisions and command action. I don’t think that will be as successful. But I do think it’s important to remind people that compromise is not a sin, that historical experience supports trying to bring the country together, and at the end of the day what matters is results—whether you can get things done and create an environment in which others can get things done, whether state leaders, civic leaders, or the private sector.
I’m most concerned about the fraying of our international economic ties. So for example, the United States began, during the Reagan Administration, to create the World Trade Organization with a dispute settlement body to make impartial decisions. Sovereign countries could impose barriers, but others could retaliate. Reagan, Bush, and Clinton all pushed for this system. The United States has now tried to deconstruct that system by refusing to appoint people to an appellate body. The WTO could not form appellate panels. Well, in recent weeks, the European Union and about 15 other countries, including China, have said, “Well, we’ll just create an alternative system without the United States.” How does that serve our interest?
There are too many places in the world where, whether due to narrow nationalism or autarky or the idea that we can go our own way and ignore everybody else, we are making mistakes and undermining our place in the world. I believe the United States has got the capacity, the capabilities, the resources, and the ingenuity to turn this around. But it will require leadership, and that’s the question Americans will face through their choice of leaders.
TAI: That takes us to our final question: You have a new book out soon. What is the title, what is the publication date, and what is the argument?
RBZ: It’s America In The World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy. The publisher is Twelve, an imprint of Hachette, and the release date is August 4th, but you can pre-order it. I’ve been thinking about the idea of the book for decades, ever since reading Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy. I enjoyed Kissinger’s use of history to discuss foreign policy, but I felt he relied heavily on the European experience.
So, I have been thinking for years how to approach the experience of American diplomacy—its ideas and traditions. I use stories and mini-biographies to discuss how individuals dealt with the problems of their era. I begin with Benjamin Franklin in Paris, during our revolution. Each chapter is about a person or a couple of people who deal with the critical foreign policy issues of their era.
To give you another example, there are very few books about the foreign policy of the Civil War. If Lincoln had not been able to stop Britain and France from intervening, we would have had a very different history. I relate the stories of the Open Door, the Louisiana Purchase, Teddy Roosevelt’s mediation of the Russo-Japanese War, and the First Moroccan Crisis. I’ve used stories and color to make it a very readable account. Then I pull the chapters together by identifying traditions of the American experience.
American foreign policy will change because of Trump and because of underlying changes in the world. It could be helpful for Americans to go back and understand some of the ideas and traditions that had influenced America’s interaction with the world over 200-plus years.
My book also stresses America’s pragmatism. Books on foreign policy often offer intellectual frameworks, and they are fun to debate. Experts enjoy analyzing the theoretical structures. But messy facts usually don’t fit the theories. I offer my experience as a practitioner as well as a student of history. And in my experience, most foreign policy is driven by people trying to solve the problems of their time. They may try to think ahead and their solutions may involve bigger ideas. But at heart, they try to deal with problems pragmatically.
I also offer some insights about how diplomacy is really conducted. I believe there’s more chance and contingency than is conveyed in much historical writing. I’ve tried to write a book that will be entertaining for people who like history and biography, but also will give them ideas about American foreign policy, past, present, and future.