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‘America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy’ review: America’s role in the world

“The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults,” wrote the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville in the mid-19th century, in words that have acquired a new resonance this month after the brazen assault on the Capitol, the seat of American power.

What are the principles that have guided America’s foreign policy over the last two centuries, including its phases of intervention and isolation? America in the World, Robert Zoellick’s account of U.S. foreign policy, sets out to answer this question. The book is ambitious in scope. It sets out to tell the story of American diplomacy over two hundred years, from the birth of the republic, when Benjamin Franklin was sent as envoy to establish relations with France and England, to the presidency of George H.W. Bush and the First Gulf War.

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Being pragmatist

Zoellick begins with an observation by Henry Kissinger that “America is the only country where being called ‘a realist’ is viewed as a criticism.” As an alternative to Kissinger’s dark ‘realism’, Zoellick invokes William James and John Dewey to conceptualise what he describes as “a distinctive American philosophy” of pragmatism: “Pragmatists recognize the powerful roles of chance and contingency, and they appreciate how processes shape practical choices. They account for the dynamism of the world and pluralist perspectives. Pragmatic American philosophers and statesmen share an optimistic belief in progress.”

The five

Zoellick argues that five themes, in his view, have underpinned U.S. diplomacy: the centrality of the United States in the North American continent; the interrelationship of trade, innovation, technology, and foreign policy; the role of stable international alliances; the support of the American public and Congress; and finally, but not the least, America’s belief in itself and its exceptionalism, as an ongoing experiment in democracy.

Zoellick’s very broad umbrella of pragmatism includes figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Woodrow Wilson, and Richard Nixon. He also writes about arbitration and international law, for which Elihu Root was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; about Cordell Hull’s trade diplomacy and reciprocal trade agreements; and about Vannevar Bush’s work on science, innovation and technology in foreign policy. What makes the book interesting is the rich detail. It begins with Benjamin Franklin’s momentous visit to France to sign two treaties that would recognise the new republic of the United States. Franklin wore “a worn blue coat of Manchester velvet” to the meeting with the French foreign minister. It was the same suit that the “first diplomat” of the United States had worn when he had been humiliated four years earlier by the Privy Council in Britain. “Diplomacy includes settling scores,” notes Zoellick.

In 1861, during domestic debates on slavery, there was friction between Spain and the Dominicans. When Secretary of State William Henry Seward wanted to engage, Abraham Lincoln told him a story. A preacher warns his parishioner about two roads before him: one which goes “straight to hell”, and the other which goes “right to damnation”. The poor man replies that in that case, “I shall go through the woods.” Lincoln told Seward that with a domestic crisis on their hands, this was not the time for them to take on further challenges. Rather, they would “take to the woods” and stay neutral.

War and peace

In the course of Theodore Roosevelt’s long mediation between Japan and Russia over Manchuria, Roosevelt goes off on a six-week hunting trip at one point, writing in exasperation: “The Czar is a preposterous little creature as the absolute autocrat of 150,000,000 people. He has been unable to make war, and he is now unable to make peace.”

A long chapter on Woodrow Wilson, the first President elected from the American South after the Civil War, reflects on his 1917 call for going to war: “The world must be made safe for democracy.” The sentence was carefully phrased in the passive voice. Who would have to ‘make’ the world safe, and how would they do it? “Wilson’s eight-word explanation would reverberate across American diplomacy for the next century, and I expect for even longer,” notes Zoellick.

Nevertheless, rather than a comprehensive history, the book is a set of glimpses and perspectives of various phases of American foreign policy. Having worked as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, Trade Representative, and President of the World Bank, Zoellick stresses the importance of maintaining alliances, rather than transactional diplomacy for one-off gains. Pragmatically, he chooses not to address certain questions, such as why some moments (and some parts of the world) have merited the rhetoric of idealism, while others have been given a hard dose of realism. For pragmatists, he suggests, “history offers insights on how to do better, not an acceptance of timeless obstacles.”

America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy; Robert B. Zoellick, Hachette, ₹735 (Kindle edition).

The reviewer is in the IAS. Views are personal.

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