News | Oct. 15, 2020

America and the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy

By Robert Zoellick and David Petraeus INSS/PRISM Speaker Series

The US Department of Defense (DoD) Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) program hosted a conversation on October 15, 2020 as a part of its SMA INSS/PRISM Speaker Series, featuring Honorable Robert Zoellick (Former World Bank President; US Trade Representative; and Deputy Secretary, Undersecretary, and Counselor to the US Department of State) and moderator General (Ret.) David Petraeus (Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency; Commander of the International Security Assistance Force; Commander, US Forces – Afghanistan; Commander, US Central Command; and Commanding General, Multi-National Force – Iraq).


Mr. Zoellick began by discussing the overall message of his recently published book. The book stresses the importance of studying the history of U.S. diplomacy and foreign policy in order to make better decisions in the future. He argued that there should be an emphasis on pragmatism to strategically determine the best ways to design and implement policies and also emphasized the importance of incorporating both strategic and tactical components into operational perspectives. Gen Petraeus agreed with these points and stressed the criticality of studying history in order to prepare for the future. Mr. Zoellick then pointed out that even small gestures can influence great people and events, emphasizing that they are important tools in effective diplomacy and leadership.

In his book, Mr. Zoellick uses a variety of important historical figures, such as Benjamin Franklin and Elihu Root, and events, such as the Revolutionary War and Civil War, in order to discern patterns that are useful in looking at future diplomacy and foreign policy. For example, he discussed how Alexander Hamilton was a key actor with a strategic outlook for the US and how critical that proved to be for American diplomacy. Mr. Zoellick drew historical context from numerous chapters in his book throughout the conversation, identifying scenarios and choices made in the past that he believes can influence present-day issues, such as arms control.

Gen Petraeus then stressed the importance of rebuilding the relationship between the government and technology firms (within Silicon Valley, in particular). He emphasized that large technology firms that are not interested in helping the U.S. government, or more specifically, the Department of Defense, are not conducive to the government’s interests. This relationship used to be spectacular; however, it became quickly undermined by the revelations propagated by Edward Snowden, Gen Petraeus explained.

Mr. Zoellick then spoke about Lyndon B. Johnson and how to learn from defeat. He identified the various areas in which Johnson failed with respect to the Vietnam War, in particular. The first factor was the failure to recognize the power of recent history, or the failure to look at both the Korean War and World War II. In a crisis, it is critical to use past instances to pose and analyze new questions thoroughly, he stated. The second factor Mr. Zoellick identified was credibility. Credibility for nations is similar to reputations of individuals. Furthermore, presidential experience in the study of psychology can prove to be a useful tool in influencing others through policymaking. America’s faith in its military power is also a crucial factor—will the military start to become an overused general purpose tool, for example? In the case of Vietnam, this was a controversial issue. Combining military power with diplomacy is another important aspect of learning from defeat, Mr. Zoellick explained. They are not distinct. In other words, military power can have a deterrent effect without always requiring a nation to be on the offense. The last factor Mr. Zoellick presented was the failure of advisors. Presidential teams are significant from diplomacy and foreign policy perspectives. Johnson lacked a strong advisory team, and this ultimately led to a lack of thorough recommendations and assistance to the president. Gen Petraeus expanded on this point, offering personal anecdotes from his time in the government and highlighting the importance of providing presidents honest opinions and strategic thought.

Speaker Bios

David Petraeus and Robert Zoellick
David Petraeus and Robert Zoellick
David Petraeus and Robert Zoellick
David Petraeus and Robert Zoellick
David Petraeus and Robert Zoellick
Photo By: David Petraeus and Robert Zoellick
VIRIN: 210406-D-BD104-005

Robert Zoellick is the former president of the World Bank, nominated by President George W. Bush. Under his presidency, during which the 2008-2009 global financial crisis struck, the World Bank increased financial commitments to help countries respond to both the financial crisis and a world food crisis. Zoellick also increased Bank capital and voting power of developing countries. Under the Bush administration, Zoellick also served as the Deputy Secretary of State and the U.S. Trade Representative.

He is currently a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. 

General (Ret.) David Petraeus is a former U.S. Army general. In the Army, he served as commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and commander of the U.S. Forces Afghanistan. Petraeus previously served as Commander of U.S. Central Command and Commanding General of the Multi-National Force – Iraq. After his army service, Petraeus was Director of the CIA. Currently, Petraeus is a Visiting Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, Co-Chairman of the Global Advisory Council at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Senior Vice President of the Royal United Services Institute and a member of the Trilateral Commission.