America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy
By Robert B. Zoellick
Twelve, 2020, 560 pp.
In approaching his ambitious subject, Zoellick combines a practitioner’s wisdom, gleaned from half a dozen jobs in senior government posts, with scholarly research and deep knowledge of how Washington works. The book is not quite what the title promises, instead offering a highly selective retelling of notable incidents in U.S. diplomacy. The rationale for what Zoellick includes and omits is not always clear. His chapters on the pathbreaking contributions of three secretaries of state—Elihu Root, who served under President Theodore Roosevelt and championed international law, Charles Evans Hughes, who served in the 1920s and secured agreements on arms control, and Cordell Hull, who served under President Franklin Roosevelt and helped lay the groundwork for the postwar liberal order—are particularly interesting, as is his treatment of the science administrator Vannevar Bush, whose work under Roosevelt during World War II laid the foundation for later U.S. preeminence in science and technology. But in most cases, the important subject areas these discussions open up do not reappear. Dismissive of doctrines, Zoellick points instead to five enduring “traditions” that should guide U.S. policymakers: the need for U.S. dominance in North America, the importance of trade and technology to national security and the economy, the value of alliances, the influence of public opinion and Congress on policymaking, and Washington’s special leadership role in the world.