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On foreign policy, a call to ditch the grim worldview and reawaken idealism

Robert B. Zoellick

By Heather Hurlburt (original source The Washington Post)

Imagine, an account by a GOP foreign policy insider that is both momentous and readable, literate and witty; that throws darts and settles scores subtly; and that does not leave the reader with a lower opinion of absolutely everyone involved.

By the dismal standards of 2020, Robert B. Zoellick’s “America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy” is a significant achievement. The volume may even be a bit of a shock for anyone who has consumed John Bolton’s “The Room Where It Happened” or other recent memoirs in which national security “adults” place the travails of the Trump administration into historical context. Although he held a string of top foreign policy jobs under both Bushes, was considered a prime candidate for secretary of state had Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in 2012 and was among the highest-ranking Republicans to sign a “Never Trump” letter in 2016, Zoellick the character makes only infrequent appearances in the volume. We don’t learn how he felt about his rivals for top jobs, and we might even have to squint to make him out in a single picture in the book’s obligatory photo spread.

This anachronistic modesty doesn’t, however, extend to the book’s aims. Zoellick wants to do more than entertain us with our past national glories. He seeks to reawaken a pragmatic tradition in U.S. diplomacy: realism leavened with, in his words, “the belief that the United States is an exceptional, ongoing experiment, both at home and in international relations, that should serve a larger purpose.”

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