Purpose instead of exceptionalism: Former White House chief of staff talks with Nordenberg


Image via Twelve: Hachette Book Group

Robert Zoellick, former White House deputy chief of staff and deputy secretary of state, sat down Wednesday night for a conversation with Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg on history and foreign policy and how they interact in Zoellick’s new book, “America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy,” as part of the Dick Thornburgh Forum.

By Brandon Raglow, For The Pitt News

Robert Zoellick, former White House deputy chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush, said “history can offer insights on how to do better.”

Zoellick sat down on Zoom Wednesday night for a conversation with Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg on history and foreign policy and how they interact in his new book, “America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy,” as part of the Dick Thornburgh Forum and through the Institute of Politics.

Zoellick has served as president of the World Bank from 2007-12, U.S. trade representative from 2001-05 and deputy secretary of state from 2005-06, and he held his position as White House deputy chief of staff from 1992-93.

Nordenberg introduced Zoellick by describing their personal connection. He said their friendship goes back more than half a century.

“Our friendship almost qualifies as historic, in the sense that it dates back more than 50 years, to a time when he was a teenager moving through junior high and high school in the western suburbs of Chicago and was a very close friend to my younger brother, John,” Nordenberg said. “Some of my earliest recollections involve basketball games in my parents’ driveway. Anyone passing would have quickly concluded that none of us had a future in the NBA.”

Nordenberg’s camera showed his desk in the background, where the book was neatly framed, given a prominent position on screen. Nordenberg said Zoellick has had a long career in many roles.

Zoellick is also connected to Pitt, as his late father-in-law, Glenn W. Ferguson, received his law degree from the University and was a professor of international studies. In addition to this, he helped found the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

Zoellick’s book, which came out in August 2020, is a history of U.S. diplomacy that utilizes historical anecdotes to examine post-Cold War presidencies. Zoellick said he often uses history as a focal point for thinking about different issues, and he wanted to share this habit with a younger generation through his book.

“When I was in government, I drew upon history as I thought through problems,” Zoellick said. “And one of the reasons I wrote the book was to try to encourage others, particularly those of the next generation, to try to think in these terms.”

Zoellick’s talk focused on his idea of the five “traditions” in American diplomacy, which his book outlines — the importance of North America, trade, transnationalism and technology, the role of alliances in American policy, the importance of congressional and public support and America’s Purpose.

“Here’s what I want to emphasize, is that from 1776 on, the United States saw trade as more than a matter of economic efficiency,” Zoellick said. “Foreign policy experts will often focus abroad, but not so much at home. And if one thinks about the context in this era, the world was ruled by empires and mercantilism, so the American notion was to use trade to pry open the role for private parties.”

Zoellick explained why he labelled the final tradition America’s “purpose,” not America’s “exceptionalism,” and what the public perception of America’s place in the world means.

“I call it ‘purpose’ instead of ‘exceptionalism,’ because many countries feel they’re exceptional, but there’s no doubt that from the American perspective there’s always something larger at stake here,” Zoellick said. “So from the very start of the United States, people were thinking in rather grand terms about shaping, not only their country, but its effect internationally.”

Zoellick said the final tradition in his book connects to America’s current presidential administration and the actions Biden has taken while in office.

“You can see the Biden administration as it tries to understand what are the issues directly related to interest,” Zoellick said “What are the values, and, sort of, what are the aspirations for freedom that have always been part of America’s purpose?”

Zoellick also talked about his experience working in the White House as deputy chief of staff under Bush and Chief of Staff James Baker, and how in his book he calls Bush an “alliance leader.”

“In a sense, the United States is the most effective when it’s the nucleus of a network. If you have an idea of your core issues, then if you listen to your partners, and treat them respectfully, you can often compromise on secondary questions that bring people along,” Zoellick said. “Bush and Baker were in some ways unique in being able to do this. People have referred in some ways to the relationship between an older and younger brother, and the level of trust and communication was extraordinary.”

Melissa Penkrot, Nordenberg’s executive assistant, said the Institute of Politics has often had the opportunity to bring in interesting speakers.

“Whenever we prepare for these lectures, or these other series that we host, we are looking at the current things that are happening in the political climate,” Penkrot said. “The IOP is a nonpartisan entity, but we’re also a little bit separate from the University itself, so it really opens the doors to kind of look at all different people who could be a good speaker.”

Penkrot also said how the production team responded to the talk when it met afterward to follow up.

“As soon as the program ended for everyone, there’s a few of us on the production side that got into a separate Zoom meeting to just follow up on everything. We all said we wished it would’ve been longer,” Penkrot said.

The talk ended with a Q&A session with questions submitted by the audience. Nordenberg said the rise of China as an economic and military power was mentioned more often than any other topic. Zoellick said he believes China has strengths and weaknesses.

“My own belief is that while China has strengths, it’s also not 10 feet tall,” Zoellick said. “We have an odd reaction we see with authoritarian systems, which is we perceive their strengths without recognizing their weaknesses. And so sometimes we try to follow them and close ourselves off. I think this is a huge mistake. I do believe that there are areas where we can find some mutual interest, not only in climate and biological security but even take some of the economics issues.”