Zelikow: Foreign policy of the future is about “harmonizing disparate domestic policies”

Last Tuesday, just days after the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Dickinson College had the honor of hosting Professor Philip Zelikow on our campus. Zelikow, a former State Department diplomat who served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission and now holds the White Burkett Miller professorship at the University of Virginia, addressed a wide variety of issues affecting America’s national security apparatus in the 21st century.¬†In a speech titled “The Twilight War,” Professor Zelikow touched upon the political implications of the 9/11 attacks, and elucidated their impact on national security policy.

A detailed study of American diplomatic history must include a thoughtful analysis of the foreign policy decision making process, and here – by virtue of comparison – Professor Zelikow leaves us an important jumping-off point. In his response to a question from the audience at the end of his lecture, Zelikow described the great foreign policy challenge of the future as “harmonizing¬†disparate domestic policies.” “The main substance of foreign policy today is no longer the adjustment of relations between states,” he said earlier, “it is now actually…the coordination of domestic policies and fiscal policies between states.”

Any high school student with a few years of history classes under his or her belt could tell you that the United States has developed a strategy and apparatus for dealing with foreign policy problems over two centuries, and that that system has evolved drastically since the days of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, Benjamin Franklin and his contemporaries were largely concerned with issues of sovereignty, recognition of debts from the Revolution, and water rights. As a newly formed nation, foreign policy was largely a matter of preserving natural resources and establishing clear and sovereign borders. Two centuries later, the issues facing President Obama and his national security staff are vastly more complex and varied. Just in the past few weeks, consider the issues on which the President has spent time and effort:

  • A protest outside Israel’s embassy in Cairo
  • The weapons capabilities of Taiwan
  • European support for Greece as a bulwark against its default
  • UN sanctions against President Assad and the Syrian government

As Madison, Hamilton, and Jay set pen to Federalist paper, they could not possibly have anticipated U.S. foreign policy in the modern day. As subsequent generations took ownership of the “Empire of Liberty,” they likely did not consider the foreign policy paradigm through which their children and grandchildren might see the world; rather, leaders try to craft institutions flexible enough to meet challenges their makers had not anticipated. Now, a decade after a violent and unanticipated coming of age in a new century, the institutions built and sustained for generations are being forced to answer new kinds of questions and solve different sorts of problems. In Zelikow’s words:

Fiscal issues, capitalism, energy, natural resources, public health; these are all domestic issues, but China has the same set of issues…how we harmonize what we do about them is increasingly defining the substance of foreign policy.

How we allow this fact to shift and change foreign policy today may shape our own “diplomatic history” for years to come.


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