US troops topple a statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in 2003 © Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

For Europeans there is one thing worse than too much America. Not enough America. It seems only yesterday that Washington’s friends saw George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq as a heedless demonstration of US military might. Now, allies lament Donald Trump’s abdication of global leadership in pursuit of his America-first worldview. Reckless as the US was in toppling Saddam Hussein, it would be dangerously irresponsible to abandon the world to chaos.

We have been here before. Since the foundation of the republic, US foreign policy has often looked like a pendulum swinging between a selfish isolationism, uninterested in events beyond America’s shores, and a pious interventionism rooted in American exceptionalism. 

Simplistic as it may be, this characterisation has more than a measure of truth. During the 1920s and 1930s the US threw up the ramparts and closed its eyes to Europe. At the other end of the pendulum’s arc, Bush invaded Iraq, so many Americans told themselves, in the noble cause of planting democracy across the Middle East. Neither policy served the world well — absenteeism leaving Europe open to the rise of fascism, and a war of choice plunging much of the Middle East into conflicts that are still raging nearly 20 years later.

For most of the time, though, real life has been rather more complicated. As we learn from America in the World, Robert Zoellick’s fine history of US foreign policy, the interventionist and the isolationist have mingled with other impulses in shaping America’s relations with allies and adversaries. And the idealism that invariably frames the rhetoric of US presidents has always been tempered by the hard-headed realism that made the 20th the American century.

The US-led cold war against Soviet communism was cast, rightly, in the language of freedom, human dignity and the rule of law. These admirable aims, however, did not prevent successive occupants of the White House from propping up tyrants and dictators in Latin America and southern Africa in pursuit of the “containment” strategy devised by US diplomat George Kennan to limit any further advance of Moscow’s influence.

In its dealings with allies, moral fervour in Washington has often displayed a convenient fit with assessments of national self-interest. US administrations did their best to hasten Britain’s retreat from empire by summoning up the cause of self-determination for the oppressed colonies. Then, when it suited, Washington moved in behind the departing Brits, as in the oil-rich Gulf.

Zoellick’s grand historical sweep, which starts with the successful effort of America’s first diplomat Benjamin Franklin to win over the French to independence for the 13 American colonies, is rich in moments illustrating this shifting balance — and highlighting the more than occasional contradictions through 45 presidencies. Zoellick brings to the task a sharp intellect and long experience of international diplomacy. He started out as a state department counsellor in George HW Bush’s administration and was US trade representative and deputy secretary of state under George W Bush. Next came a spell as president of the World Bank, between 2007 and 2012.

These were times when presidents paid attention to the world, and words and phases such as “grand strategy”, statecraft and diplomacy still meant something in the White House. Zoellick had a ringside seat during the careful diplomacy of Secretary of State James Baker — diplomacy that blunted the risks from the collapse of communism, and built a broad international coalition for the first Gulf war.

White House insider: Robert Zoellick, right, listens to US President George W Bush in 2006 during his time as deputy secretary of state. He served under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, left © Reuters

To Zoellick’s mind, the twists and turns in American policy have been driven by the interplay of five enduring traditions. The first — to secure hegemony in its own hemisphere — brought among other things the Monroe Doctrine, the Panama Canal and Washington’s backing for Latin American generals during the cold war. The second theme has been the need to open foreign markets to American products and technology, while the third has been the changing approach to alliances. Alexander Hamilton eschewed all entanglements. Yet Harry Truman, Dean Acheson and George Marshall built after 1945 the most powerful alliance system the world has ever seen.

Zoellick’s fourth tradition is the deference that American leaders must show to public opinion, while the fifth is the exceptionalism that claims that the US has always served a larger purpose. The tension between these two explains some of the biggest policy swerves. Thus Woodrow Wilson won the 1916 presidential election with a promise to stay out of the first world war, changed his mind to embrace liberal interventionism and then found his grand scheme for the League of Nations disavowed by the Congress.

The Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize

Now in its eighth year, the FT and The Bodley Head, one of Britain’s leading publishers of non-fiction, team up to find the best young essay-writing talent from around the world. The competition has been the springboard for many writers; entries can be submitted at ft.com/bodley2020. It is open to anyone between 18 and 35 years of age.

The narrative is sprinkled with illuminating vignettes. Henry Kissinger, the architect of Richard Nixon’s foreign policy, has long had a reputation as an arch-realist, dismissive of any moral dimension to foreign policy. Even so it is startling to read of the way he cast Japan, America’s ally, as the great threat to peace in east Asia during his successful effort to negotiate Nixon’s historic “opening” to China.

For those concerned that the Trump presidency marks a permanent rupture with the post-second world war settlement, the worrying message from Zoellick’s narrative is that the extensive alliance system created by Truman, Acheson and Marshall after 1945 could indeed prove an interlude. The American commitment has been fraying since the second Iraq war. Now, with his disdain for Nato and apparent contempt for the US alliances with Japan and South Korea, Trump is dismantling it. Europe’s fervent hope is that November’s election will see Trump ejected from the White House and the pendulum begin to swing back.

America in the World: A History of US Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, by Robert Zoellick, Twelve, RRP$35, 560 pages

Philip Stephens is the FT’s chief political commentator

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