Robert Zoellick: Radical incrementalist

ISD and School of Foreign Service Staff

Barbara Bodine and Bob Zoellick in conversation
ISD’s director, Ambassador (ret.) Barbara Bodine, in conversation with Robert Zoellick (Image: Institute for the Study of Diplomacy/Jonas Heering)

On Wednesday, September 16, Robert Zoellick joined the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy for a conversation about his new book, “America in the World.” Zoellick previously served as president of the World Bank, deputy secretary of state, and U.S. trade representative, across several Republican administrations.

After an introduction from ISD’s director, Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Zoellick discussed the book’s arguments and themes with Georgetown history professor John McNeill and SFS Dean Joel Hellman. He placed particular emphasis on the North American continent as a neglected area in U.S. foreign policy, and he recommended that future administrations develop a holistic approach to immigration and trade policy with Mexico and Canada.

Zoellick discussed the history of U.S. foreign policy with McNeill, arguing that it has evolved over centuries to respond to international events:

I felt from the start the U.S. has had a notion of special purpose in the world. It’s my thesis that the nature of the purpose changed, firstly to survive as a republic in a world of empires and then to preserve the union.

In realizing this purpose, a statesman’s ability to act pragmatically was the most important quality.

America in the World A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy book by Robert Zoellick
The cover of Ambassador Zoellick’s book (Image: Amazon)

Hellman questioned Zoellick about the future role of the U.S. in the world, which Hellman said was an especially important consideration for the upcoming presidential election. Zoellick advocated for an approach based on action rather than intention:

The question we face today is: how will we see our purpose in the world going forward? It’s important to get things done … I make a case for imperfect results in a far-from-perfect world.

Dean Hellman recalled that Zoellick had once described himself as a “radical incrementalist” in his approach to tackling fragile states during his stint as president of the World Bank. This moniker perhaps sums up best Zoellick’s vision for a new path forward for U.S. foreign policy today.

After the event, Bob Zoellick sat down with ISD’s director of programs and research, Kelly McFarland, for a further conversation about applied history and U.S. foreign policy, to be released as part of ISD’s new podcast series on October 7. We look forward to sharing the episode with you in the coming weeks.

Watch the full event:



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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges