Philip Zelikow’s eminent career has spanned academia and public service in a way that makes him a modern-day counterpart to the Wise Men who created the post-World War II global order. He has served at all levels of American government, from holding positions in the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon to winning election to his town’s school board. He has taught for the Navy, worked as a career diplomat in the Foreign Service, directed the 9/11 Commission, and served as a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board for both Presidents Bush and Obama. He has taught and directed research programs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is now the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, where he has also been dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and directed the Miller Center of Public Affairs.
Zelikow’s engagement with both academia and public service has given him unique insights into the successes and failures of government. In his most recent book, The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-17, he overturns a century of conventional historical thinking to show how U.S. President Woodrow Wilson missed the opportunity to broker an early peace between the European combatants in World War I, which Zelikow judges to be “the most consequential diplomatic failure in the history of the United States.” At the same time, his scholarship on the policy-making successes that allowed the U.S. and the Allies to win World War II has given him a highly critical view of the quality of current U.S. policy engineering.
In this interview, Philip Zelikow discusses his experiences in and out of government that inform his diagnosis of declining U.S. state capacity. He describes the leadership failures of Woodrow Wilson, the strengths and limitations of the “moderate” perspective in politics and government, and the essence of successful political problem-solving. He explains the business and military cultures that contributed to the country’s successes during World War II and over the following decades, as well as the more recent deterioration in public service training and staff habits. He talks about his current work as director of the COVID Commission Planning Group, and suggests how Americans can rebuild our national competency and regain our global image as the ultimate “can-do” country.
Philip Zelikow: Politics is simply the matter of what do you do when you have to share power with other people. It turns out, when you get into it, that just about anything important in American life involves sharing power with other people if you want to get anything done. If you want to get anything done, you’ve got to work with other people who have some stake or portion of the relevant power.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello, I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m honored to be joined today by Professor Philip Zelikow, who is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, where he also has been dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and director of the Miller Center.
He has served in multiple levels of government across five administrations. His federal services included positions in the White House, State Department, and the Pentagon. He also directed the 9/11 Commission and the earlier, privately organized Carter/Ford Commission on Federal Election Reform and other important commissions and committees. He is the author of numerous books including most recently a book published just this spring, The Road Less Traveled: The Secret Battle to End the Great War, 1916-1917. Welcome, Philip.
Philip Zelikow: Thank you, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: As I mentioned to you before, there’s really no way to cover your career as an author, a historian, an attorney, a diplomat, an administrator, or in public service in any real depth in an hourlong interview. But I would like to focus on aspects of your work that touch upon the Niskanen Center’s emerging interests in addressing declining state capacity. Before we get to that, however, can you tell me something about your origins and what led you to pursue your particular path?
Philip Zelikow: Sure. I grew up in Houston, Texas — that’s where I’m from. Did most of my schooling there, finishing with a law degree. I practiced trial and appellate law in Texas and then disrupted what might have been a promising career as a litigator — in criminal and civil rights stuff mostly — to see if I could make a career in foreign affairs. And I went back to graduate school, went to the Fletcher School, did well there and started my career in foreign affairs.
After teaching for the Navy for a year, I joined the Foreign Service at the entry level. And that turned into a very interesting career in the service that led me to the White House, and then became abbreviated when I was offered a teaching position at Harvard in 1991, which eventually led me to resign from the service. At first, I went to Harvard on leave to see if… because I liked the service and I wanted to see if that would work out. It turned out that it did. And so, since then I’ve had kind of a mixed career, largely in academic posts but alternating with periods of government and public service.
Geoff Kabaservice: How would you describe yourself politically? And it may not be in terms of Republican versus Democrat or liberal versus conservative.
Philip Zelikow: Yeah, it’s hard. I would describe myself as an independent. I think in Washington world I’m usually regarded as a Republican because my most prominent service was in Republican administrations. But the only time I’ve really taken part on a partisan basis, really actively in a political campaign, was actually in 1992 when I did actively campaign for the reelection of George H. W. Bush — who, as you may recall, was not reelected, was defeated by President Clinton.
But in general I regard myself as a practical person — with certain convictions about what one should try to achieve in America and the world, but predominantly concerned with how to do it. And then I have tended to align with parties that I thought (or people who I thought) were practical and competent and most likely to do constructive work.
Geoff Kabaservice: That description calls to mind one of the figures with whom I believe you worked early on in your Foreign Service career, George Shultz.
Philip Zelikow: Yes, though I didn’t really know Shultz. I did get to know him some later. At the time, I was a junior Foreign Service officer working for the secretary on the seventh floor, but in staff jobs in the State Department’s 24-hour crisis center, and then in the department which is called the Secretary of Staff, which staffs principals of the department. And so I had a chance to see the way Shultz and his team worked pretty well, but I wasn’t really part of the inner circle at all.
I think a more powerful experience for me back then as a Foreign Service officer, partly, was a period of apprenticeship working for Bob Blackwill, who was my first key boss as an ambassador at the arms control talks in Vienna, before I went back to the department. And then I was quite impressed with Jim Baker and team during the Bush 41 period, even though at the time I was working at the White House for Brent Scowcroft and Bob Gates, with whom I was also quite impressed.
And so I think I was very fortunate, early in my career, in having a chance to closely observe and work on crucial issues where I was kind of at the center of things, on the momentous issues of the day, with as competent a group of practitioners as our government has ever deployed.
Geoff Kabaservice: You were detailed to join the National Security Agency during the George H. W. Bush…
Philip Zelikow: National Security Council.
Geoff Kabaservice: …National Security Council, excuse me, during the George H. W. Bush administration.
Philip Zelikow: Yeah.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you mentioned Baker and Scowcroft…
Philip Zelikow: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: And as I think about other positions you’ve held…
Philip Zelikow: Incidentally, just to interject, Geoff… It was interesting and a comment on the times that even though I joined the NSC staff at the outset of the Bush 41 administration, no one in that group knew what political party I belonged to or even asked. It simply was not even an issue that arose.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, on that subject, it seems that a lot of the people whom you worked with, particularly on things like the 9/11 Commission, were moderate Republicans and moderate Democrats. And I’m thinking about Tom Kean, who was the chairman of that commission — he was the former governor of New Jersey; Slade Gorton, the former Republican senator from Washington; John Lehman, the former secretary of the Navy; Jim Thompson, the former governor of Illinois; and then on the Democratic side, of course, Lee Hamilton, who was the co-chair; and Max Cleland, who just died yesterday…
Philip Zelikow: Cleland left the commission right away and was replaced by Bob Kerrey, the former senator from Nebraska.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s right. And to this list, we might actually also add Linwood Holton, the former Republican governor of Virginia, who was very instrumental…
Philip Zelikow: Kind of my boss at the Miller Center of Virginia, but was not involved with the 9/11 Commission. Yeah, you’re right. It is worth speculating, commenting a little bit about what is meant by “moderate.” And among people who style themselves as moderates, there’s an assumption that moderate is simply naturally a positive adjective and one need not to say more. One is moderate in their temperaments, which implies a certain balance — that’s true — as opposed to immoderates on either side. And then you can ask oneself: Well, really is moderation always a virtue? And for people who feel quite strongly, they regard moderates as temporizers, compromisers, unprincipled. I think it turns out that one gets labeled as a moderate if one does not have an automatic reflexive position and actually listens to views across the spectrum and on both sides. That does not mean that you end up coming down with a position that is invariably in the middle of the spectrum, but it does mean that your position is a little less automatic and predictable.
And it does imply receptiveness to arguments and evidence from people with whom on other things you may disagree. And it’s worth commenting, Geoff, it’s an aspect of my background. I was involved in intercollegiate debate and then I was a trial lawyer. A really good trial lawyer can make the arguments on the other side just about as well as they can. A really good trial lawyer actually knows all the strengths and weaknesses of their own case, and also knows all the strengths and weaknesses of the other side’s case. See, you’re not a good trial lawyer if you don’t fully understand the other side’s case and can make their case and understand their evidence just about as well as they can.
But you see, that habit of mind, being of that clinical empathy, kind of forces a certain openness, combined with rigorous attention to the relevant factual detail, that ends up putting people in positions where they take stances that others then may call moderate. And it’s a handy shorthand. But it’s so important, actually, to many things that the Niskanen Center does that it’s worth calling that out and noticing it — and noticing what’s more important is what produces the so-called moderation, not simply automatic applause for one’s balanced temperament.
Geoff Kabaservice: I am somewhat guilty of that, I must confess. But in terms of the various moderate Republicans and Democrats we’ve been mentioning here, were there in fact some common threads that connected them all?
Philip Zelikow: Well, the best of them… And the 9/11 Commission, for example, was selected on extremely political grounds by the respective party leaders in Congress in both houses — though the partisan atmosphere was bad then but not as bad as it is now. What did distinguish them is a lot of these people were relatively secure in their own skin and confident and capable about their ability to try to work on the practical aspects. Now, here it’s really… And practical aspects and how to do things is really — the focus on that is an important feature of my whole career and whatever it is I bring to my scholarship and my work. And so here it’s very important to just distinguish really between sort of two families of people who comment and work in public affairs.
Most mass politics is cultural; it’s not really about policy. It pretends to be about policy, but usually what people are looking for are policy positions that are cultural signifiers. And that allows… This is not — I’m not being pejorative. People tend to want to support people whom they think share their beliefs, and therefore they trust those people more. That means they’re looking for cultural affinity. And to find cultural affinity, they judge on these cultural poses. But therefore, to work on a mass scale in politics… And by the way, I’ve run for elective office and was elected to a local school board once upon a time. So, I mean, I’ve done grassroots electoral politics and understand that side of the world a tiny bit.
But to come back to what happens, then, is quite a lot of what passes for political debate in the public sphere is a matter of choosing poses and positions. And a lot of what people do then is they work very hard on constructing their talking points, or their statement that’s meant to strike the suitable pose. And for a lot of people, that is the be-all and end-all of politics, choosing which pose to strike because you’re choosing which cultural image you are going to project, which affinities you’re going to seek.
This should be distinguished from a family of people who try — while balancing some of that if they’re in mass politics — very hard actually to go about solving problems. The world of problem-solving is really very different from the world of striking poses. And I’m trying to be empathetic to the need to strike poses, because that’s an inevitable and necessary part of mass politics. But if you actually want to work on problems and solve them, you have to move into a different mode.
I’ve often found, actually, that if you want to bring people together, you’re most likely to bring them together if you can bring them together around some practical problem that they’re joining in trying to solve — whether it’s building a house or putting out a fire or figuring out whether or how to build a school. After you get past sort of broad cultural identities, and you really roll up your sleeves and get into the practical problems involved, those tend to have some force and power of their own. And people can rally around those and you can bring people together.
So in some of these cases you mentioned about these people I worked with and were drawn to… And Slade Gorton, by the way, the late Slade Gorton of Washington State, is a very good example of this and one of the best. Gorton, by the way, was regarded as quite conservative in many ways on the stump. And he was, but Gorton had another side. He was really a quite gifted person, super smart. And he juggled these different sides. And he was also very deliberate, purposeful, and effective. Actually, Gorton commented somewhat scornfully, bemusedly, of another colleague — that his colleague, he said, “has never had an unexpressed thought.” Gorton did have unexpressed thoughts. But when it came to actually working problems, he could be extremely effective. And the work he did would then sometimes cross traditional party lines.
Let me give you a concrete illustration of what I mean. You mentioned that I directed the Carter/Ford Commission on Federal Election Reform. This commission, which was after the Florida debacle of the election of 2000… Congress was so angry about that on both sides that they couldn’t create a commission, so it was created privately. I was asked to direct it. Gorton was on the commission. By the way, Carter and Ford took an active role, especially Carter.
In the course of this work, it was Gorton who suggested that the commission should recommend a new feature called provisional ballots. And probably by this time almost everybody who knows anything about our election system has heard of provisional ballots. Back then, no one did. That was a brand-new innovation that had been pioneered in Washington State. Gorton suggested this because there were all sorts of controversies over whether someone was registered in the right precinct, or this or that. And rather than get embroiled in all of that, just take their vote and check it out later. And if their vote could count, you count it. And then there are some ways to administer this. Gordon proposed that we should include provisional balloting in the commission’s recommendation. We did, and it was adopted — the last time actually, we did meaningful national election reform, which was a bill passed with bipartisan support in 2002, opposed by the extremes in both parties.
Now, I call out this example because Gorton had just lost his reelection campaign for the U.S. Senate in Washington State in that same election of 2000. He had lost that election, in part, because of provisional ballots. The provisional ballots had mainly gone against him; that’s why he had lost it. But rather than being infuriated and frustrated by that example, he still thought it was a good-government innovation and one that we should recommend.
Geoff Kabaservice: Interesting. In your opinion — maybe it’s just a hypothetical matter — is it possible to have a highly ideological problem-solver?
Philip Zelikow: Of course it is, from either side. Indeed, a lot of the people who are most passionately drawn to trying to solve public problems draw that passion from some sort of set of powerful ideological convictions. And you don’t necessarily want to forfeit the passion in the process. The challenge, then, is whether the ideological passion puts on blinders so that you just don’t see some stubborn facts or can’t deal with others. It turns out, in politics… People tend to think of politics in negative terms: “It’s all politics.” And it’s usually a pejorative expression.
Really, look, politics is simply the matter of what do you do when you have to share power with other people. It turns out, when you get into it, that just about anything important in American life involves sharing power with other people if you want to get anything done. If you want to get anything done, you’ve got to work with other people who have some stake or portion of the relevant power. So if you actually want to get things done in a situation where power is shared — often shared in quite wide and complex ways — well then, you’ve got to actually listen and pay attention to a lot of other concerns and lots of facts. And if your ideological passion disables you from being able to do that, you’re simply going to be less effective in getting things done — except in the utopian vision in which you are the world’s dictator and you can just tell everybody what to do. And by the way, even in those cases, it’s a little less likely that what you invent will last.
Geoff Kabaservice: To return to the subject of moderation… It is indeed a slippery term. And I was reminded of this anew while reading your fantastic new book, The Road Less Traveled, where President Woodrow Wilson’s position prior to U.S. entry into the Great War was most often described as moderate. That is to say, he was intermediate between the interventionists and the non-interventionists.
And parenthetically, I have to say that I found your book fascinating. And I am at least as fascinated by the fact that, with all of your responsibilities, you somehow found time to produce and write a beautifully written and truly pathbreaking book on a subject of which historians had been almost entirely unaware, namely the missed opportunity to broker a peace agreement to end World War I…
Philip Zelikow: Oh, it’s a huge story.
Geoff Kabaservice: …in late 1916 or 1917. This sounds like this was actually a long-germinating subject for you.
Philip Zelikow: It is. I actually came on this in partnership with a historian who had himself written one of the foundational accounts of American entry into World War I, the late Ernest May. In the 2000s, not long before May died, he and I were in involved in another project, and we went back over this midwar period in World War I. This is the period of the turning point of the war. It turns out, when you dig into it, it’s a turning point of the war. Because the war was either going to widen or it was going to wind up and end in 1916-17. Most people, even most World War I scholars, don’t know this because they don’t realize that the Allied side was about to go bankrupt in the dollars that they needed to sustain the war effort.
I’m not the only person who has discovered that point, but it has not been fully absorbed by the bulk of scholars. The war could not have continued. So it either had to widen or actually, probably, come to an end. A few key people in a number of capitals realized this, and there was an intense peace process. And the Germans ended up declaring the U-boat war because the peace process they’d been pursuing for five months they thought had failed — although the chancellor actually had not given up on it, right to the end. And Wilson botched it for reasons he himself never quite understood. And then there’s a fascinating British story, which is a key to it.
So May and I came across the emerging evidence about this story. The problem was, when May had first written on this in the ‘50s — and actually for most scholars since then… There had been some suggestive German evidence that some sort of peace moves had been underway. But the standard British-American account after World War I had pooh-poohed it, said the Germans were in bad faith, it was all propaganda, and it never had a chance anyway. That account was false, and a number of people involved knew it was false.
And that account was sustained because some evidence was actively concealed, especially on the American side — that’s a more involved story — and really all the relevant British evidence was publicly unavailable really until the 1970s at the earliest, because the public records were secret. And quite a lot of the key evidence was still in private hands, like the diaries of some key figures and so on. And the established accounts basically had a complete grip. No one knew this narrative even existed, because everyone had just kind of accepted the conclusion: “Oh, their peace process never had a chance.” And no one had understood these financial issues that I mentioned a minute ago.
All of that began to surface in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but no one, frankly, put all the evidence together carefully from the British and American and German sources. And May and I began to see this and start working on this. May passed away in 2009. I kept chipping away at this then for the next 10 years, first developing a really long paper (which I started presenting at different places) and then a book.
I want to call out… Because independently other scholars were beginning to notice some of this too. I’m not the only one. I think my book is the only one to put together the evidence from all the major archives on this and then analyze the diplomacy. But I want to call out and give credit to Dan Larsen at Cambridge, whose book Plotting for Peace is the outstanding treatment now of the British side, which joins in revolutionizing our whole understanding of the British and Allied position at this stage of the war — including on these financial issues, which Larsen completely understands. He’s not the only one in Britain. Actually, the American historian John Milton Cooper started noticing some of this in the early ‘70s, and Kathleen Burke did too. Then there’s some terrific work that’s been done on the German side. And I call out, for those who are interested, the work of Holger Afflerbach, which is the best on the midwar period.
But the good news, in a way, is that it shows that — and I’ve found this on a number of subjects… People think a lot of these big historical questions are done and settled, and the evidence is all in place, and there’s nothing new to add. And on almost issue after issue I’ve looked at, that is often not the case. In the last 40, 50 years, we have significantly reinterpreted many of the major episodes on which the conventional wisdom still mostly lies undisturbed, because people aren’t keeping track of the historical scholarship.
For instance, the whole history of the atomic bomb episode and the end of the war with Japan, really that that whole scholarship has been completely overhauled in the last 20 years. And I think a lot of people are just not even aware of it. I could go on and on. The Cuban Missile Crisis, this World War I story… Actually the whole story of the origins of the American Civil War and the secession crisis was completely redone and freshly understood in the ‘50s and ‘60s, led by the work of David Potter.
I’ll stop there, but the larger point that’s worth making is that on some really big stuff, historical scholarship really does evolve. And this World War I case, which is a truly momentous case — not just for the U.S. but for the whole world, it’s a world history story — is an amazing story. And I think it’s perhaps the most significant scholarly findings in my whole work, my whole published work. I think I’ve done some good work on other subjects, but I think this may be the most significant of those findings.
Geoff Kabaservice: You know, grad students often think that every subject that could be covered has been covered, which is why they try to go ever smaller in the hope of finding something that someone hasn’t found. But this missed chance for peace in 1916 and ‘17 is actually hugely momentous, because we would live in an entirely different world if that effort had succeeded.
Philip Zelikow: Right. No Bolshevik takeover in Russia — a revolution, yes, but I think every serious scholar would concede that if the war had ended, there’s no way the Bolsheviks ever take over power. And then there’s no Soviet Union as we understand it. I could go on and on. There’s just all sorts of…
Geoff Kabaservice: The violent breakup of the Habsburg Empire, or the downfall of the Ottoman Empire… One could go on and on. But again, this is just one of the biggest subjects in history. Your verdict ultimately is harsh but fair: you say that Wilson’s was “the most consequential diplomatic failure in the history of the United States.” To what extent were his mistakes attributable to his qualities, or rather maybe his missing qualities?
Philip Zelikow: And you say that, and you’ve quoted me correctly, and you would think: “Oh, well, he must just have this scathing polemical view of Woodrow Wilson.” But as you know, having read the book, in many ways Wilson comes across in the book as a sympathetic character. And I found him a very interesting figure, because it would be easy if we could just cartoon him. But in fact he was gifted in a number of ways, and his broader strategic insight about the situation was profoundly right. His sense of the importance of the moment — right. His sense of the broad approach of how this ought to come out — right. His sense of urgency about getting this done and America’s role in it — all correct. He rather brilliantly orchestrated the move to effectively cut off American financing for the Allies in November 1916 — a move which, by the way, most historians still really don’t quite notice or recognize.
And he did this — though it was only one plank in a whole series of things he put in motion — entirely by himself, by the way, to try to get the mediation process going. And then the story of how all this floundered and failed is part of the intricate story I try to retell in the book, alongside the British and German stories. So in many ways he’s a sympathetic character. And a deep point, and one that relates in a way to your state capacity project, is that it’s entirely possible to be realistic and even brilliant about diagnosing a problem yet be entirely incompetent in figuring out how to solve it. And that in a way was Wilson’s problem. And Wilson, through his own failings, did not have a machinery to help him solve this problem — did not even have the rudimentary machinery prior presidents like Theodore Roosevelt or William McKinley had used in the then still very rudimentary American setup. He didn’t even use that. And he relied on this dilettantish private advisor Edward House, which turned out to be epically unfortunate.
But in a way, it relates to the fact that Wilson’s broad “position” is fundamentally sound. And in a way, the great tragedy ensues from the incapacity to carry that position into practice — to actually know how to do that. Although even though a lot of things from the Germans and the British were all coming together to try to show him how to do it, it just got flubbed in this particular way that I detail. And that’s one of the reasons I think the book is such a powerful lesson for today. It’s a lesson about how much these practical skills of statecraft matter. And by illustrating the incredibly tragic consequences of their neglect, it’s a way of underscoring how much attention we need to focus on these practical skills, rather than simply saying, “As long as someone more or less has the right position, we’re good.”
Geoff Kabaservice: You do, as I say, draw out Wilson’s good qualities: his extremely high intellect, the fact that he was taking a moderate and pragmatic position prior to U.S. entry into World War I, which is inclined to strike someone like me as a good position to take. But there’s a number of factors that you also lay out that led to his failure: as you say, the absence of staff work, which led to an absence of information. His overreliance on Edward House… I, by the way, am one of the very few, with you, who’s had the misfortune of having to get through Philip Dru: Administrator…
Philip Zelikow: You need to tell your audience what Philip Dru: Administrator was.
Geoff Kabaservice: Oh dear, yes. Colonel House’s bizarre science fiction novel about a world dictator…
Philip Zelikow: Published anonymously. Hardly anyone knew House had written it.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s true.
Philip Zelikow: What on earth caused you to read that? It’s a hard thing to read.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. There’s a Yale connection to Colonel House. His papers ended up at Yale because essentially his biographer and the editor of his diaries was Charles Seymour, who then became president of Yale. And unfortunately, Seymour expurgated a lot of the more bizarre aspects of House’s story, which would’ve discredited him much earlier than he actually was discredited.
Philip Zelikow: Yes, and which turned out to be part of the reason that our knowledge of this whole episode was delayed for so long — it’s Seymour’s grip on the House papers, which did not relinquish until Seymour’s death in the early ‘60s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Right. And Wilson massively overrelied on House, who turned out to be a person of poor judgment, until they actually broke during the 1919 peace negotiations after the war.
Philip Zelikow: Correct.
Geoff Kabaservice: But Wilson also, for example, as you point out in the book, failed to go to Theodore Roosevelt, his predecessor, to understand how Roosevelt had brokered the 1905 armistice in the Russo-Japanese War.
Philip Zelikow: Right, which is unfortunate. Now, understandable at one level, because Theodore Roosevelt by that time was America’s leading Wilson-hater. So there’s no way he goes to Roosevelt personally for any advice about anything. But he might have then just puzzled over: How did he do that? And it would’ve been very easy for people to have given him some information on how this was done. There were a number of people… Short of talking to Roosevelt himself, it would not have been hard to give Wilson a 15-minute reconstruction of how America mediated the end of the last Great Power war, which would have inspired a lot of thoughts as to how Wilson should proceed in mediating the end to this one. But neither he nor anyone working in the U.S. government bothered to do any of that work, even though the precedent was known to everybody, cited by many, and had happened only 10 years earlier. But no one checked. If that serves as a little illustration of the problems of historical knowledge and institutional memory, good.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. You, in an echo of a Donald Rumsfeld saying, point out that Wilson didn’t know what he didn’t know. And there’s also an analogy you used that I liked, which is that Wilson was like a poker player who gets three kings in his hand and throws away one of those kings hoping to get something better. That’s great. He just didn’t know how to broker a peace conference, ultimately.
Philip Zelikow: Yes, that’s right. And the book actually… At one point I pause and kind of map out for people who — most of my readers don’t know how to broker a peace conference, either…
Geoff Kabaservice: True.
Philip Zelikow: …very few people having done things like that. So actually at one point, at a key point in the book, I kind of stop and say: Okay, folks, here’s how one would go about doing this. It turns out, if you know this, you begin noticing a lot of things in the record, because the British and Germans understood this. And a lot of things that they’re doing begin to make more sense to you as a scholar if you put them in that context. And I kind of map it out, like: Okay, here’s how you go about doing it. Step one, you know… And this was — the professionals understood these things, but Wilson didn’t have the benefit of any professional advice. There were a couple… He had a couple of very good younger diplomats in the American service and overseas — one in particular in London named Buckler and another very good one, the young Joseph Grew, in Berlin. But he didn’t really use them to help with any of this, and the people he had working for him in Washington were either incompetent themselves or untrustworthy.
Geoff Kabaservice: The next world war, World War II, was at the heart of another of your writings that I’ve been very taken with, which is your Texas National Security Review article “To Regain Policy Competence: The Software of American Public Problem-Solving,” which came out in September of 2019. So, moving from Wilson’s failures and the failure of the bureaucracy around him, you wrote in the introduction of that article that “the quality of U.S. policy engineering is actually much, much worse in recent decades than it was throughout much of the 20th century. This is not a partisan observation — the decline spans both Republican and Democratic administrations.” And you wrote that pre-COVID.
Philip Zelikow: Yes, that’s right. I am sorry to say that the COVID crisis has been a vivid illustration of the arguments I made in that essay, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: So what were some of the things you had in mind, from your vantage as a historian and public servant, when you were thinking about the decline in the quality of U.S. policy engineering at that point?
Philip Zelikow: Oh, well, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, of course. And actually the recent stuff with Afghanistan is yet a further illustration. But a lot of other things too. And I’d had opportunities from different perspectives, including economic, some economic stuff, because I work on a lot of domestic subjects as well as the foreign stuff. And so I’ve had unusual opportunities to see a lot of contemporary staff work and also to see staff work in the archives over time, over more than a hundred years. And it’s really fascinating, for those who can do that, to compare and contrast the quality of the written staff work, say in the ‘40s and ‘50s, to the quality of the written staff work that I personally read in recent years on some of these subjects.
And that article you mentioned was really animated by two things. First is just a historical puzzle. I think it’s generally believed now, with too much cause, that our organs of government are relatively incompetent at executing stuff, and that resources are inefficiently used, and we’re bogged down by procedures, and we’re not very competent at implementing and doing things. There are admirable exceptions, but I think that’s a general view. It animates what the Niskanen Center is doing in its planned State Capacity Project. Contrast that image — which is widely held and even held outside of the United States now — with the image the United States had of itself and the world had of us after World War II. We were the can-do country.
The whole world… I mean, kind of like it’s a typical image: Americans land on an island and two days later they have a functioning airstrip. They can build atomic bombs. They can launch Marshall Plans. They are unencumbered by ideology: practical, ingenious doers. We were the quintessential can-do country, regarded and admired throughout the world for our pragmatic ability. How did we get from that America — mid-20th century — to the reputation and performance of today? That’s a very interesting question.
Geoff Kabaservice: It is indeed.
Philip Zelikow: And then the second part of that, which I have as an educator, is: Does academia have anything to do with this? Is it that we taught stuff really well back then and we don’t teach that stuff now? I think the quality of our education for public problem-solving now is mediocre to worse. I know that from having been involved in some of the key institutions that did this and in the core of some of those institutions. So it’s a first-hand observation, and I’ve been struggling over how to improve this for some time.
And then I wanted to look back: So did they just have way, way better training and teaching back then? And so then that led me into trying to understand the historical question in order to then bring that into: Okay, how do we fix the way we teach people and train people today? And part of the answer to the historical question was that the skills that we had in mid-20th century did not come from academia and therefore they never migrated back to academia.
Where then did they come from?, one might say. They came, I believe, from very strong cultures, organizational cultures, that had two large streams running into them. One was a strong set of cultures in the business world, the American business world of the first half of the 20th century. This is a culture dominated by engineers and tinkerers of every kind. And it was a culture dominated by the staff cultures of the engineering world, which actually had a lot of positive attributes about problem-solving: the way you wrote directions, the precision of guidance, careful reporting of what you were doing, emphasis on all sorts of written staff work that had developed over a period of a couple of generations and was really at its peak in mid-20th century America. And the top leaders in the corporate world were the exemplars of this engineering/scientific ethos.
Meanwhile, on the military side in the War Department, there was a very strong culture that venerated high-quality written staff work. It had German origins in the 19th century, then parroted and mimicked especially by the British, which became paragons at it. And then we had had a lot of exposure to British practices, especially in the war, and admired and tried to emulate them in many ways, the high-quality British staff work. These streams all kind of came together. Plus we had a ton of trial-and-error in the New Deal period.
And people back then were very ruthless about firing people who screwed up and made mistakes — and there were lots of screw-ups and lots of mistakes. And in this winnowing process, the people who were competent performers tended to get promoted, and then they tended to promote these kinds of staffing habits. George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower were exemplars of these traditions, but there were many, many others. And you can just see all sorts of evidence of this culture, even in the official histories done of the Second World War and their qualities.
You contrast that then 50 years later. Because these qualities did not migrate back into academia, academia pursued other fashions of how to train people for public service that didn’t really exemplify these qualities. And these qualities essentially were lost. They began getting just passed down through oral traditions and apprenticeship. And effectively, by the end of the 20th century, the quality of training and staff habits in the American government had really kind of fallen apart — to the point that lots of staff work simply consisted of: What’s our position? What are our talking points? And then telling people what we want.
And then you’d have… The quality of formal training is just terrible. There are a few exceptions to this, but generally just terrible. I mean, someone would go to work on the NSC staff with literally no training for that job at all — I mean none, not one day in how to do policy development and how to do systematic policy analysis. No training. There are some people in the military who would sometimes realize this and be aghast.
Now, there are brilliant improvisers and people who had learned through apprenticeships or on the job. And that sometimes worked. But increasingly, when the quality of written staff work goes down, what happens is that people tend to substitute more and more meetings, and higher- and higher-level meetings, because they can’t get stuff done. And then they talk more and more, and then have to keep bumping it to higher levels, which then puts more stress and pressure on the people at the apex of the pyramid. And the things become more and more dysfunctional. The agencies turn into functionaries instead of people with real delegated authorities. And we’re now at a kind of a trough of this vicious spiral downward over a long period of time.
This is why, actually, I’m just so impressed and gratified that the Niskanen Center is taking on problem in a much broader context. Because I’m not the only person to notice facets of this. A lot of other people have noticed different facets of it. My perspective perhaps is a little more of the insider. Others kind of more political science-y have noticed the external facets, the symptoms of this. Frank Fukiyama is a good example. And I’m so grateful that people are going to try to spotlight this and work on it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, thank you. I was struck by a number of things both in what you just said and also in your article, one of which is that the Allies won the war in part because we had better policy-making abilities than the Germans and the Japanese.
Philip Zelikow: Incidentally, for those who don’t follow World War II literature — who are interested in World War II literature but don’t follow it very closely — there’s a really important recent book on this, and I didn’t write it so I can… Phillips Payson O’Brien has written a book on How the War Was Won. He’s also written a biography of Leahy, which has some strengths. But this How the War Was Won book is an idiosyncratic book, but in that book is some very powerful stuff about the significance of the production work and the quality of the production work and the staff work, especially on the air and sea power sides. It’s one of the more important books written on the war in the last 20 years.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. And one of the lessons from that book, if I’m remembering correctly, is that most of the United States’ military innovations were actually the product of multiple iterations. None of them were first-generation.
Philip Zelikow: Right. Paul Kennedy makes that point too in a recent book he did called Engineers of Victory that is excellent and that makes some of these same points from a different angle.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was also a certain humility to American policymakers in those days in that they were willing to borrow from the British.
Philip Zelikow: Oh yes. The famous P-51 Mustang — and Kennedy tells the story very well… The P-51 was a failed aircraft design until some brilliant Brits and a British test pilot said, “Let’s try this airframe with the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine” — this British aircraft engine — which turned out to be a match made in heaven. And then the P-51 becomes this very important aircraft that changes the tide at the strategic bombing campaign over Europe in ‘44. But that’s a story of this Anglo-American marriage again. It’s a terrific story.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course the British had experience in staffing an empire…
Philip Zelikow: Yep.
Geoff Kabaservice: which we did not have.
Philip Zelikow: Yes, and the origins of their good staff system — and Maurice Hankey is a huge figure in the story in the 1910s and 1920s — starts with their Committee of Imperial Defence. And those staffing practices moved into the War Cabinet system they developed during World War I.
Geoff Kabaservice: When you talk about business’ contribution to the U.S. war effort, I think people are more likely to think of Donald Trump than they are to think of the dollar-a-year men. But really what you’re getting at is a kind of practical problem-solving approach and decentralized decision-making that characterized this engineering culture.
Philip Zelikow: Yes. And actually one of the tragedies in the United States is the change in the business culture. Now there’s some very good stuff that’s been written on this, and not by me. But it’s commented that the American business culture itself began going through a profound change — there are some very good books on this — that begins picking up speed in the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, but then really gets going: the fundamental shift from operations and production to basically financial engineering, and the whole change in the culture of what was taught in business schools, the change in the culture of what was prized in higher-level executives. And this change therefore in the overall culture of American businesses, where businesses less and less emphasized the culture of doing stuff and building things. We would then outsource the building of things to others — and of course the Chinese.
It turns out, though — and others have pointed this out really well — that when you outsource building things to others, you outsource a lot of other stuff too with it. And those American companies that are still in the business of making stuff… A good example of this would be Corning, which outsources quite a lot of its fabrication but keeps quite a lot of it in the United States, because they need that know-how and they need to keep that know-how in the company. But the general fashion in a lot of American business was that you didn’t need to know how. All you needed to do was know how to manipulate the results of that.
Geoff Kabaservice: I helped Amo Houghton write his autobiography. He was the…
Philip Zelikow: Who?
Geoff Kabaservice: Amo Houghton was the long-time CEO of Corning. So I have some experience…
Philip Zelikow: So you may have heard these complaints before.
Geoff Kabaservice: I have heard these complaints before, shall we say. You point out that one of the last gasps of this government culture of meticulous written staff work and efforts to go back and find the sources of problems was the Pentagon Papers.
Philip Zelikow: Yes. Ironically, the culture that produces the Pentagon Papers is a very reflective, professional culture. The notion that McNamara would commission a project to study the history of how we got into the war in Vietnam was not a shocking, controversial idea when McNamara came up with it. People thought that that was the kind of thing that you did back then. If you’ll notice, there were multiple studies of the Bay of Pigs catastrophe that were done internally. John F. Kennedy asked Dick Neustadt to study one of his failures. There was a culture in the U.S. government of rigorous study of what went right and what went wrong, at a highly professional level. And the quality of the Pentagon Papers is in a way a symptom of what then was already beginning to be a dying culture.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. If there is an effort underway to try to honestly and searchingly figure out what went wrong with our exit from Afghanistan, or our whole enterprise in Afghanistan, I’m not aware of it.
Philip Zelikow: Right. There is currently… Tammy Duckworth and others are proposing an Afghanistan commission that they’re trying to get into the National Defense Authorization Act, right at this minute.
Geoff Kabaservice: But such a commission will actually run up against the demise of this kind of high-quality written staff work — partly because the Pentagon Papers cast a significant echo and people now are into CYA mode. They don’t want to actually write down what happens in meetings.
Philip Zelikow: Right. And so then, however, what the commission might do is administer a really hard dope-slap that calls out the fact that when you quit doing serious written work and begin making policy by bloviating, you get catastrophic results. Which might — might — contribute to people trying to do things differently.
Geoff Kabaservice: You and I actually met for the first time at the Kennedy School at Harvard back in the ’90s. Ernest May was my advisor. And I can’t help but feel, reading your Texas National Security Review article, that there’s actually a problem in Harvard’s shift from the Littauer School of Public Administration to the Kennedy School of Government.
Philip Zelikow: Well, actually, I have been close friends to the founders of Kennedy School. And I taught in the core curriculum of the Kennedy School for a time, which is probably the time in which we came across each other. And so I was very well acquainted with a lot of the complaints and sadness of the people who had helped found the Kennedy School about what the school had become. I have some sympathy with what some of the school’s strengths are, but I’m very well aware of the disappointment many of those co-founders feel about what the school became. Because they effectively felt the school had been hijacked by a particular academic orthodoxy that ended up not being very helpful in training people for public problem-solving.
I get into this in the article, and it’s basically a set of approaches to policy analytics that are drawn out of microeconomics. By the way, they are quite powerful tools for certain kinds of policy analysis, but not for general policy development. And the article gets into this a little bit more. But you’re quite right. Already by the ‘90s, I was part of a movement even in the Harvard Kennedy School, and which a number of other professors joined, to try to change the core curriculum. That movement failed. It was a very close vote, but it failed. And I left the school and came to Virginia shortly thereafter — not for that reason, for other reasons. It was one opportunity, but the opportunity is not yet lost.
I think there are possibilities here and there to try to generate a movement to revamp the way we train people in public problem-solving in America. We should use these failures — Afghanistan, the pandemic crisis — as a prompt to change our training. We have to understand why we have the training we have, that it comes out of these odd historical circumstances, and then try to adopt different kinds of training. And let this be part of a lot of general ferment and unease about the stultification of American higher education and American professional education. But I think nothing is more important than this effort to rebuild our competency as a country. Nothing is more important than that cause.
Geoff Kabaservice: I agree. And this business of declining state capacity tends to put one in a pessimistic frame of mind.
Philip Zelikow: It does.
Geoff Kabaservice: And also to consider the related although not completely similar subject of American national decline. But you ultimately end that Texas National Security Review on an optimistic note.
Philip Zelikow: I do.
Geoff Kabaservice: You write in your last sentences: “Americans can reflect on a proud heritage, not far in the past, when Americans were notorious around the world for their practical, can-do skills in everything from fixing cars to tackling apparently insurmountable problems, public as well as private. These seemingly bygone skills were not in their genes or in the air. They may not be consigned to wistful nostalgia. The skills were specific. They were cultural. And they are teachable.”
Philip Zelikow: Exactly. And they can be taught again. And I think there are a lot of things… There are a lot of promising things in the society that are headed in this direction. There’s enormous interest all over the country, actually, in relearning how to build and make things in the liberating environment that the digital revolution is creating in many ways.
Actually, the wide admiration for people like Elon Musk partly has some of this in it. He’s admired for being eccentric, but he’s also admired because he’s an innovator who makes cool stuff. And America, in a way, they’re gravitating to him as if he were the Henry Ford or the Tom Edison of the 21st century. And it’s just noteworthy noting the cultural moment: the supply chain problems and a lot of different problems are actually potentially opportunities to rethink a lot of the sinews of our economy and our culture.
And as I say, we’ve done this before. A lot of the innovations we made in the Progressive Era — and other people have called attention to this — in the early 20th century came out of a period of terrible neglect, terrible civil strife in the country, huge social tensions, and a sense that a lot of people were very pessimistic about the country. But they responded to that. And we have a chance to do that now. It’s interesting… What you can do, too, is go around the country and look for things that work. By the way, Jim and Deb Fallows have done a little bit of this in their work, and getting in their plane and hopping around.
Geoff Kabaservice: I really like their book Our Towns.
Philip Zelikow: Right. Their book, Our Towns, which is the HBO series and this project they’ve got. And what they did is find out: You know what? There are Americans all over the country who are actually doing a lot of really neat stuff and are very ingenious and have all this native talent. And mostly the national discourse doesn’t notice them. And so they want to try to call those people out, and quite rightly. So you can be sad and pessimistic about a lot of things. But if you want to find reasons for optimism, it’s not that hard to find.
Geoff Kabaservice: As promised, you have way too much going on, and that you have done, to talk about in an hour. But before we leave, can you just tell me something about the COVID Commission Planning Group of which you are the director right now?
Philip Zelikow: Sure. About a year ago, a group of funders led by Eric Schmidt thought it was obvious that coming out of this gigantic COVID crisis, which may be the most impactful crisis since 1945 in many ways, surely there would be a national commission that would do a major investigation of just what did happen and why, so that we could learn a lot of lessons from that. It was obvious to them we would do that. Because it would be such a large-scale investigation, they thought they could help by getting the work done right away to start planning it. And they recruited and hired me to lead a group to do that planning. I then quickly gathered around me dozens of subject matter experts and others to help. We have a website on this: COVIDcpg.org — that stands for COVID Commission Planning Group.org, COVIDcpg.org.
And for the better part of a year now we’ve been kind of planning how one would do a large-scale commission of this kind, organized around (in our view) four principal task forces, and recruiting people to help lead those task forces, and identifying what the issues would be, and drafting launch work plans. But right now, there is no such commission. Congress is currently considering legislation that might create one. The legislation has pros and cons, which would be another subject to get into. But if Congress doesn’t do it, probably the only alternative is for a group of private philanthropies to band together to create an independent commission but then seek the help they’ll need to get access to people and so forth from the Biden White House and maybe some help from members of Congress of both parties.
Geoff Kabaservice: You told Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post recently that “Tackling an understanding of this crisis is actually a harder problem than the 9/11 Commission was.” Why is that?
Philip Zelikow: 9/11 was hard, the COVID crisis harder. The 9/11 crisis primarily involved the federal government, so it was pretty Washington-focused. There was some attention to the foreign terrorist organizations, and there were some of the first responder stuff in New York City.
The scale and scope of this crisis is much larger. You’ve really got to understand nationwide crisis management involving people all over America. You’ve got an international picture having to do with the causes of the pandemic, how you prevent pandemics, how we get early warning. That’s very international. You’ve got a challenge of medical countermeasures and how to harness the Bio Revolution that is also both national but also very international. So intellectually, from an investigative point of view, in terms of the number of subject matter areas on which you need to have some competence, it’s a sprawling problem.
And then you have to ask yourself: On which of all these things could a commission actually add value? Look, if other people and the natural processes are going to do certain work, well, then just let them do that. You don’t need a commission to recapitulate what other people will do just fine. And we do ask ourselves: On what questions do we think a commission can really add insight by assembling a lot of horsepower and maybe some access to people or records? And we think we’ve got a plan for how to proceed. And now we’re waiting to see if the United States will create a suitable commission.
The British have already announced they’re going to launch their public inquiry early next year and name its head before Christmas. Others, like Sweden and so forth, or Brazil, are already launching their inquiries. But we’ve been reluctant to stand one up on our end. And part of that is for some of the same cultural reasons that we’d been discussing earlier in this podcast.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. You’d mentioned earlier that the 9/11 Commission was partisan, certainly in terms of who served on it and the discussion around it. But in comparison to today’s polarization, that seems like a veritable Era of Good Feelings. And we are talking also after Congress refused to allow a commission to be created to look into the January 6th Capitol invasion.
Philip Zelikow: Yes, that’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: So to what extent is this polarization impeding our ability to do the kind of work you have in mind?
Philip Zelikow: Oh, it’s impeding it quite a lot. We’re pretty familiar with views on Capitol Hill about this. I mean, that’s why the commission hasn’t been created yet, as many Republicans think the Democrats just want to create such a commission so that they can pin the blame of the crisis on Trump and make this all about another anti-Trump thing. For their reasons, they don’t want to go along with that.
On the Republican side, they have a blame narrative that is focused on China, or as Rand Paul might say, some of China’s fellow travelers. So you’ve got these blame narratives on both sides. You’ve got culture war narratives on both sides. Let’s say one side says, “We follow science,” one side says, “We protect Americans’ liberties and livelihoods.” You’ve got all that and in this very polarized environment, and a lot of mutual suspicion, and the experience with the January 6th commission, just as you said.
It is interesting though, right now, there is a possibility Congress might create a commission. There is a bill that’s just been proposed. And the basic bipartisan deal there is Republicans insist on a commission to get to the bottom of the origins issues, as best anyone can, and Democrats insist in turn that any commission needs to have a broad scope to examine a lot of facets of the crisis. And that might be a basis for bipartisan agreement. But because of the polarized environment, I’m not sure it’ll get there.
Then, if that fails, we’re left with whether or not philanthropies choose to try to create an independent commission. And there, the position of the Biden White House and whether it will facilitate that will be instrumental. The Biden White House so far has been preoccupied and noncommittal. They need to decide whether or not they want to remain in that stance.
Geoff Kabaservice: Professor Philip Zelikow, I wish you all the luck in the world with this enterprise. Congratulations on your wonderful new book, and thank you for joining me here today.
Philip Zelikow: Thank you, Geoff. This has been delightful.
Geoff Kabaservice: It really has. And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at email@example.com. Thanks as always to our technical director Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer Ray Ingegneri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
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