Accidents and Axioms: The Curious History of U.S. Foreign Policy | Wilson Center

Accidents and Axioms: The Curious History of U.S. Foreign Policy

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Webcast Recap

The history of U.S. foreign policy has usually been told in order to spotlight recurrent purposes and dilemmas. American exceptionalism, open-door imperialism, realism vs. idealism – all are examples. Yet such schools of interpretation can obscure more than they reveal. They set up historians as judges whose verdicts become parables for the day's debates. They attach common labels to disparate thought. They hypothesize collective purposefulness that was not there, imagine a government driving the action when it was reacting spasmodically to choices made by outsiders. The presentation speculates about how to make the narrative history of U.S. foreign policy a bit more, well, historical - yet still notice some distinguishing characteristics and patterns that really do cross time.

Philip D. Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in History at the University of Virginia. Zelikow began his professional career as a trial and appellate lawyer in Texas. His Ph.D. is from Tufts University's Fletcher School. He was a career diplomat, posted overseas and in Washington, including service on the NSC staff for President George H.W. Bush. Since 1991 he has taught and directed research programs at Harvard University and at the University of Virginia. His books include Germany Unified and Europe Transformed (with Condoleezza Rice), The Kennedy Tapes (with Ernest May), and Essence of Decision (with Graham Allison). In addition to service on some government advisory boards, and as an elected member of a local school board, he has taken two public service leaves from academia to return full-time to government service, in 2003-04 to direct the 9/11 Commission and in 2005-07 as Counselor of the Department of State, a deputy to Secretary Rice. He also advises the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's program in global development and is a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.


  • Christian F. Ostermann

    Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
    Woodrow Wilson Center