Philip Zelikow

Philip Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia. He began his career as a trial and appellate lawyer in Texas. After returning to graduate school to obtain his Ph.D. from Tufts University’s Fletcher School, Zelikow served in various government positions, including as a career diplomat for the Foreign Service and on the National Security Council staff during President George H.W. Bush’s term. In 1991, he left government service to teach and lead research programs at Harvard University and the University of Virginia, including a tenure as Director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs from 1998-2005. During this time, Zelikow directed the 2001 commission on national election reform, which led to the passing of the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

While at the University of Virginia, Zelikow took two major public service leaves: first, to serve as Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission from 2003-2004, and second, to serve as Counselor of the State Department from 2005-2007. Zelikow served on the Intelligence Advisory Board for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as the U.S. Defense Policy Board from 2015-2017. He also advised the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s program in global development from 2007-2012. At UVa, Zelikow teaches history classes and was Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 2011-2014.

His books include Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft with Condoleezza Rice (1995); Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis with Graham Allison (1999); The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis with Ernest May (2001); and America’s Moment: Creating Opportunity in the Connected Age on behalf of the Markle Foundation’s “Rework America” group (2015).

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics. 

Liam Kraft (Virginia Review of Politics): When you headed the 9/11 Commission, you obviously played a key role in evaluating what happened on 9/11 and why, and in making various recommendations on how the government can better manage the threat of terrorism. How have we done in your assessment?

Philip Zelikow: We’ve done well, and we can do better. In general, the government has adopted most of the recommendations that the Commission made and also internalized a lot of them. Partly, they had already figured some of this stuff out without the Commission’s help, but the Commission helped crystallize and cement a narrative that a lot of the people who work on terrorism in the government understand. The government works much better now than it did. The domestic and foreign sides of the government now work together much more. The whole approach to homeland security and aviation security is now completely different. The one institution that’s not known very well but that we recommended, called the National Counterterrorism Center (or NCTC) is generally acknowledged to be a success, as a place that pools assessments of the threat and shares information pretty well.

The recommendations we made for how Congress might restructure its work were not taken up by the Congress. So there are problems in the way that congressional committees are organized. A lot of Americans tend to focus on executive agencies, and they don’t really understand how influential the Congress is in managing policy. Take Homeland Security, for example. You hear of the Department of Homeland Security, which has some troubles, but a lot of the troubles the department has originate in the divisions of the Congress. The department is overseen by many congressional committees and subcommittees, and that divided authority and the turf battles in the Congress which sit astride the funding pipelines then are reflected in the divisions and turf struggles in the department itself. And day to day, the Congress often exerts much more influence over what happens in that department than say, the President does. And the Congress didn’t reform the way it oversees Homeland Security. It has not really reformed, as it should, the way it oversees intelligence and connecting intelligence oversight to the intelligence budget, which is handled by a different committee system that runs mainly through the Pentagon. Those are different congressional turf battles. So there are issues like that that have not been fixed, that could be fixed on the organizational level.

Now, let’s step aside from re-organization concerns and ask ourselves, maybe the more important question, which is, have we adopted a better strategy? The 9/11 Commission’s report did help cement a narrative that focuses on trying to avoid the creation of terrorist safe havens that give transnational terrorist groups the chance to organize, and also do more to prevent terrorists from finding safe havens inside the United States itself, through negligence and neglect. We’ve made big strides on both those fronts. In a way now the problem we have is to keep that from going too far, where we find ourselves engaged in all the wilderness areas of the world, chasing potential terrorist safe havens, but not really meaningfully engaging in the political rebuilding of any of those countries, because Americans really don’t want to get involved in all those messes. And then we find ourselves engaged in combat operations on almost every inhabited continent. Congress right now is trying to put better limitations on that.

So again the bottom line is, strategically and institutionally, that we’re doing better is one of the reasons why the terrorist danger is now significantly reduced from what it was in the 9/11 era, but we’re not safe yet and we can’t be complacent. There are still more things we can do to improve this. And we need to do things that can work for the long haul. This is not the most dangerous problem that confronts America. It’s the kind of problem we’ll just have to be looking after week in and week out, the way we try to prevent violent crime in our cities and other sorts of social problems.

LK: Related to that last point, you’ve termed the concept of “the paradox of adjustment,” which is basically the idea that, even if the threat Americans face from terrorism is reduced from what it was 15-20 years ago, politicians can’t really say that the risk of terrorism has been lessened, because that’s too risky for them in terms of domestic politics. If there’s a major attack tomorrow, they look like they didn’t take terrorism seriously enough.

PZ: That’s right.

LK: Is there any real way to get out of this, and come to a true reappraisal of our strategic priorities, especially as chaos continues in the Middle East and Afghanistan?

PZ: Yes. I don’t think that the way to do this is for a president to come out and say, “Don’t worry anymore. It’s not very important.” That sets you up for a failure. What you can do, instead of loudly announcing a downshift is just live it. Live the “keep calm and carry on” mantra. Right-size your efforts. Just kind of be a little lower key and steady. But now that means that you don’t rely on the politics of fear and anxiety to get your budgets and to scare people all the time. It means, keep calm and carry on. So it’s an attitude you take about new information and new threats. If you need to get people alarmed, okay, then get them alarmed. But it will be more credible when you do ask them to be really alert, if you treat this as, “This is one of the problems that we just have to live with, but it’s not the most dangerous problem we have right now.”

I think actually most Americans are grown up enough to understand this. They already understand this with respect to a lot of dangers in their regular daily lives. They understand that these terrorists are not the majority of the world. They’re not even the majority of any Muslim countries. The more we pump up how big they are, the more we actually play into their narrative about themselves. They want to act as if they’re super important. They’re not. If we treat them as if they are super important, we, in a way, reinforce their self-flattering image of themselves.  

LK: Going back to the organizational element, you’ve mentioned elsewhere how the vast majority of present-day national security institutions are effectively ones that were designed to address Cold War-era problems. Why do you think that we’ve had such institutional inertia, despite the wake-up call that 9/11 presented?

PZ: We’ve made some significant changes in the domestic security institutions. The Department of Homeland Security is a new department. It has some new features – though a lot of the department is simply an amalgam of old agencies – but it has some new features, and it’s now getting more involved in the cyber issues. The FBI is really quite dramatically changed, and gives much more emphasis to the terrorism danger and intelligence issues than used to be the case. The CIA and NSA have changed a lot to focus on the terrorism danger almost to the extent of compromising now their ability to adjust to the norms of the 21st century world. I mean, the CIA, in a way, was the combatant commander of the War on Terror. It’s still struggling to find the right balance, along with other intelligence agencies, to do all the jobs it needs to do, and right-size this.

The biggest problems in changing course are for the Pentagon. The Pentagon dramatically increased a few pieces of itself that had to do with the War on Terror, like the special operations forces. But a lot of the main things the Pentagon has done are resistant to change, in part because both the services and the Congress don’t want to change these things, which work politically and economically for lots of Americans and lots of congressional districts in America.

LK: Looking toward the strategic aspects of U.S. foreign policy, you’ve talked about how the counterterrorism effort is fundamentally a “reactive defense” oriented effort, that “does not put points on the board. It does not advance aspirations to build an open and civilized world,” and those are aspirations which deal with our promotion of our values around the world. How do you think the War on Terror has affected the way that we think about our values, and the role that they should play in our foreign policy?

PZ: That’s a very good question. A good way of capturing this is to think about the basic picture Americans have of the world, and nothing summarizes that picture of the world better than the phrase “threat assessment.” The intelligence community’s picture of the world is a “threat assessment.” Every year, the heads of intelligence agencies troop up to Congress to provide public testimony on the “threat.” No one has ever heard of an opportunity assessment. No intelligence chief is asked about what are our opportunities. If anyone cared to read the current administration’s National Security Strategy – and I can’t recommend it, but I have to read things like this – What’s striking about that document, whatever criticisms you may have of it, is that it’s entirely about threats. Every single word. There’s not a word, there is not a phrase, in the entire document about any positive opportunity for the United States. All threats. So then, you get an image of the world in which the world is a pathological mess that needs to kept at a distance and we need to fort up.

As more and more Americans internalize that image in our culture, it’s almost like they begin to think of themselves as characters in The Walking Dead. They need to fort up against all the zombies walking around on the outside. Culturally, that’s very powerful. I think shows like that, by the way, always capture something in the popular culture. This is too bad, because in previous generations, Americans scored all their biggest gains by looking for positive opportunities to put points on the board. Being on defense, you can’t score points. So if you want to prove democracy works, you can’t prove democracy works just by being on defense. You’ve got to prove it with some sort of positive demonstration somewhere. Something works. Some place gets better. Then you point to that and say, “Look, you see, that works.” People notice. They’re encouraged. But if you’re just defensive and reactive, you don’t do any of that, and you kind of drop out of the conversation. And then people say, “Well, hmm, that China seems to be working.”  

LK: In the same address that I was quoting from before, you equated values obviously with a high degree of importance and contended that in order to promote a safer world for Americans, the U.S. should “simplify, yet balance, our expressions of core values.” Can you expand on that a bit on what that means both conceptually and in application?

PZ: Sure. When you ask Americans to list their ideals, they have this whole laundry list of things. Democracy, rule of law, liberal democracy, other political science-y words. Some of these words are not very meaningful to many non-Americans. Many Americans could not tell you what liberal institutionalism means either. So, what I think you need are words that can appeal across a lot of cultures, and that have meaning in a lot of cultures, and that are very simple and understandable.

The words I pick are just the words “open” and “civilized,” because people get that there’s a difference between an open society and a closed society. Everybody around the world gets the difference between those two things, open and closed. They actually also get the difference between civilized and uncivilized. Civilized is one of those good words that have often been abused, but all of the good words have been abused. Civilized includes a sense of rule of law and norms, but it’s not just rule of law. If I ask you, “Are you trying to lead a virtuous life?” If you answer me by saying “well, I haven’t been arrested yet,” then somehow I think it seems like your moral code is a little thin. Civilized is a richer term than that. By the way, there are versions of that term in all the major cultures, in the sense that all the major cultures hold up norms of behavior that they associate with justice or virtue or ways you behave that are good for the community, that if you violate these norms, you become an outcast or someone who doesn’t support the community. You can criticize some of those norms and try to change them, but having norms for a community is important. That’s what civilized/uncivilized means.

You have to have some words to describe why ISIS is so bad, or why the Syrian government is so bad, rather than just saying, “Well what they’re doing is illegal.” Even if you had an applicable rule of law, which is kind of murky, somehow that doesn't really capture the way ordinary people feel. Ordinary people get that there’s something that’s way outside the bounds about ISIS or what the Syrian government or what some of the tyrants are doing in the Congo, or what even the government in Venezuela is doing right now to its people, which is the largest humanitarian tragedy in Latin America. The word “civilized” is designed to conjure that richer set of norms, and ordinary people get that. There are versions of that word in Arabic, and versions of that word in Chinese. It’s not exactly the same since “civilized” is a word with Latin roots, but they have words that mean very similar things, and they know what the difference is from being uncivilized.

And, by the way, you want words about values that build a big tent, that are not designed to exclude people who aren’t perfect. You want words that welcome people in, and that give a lot of people hope that they can have the right kind of values. So let’s say you have a country that’s not yet a perfect democracy, but it aspires to become a more open society and a civilized society. You want to push them out of that community, because, “Oh, you don’t hold free elections just the way we do.” I’m trying to set up a set of values that can attract support from a lot of different kinds of constructive societies that may not have the same system of government that we do.

LK: You talked about the need to talk about opportunities and not just threats, so let’s think about that a little bit. You’ve argued that we should “start out with whatever foreign country or region one might think is troubled and important … Then, from the perspective of that country, look at what issues actually dominate much of their daily lives. Then ask yourself, which foreign countries matter the most to solving these problems,” then try to size up America’s potential role. Can you give an example of a country or even region where you think the U.S. could really do a better positive-thinking job in contributing to “local” problem solving?

PZ: Sure, I can think of several examples. In fact, if you were to go around the world and think of places where we might think opportunistically, and that are very important – take Mexico. Brazil. Indonesia. Ukraine. All of these places are tippy. They are hugely important in their regions. Saudi Arabia: there’s a huge reform effort underway right now in Saudi Arabia. You can ask yourself, “Will this matter whether or not this succeeds?” If you think about it for a little while, you’ll answer, “Yeah, I guess it may matter a lot!” But then, in that case, let’s go not into the world of American interests – don’t start there.

Let’s take Indonesia or Mexico, whichever country you want to think about. Start from their world. Start in the world of Mexico and its problems, and which way Mexico could go. Get into the world of Mexicans and their choices and how they see their choices, and what things they think are really important. Then after you’ve done that, ask yourself, “Can the Americans make any difference, positive or negative, to these Mexicans on any of the things they care about?” I think you’ll find that the answer is yes. It’s not at the margins, but on a few key things, if maybe we make a difference on one or two things, that helps tilt the conversation in Mexico one way instead of another. Or maybe it raises the odds a little of one outcome instead of another outcome. That’s what I mean instead of Americans starting with themselves and seeing the other countries as some object on which we project our purposes. I care about American purposes. We’ll do what it is that’s in our interest, but the analysis should start actually from the other country’s world and perspective. See us and how we can make a difference in their world. And then, come back, “Hmm, if those are the ways we might make a positive difference in outcomes, then which of these outcomes do we care about?”

Come back to the Saudi Arabia example. Saudi Arabia’s going through the most daring and enormous social reform experiment in the history of the country. Do we care how this turns out? Answer: yes, probably, we do. So if we care how this turns out, how can we make a difference? You really then have to roll up your sleeves and dive into the Saudi world, and ask yourself, “Okay. What are the big variables at play in whether or not this succeeds?” Is it a financial issue? Is it a business investment issue? What are the key variables from the Saudi point of view? Then ask yourself, “In which of these could the Americans raise the odds of success, the right kind of success?” After you’ve answered that question, is it worth our trying to then make that work, from the point of view of our interests? I think when you approach these problems in this way, you’ll see that there are really some striking opportunities where America can make a positive difference from the point of view of these countries, in ways that are very respectful of their interests and their world, and not necessarily requiring military power. In fact, military power may be the least important variable.

LK: Let’s bring China into this, a country whose own resources and excess industrial capacity and tendency towards funding highly visible development projects has translated into partnerships with countries in Europe, South America, Africa, and of course, Asia. We’ve seen how the U.S. tried and failed to prevent numerous strong allies of its own from joining China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2015. In a world where it seems like many countries are placing a high premium on things like economic development, infrastructure, etc., what does the U.S. have to offer in terms of how it should respond to the economic influence and sway of China?

PZ: I thought the United States made a big mistake in the way it approached the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It reacted in a defensive and insecure way that was unnecessary and counterproductive. If Asians want to form a bank to invest in their infrastructure, I think we should say, “Go for it and glad to hear it. How can we help? It’s a good cause.” Then, you can be suspicious and say, well, is this just designed as a way of fostering Chinese investment? Well, if the Chinese want to make positive investments in places that improve people’s lives, why should we oppose that? But we have a lot of experience with foreign investments that work, and foreign investments that don’t work. Do we have any constructive advice to offer about what works and doesn’t? Yes, I think we do. So then why don’t we join the conversation about the way to make these investments, and be part of that conversation in order to make constructive suggestions that the recipient countries might want to hear. If the recipient countries want to disregard our advice and take Chinese money and this turns out badly for them, we’ve still done the best we can to play a constructive role, and I think countries will appreciate that. I think, in general, when Americans act defensive and insecure about their influence in the world, they end up creating the danger they’re worried about. I think, if Americans rely less on their muscle and more on their brains, they’ll find they have muscle enough to make a positive difference on many issues that we care about.

LK: Talking about the state of international affairs generally, you’ve stated that this current stage of history that we find ourselves in currently is one that’s increasingly dominated by issues that are transnational (like energy and the environment, ultra-hazardous technologies, global capitalism issues, trade, etc.). How does this new reality affect the way that we should think about the power and influence that the United States, or other states, wield on the international stage in terms of these transnational issues that are affecting countries across the globe?

PZ: In a way, if all the problems are more and more transnational, whether it’s capitalism or cyber security or energy and the environment or “fill in the blank,” that means that none of these problems can be successfully addressed by any one country alone. Everything has to be done in partnerships, everything has to be done in coalitions. If you want to control ultra-hazardous biological technologies, no one country can do that alone. No one country alone can prevent global pandemics. I think one of the things that some Americans forget about foreign policy is that foreign policy always happens in foreign places. It always involves foreigners. So, you have to work in partnership with the foreigners and they have to want to work in partnership with you. It’s just a different mindset: if you think of America as a separate unit with foreigners as objects of our instruments, then you won’t fundamentally get the approach we need to take to work on almost all the problems that we care about, all the big problems that will affect us.

Now, partnerships are challenging. A lot of people disagree on what the problems are and how to solve them. So then you try to find a critical mass of people who may agree on something and who will listen to each other and come to a common view, but I think there are plenty of opportunities to make constructive headway. I haven’t even given up on China yet.

LK: So the optimal strategy would be one where the United States places itself as kind of a central node in forming those partnerships on these issues.

PZ: That’s very well put. Notice the word you used was “central” – not “dominant” but “central.” That’s a crucial point. It’s almost as if we can be a very useful clearinghouse or coordinator or organizer for common action. To put the question another way, if not us, who better? Which country is better situated to organize common action? But the United States can’t alone direct that common action. It simply has, at the moment, a unique opportunity to be central.

LK: Somewhat related to the transnational nature of the issues we’re facing today, you’ve mentioned how the gap between foreign policy issues and domestic policy issues is rapidly disappearing. Can you give an example of this, and also talk a little bit about how our government might do a better job of synchronizing or, as you say, “harmonizing” its domestic and foreign policies?

PZ: Sure, let me give a couple of illustrations: environmental issues. Most environmental issues now, certainly climate change, are transnational issues. But then you ask, what’s the most important American agency that works on environmental issues? Your answer would be, “Well, that would be the EPA.” The EPA is a domestic agency, yet the key environmental issues are transnational. In other words, most transnational issues present themselves in your country as a domestic issue, whether it’s hurricanes or carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. But the problems are common to many countries, and the solutions will involve some measure of common cooperation.

Let’s take terrorism. If we’re worried about foreign terrorists attacking the United States – let’s say if they come into the United States – that becomes a domestic problem for the FBI. But of course, it’s also a foreign problem. So, increasingly the notion that we’ve got these separate realms where the State Department does the foreign policy things and the EPA or the FBI do the domestic policy problems, is increasingly out of date.

Russian cybersecurity and problems with Facebook. Is the regulation of Facebook a domestic issue or is it a foreign policy issue?  When Mark Zuckerberg testifies, do we solve that problem alone? So, my answer is actually that this is a transnational problem. And in fact, even in Zuckerberg’s testimony, he had to admit the Europeans were doing some pretty interesting things in regulating Facebook. If we and the Europeans design a common approach to regulating Facebook and protecting people’s data, that becomes immensely powerful.

LK: How do you assess the room for cooperation between liberal countries like the United States and Western Europe and the illiberal states or anti-liberal states like China, Russia, or even Iran, as far as these issues go? You said you have hope for China still?

PZ: I do. There are some people who think that China is irredeemably lost to the forces of anti-liberalism and worse. I am not yet convinced that it is irredeemably lost. I think the Chinese themselves and the Chinese leaders are uncertain about their future – deeply uncertain and deeply worried. They see all sorts of choices ahead for them that they’re struggling to manage.

This influences us because then we should decide if we care which choices they make, and then again ask ourselves – as we discussed a few minutes ago, once you understand the world as the Chinese see it and the choices that they think are in front of them, we can then ask ourselves – “Do we care which of these choices they make?” And if we do care, we can ask ourselves, “Is there anything we can do that would influence how the Chinese make these choices?” I think that that approach yields some interesting answers for China.

Now, if you think China’s future is already set, then you shrug your shoulders and you do what you need to do to manage that future that you know will happen. I’m just humble enough to say that I think there are a number of different possible Chinese futures, and that we should do what little we can to raise the odds of getting the future we prefer.

But to come back to the start of your question, right now we’re in a period where antiliberalism is pretty strong. This is very bad and worrisome. It’s even more worrisome because it’s running pretty strong and the world is not even in a full-on, all-out crisis yet. The world economy is actually in relatively good shape. There is not a major war going on that involves a large-scale war with one of the major powers. So things can actually get a lot worse than they are now, yet the anti-liberals are doing well. On the plus side, the anti-liberals are united mainly by what they hate. They are not united by a positive agenda of what they want to build. That’s where our side has a bit of an advantage. If we can create common goals that are simple and understandable and inclusive — the kind of goals that a lot of countries can rally behind — goals like preferring open societies to closed ones, preferring civilized and lawful societies to uncivilized and outlawed societies, then we have a positive agenda that can rally people in a coalition to hold out hope of constructive change, instead of yielding to anti-liberal hatred and despair.

LK: As someone who has had a career encompassing a range of significant public service contributions as well as your ample time in research and academia, what experiences do you look back on as having been the most fulfilling in your career?

PZ: I’ve been fortunate in having a number of very fulfilling experiences in several walks of life, from things that I did when I was a practicing lawyer, to the diplomatic work in helping to end the Cold War, and the work I did on the 9/11 Commission. I’ve also been involved in some tragedies, and was not able to do enough to mitigate some of those tragedies, and I’ve worked on some hard problems that I didn’t make very much progress in solving. The point I’d make is that anyone who devotes themselves to public problems is going to encounter a lot of frustration. So you have to be the kind of person who is, you could say, a glass half full person. There are some people who always see the glass that’s half full as filling, and people who always see the glass that’s half full as draining. Just like there are people who are very good at finding problems, and there are other people who would like to try to solve problems. The satisfaction I have is that I’ve had the chance to be part of solving some problems, and making some positive contributions here and there, including in my scholarship, that I feel very proud of, and I think is as much as any individual can aspire to.

LK: Thanks so much again for your time!