By Philip Zelikow

January/February 2024, published on 

The world has entered a period of high crisis. Wars rage in Europe and the Middle East, and the threat of war looms in East Asia. In Russia, China, and North Korea, the United States faces three hostile states with nuclear weapons and, in Iran, another on the verge of acquiring them. Beyond the headlines, states are failing in Africa, Latin America, and Southwest Asia, and enormous migrations are in motion. Having just weathered a pandemic that was the costliest crisis since 1945, the United States must now contend with other urgent transnational challenges, such as managing energy transition amid a deteriorating climate, the rapid development of artificial intelligence, and a global capitalist system under more pressure than it has been for decades. Unpacked, each one of these issues has its own set of complex problems that few understand. And on almost every issue, whether they like the Americans or resent them, people in the world look to the U.S. government for help, if only in organizing the work.

The Americans cannot meet this demand. Their supply of effective policies is limited. The United States does not have the breadth and depth of competence—capabilities and know-how—in its contemporary government. The problem has existed for decades, as has been depressingly evident from time to time. What is new is the context. The current period of crisis challenges the United States and the other countries of the free world more than anything has in at least 60 years. They will have to cultivate new qualities of practical leadership.

Saying what to do is the easy part. Designing how to do it is the hard part. “Ideas are not policies,” Dean Rusk observed while serving as U.S. secretary of state. “Besides, ideas have a high infant-mortality rate.” An even more experienced statesman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, commented that “hope flies on wings, and international conferences plod afterwards along dusty roads.”

The “how” is the “craft” in statecraft. Most of what the U.S. government does is distribute money and set rules. Relatively few parts of it mount policy operations, especially diplomatic ones. Doing so requires complex teamwork. Officials must master international choreographies, intricacies of law and practice, and a bewildering variety of instruments, cultures, and institutions spanning societies. The ability to do all that is a fading art in the United States and the rest of the free world. As it fades, handwringing and platitudes take its place. Officials paper over the gaps with meetings and pronouncements.

The limited supply of effective U.S. policymaking was demonstrated tragically during the COVID-19 outbreak, when the world failed to create a global alliance to fight a global pandemic. It can be seen today in Ukraine, where the free world is struggling to sustain a country fighting a war of attrition. And it is surfacing in the Gaza Strip, where well-meaning countries try to help with Gaza’s future sustenance and governance. There will doubtless be new demands in the coming months and years, and one can debate which of them Washington and its allies must answer. But no one wants to take on a problem and then fail. Success has to be defined concretely and practically. Governments have to more effectively pool their capabilities and know-how. Only then can they convert blue-sky hopes into blueprints.


All three of the major anti-American partnerships of the last hundred years—the Axis powers in World War II, the communist countries during the Cold War, and the anti-American league today led by China, Russia, and Iranhad a common core. All regarded the United States (or the United Kingdom in its day) as the anchor of a domineering imperial system that tried to block their own aspirations. They rallied other countries that also felt oppressed. But beyond that, the partnerships exhibited no common master plan. The partners rarely trusted one another. They often did not even like one another.

This generation’s period of high crisis may well subside, or it could get much worse. The history of past anti-American partnerships humbles complacent assumptions. It reveals rapid recalculations, quick turns, surprises. Dictatorships have always been riven by factions; their intentions and plans change suddenly, often affected by seemingly invisible details and circumstances. What is different this time, compared with those past eras of confrontation, is that the American public has not absorbed the gravity of the dangers, and the country’s industrial base is much narrower and less agile. The United States relies too much on ill-focused military insurance policies and has not adequately prepared plausible operational strategies short of direct warfare.

In January 1941, while the United States was still at peace, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote to Joseph Grew, his old friend and prep school classmate and the U.S. ambassador to Japan. “We must recognize that the hostilities in Europe, in Africa, and in Asia are all parts of a single world conflict,” Roosevelt wrote. Each part had its own story. The president stressed that “the problems which we face are so vast and so interrelated that any attempt even to state them compels one to think in terms of five continents and seven seas.” He went on: “We cannot lay down hard-and-fast plans. As each new development occurs we must, in the light of the circumstances then existing, decide when and where and how we can most effectively marshal and make use of our resources.”

So Roosevelt began marshaling resources on an epic scale. Congress had already resumed the conscription of soldiers, sailors, and airmen. In early 1941, the president and his team persuaded a bitterly divided Congress, in a bitterly divided country that was not yet at war, to spend ten percent of GDP to help foreigners. The money went to American supplies for those who were in the fight: the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and China. The equivalent level of effort today would be about $2.6 trillion dollars—about 25 times the amount President Joe Biden requested in October 2023 from today’s divided Congress for Ukraine, Israel, and other priorities.

The United States relies too much on ill-focused military insurance policies.

The United States and its allies must now prepare for how they might be pulled into four different wars—with China, with Iran, with North Korea, and with Russia—and how these dangers could interact. The default assumption of most Western policymakers is that these rivals are led by fundamentally rational regimes that will not court the risks of seeking violent change. That was the default assumption a year before Russia invaded Ukraine. It was the default assumption the day before Hamas invaded Israel. The current era may well turn out to be a prewar period. But Americans, Europeans, Japanese, South Koreans, and Australians are not coordinating as if this were so. Meanwhile, the governments and media of China, Iran, and North Korea have been mobilizing for war. Russia is already at war and preparing for a long one.

The existing level of conflict in the world is already the highest in more than a generation. Look just at the region surrounding the Gaza Strip. Even before Hamas’s October 7 attack, Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen had already been shattered by conflict, resulting in millions of starving and displaced people. All the international mediation and reconstruction efforts to address these crises have been going poorly. All demonstrate the failure of the United Nations’ mediating and peacekeeping attempts. In each case, aid organizations struggle to meet needs and sustain support from weary donors. This tally does not include the ongoing international involvements in Iraq, Lebanon, and Somalia or in war-torn Ethiopia.

Then there are the demands in other regions and on transnational concerns, such as the deteriorating climate, the digital and biological revolutions, and the fragility of global finance. Some of these issues have been festering for decades. Much of the news about cooperation among the free world is, again, disappointing: problems in orchestrating a global energy transition, with fragmented work on green technologies, frustrated talks on critical materials, and furious disagreements about how to ease the burdens on poor countries.


In an emergency, people need effective action. No country faces more demands for providing that than the United States. The country may seem awfully powerful, in static enumerations of economic or military mass, but applied power—actual power out in the world—is something quite different. It is more like the measurement of kinetic energy, which is calculated with the formula 1/2 mv². The value of mass is halved. The value of velocity is squared. In statecraft, competence is velocity.

Competence is a function of capabilities and know-how. When it comes to doing things in the world, Americans’ supply of both is constrained by two deep structural conditions. The first has been with the country, in varying degrees, since its founding: a sense of detachment. America is usually detached from foreign problems, often by a great distance, and Americans feel detached, too. Fortunate in its geology and continental breadth, the United States has never depended all that much on foreign commerce or foreign commodities. Public interest in foreign engagement—political, military, or economic—is limited. More than half of all Americans do not own a passport. Only one-third of them can find Taiwan on a map.

The second factor limiting the United States’ global engagement is newer: its now limited repertoire of what it can do abroad. The repertoire dramatically expanded, as so much did, during World War II and the Cold War. By the middle of the twentieth century, U.S. officials were famous across the world for their know-how, esteemed as enterprising, imaginative problem solvers who could do almost anything in war or peace. The United States had helped organize D-Day, built the first atomic bomb, fed millions of people amid the ruins of Europe and Asia, rescued Western Europe with the Marshall Plan, and overcome a Soviet blockade with the Berlin airlift. Washington even helped eradicate smallpox.

These and other awe-inspiring deeds drew on the exceptional and decentralized problem-solving culture of American business and civic planning that emerged in the twentieth century. The paradigmatic discipline of American business at the time was engineering. This can-do culture improved the way policy was designed and managed and encouraged strong habits of written staff work. It had emerged from vast and stressful trial and error, with plenty of rivalry and confusion.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking at the United Nations in New York City, August 2023Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

Generations passed, the century ended, and little was done to preserve or teach the older skills and routines. Written operational analyses were subsumed by more meetings, with fewer efforts to record and reflect on what had been said. Unlike the methods taught for engineering, the techniques of policy staff work are rarely recognized or studied. There is no canon with norms of professional practice. American policymaking became procedural, less about deliberate engineering and more about improvised guesswork and bureaucratized habits.

Meanwhile, as the mountains of superpower confrontation crumbled with the end of the Cold War, the remaining foothills began to seem like mountains. NATO and Croatia’s victory over little Serbia in 1995 fed years of hubris. That sensibility, mixed with the great fear after 9/11, ushered in the United States’ years of nemesis. Chastened, the American public’s already slender interest in foreign engagement thinned. The protectionist current became a flood. In the scholarly world, the fashion was to critique the United States’ hunger for empire, its endemic racism, its endless militarism, and its voracious capitalism. The implied corollary was that if the U.S. government was such a malign force in the world, then everyone would be better off if it stayed home.

Even as the U.S. intelligence community grew and grew, the U.S. government’s capacity to analyze and solve problems did not. Its policy side became weakly staffed and poorly trained; officials had barely been taught about policy work at all. Those who excelled had usually taught themselves. When operations were needed, contractors had to be hired, and they often just compounded the problems. Although the military’s components were still potent, its force structure—the hugely expensive carriers, squadrons of aircraft, and brigades of troops stationed back home—became more symbolic and less relevant. Economic sanctions became the tool of first resort. Communiques and platitudes covered the rest.


But paper palliatives will not address the world’s present emergencies. Generic doctrines of “restraint” or “realism” signal attitudes, not answers. George Marshall knew this well. In April 1947, Marshall, recently appointed secretary of state and fresh from a lengthy trip to Europe, gave a national radio address to tell the American people about the scale of the needed repairs on the continent. He implored them to be patient. “Problems which bear directly on the future of our civilization cannot be disposed of by general talk or vague formulae—by what Lincoln called ‘pernicious abstractions,’” Marshall warned. “They require concrete solutions for definite and extremely complicated questions.” Working with an extraordinary group of European leaders, Marshall and his team found those solutions, designing an extraordinary system that used American goods to cement new European partnerships and help European governments raise money to rebuild.

Amid the spectacular recent failures in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, it is worth noticing some recent success stories, too. Consider the military realm. Between 2015 and 2019, after a year of floundering, having learned from prior missteps, and with relatively few troops, the United States helped lead a remarkable foreign coalition that liberated lands overrun by the Islamic State, or ISIS, in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

In global health, the United States and its partners, beginning in 2003, created an emergency plan for AIDS relief, known as PEPFAR, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Designed with the lessons of past failures in mind, these programs elicited broad support in Congress and across the world. They have saved millions of lives. Or look at diplomacy. Beginning in 2005, the United States orchestrated a complex global effort to accept India’s nuclear status and unwind a generation’s accumulation of restrictions. This diplomacy transformed relations and opened up trade in advanced technology with what is now the world’s most populous country.

The United States has also authored economic success stories. Many rightly blame its failure to police highly leveraged asset speculation for the global financial crisis. But they should also recognize that as the crisis spread to Europe, American and European leaders did whatever it took to arrest it, backing financial guarantees to stave off sovereign defaults and keep the eurozone from plunging into the abyss. That continental collapse would have rippled back to the United States, and so this success may have prevented a replay of the sequence that produced the Great Depression. More recently, before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, few would have predicted that Europe, and especially Germany, could ever wean itself from Russian energy. Yet after the invasion, a handful of European—especially German—leaders worked with Americans and rose to the challenge.

What these and other successes demonstrate is a possibility theorem. Governments can still produce extraordinary results. But doing so will require a greater focus on the “how.” Consider three contemporary emergencies as illustrations: the failures in the war against COVID-19, the perilous situation now in Ukraine, and the challenge in Gaza.


Judged by its human and economic toll, the COVID-19 pandemic was a global war. More than 20 million people died. The United States spent, in discretionary fiscal policy, about $5 trillion. But in January 2020, few understood the pandemic that was unfolding. The so-called pandemic playbook prepared by the Obama administration did not actually diagram any plays. There was no “how.” It did not explain what to do. When it came to the job of containing COVID-19, the playbook was a blank page.

What the ensuing months and years would expose was, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, the erosion of operational capabilities in much of the U.S. government and the flailing reliance on management consultancies to plug these gaps. Early on, it became clear that the public sector did not have the resources it needed—drugs, masks, vaccines—from the private sector. The choices about what to do were relatively easy: almost everyone wanted tests, effective therapeutics, and vaccines. The problems arose in the “how.”

The supposed U.S. success story in the pandemic was the Defense Department’s management of Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to develop and deploy vaccines. But that success is more celebrated than understood. Thanks to prewar choices by some gifted officials, coronavirus R & D was already advanced when the pandemic broke out. The U.S. government and others had already sponsored early work on messenger RNA technology. An initiative improvised by career bureaucrats, outside experts, and administration gadflies, Operation Warp Speed did not score its main success in vaccine development. Rather, it succeeded by acquiring and manufacturing the vaccines at scale. It managed a portfolio of investments in different designs to hedge its bets on unproven mRNA technology, and it planned national distribution through the United States’ drugstores.

Yet the mass production of vaccines was not knitted into strategies to coordinate global production and distribution or to persuade people to get the jabs. Global pandemics, like global wars, must be fought by global alliances. Only a handful of countries produced vaccines, but they never built an allied war effort against the virus. The disappointing performance of the World Health Organization, which neither warned of the outbreak nor coordinated a common response, did not cause that failure. Constrained by its members, the WHO reflected their failure.

Paper palliatives will not address the world’s present emergencies.

Reacting to prior decades of weak government work on vaccines, philanthropies had tried to fill the void by creating unusual nonprofit institutions such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation. Some of the policymakers who spearheaded Operation Warp Speed wanted to use those nonprofits and organize a proper global effort. As the proposal for Operation Warp Speed made its way to President Donald Trump in April 2020, U.S. officials put aside building a global coalition and chose a national approach. In reaction, the nonprofits and their supporters had to quickly improvise a global structure. Aided by France and Singapore, they partnered with the WHO to create the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access initiative, or COVAX, to distribute vaccines across the world, based on need.

By May 2020, there were thus two parallel structures: Operation Warp Speed and COVAX. COVAX immediately fell behind, spending months raising money. Watching what the United States had chosen, European countries decided they had to mimic that approach. The United Kingdom moved out on its own with a well-designed program. The EU tried to reconcile the desires of its 27 members’ health authorities. But European countries were growing impatient with the sluggish pace of the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, in organizing a common vaccine effort. Shortly after the unveiling of Operation Warp Speed, four of them—France, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlandsannounced that they would move ahead on their own. National, more self-interested, programs would thus be the pattern.

In some ways, the story turned out well. The mRNA vaccine candidates worked. Private industry ramped up and produced vaccine doses on an astonishing scale. By the end of 2021, the supply of vaccines saturated global demand. Although it was improvised into existence practically overnight, COVAX was the principal reason a substantial fraction of people in low-income countries were vaccinated at all, helped by UNICEF and other organizations. Yet pushed to the back of the procurement queue, COVAX effectively lost at least a year of possible progress, instead fighting against vaccine hoarding, export restrictions, and problems with manufacturers. These delays caused millions of avoidable hospitalizations and deaths.

The success of Operation Warp Speed is more celebrated than understood.

Vaccine nationalism is no surprise. In a global coalition, major producers are not going to ignore the needs of their own people. But a coalition could have planned, from the start, to visibly take the whole world’s needs into account. In the absence of such planning, countries hoarded their own supplies until they were sure they would have a surplus, at which point some offered that surplus to COVAX. The problem was that it takes time to set up vaccine education campaigns, distribution networks, and cold storage facilities and to find people to do the work.

In the short run, Trump’s “America first” vaccine strategy seemed to pay off for Americans. Then it backfired. “Buy American” provisions—which accompanied the government’s use of its authorities under the Defense Production Act to tell U.S. firms what to produce—ended up pushing most production for the global market outside the United States. The fragmented national approaches to selecting vaccine candidates and managing the supply chains to produce vaccines created unnecessary friction and duplication, wasted investments, and tangled negotiations with industry. The opportunity to more intelligently coordinate the huge national investments, procurements, and supply chains was lost. The end result put the pharmaceutical firms in the driver’s seat.

The war against COVID-19 relied on a few major powers to help the rest of the world. The United States, the major European countries, and the big Asian powers never joined forces effectively enough. They, along with the rest of the world, paid the price for that. There is no reason to believe that biological dangers will diminish, and they may get worse. Yet policymakers have absorbed few lessons about how to do better next time.


By the end of 2022, it was clear the war in Ukraine would not end quickly. Rightly inspired by the Ukrainians’ heroic resistance, many commentators and officials underestimated Russia. Much of the debate was about whether Ukraine should drive on to victory or accept a stalemate, or whether certain weapons systems would be the magic ingredients the country needed to win. Over the course of 2023, however, Ukraine’s military, social, economic, and financial condition became increasingly grave and unsustainable. And although Russia has geared up for a long war, Ukraine’s supporters have not.

As with the pandemic, the “what to do” part seems easy, since citizens in the free world generally support Ukraine’s survival as a free country with a hopeful future. Surely, people think, the coalition’s combined resources and economies can overmatch what Russia and its friends can do. Yet again, what stands out is the problem of “how.” Again, the free world has not adequately pooled and mobilized its resources.

At the start of the war, the G-7 countries froze about $300 billion worth of Russian state financial assets that were being held in their own currencies. Never in history has an aggressor left such an immense sum in the hands of countries wounded by its aggression. None of the G-7’s members doubt that Russia has committed the gravest possible breaches of international law or that it is legally obligated to compensate those it has damaged. No one can deny that Ukraine’s economy is in critical condition. The question of what to do seems clear. Yet as the war finishes its second year, this enormous, game-changing war chest of Russia’s money remains virtually untouched. There is no plausible scenario in which it goes back to Russia. The potentially decisive assets lie there, inert and useless to anyone. Why?

For too long, the handful of relevant officials were preoccupied with other matters and were put off by a welter of confused and often superficial legal and financial arguments. Privately, some have confided fears about Russian retaliation against their countries’ companies. Or in the German case, some fear that Polish nationalists might then ask for more reparations from Germany for World War II.

An artillery shell near Donetsk, Ukraine, November 2023Alina Smutko / Reuters

All these arguments are slowly being sorted out as lawyers rediscover the international law of state responsibility and state countermeasures. Needed next is the design for a monumental European recovery program, anchored in the recovery of Ukraine. That program should have two dimensions. One would be policy-driven. The West would support reconstruction and recovery across several sectors, linking its spending to Ukrainian reforms that would also facilitate Ukraine’s EU accession process. The other dimension would be a substantial and painstaking claims process from Ukraine and other state and private entities damaged by Russia’s internationally wrongful acts, including expropriated companies and poor countries victimized by price shocks. Work to set up this enormous recovery program has barely begun.

By contrast, the military assistance program for Ukraine would seem to be the great success story. It is, to some extent. But it is flagging. The public story is dominated by arguments about which weapons to send to Ukraine. The real story, however, is about the “how” of finding enough weapons to begin with. In theory, the quantity of weaponry sent to Ukraine should be both sufficient and affordable if all of Ukraine’s partners efficiently pooled their potential resources and industrial capacities. That efficient pooling of resources is not happening. Aside from the usual challenges of transport, training, and maintenance that are multiplied with each new donated system, five big factors seem to cripple the effort, even if Congress appropriates needed money.

First, most of the help has come from drawing down inventories. By now, the U.S. military’s branches have sent all the equipment they regard as disposable, and they are protecting the rest. Pushing them to give up more means making difficult tradeoffs among risks. In the early Lend Lease era, these tradeoffs were frequently resolved in the White House, often by Roosevelt himself.

Second, European inventories were often more useful to Ukraine, because the Europeans had stockpiled more. Those inventories have been drawn down. The United States’ allies in Europe are anxious. They were promised backfills that are not in sight, as they form queues that look to the 2030s.

The strain to mobilize resources to help Ukraine is a tragedy.

Third, the U.S. defense industrial base cannot expand quickly enough to meet the emergencies of the next year or two. That puts a premium on quick mass production of relatively inexpensive defensive systems such as drones. These novel systems are being developed by new producers. The Defense Department does not like to buy from new producers. They are not “programs of record,” in Pentagon parlance, and thus do not have an associated acquisition bureaucracy. In the years it takes to meet that threshold, the new producers often die or are bought out. Even if they survive to receive a contract, they often face a thicket of export controls in the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, a U.S. government regime that is a vestige of the Cold War. Ukraine does not have that kind of time.

Fourth, much could be accomplished if U.S. money could be more freely used, including by Ukraine, to buy drones and other needed weapons from non-American suppliers. The Pentagon’s acquisition process makes it hard to spend defense dollars on foreigners. Influential U.S. companies like to keep it that way. Americans are not alone in this; several U.S. allies have understandable habits of defense industry protectionism. But these national stovepipes are a peacetime luxury. In World War II, the legendary P51 Mustang, an American-made fighter, flew with a British engine. Leaders should dramatically change the way they buy in this time of crisis, recognizing that the results could benefit them all, including financially.

Fifth, the big defense contractors will not expand their production base without multiyear contracts. But even if they got them, there is little slack in the American industrial base. Contractors also face bottlenecks in supplies of certain critical components. So the longer-term challenge circles back to the goal of pooling the free world’s resources. There is more slack in industrial bases outside the United States, very much including Ukraine itself.

The strain to mobilize resources to help Ukraine is a tragedy. It is tragic not only because of the suffering of heroic Ukrainians. It is tragic also because some in the U.S. government are valiantly trying to solve these “how” problems, whether they are banging on the table at the U.S. Army headquarters in Wiesbaden, Germany, where Ukraine’s partners try to coordinate their military help, or in the White House. Yet in a new age of emergencies, they find that most people in most governments are still conducting business as usual.


The Gaza Strip has been an international policy problem for 75 years. Since 1948, the international goals have been clear and limited: aid Palestinians and prevent war. Raids out of Gaza and Israeli reprisals were part of the spiral of violence that led to the first Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1956. The international community responded brilliantly, showing some of the skills and energy that the West could command in that era.

Within the space of about a week, in November 1956, UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and his team, including the American diplomat Ralph Bunche, created the UN Emergency Force, a coalition that was led by Canada and India and enjoyed strong support from the United States. The UN leadership and those three countries drove the work. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower boosted the UNEF strategy from the start but deferred to India and Canada to provide the military muscle. The Palestinians in Gaza still felt they were at war with Israel. But there was no war. UNEF effectively kept the peace on the Gazan-Israeli border for ten years. When the force was withdrawn in 1967 at the request of Egypt, war quickly followed, and then 38 years of Israeli military rule.

In 2005, when Israel withdrew, outside actors had hoped that Gaza would be ruled by the Palestinian Authority and become part of a Palestinian state, including the West Bank, willing to develop peaceably alongside Israel. That strategy for replacing the Israeli occupation and solving the security problem failed. Hamas, a military movement at war with Israel, then took over Gaza in 2007, throwing out the PA. It resumed warfare, culminating in its bloody raids on Israel on October 7.

The United States will not and should not be central in governing Gaza.

A common proposal for the future of Gaza, which the United States has endorsed, is to use the current war to establish a reconfigured PA. The new PA would be more competent and legitimate than the present one based in the West Bank. It would replace Hamas and renew progress toward a two-state solution. This is a reboot of the original goal sought after 2005. I was at the State Department back then and worked on the policy choices and negotiations involving Israel and the PA about the future of Gaza and Palestinian statehood. The “how” for this strategy is much harder now. The mutual fear and hatred have intensified. Israeli settlements in the West Bank have multiplied. A democratically legitimate PA is more likely to reflect Hamas than replace it. And relevant American capabilities and know-how are more constrained, including by other U.S. priorities.

To many, the current crisis in Gaza seems to demand a central role for the United States. But the United States will not and should not be central in governing Gaza. It should play a secondary role, at most, in providing aid and reconstruction assistance to the strip. It may have capabilities and know-how to help prevent future attacks from Gaza against Israel, but any maritime and commercial control regime to stem the flow of weapons into Gaza would obviously have to be multilateral. As with efforts in Libya, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, the talks on Gaza already involve the UN, a group of interested Western states, and a group of interested Muslim states.

While the United States makes pronouncements on general goals, the best approach to Gaza would begin by looking at the menu of plausible solutions on the ground there: in governance, sustenance, and security. Officials should work hard on the policy designs these solutions might entail. Each will be complex. With some of that analysis done, they should next ask who in the world has assets, knowledge, or people that can help make one of these designs viable or can incentivize those who can. Then, policymakers should see where, among other countries, the United States comes into play. Finally, they should design and defend the U.S. contribution.


Across the free world, the current period of crisis has spotlighted the mismatch between the institutions it had going in and the quality of effort it needs now. The public debates about national interests are largely disconnected from the practical issues. In the medium term, the U.S. government and its partners must examine whether their institutions—especially the civilian institutions that deal with finance, commerce, technology, and humanitarian relief—are really fit for purpose. People meet constantly, but they strain to get things done. At the end of 2023, the economic side of the U.S. government was taking protectionist actions that were sabotaging cooperation with allies on green technology, critical materials, and common management of the digital revolution at the same time that Biden claimed to be rallying the free world.

The U.S. Foreign Service could be tripled in size and reconceived on a whole-of-government basis, with overhauled training, and the costs would amount to a rounding error in the overall federal budget. Across the Atlantic, the EU should develop a better growth strategy, with a streamlined European Commission and more effective decision processes by the European Council, the EU’s governing board of member states. But the European experiment in common foreign policymaking has not been successful, and national governments must step up to their heightened responsibilities in this time of crisis. As for military power, the overreliance on small numbers of extremely expensive, exquisite American systems seems out of date and unaffordable, even for the United States. The Ukraine war has encouraged the Pentagon to make big bets—for example, instituting the Replicator Initiative, which is supposed to mass produce and field thousands of weapons that use emerging technologies.

In the next year or two, if East Asia stays relatively quiet and the war in the Middle East does not widen to Iran, the course of the Ukraine war may be the most important bellwether. A rare opportunity beckons in that conflict. Enormous resources are available, thanks to the aggressor’s overconfidence in leaving hundreds of billions of dollars and euros in law-abiding states. A landmark recovery program could give Ukraine the future its people yearn for, regardless of where the battle line ends up. The resources could ease the burdens of enlarging the EU and reinvigorate that project. To do the job right is an enormous challenge of policy design. But one lesson of the Marshall Plan was that success breeds successes.

The operational talent that Western policymakers displayed in the twentieth century was not in their genes. It was the accumulation of hard-earned experience and an accompanying culture that reinforced practical professionalism, including new and difficult habits of cooperation with international partners. There is only one way to recover these skills: practice them again. (Foreign Affairs)

PHILIP ZELIKOW is a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. A historian, former U.S. diplomat, and former Executive Director of the 9/11 Commission, he has worked for five presidential administrations.