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An Interview with Thomas R. Parker, Author of “American Presidents in Diplomacy and War”

Thomas R. Parker is a professorial lecturer at George Washington University and author of The Road to Camp David. He worked for thirty years in diplomatic and military affairs for the White House, U.S. Defense Department, State Department, and the intelligence community. The University of Notre Dame Press is thrilled to publish his newest book, American Presidents in Diplomacy and War: Statecraft, Foreign Policy, and Leadership (November 2023). He recently answered some of our questions about his research and writing processes.

When did you first get the idea to write American Presidents in Diplomacy and War

As a U.S. government employee for 30 years, one cannot write about sensitive topics of the moment since one had had access to classified material. (This is a reasonable prohibition.) So, I gravitated towards past events where the stakes for the U.S. were very high. The book slowly came into focus after years of reading about these historical periods.   

Certainly, these are unprecedented times in the United States, Europe, and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era? 

If you are interested in why political leaders are largely successful or not in foreign policy for this era, or any era, this book will help you get a sense for things today—though no periods are identical of course. It is important for students who grew up with President Donald Trump to know that America has had many admirable presidents.  

Thomas R. Parker

How did you research this book? 

I read a lot and spoke to university professors at the university where I teach, George Washington University. But I also reflected upon what I had seen with three decades with the government. You learn a lot by watching presidents make their decisions.

What did you learn while writing it? 

I gained a better understanding about the contexts in which these presidents made their key decisions and the options that they had to choose from. I came to realize that success is sometimes a combination of prudence and boldness. As Edmund Burke said, prudence is the god of this lower world, but that does not exclude the occasional need for audacity.    

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write? 

I initially thought it would be somewhat more focused on the traditional realist versus idealist debate in foreign policy. There is less of that than originally planned because I think personality structure and personal psychology is more important than any theoretical framework.      

Who is the biggest influence on you and your work? 

The biggest influences were individuals and colleagues whom I have known over the years who had an instinctual and intellectual understanding for foreign policy, including power politics. They did not always agree with each other or with me, but they generally knew what they were doing.    

What is your writing schedule like? 

I tried to write at least five hours a day in the afternoon and evening. (I am not a morning person.) It was easier to stick to the schedule during the covid years. It was important to be fairly regular about this without being rigid. I needed to avoid isolation and see people outside the family for psychological reasons.  

What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book? 

Perhaps start with some magazine articles. Then you can go from there into a book. 

Who would you like to read American Presidents in Diplomacy and War and why?

Those interested in U.S. foreign policy who think they can draw knowledge from the past. If they go into positions of decision-making, so much the better!  

What book are you currently reading? 

I am currently reading Robert Massie’s Peter the Great. Peter is the hero of Vladimir Putin. I hope to learn why Peter was largely, though not entirely, successful in his wars. 

What book or project are you working on next? 

Perhaps an expansion of an article I once wrote on Churchill’s decision to attack the French fleet in 1940 to make certain it would not fall under German control. I am drawn towards the study of leaders who make difficult decisions in moments of enormous stress. There is a book to be written about Ukraine’s President Zelensky, of course. But the person will have to be conversant in Ukrainian, so not me.  

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