Wilson Center Experts

Ronald Steel

Senior Scholar

Contact Information:
Professor Emeritus of International Relations, University of Southern California
Wilson Center Project(s):
"Culture as Destiny: The Hidden Roots of American Foreign Policy"
Jun 01, 2011
May 31, 2013

My career has been that of writer, scholar, and for a time as a diplomat. My primary area of interest has been American foreign policy, and the individuals and forces that determine its direction. This has led me to both an academic and a literary career. My first book, The End of Alliance: American and the Future of Europe, examined the evolving relationship among the Western allies during the early years of the Cold War. This was followed a few years later, in 1967, by a more sweeping critical study of American military interventionism both in Europe and in Asia. Its title, Pax Americana, explains it message.In the early 1970s I combined my interest in foreign policy and the individuals who determined it by embarking on a biography of America's most influential political commentator: the columnist Walter Lippmann. Drawing upon exclusive access to the Lippmann papers at Yale's Beineke Library, and upon many conversations with Lippmann himself, this study covered not only a tumultuous career beginning before the First World War and extending until the end of the Cold War some fifty years later, but also the extraordinary life of the writer himself.This book, written with Lippmann's full cooperation, but not always in full agreement, was ultimately published in 1980 under the title, Walter Lippmann and the American Century. It won a good many awards, including the Bancroft Prize in American History, the National Book Award, and the National Book Critics' Circle Award. In addition to six major books, I have also written scores of essays for major journals, particularly The New York Review of Books. Many of these essays were included in a book published ironically as Imperialists and Other Heroes.While researching and writing the Lippmann biography, I entered the academic world, teaching as visiting professor at a number of American universities, including Yale, Princeton, Texas, George Washington, Rutgers, Dartmouth, as well as the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris. In addition I held fellowships at the Wissenschaftskolleg (School of Advanced Study) in Berlin, and the American Academy in Berlin. My interest in biography and fusion of politics and personality stimulated me to examine the career of the charismatic and complex idol of an era: Robert Kennedy. I entitled it In Love with Night to express both the romantic and tragic aspects of Kennedy's controversial life in politics.Although I had not originally intended to become an academic, I inevitably became one. In addition to teaching at nearly a dozen universities, I ultimately in 1985 was appointed full professor at the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. There, in blissful contentment, I remained until my retirement as professor emeritus in 2008.


B.A. Political Science/English, Northwestern University; M.A. Political Economy/Government, Harvard University


  • Professor Emeritus, University of Southern California, 2008-present
  • Professor of International Relations/History, University of Southern California, 1985-2008
  • Visiting Professor of Government/History, University of Texas at Austin, 1977-1985


Journalism; political science; international affairs

Project Summary

Who are we, and why do we behave the way we do in the world? That is the critical question that is almost never asked in seeking to understand our actions, wars, and defining our interests. Phrases like "national interest" are frequently invoked, but rarely identified. Least of all are the sources of those "interests" examined and questioned. Traditional social science, with its reliance on charts, slide shows, and mathematical formulae, satisfies our faith in quantification, but offers few useful answers. Rather it ignores a key determinant of our international behavior: our unique political culture. By this I mean our history, religions, and mythologies. These are dramatized in film and literature: the chronicle of our national values, internal conflicts, and acts of conquest and expansion. Culture in its broadest sense is identity and a critical key to behavior. It illuminates who we are, how we deal with each other, and how we make our way in the world. It is the neglected foundation of our foreign policy, and it urgently demands critical examination. This I intend to do by putting our foreign policy under a microscope of our history, our myths and the expression of our beliefs.

Major Publications

  • Walter Lippmann and the American Century. Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1980.
  • Temptations of a Superpower: American Foreign Policy After the Cold War. Harvard University Press, 1995.
  • Pax Americana. Viking Press, 1967.
  • The End of Alliance: America and the Future of Europe. Viking Press, 1964.

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