FDR Center for Global Engagement

Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, Professor Veronica Boix-Mansilla and Center Director Jed Willard discuss “The New Visibility of Global Inequality” in the Adams House Lower Common Room.

Founded in 2013 as an expansion of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation at Harvard, the Center is guided by one of the core tenets of Franklin Roosevelt’s philosophy: “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” A non-partisan think-tank, the Center is committed to finding practical, reasonable, implementable solutions to specific problems confounding the 21st century. The Center supports research for broad publication, conducts consultative projects for real-world clients, and hosts several scholarly conferences each year.

Given its location within Adams House, one of the 12 undergraduate residences at Harvard, the Center also supports Harvard’s billion dollar investment in the House Renewal program by reinvigorating the College’s original intention of providing exceptional educational opportunities outside the traditional bounds of the classroom. Through a unique series of Fireside Chats held in the FDR Suite throughout the academic year, the Center hosts intimate small-group sessions where students can actively engage with world leaders, historians, scholars and politicians on topics as varied as US-Muslim Relations, the History of Found Objects, Anti-science and Public Decision Making, or Countering Information Warfare. (For scheduling and more information on the Fireside Chats, please click the Events menu option above.)

The Center’s areas of special interest and research include the following:

American Isolationism

On becoming president, FDR inherited a country and a congress wearied by war, deeply suspicious of foreign entanglements, and dedicated to a policy of isolationism. Not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was the internationalist FDR freed from his decades-long struggle against the isolationist trend in America. Once again today, Pew Research finds a record 53 percent of Americans agreeing that the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally” and let other countries get along as best they can. 41 percent of Americans said as much in 1995, only 20 percent in 1964. “The juxtaposition of an America that wants to turn inward and away from world affairs, and a strong feeling of powerlessness domestically, is a powerful current that so far has eluded the grasp of Democrats and Republicans” said Democratic pollster Fred Yang, who conducted the Pew survey with Republican pollster Bill McInturff. “The message from the American public to their leaders in this poll seems to be: You need to take care of business here at home.”

Potential Areas of Investigation

  • Is US “retrenchment” real, and if so what are the geopolitical implications?
  • What are the various political drivers of isolationist tendencies on the American Left and Right?
  • After a decade of war and with a depleted military, how loathe is the US to intervene militarily in overseas conflicts.
  • If US influence is perceived as waning, what does that mean for the future of Enlightenment values such as democracy, freedom and human rights around the world?
  • When America does act internationally, do traditional US instruments of power still have the reach and impact the nation has enjoyed in the past?
  • When stakes seem small and irrelevant to Americans (tiny Pacific islands, isolated African nations, Russian-speaking districts) and the American public does not engage, must the dominant narrative become the recession of American influence in the world?

Ideology and Public Diplomacy

Many nations practice public diplomacy – the pursuit of foreign policy goals through communication with publics overseas – on the basis of “we are what we sell,” promoting the products and corporations of their country. Franklin Roosevelt, however, recognized that we are not what we sell, rather we are what we stand for and we are that way for a reason. A reason not only worth fighting for, but also worth explaining to the rest of the world. On the basis of this standpoint, he actively expanded US global communication efforts to oppose the virulent ideologies of fascism and communism. For example, in 1938 he created the Divisions for Cultural Relations and International Communications at the US State Department, and in 1942 established the Voice of America as part of the Office of War Information to counter Nazi Propaganda.

Potential Areas of Investigation

  • To what extent has the hope engendered by the Arab Spring been transformed into disappointment? How will that disappointment be manifested in different ways over time?
  • The early 1990s saw the end of apartheid, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the spread of democracy. Will the next few years take us in the opposite ideological direction? If so, what new ideological competitors will challenge the liberal democratic order as fascism and communism once did?
  • Are people increasingly identifying themselves along religious and cultural, as opposed to national, lines? If so will international borders be increasingly seen as arbitrary as these identities lead to conflict?
  • What does this mean for Islamist and other non-state actors and what are the implications for traditional diplomacy?
  • If borders become more arbitrary, within what framework does one even conduct diplomacy?
  • What are the potential positive and negative implications of China’s growing influence?

Climate Change & Sustainability

FDR was the first president faced with a distinctly man-made environmental crisis: the Dust Bowl. Unwise agricultural practices combined with natural cycles of drought and heat to destroy the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people in the American Midwest. Roosevelt tasked his Secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, to create an entirely new land management methodology which reinvigorated American agriculture, minimizing destruction to natural ecosystems. Today’s climate crisis is far more serious and global than the Dust Bowl; similar visionary leadership is urgently required.

Potential Areas of Investigation:

  • What narratives drive public opinion about climate change in different parts of the world, and who benefits from each narrative?
  • FDR and Wallace created the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Soil Conservation Service and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act to protect the environment on a national scale. What would the international equivalents of these entities look like today and how would they function?
  • Is the long-term threat of climate change so awesome as to challenge global stability? Democracy itself?

Global Governance

After World War II, Roosevelt and the allies created a world order centered around relatively unrestricted trade, freedom of the seas, and the rule of law. This order was controversial on the far left and far right then, and remains so in some circles now. As the world changes, technology evolves, and geopolitics shift, does there need to be a vision for a world order different from that which came out of Bretton Woods and Dumbarton Oaks?

Potential Areas of Investigation:

  • As national borders fray, are we seeing the “reintroduction of geopolitics?”
  • What are the changing perceptions & role of the UN?
  • What can be done about the increasing influence of transnational organized crime cartels? If so, what policy changes are required to deal with this resurgent threat?
  • Does more freedom, especially the freedom to communicate and organize via the Internet, enable the expansion of local and regional threats to the geo-political status quo?

The Transatlantic Relationship

Roosevelt fully realized that the idea of an American financed new world order was highly repugnant in many political quarters, and sought to restrain criticism of our expanded role abroad by insisting that our allies carry an economic burden commensurate with their abilities, repaying the United States for war matériel over a period of time. (The British made their final payment in 2006, for example.) In the case of NATO however, America has come to assume the cost of Europe’s defense — a fact many Americans view as highly unfair.

Potential Areas of Investigation:

  • What is the future of NATO given the unwillingness of most Allies to pay for military improvements even in the face of resurgent threats?
  • What are the key political challenges to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership as the US public leans more and more isolationist?
  • What communication strategies can the EU use in its member countries to increase its perceived value?

The Arctic

FDR was forced to see the strategic value of the Arctic, organizing the Murmansk Convoys and establishing US military presence in Alaska, Greenland, and Iceland. With the recent warming of Arctic waters, once near inaccessible areas are now open to use. There is a widespread perception that the Arctic is a new “Wild West, empty of inhabitants and ready for exploitation. In reality, the region is populated and managed by a rules-based system exemplified by the Arctic Council. The US will assume the Council chairmanship in 2015 and will be charged with changing the narrative of Arctic development.

Potential Areas of Investigation:

  • Is America prepared for the 2015-16 Arctic Council Presidency?
  • What are the different visions for the Arctic’s future and who champions which vision?
  • How can we understand and defuse the impact of international politics on regional cooperation in the Arctic?
  • Can the “Arctic as Wild West” frame be challenged?

Pacific Relationships

With the attack on Pearl Harbor, American foreign policy was forced inexorably eastward, a trend that, for very different reasons, continues to this day. There is no question that the largest markets of the 21st century will be in Asia. It is yet unclear how the US will navigate a series of serious geopolitical challenges as nation states of the area seek to expand their influence.

Potential Areas of Investigation:

  • What does the future hold for the Korean Peninsula as North Korea becomes more unpredictable?
  • What are the implications of China’s attempted expansion into the Pacific region, starting with the East and South China Seas?
  • What are the key political challenges to the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the US public leans more and more isolationist?


Roosevelt was among the first American leaders to tackle the complex, often contradictory directions of Russian foreign policy. Although FDR’s America was allied with the U.S.S.R. during the war, the president was also keenly aware that American and Russian national interests differed significantly. With Putin’s Russia attempting to alter the borders of Europe, the challenge for the US remains to maintain somewhat harmonious relations while at the same time preventing actions contrary to the framework of international law that FDR helped lay out.

Potential Areas of Investigation:

  • What are the longer term second- and third-order effects from the Ukraine crisis as the Russians seek to challenge the world order as established in the aftermath of the Cold War?
  • How is European dependence on Russian energy perceived by Europeans? Do these perceptions have foreign policy implications?
  • How effective are Russian efforts to build influence in regions such as Africa and Latin America?

Latin America

From his first inauguration speech onward, President Roosevelt put US-Latin American relations on a new footing. Calling for a “Good Neighbor” policy, FDR proceeded to pull US troops from Latin American nations, improve US perceptions of the country’s southern neighbors, and promote commercial interdependence throughout the hemisphere. FDR’s tenure in the White House turned out to be a marked parenthesis between the military interventionism of the early 20th-century and the often troubled hemispheric relations of the Cold War period. In many ways, current US-Latin American relations resemble the FDR parenthesis more than they do the rest of the last century.

Potential Areas of Investigation:

  • The Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, under FDR-appointee Nelson Rockefeller, used cultural diplomacy and international broadcasting to promote inter-American relations and counter support for fascist ideology. What lessons from the CIAA period are applicable to today’s challenges to US-Latin American relations?
  • How do the current threats (structural, ideological, commercial, and natural) to the current period of relative stability, democracy, and growth in Latin America compare to those of the early 20th-century and the Cold War, and how do the legacies of those earlier periods impact popular perceptions of the current situation?
  • As Latin America – Western Pacific trade relationships continue to progress, what economic and cultural developments can be expected?
  • Is the US prepared for the resumption of trade and commerce with Cuba?