Dr. Richard Haass is a veteran diplomat and a prominent voice in American foreign policy. He is currently in his seventeenth year as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He has served as the senior Middle East advisor to President George H.W. Bush, as the director of policy planning for the Department of State, and as a principal advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Confirmed by the U.S. Senate to hold the rank of ambassador, Dr. Haass was also U.S. coordinator for policy toward the future of Afghanistan and the U.S. envoy to both the Cyprus and Northern Ireland peace talks. 

A recipient of the State Department’s Distinguished Honor Award, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Tipperary International Peace Award, Dr. Haass is also the author or editor of thirteen books on U.S. foreign policy and one book on management. His latest book is “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order”, published in 2017 by Penguin Press. A Rhodes scholar, he holds the Master and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Oxford University. He has also received numerous honorary degrees and was a member of the faculty of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and Hamilton College. 

We extend our thanks to Dr. Haass once again for taking the time to speak with The Politic.


The Politic: A concept central to your latest book, “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order”, is “sovereign obligation”, which you have argued should be the bedrock of a new international order. Could you briefly explain this term and how it would inform the way we tackle global challenges?

Dr. Haass: We normally think of sovereignty in terms of rights: the right to conduct what foreign policy you want, the right to conduct what domestic policy you want within your borders and so forth. I wanted to introduce the idea of obligations as well: the idea that in a global world, what goes on inside countries is not simply affecting them alone. Certain things going on inside countries can affect others: for example, climate change—the activity of burning coal. We already have the principle that if you house terrorists or computer hackers that can harm others, you should not expect the protections of sovereignty. So, my idea is that we ought to introduce into foreign policy and international relations the idea that sovereignty is about more than rights; it’s also about obligations and if countries don’t meet certain obligations they could potentially be penalized. It’s that simple. 

You have touched upon the issue of human rights, and one development that you also discuss in the book is the apparent demise of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine [which pressed an obligation on sovereign states and the international community to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity]. Could you tell us how this came about and share your thoughts on what comes next? How would the United States and the rest of the respond to mass atrocity [in the framework of] sovereign obligation?

Responsibility to protect was an idea that had been around for a while and finally came to fruition in 2005, years after the Rwandan Genocide. It was unanimously approved in the UN General Assembly. Then it essentially got undermined, more than anywhere else, in Libya, where the United States and several European countries intervened, and the Chinese and the Russians pushed back that this was not a humanitarian intervention, this was regime change. They saw “responsibility to protect” as something of a Trojan horse. They were already uncomfortable with it because it was inconsistent with the notion of absolute sovereignty, and now they became opposed to it. Indeed, if you had a vote today in the UN, it’s not obvious to me that the motion would pass. And since then, by the way, you have had both Syria and Yemen. Essentially the world has sat on its collective hands amidst atrocities, in part because they are extraordinarily difficult and costly to contend with. 

I think going forward the most likely model for dealing with atrocities is one that goes back to the Balkans, where rather than getting UN approval for some type of intervention, you would get, say, NATO or some coalition of the willing that would approve a certain intervention for this or that purpose in this or that country. I think that’s probably a more realistic path going forward, one-offs approved by an alliance or some group of countries. The danger, of course, is that a country like Russia will cite this as an example for doing the sort of thing they did in Ukraine. So, there’s a risk or a danger in not requiring unanimity in the UN: while we might use it for reasons we believe are totally legitimate, someone else like Putin or China might use the doctrine as justification for doing something that it was never intended for. 

You have previously written that Lord Palmerston’s dictum [“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, those interests it is our duty to follow.”] “applies in spades” to the post-Cold War world, and you’ve said that formal alliances would count for less in the 21st century, requiring flexibility and selective cooperation. But more recently, you have argued that the Trump administration’s actions towards America’s allies were “strangely reminiscent” of Palmerston and inconsistent with America’s reputation for global leadership. If the recognition of a Palmerstonian moment is broadly correct, what do you think the President getting wrong? How should America approach its alliances?

The Palmerstonian moment applies less in the case of Russia, because Russia is the resurrection of the threat that the NATO alliance was originally created for. It’s more difficult for alliances to act on behalf of what it is they favor as opposed to what they oppose, and they are inevitably going to become more selective. That’s what I meant by “Palmerstonian”. But this administration has since gone way beyond what I was commenting on: it seems not to value alliances and at times has worked to weaken them. So, my position, and where I disagree with the administration, is there is no case for becoming anti-alliance. Alliances are still a real force multiplier in American foreign policy. My point was simply to suggest that in a world where there wasn’t a dominant threat, there would inevitably be greater conditionality or selectivity, that we could no longer assume the automaticity which we normally associate with alliances. But in no way was I arguing that we ought to become anti-allies or anti-alliance, which is what at times this administration is doing. 

Do you think the damage to American credibility this administration has caused, in your view, is irreparable to some extent, or do you think the next president could be successful in mending ties with long-standing allies and reasserting America’s core commitments? 

It’s a good question; in some ways it’s a big question. Potentially It has a different answer, in part, depending upon when the next president enters office. It’s a big difference if he or she enters office in eighteen months as opposed to five and a half years. It will be far more difficult to get it back together again in five and a half years than it would be in one and a half years. Second of all, a lot depends upon who that individual would be, and there’s no common position held by all the potential alternatives, be it in 2020 or 2024. So, some of the people who would take this president’s place might not differ all that much when it came to important aspects of foreign policy. 

Last, I would say you can’t undo history, and the fact that some things have happened. I would argue that the United States will not be looked at quite the same way again. We have raised doubts. A lot of places will say “If it happened once, it could happen again,” they will say, “Yes, Donald Trump was unique, shall we say, but on the other hand, he was elected by the American people.” Some of them will say that you should not assume when Trump leaves, Trumpism leaves, and, to the contrary that elements of “Trumpism” will continue. 

This is all a long-winded way of saying, obviously, it depends on who’s elected and if you have someone who comes out of the foreign policy mainstream, say, like former Vice President Biden. If he were to be elected in 18 months, he would do his best, I believe, to reconstruct basic elements of American foreign policy. But even he couldn’t go back to where we were two and a half years ago. The world has changed, and he has to deal with an American public and Congress that are more wary of American involvement in the world. 

A new piece in The Atlantic quotes RAND Corporation’s Ali Wyne as saying that great power competition has, in the last year or so, “become the animating construct guiding U.S. foreign policy.” Do you agree with this observation, and do you think perhaps a renewed emphasis on great power competition is warranted, given the actions of Russia and China?

There has been a renewed emphasis among the foreign policy establishment on great power competition, particularly on China. Secondly, though, I don’t see it as being the principal dynamic in American foreign policy. Under Mr. Trump, the principal dynamics are limiting American involvement in the world and opposition to global trade arrangements. But I don’t see a concerted policy in place. If great power competition were the animating concept of American foreign policy, we would be far tougher on Russia in Europe, and we would have joined the TPP in Asia. There has been a revival of great power rivalry, and many people are advocating that it should be a principal preoccupation of American foreign policy, but it hasn’t become that. 

And I would also say it’s not adequate. A revival of a great power emphasis on U.S. foreign policy doesn’t give you answers to how to deal with climate change or any number of global issues. It doesn’t solve North Korea or Iran. So, to me, trying to build American foreign policy around a great power construct leaves out too many issues and it ignores many ways in which the world has changed. 

Again, with regards to great power relations and the issue of nonproliferation, how do you evaluate the United States’s recent withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty? Was it necessary for the United States to counter violations by Russia? Or does it risk causing a new nuclear arms race, as some have argued?

It was in part a reaction to Russian noncompliance with the agreement. I think it was also in part, a recognition that the INF treaty was inadequate. It was a treaty that was negotiated and signed decades ago, when the world was essentially bipolar. Now the world is increasingly multipolar. So, this treaty is an inadequate basis. I would have preferred rather than breaking it that we move to broaden it, and I would have tried that in a systematic way. 

Also, by the way, I don’t see us moving towards any new deployment of land-based missiles in Europe. So, again, it wasn’t as though the treaty was stopping us from doing some things; we could deploy all the air or sea-based missiles that we want without violating the treaty. It seems to me that a wholesale junking of the treaty was an overreaction. 

But the real question is whether we can build a multilateral framework for dealing with intermediate-range missiles. An even bigger question is whether we can preserve strategic arms control. And that, to me, is the big issue for whoever wins the 2020 election. I think the last thing we want to have is open-ended, strategic nuclear competition with Russia, given the cost, the danger and the fact that it’s one of the few areas where Russia is competitive. The most significant part of the INF Treaty decision is that it suggests a lack of Trump administration commitment to inherited arms control agreements. 

You’ve also observed that among the field for the Democratic Party nomination in 2020, the candidates largely tend to focus extensively on domestic issues and usually refrain from commenting on foreign policy. What do you think accounts for this trend, and what would you advise the candidates going forward?

What accounts for the trend is that domestic issues, in particular immigration, healthcare, and guns, are the issues that are of greatest interest to Democratic primary voters, to those who fund candidates. So, the candidates mostly respond to their would-be voters; it’s that simple. Foreign policy issues, for the most part, are not front and center for Democratic activists or Democratic voters. Many of the activists in the party see foreign policy as a costly distraction, so again, it’s not clear if there’s a big political payoff for Democratic candidates to talk about foreign policy. The problem is, if a Democrat were to be elected in 2020, he or she would inherit an extraordinarily difficult inbox, and he or she would spend a great deal of their time dealing with foreign policy. So, as a citizen and someone who cares about these issues, I would like to know what it is they would do. 

My final question concerns the global crisis of climate change. I understand that you are a proponent of allocating increased funding for geoengineering projects to mitigate global warming. What is your reasoning?

I favor Increased funding of research into geoengineering. I am not ready to advocate for geoengineering projects. I think we need to explore their viability and their safety. The reason is simple: I lack confidence that all the efforts to mitigate climate change will be adequate. The gap between what needs to be done and what is done is not just large but also growing. Adaptation, dealing with the consequences of climate change, is extraordinarily expensive. And so, I believe we need to explore geoengineering and see whether it could be part of the answer. If mitigation efforts continue to be inadequate and adaptation is extraordinarily costly, then all you’re left with is geoengineering. So, I just believe it’s incumbent on us to explore whether it might be part of the policy package. It doesn’t mean we give up on mitigation; it doesn’t mean we don’t adapt.  But my view is it would be irresponsible not to learn about what it might be able to do. For all we know, it could be a big part of the answer; for all we know, it has nothing to contribute. But we’ve got to find out, because odds are, the current policies won’t do it. Then we have to think about two things: we have to think about the science of geoengineering, and we also have to think about the politics. Even if you had something that you thought was viable, what would be the process by which it would occur, who would have to approve it and so forth. So, there’s questions about the science and there’s questions about the politics of geoengineering. My view is we ought to get to a point where we find out if this is promising and, if it is, build a process by which it could be approved.

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