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The New 'Informal' Multilateral Era

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 24, 2009

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President Barack Obama discussed a range of global challenges in his speech to the UN General Assembly, yet some of the biggest ones are unlikely to be resolved through formal multilateral treaties, says CFR President Richard N. Haass. He expressed doubt that any consensus could be found internationally on such issues as climate control, or Iran's nuclear program, or other issues generating intense debate within the United States. "In this era of international relations, we may need to start thinking less about formal international treaties and agreements and much more about what you might describe as coordinated national policies," Haass says. For example, he says, climate change might be addressed by countries collaborating on common regulatory policies that are not necessarily linked to binding cap-and-trade agreements, which are proving tough to broker. In the case of Iran's nuclear program, Haass says the United States and other states are going to have to consider accepting some Iranian enrichment. "The real question will be what kind of ceiling can be placed on Iranian enrichment activities and what kind of transparency we can get for it," he says.

President Obama has given a lengthy UN General Assembly speech that covered the diplomatic  waterfront, but interestingly, the most pressing issue facing American policymakers right now--what to do about the military situation in Afghanistan--wasn't really discussed at all. What did you make of this?

The short answer is, you're right, and what that largely reflects is that Afghanistan now has become the subject of an intense debate both within the administration and more broadly within the American body politic. But it's not really the focus of much international debate other than being a subject of some controversy within a few European countries who have troops that are taking casualties. It's part of a larger phenomenon, if you will, where the UN speech covered classic multilateral challenges-climate change, proliferation, the situation in the Middle East, what have you. But the day-to-day politics in the United States right now are consumed with specific issues rather than these larger enduring problems.

You've been on the record since this spring saying that this was becoming a "war of choice" instead of "necessity" as had the Bush administration's war on Iraq. But President Obama said in August to the Veterans of Foreign Wars that this was now a "war of necessity." But now, do you sense that he's changing his mind?

It clearly is a "war of choice" for two reasons. One, the United States has a range of alternatives to increasing the number of combat troops. Secondly, it's not obvious to me, and the administration certainly hasn't made a persuasive case, that what happens in Afghanistan is central either to the global struggle against terror or to the future trajectory of Pakistan. So until the administration can make those arguments, and I'm not sure it can, and until the military can make the argument that if we do more on the ground in Afghanistan militarily it will improve the overall situation in Afghanistan in a way that's commensurate with the greater effort, the administration is right to hold off the decision to increase both the size and the activity of U.S. ground forces.

Another major issue that the United States is dealing with right now, which was discussed in Obama's UN speech, is what to do about Iran. He said Iran and North Korea should abide by the nonproliferation ethos. What do you think is going to happen with Iran?

The administration faces a real dilemma. It's possible that the timeline for Iran's nuclear project will far outpace the timeline for the evolution of Iran's politics. The administration may be forced to make decisions about what to do about Iran's nuclear program long before more moderate tendencies inside Iran have begun to gain momentum. The second problem for the administration is that there's precious little international support for increasing sanctions against the government of Iran. There is no consensus in the Security Council to put into place significant economic sanctions, much less military enforcement, so it is hard to be optimistic that the talks between Iran and the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany [P5+1] set to begin soon [October 1] will accomplish what the administration wants. Before long the United States and others are going to have to consider accepting at least some Iranian enrichment. The real question will be what kind of ceiling can be placed on Iranian enrichment activities and what kind of transparency we can get for it. That might be the best we could get out of a negotiation. We would then have to decide whether it's good enough compared to the alternatives.

We're probably in an era in which formal international treaties and conventions and the like are much more the exception than the rule.

Doing this would allow the Iranians to exercise at least a limited right to enrich. I don't believe that it's possible to get the Iranians out of the uranium-enrichment business altogether. The administration is moving in the direction of accepting some enrichment by dropping the precondition that Iran stop all enrichment before talks could begin. All I'm suggesting is that if there's a deal to be had here, it would probably have to allow the Iranians some enrichment activity. We should be prepared to consider such a deal so long as there's a ceiling on the activity and, more important, we have some confidence that we know the extent of Iranian activity.

On Thursday, there's a special Security Council meeting in which President Obama will be in the chair to discuss nuclear nonproliferation. What is the meeting's goal?

The only real subject on the nonproliferation agenda in the short run is Iran. The larger nuclear agenda will be what the United States and Russia can negotiate bilaterally. So it's not at all obvious to me that what happens this week in New York is central. I would actually say the same about several other issues.

Like what?

Climate change. There is simply no consensus either within the United States or within the world about what to do about global climate change. At a time of economic recession and limited growth, governments and countries will not do things in the name of long-term environmental gain that will simply increase short-term economic pain. It's highly unlikely that the U.S. Senate will pass anything that looks like a cap-and-trade bill along the lines of what passed the House. And even if the United States reached such a position, I don't believe there's any chance that the developing countries would sign on to meaningful ceilings.

So this Copenhagen conference in December is likely to be a bust.

People had better start thinking overtime about plan B because plan A, which you might call Kyoto 2.0, is not in the cards. Can I just make a larger point?

Sure.

In this era of international relations, we may need to start thinking less about formal international treaties and agreements and much more about what you might describe as coordinated national policies. So countries would agree, say in the environmental area, to certain types of common regulatory policies, to do certain things about coal plant construction and operation, to do certain things, say, about mileage requirements for automobiles, and that might be the most you can hope for.

[I]f there's a deal to be had here, it would probably have to allow the Iranians some enrichment activity and I believe we should be prepared to consider such a deal so long as there's a ceiling on the activity.

These countries would sign up to a set of principles or guidelines but it wouldn't be a formal international agreement. So again it's much more an agreement to coordinate or make parallel national moves rather than anything more formal.

And the president, of course, has again spoken about an Israeli-Palestinian two-state agreement. It was clear yesterday when he met with the Palestinian and Israeli leaders that they still have a long way to go.

That's being generous. It's obvious that the initial American focus on Israeli settlements was flawed. What we need are two things: a continued emphasis on efforts to improve the Palestinian economy (and in particular security arrangements and freedom of movement in the West Bank), and then, secondly, the president needs to articulate a much more developed view of what a Middle East peace agreement would look like. He needs to add that top-down approach to complement the sort of useful efforts that Tony Blair and others are encouraging on the ground in the West Bank.

The main "economic nations" go to Pittsburgh later in the week for the G-20 meeting.  French President Nicolas Sarkozy says he's going to walk out if they don't put limits on salaries.

This whole conversation about executive compensation is at best a distraction and a sideshow. At worst it's a debacle. The best we can hope for at the G-20 is not some formal international agreement but rather coordinated national policies. What we need to see is some degree of consistency about financial regulation. We don't want to set up a world of unlimited arbitrage where money tries to take advantage of regulatory inequalities between countries. But we're not going to get a formal agreement, for example, on what countries like China that run chronic balance-of-payment surpluses need to do or what countries like the United States that run chronic balance-of-payment deficits need to do. We're not going to get new fancy architecture; instead the best we can hope for here is a greater degree of coordination and complementarity and consistency among the world's most important economies.

So in sum what did we learn this week?

What we've learned is that on some of the toughest issues facing the United States and the world, there is not the requisite consensus either within the United States or between the United States and others to really move ahead. As a result, we are in an era of multilateralism that will not simply be selective or a la carte in terms of who signs on to what but also is likely to become much more informal. We're probably in an era in which formal international treaties and conventions and the like are much more the exception than the rule.

I guess that includes this Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty [CTB] which the Senate wouldn't ratify under President Bill Clinton. And I see Obama says he's going to make this a major priority. What's driving that?

The CTB is one of those chestnuts from your past and mine that has resonance here domestically as well as internationally. It's not at all clear to me that the votes are there in the U.S. Senate. It's possible that in order to get support for a CTB you would also have to agree on what sort of nuclear posture or nuclear innovation you would permit; the obvious dilemma is whether you could do so in a way that would not contravene either the letter or the spirit of the CTB.

Do you think President Obama took on too many issues?

He would have been better served by not having so crowded and so ambitious an agenda. I would not, for example, have put health care so high up. But there has been progress on the economy. We no longer feel that we are on the precipice as we were earlier. The overall judgment is that the president and those around him inherited a very tough situation. And in some ways, in trying to do so much, they may have inadvertently made a tough situation tougher than it needed to be.

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