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Haass: U.S. 'Squandering' Chances for Worldwide Cooperation

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Visiting Fellow
Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
May 24, 2005


Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says he is concerned the United States, for a decade or more, has squandered “an unprecedented historic opportunity to organize the world to deal with the challenges of globalization.” Haass, who before taking up his position at the Council led the State Department’s Policy Planning staff in President George W. Bush’s first term, says Americans “simply can’t run the world by ourselves. We don’t have the resources.” Haass develops this theme in his new book, The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course.

“Here we are at the start of the 21st century,” he says, “the threat of a great-power war is remote, the United States has all these resources at its command, the rest of the world is not actively blocking American power. To the contrary, they are prepared on occasion to work with us. And I don’t see us translating this moment into something that will endure. To the contrary, I see us potentially frittering it away. History will judge us harshly if we allow this to happen.”

Haass was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor of, on May 24, 2005.

In the concluding chapter of The Opportunity, you say there is both an opportunity and a necessity for the United States to get other nations involved in a kind of global integration. How does this begin?

The reason there is an opportunity and a necessity is because of the United States’ strength and the fact that what the United States is trying to do in the world is, or ought to be, acceptable to others. The reason it is a necessity is that, for all of our strength, we can’t deal with the challenges of this world by ourselves. Put another way, we need the help and participation of others if we are going to succeed.

We should not wait for the next crisis, but rather sit down and consult now with the other major powers— China, Japan, Europe, India, Russia, and, to some extent also, the Brazils, the South Africas, the Nigerias, and the Indonesias of the world. We need to talk with them about the rules of the road, about what we should be trying to do to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, what we can do to delegitimize and stop terrorism, how to prevent new genocides, how to fashion the basis of a new international trade agreement, and what should be put in place after the Kyoto climate-change agreement expires in 2012. Essentially, we need talks about the basic rules of the world, what to do to encourage countries to sign on to them, and what to do if and when certain governments violate them. We need to apply them in the effort to bring about a more integrated world that can cope with today’s challenges and threats.

Reading your book, I thought about the end of World War II, when the allies got together to structure the post-war period and establish international institutions. There was a feeling then that there would be a new world created. Of course, that mood soon disintegrated into the Cold War.

I think there is some similarity to that period. Then, as now, we had just come out of a major war. Then, as now, the United States stood apart from all the other countries in strength. The difference is that then, we quickly found ourselves in a Cold War. Now we don’t have that, which is one of the real opportunities of this period. But there is the complication that we now live in a globalized world, so the problems of this era are not caused by a rival superpower so much as by the intrinsic problems of globalization— proliferation, terrorism, drugs, et al. We are clearly going to need new rules and new arrangements. I am not sure we are going to need as many new institutions. We don’t need to reinvent the United Nations or NATO or the IMF [International Monetary Fund] or the World Bank, but we may very well need to adapt them.

To give you one example: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, one of the building blocks of the previous era, is clearly inadequate. Under the treaty, countries can legally enrich uranium and hold on to it. This is obsolete. We now need a new arrangement whereby countries have access to fuel for nuclear power but don’t have control of it. That would bar them from diverting it to nuclear weapons.

This administration has clearly not shared your interest in reaching out to other nations. Does your approach require new thinking among the American electorate to choose a president who might be more flexible, to use a euphemism?

We’ve got this president for nearly four more years. I don’t think it is a question of choosing a new president, and I want to be clear that there is nothing soft about what I am suggesting. I’m still talking about United States leadership, but I am talking about the kind of leadership that encourages “followership.”

We simply can’t run the world by ourselves. We don’t have the resources. Today’s problems cannot be solved by any one country, so what I am hoping is that this administration adapts. I believe that this administration is on an unsustainable course. I simply do not believe we can sustain a policy of guns, butter, and lower taxes. And I don’t believe that you can sustain as a matter of national security this degree of American unilateralism and this degree of emphasis on the military tool.

Indeed, we are up against the limits of our resources now. We simply don’t have the options we’d like to have, say, in dealing with the North Korean and Iranian nuclear challenges. So, in one way or the other, this administration is going to have no choice but to adjust.

There is a paradox, of course, that the administration, while stressing unilateralism, has avoided direct talks with either North Korea or Iran. A number of experts think that such talks might have some impact. You were in the State Department. Why did the administration avoid talking to North Korea and Iran?

The principal obstacle to the administration’s doing more diplomatically, to negotiate with either North Korea or Iran, was the view held by many in the administration that these regimes were vulnerable, and that the United States ought to do nothing that in any way would prop up or perpetuate them.

Essentially, many in the administration were hoping that these regimes would fall, and the problems posed by them, particularly the proliferation problems, would go away. I thought then that this was more wishful thinking than a strategy. I think the same is true now. We are already living in a world where we have a North Korean nuclear capability. It is only a matter of time before we are likely to find ourselves with an Iranian nuclear capability. To me, this argues for a serious attempt at diplomacy, rather than continued drift.

On Iran, the administration shifted its approach at the beginning of this term and supported the British-French-German talks with Tehran. All the parties seem to agree that, if Iran refuses to stop its nuclear program, Iran will be taken to the Security Council. I don’t know what would happen there.

Neither do I. To me, it is more important to get a consensus on sanctions, whether in the Security Council or not. I don’t think we are quite there with Iran in terms of the policy. A successful policy will require three things: clear articulation of what Iran must do; incentives in the form of explicit assurances to Iran of the benefits that would accrue to it if it meets these requirements; and the clear articulation of the penalties or sanctions that would come its way if it doesn’t.

I don’t believe the United States and the other major nations of the world have reached a consensus on either the whole range of incentives or sanctions. So rather than leaving it vague and people talking about “going to the Security Council,” I believe that the United States needs to be much more explicit now, as do the Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese, about the incentives and disincentives that should be offered to Iran.

It will be tough to get U.N. sanctions, because China badly wants Iran’s oil.

It will be tough. That’s why it highlights the kinds of problems we face in the world. We need to generate much greater consensus among the major powers. The United States simply doesn’t have the resources, for example, to use military force against Iran. I simply don’t see attractive military options. Plus, I see all sorts of ways that the Iranians could push back, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East, and even in Saudi Arabia, as well as with their own oil output: The Iranians could trigger much higher oil prices. All of this leads me in the direction of diplomacy, not because I am 100 percent confident it will work, but simply because it is the least bad option.

You have a strong chapter on Iraq in the book. For me, one question that is still unanswered is why the administration was so driven to get into war.

Quite frankly, I can’t answer it, not because I won’t, but because I can’t. I myself have trouble understanding it. As you know from reading the book, I argue that I believe the war in Iraq was ill-advised. It’s not that there were no benefits. Yes, it is good that Saddam Hussein is gone. It’s simply that my balance sheet so far suggests that the direct and indirect costs are greater than the direct and indirect benefits. What I can’t answer is why others were so confident before the war that the balance sheet would be so tilted in the direction of benefits. Clearly, the only answer I could come up with was that they expected the benefits to be much greater— not simply a democratic Iraq, but a democratic wave that would spill over to the rest of the region. In the process, you would also get rid of all the weapons of mass destruction that people thought were there.

They obviously thought as well that the costs of doing this would be minimal, so their calculations were that this was something that would be wonderful to achieve and easy to achieve. Obviously, they were wrong on both counts. I was more skeptical on both scores.

There was one other feature. After 9/11, a lot of people were looking for ways to send a signal that the geopolitical momentum had not moved against the United States. For them, ousting the regime in Iraq was something the United States could achieve that would send a powerful signal to the Iranians, to the North Koreans, and others. A lot of my former colleagues saw this as another indirect benefit of the Iraq war, but I was skeptical.

You seem frustrated in the book that none of the last three presidents did what you thought they should have done on the world scene.

If I am right, there is an unprecedented historic opportunity to organize the world to deal with the challenges of globalization. If I am right, this opportunity won’t last forever. What worries me is that the last two or even three presidents didn’t do enough. What worries me in particular is that in recent years we have done things that have threatened the economic base of American power. We are potentially ending up in an unfortunate position where we alienate much of the world so we can’t get them to work with us against these problems, while we threaten our own strength through our fiscal deficits, our current-account deficit, our energy dependency, and the gradual decline of American competitiveness.

That is what led me to write this book, a heartfelt sense that we are squandering one of history’s great moments. Here we are at the start of the 21st century. The threat of a great-power war is remote, the United States has all these resources at its command, the rest of the world is not actively blocking American power. To the contrary, they are prepared on occasion to work with us. And I don’t see us translating this moment into something that will endure. To the contrary, I see us potentially frittering it away. History will judge us harshly if we allow this to happen.

Do you think things would be better if Senator John Kerry had won the 2004 presidential election?

I don’t know. I would simply say that Senator Kerry would have inherited the same world, the same “in box” that President Bush inherited in January 2005. That “in box,” I would suggest, was a far less attractive or advantageous “in box” than the one President Bush inherited four years earlier, or Bill Clinton inherited four years before that. The trends are not good. We have been squandering our possibilities, not only since the Berlin Wall came down, but also our post-9/11 possibilities, when the rest of the world was so willing to work with us. To be fair, we have made progress in some areas. The world has integrated itself very well in the area of counterterrorism. We have made some real progress. My concern is that we haven’t made similar progress in other areas.