RICHARD N. HAASS, the new president of the Council on Foreign Relations, sat coiled like a spring in a chair in his barren fourth-floor office in Midtown Manhattan. He tapped his shoe on the wooden floor, and spoke in staccato sentences. Boxes lay stacked in neat rows under his desk waiting to be unpacked.
"One of the most remarkable things in the world now is the absence of serious great power rivalry," he said. "What marked the 20th century, more than anything else, was this rivalry. It led to three great wars," he said, referring to the World Wars and the Cold War. "Our century started without such rivalry. War between the major powers is all but unthinkable. It is an extraordinary time. We must find ways to harness this cooperation for the common good."
As the 14th president of the council, an organization of 4,000 members nationwide who often play a leading role in foreign policy discussions, he will help shape the nation's debate on foreign policy. He took office on July 1.
"I do not think we have thought enough about how to translate strength into lasting influence," he said. "History suggests that nothing is permanent. It would be tragic or worse if history looked back at this period and said we did not use our power wisely."
He comes from a world where he has long been in power or on the margins of power. It is a world that rarely questions the right of the United States to exercise power. The debate, rather, seems to be how best to implement that power.
He has worked as a special assistant to President George H. W. Bush and senior director for Near East and South Asia Affairs on the staff of the National Security Council. He was until June the director of policy planning at the State Department, working as a principal foreign policy adviser to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Dr. Haass was a beleaguered multilateralist, one of the dissidents within the current Bush administration who argued for the building of a broad international coalition to fight the war in Iraq and rebuild the country.
"Iraq was a war of choice," he said, "not a war that had to be fought. In that sense it is closer to Vietnam rather than Korea or the first Gulf War or Afghanistan. It behooves us to get it right. The danger we face is that it distorts and drains American foreign policy. This is why it is important to get others involved, to accelerate Iraqi involvement in governing and securing the country. We have too many other things we need to do in the world to let Iraq dominate foreign policy."
If international affairs has a fault line, it may run through the scholar and former secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. His first book, "A World Restored," is one that his devotees and Dr. Haass, 52, is an enthusiastic devotee often cite as a model for how to conduct foreign policy. It portrays the delicate shell game of alliances, deceits, power grabs and scrambles for influence. Dr. Haass says the book is especially important because it depicts a world with muted rivalries, a world much like our own.
"The only other book that influenced me more was `The Anarchical Society' by Hedley Bull," he said. "It argues that international relations is about competing trends, one towards anarchy and a Hobbesian world and the other towards society, a world of rules." He added, "Obviously, today we have these forces at work."
Dr. Haass's wife, Susan Mercandetti, is acquisitions editor of Miramax Books. They have two children.
HE had a curious route to international affairs. It began as a student of comparative religion at Oberlin College, a concentration he seized upon because of the college's strong religion faculty. He spent his junior year in East Jerusalem on archaeological digs. The world of the Middle East mingled the sacred and the profane in a potent brew.
"As a Jew I never read the New Testament until I went to Oberlin," he said. "In Israel I could read texts that were thousands of years old and walk in the same places, see the same battlegrounds that had been the site of conflict for centuries. The problems of the past became contemporary. They were no longer just historical. I was hooked."
He was a Rhodes scholar and then worked as a Congressional aide.
His intellectual passion was, and has remained, how to stanch the decline of American power. He worked on the crisis in Cyprus for the Reagan administration. During the first Bush administration he handled the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
"There is a lot up for grabs intellectually at the moment," he said, adding, "There are a lot of big questions the government has trouble dealing with, in large part because they are so involved in day-to-day events. The last few years have shown that ideas matter, and the council is an ideas factory."