A Conversation With Richard N. Haass

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

President, Council on Foreign Realtions


Host, On Being Podcast

TIPPETT: Well, it is my pleasure to convene this gathering with a few announcements. First of all, welcome, everyone, to this opening session of the CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop. I am Krista Tippett of On Being Project and the On Being radio show and podcast, and very happy to be moderating today’s conversation with CFR President Richard Haass. As a reminder, this virtual meeting is on the record and it is made possible in part through the generosity of the Ford Foundation.

In 2006, CFR President Richard Haass launched the Religion and Foreign Policy program for clergy, scholars of religion, and leaders of faith-based organizations, in recognition of the importance of including the religious dimension in discussions of international affairs. Since 2007, the program has held this annual workshop, which I attended in the very, very early days—I think Irina and I guessed it might have been the first one—with the purpose of convening a diverse group of religious leaders to examine pressing concerns at the intersection of religion and foreign policy. And this year’s workshop brings together over 320 participants representing 41 faith traditions.

I’m pleased to introduce Richard Haass. Richard Haass is a veteran diplomat, a prominent voice on American foreign policy. He is now in his eighteenth year as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, which is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution dedicated to being a resource to help people better understand the world, and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries. And Dr. Haass has extensive government experience. He’s worked for the State Department, multiple White House administrations, and also as a staffer in the United States Senate. He’s also the author or editor of fourteen books on American foreign policy, one book on management. And his most recent book is The World: A Brief Introduction—a small topic, Richard.

So we are going to speak for a few minutes up here, about half an hour, kind of traversing some of the big picture questions and observations around this moment. And then we’re going to very importantly turn to the room, the Zoom room, for your questions. I will make that shift in about half an hour. And when we get there, we’ll explain again how you can submit your questions. So let’s just dive in.

I will say that Richard and I very briefly crossed paths a long time ago in a vanished world, in divided Berlin back in the Cold War world. It was literally another century, another world in every way. And I was the chief aide to our ambassador to West Germany in Berlin at that time. And you were already kind of in your foreign policy groove heading towards this august post that you have now.

And, Richard, I just want to start by saying it’s been so on my mind that when that wall came down in 1989, which I think would agree, no one predicted would happen when it did, how it did. I never imagined that in my lifetime there would be another event, another turning that felt so much like the world, globally, that you could think about the time before and the time after. But it has been astonishing to live through this past year and feel that we have had again such a pivot.

And I’d just love to draw you out on that, and on how it feels to you. And I also wonder if you have a name for this time we’ve entered now. (Laughs.)

HAASS: Well, first of all, thank you, Krista. Thank you for doing this, and for all else you do. And welcome, everyone. It’s great to have you back, virtually. I hope and expect next year we’ll have you back physically. Maybe even we’ll do some version of a hybrid, seems to be the word of the moment. But again, it’s good to be with you all, if only through the wonders of Zoom.

I actually think the end of the Cold War was a more consequential development, in the sense that it totally transformed the structure of the world. For forty years, for four decades, the world was essentially divided into two principal camps, two rival camps. There was the third of the,then so-called “nonaligned,” but essentially it was a great-power rivalry and heavy, with these two large concentrations of power. Now, when that world ended, and we’re still in the post-Cold War era, something very different took its place. So a much broader distribution of power, much greater capacity and autonomy, and many more hands. And also, coincidentally, became a year where global challenges moved to the forefront, alongside traditional geopolitics.

The pandemic is one such global challenge. A disease that broke out in a city of ten million or so of China has, over the last, what, sixteen, seventeen months claimed millions of lives worldwide. My sense is probably on the order of ten million lives. The undercounting, I believe, is quite significant. And it’s disrupted lives, careers, societies, economies. That said, I really don’t think it will be a transformational event. Already we’re seeing in certain countries, including this one, the resumption of fairly robust economic activity.

The countries of Asia, for the most part, have weathered this in extraordinary fashion, the Asia-Pacific. Other countries are in very difficult state: India, Brazil, Russia, some others. But I think it’s a question of when and not if, through some combination on vaccines, therapeutic drugs, masks, distancing, what have you, you have significant recovery in the physical sense, as well as in the economic sense. And the world after the pandemic will in many ways resemble the world geopolitically and geoeconomically before it.

So I think this is a powerful experience. I think it’s a reminder of the power of globalization, borders in many cases are not respected. But I don’t think, say, the world of 2022 or 2023 will be fundamentally changed from the world that existed before it.

TIPPETT: I guess I’m thinking, I’m certainly thinking of the pandemic when I speak about the before and the after, but I also think about the racial reckoning that I think happened within the pandemic. We could have a whole conversation about that but in some ways if I think about something that—(laughs)— the whole end of history idea, back in that olden day, was not seeing how the Cold War had kind of kept the lid on tight of the reckoning with colonialism. And in some ways I think that is now coming full circle. Certainly, it’s happening internally, domestically, but it’s absolutely, I mean, it is a global reckoning in a sense. And I imagine it having foreign policy ripple effects.

I agree with you, maybe we won’t see it by 2022 or 2023. But I just wonder if you, it also very much points at how the language that I read about what CFR is about and this conference is about, the intersection between religion and all that religion grapples with, and foreign policy, is really the connotations, what is contained in that phrase is so transformed, although that transformation has been coming for a while.

HAASS: You know, lots I could say.


HAASS: I do think the Cold War kept a lid on a lot of things. It was, in its own way, quite disciplined. Countries in many cases lacked a degree of autonomy. And what we saw with the dissolution both of the internal Soviet empire, the Soviet Union was an empire in and of itself, and then there was the external empire in Eastern Europe and so forth. When empires tend to unravel, there’s often quite a lot of violence and nationalism that emerge. We saw it profoundly in places like the former Yugoslavia. So  we’ve seen that.

And I think more broadly, again, this is a world in which power is much more distributed, autonomy is, for lots of reasons. One is the end of the discipline of the Cold War. Indeed, when you think about it, Krista, the first great event of the post-Cold War period happened less than a year after the taking down of the Berlin Wall, and that was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. And that was something that arguably never could or would have happened during the Cold War because, among other things, the Soviet Union had considerable influence over the behavior of Iraq, and my guess is would not have permitted Saddam Hussein to do such a thing, to provide that kind of a strategic opening for the United States to increase its presence and role in a critical theater of the world.

So I think it’s true that some things have come out because of the end of the Cold War. You’ve seen the rise of certain countries, which has liberated them to do things—China, just to give you one example. I mean, you mentioned the racial reckoning, and that to me is attributable to all sorts of things. I think technology’s made a big difference. It’s given voice to, in some ways, the opposite of what Mr. Orwell predicted. Rather than concentrating voice, it’s distributed voices, thanks to social media. But yes, so in many ways it’s, to me, a far more complicated world.

I’m an historian by training. And you asked me before and I never answered it: What do we call this period? Well, the answer is we don’t yet have a name for it because it’s still forming itself. And in some ways, until there’s a dominant feature of this period I think we’ll continue to call it the post-Cold War period or we’ll just avoid any terminology. If the United States and China end up in a cold war, we’ll probably call this the inter-Cold War period just like the ’20s and ’30s were often referred to as the inter-war period between the two world wars.

But it could be because of some global challenge. For example, we’re living with the pandemic. Thank God we’ve got it under relative control. Imagine vaccines hadn’t come around. Then that could have been a defining event for mankind. Climate change still has the capacity to do that.

Again, so I feel we’re at a moment in history where we’re living in it, but it’s yet in some ways to define itself.

TIPPETT: So I’m curious, you started this initiative, is that right, this Religion and Foreign Policy initiative? So that was in 2006, and I’d like to hear what you were seeing in 2006 that made you feel that this gathering and this kind of conversation was necessary and was missing.

HAASS: It’s fifteen years ago, if my math is right, and it was one of several initiatives we started at the Council on Foreign Relations. The whole idea was to open the aperture of people’s involvement in international issues and foreign policy issues.

What struck me at the time was how important objectively the world was and how little, increasingly, people, particularly in this country, knew about it. Lots of reasons why. Schools don’t teach it, or if they teach it they don’t require students study it. Media covered it a lot less. You mentioned the end of the Cold War. A lot of people said “OK, well, therefore, we don’t need to worry about the world a whole lot, we can take a break, put our feet up.” You mentioned the “end of history” idea, that somehow a lot of the dynamics of history had been set aside.

My own view was just the opposite, that the world is becoming more important. I was struck by the gap between the inherent importance of the world and people’s appreciation of it. And then one day I came across a statistic about how many Americans once a week entered a house of worship. And you add up the number of Americans that go to churches of every conceivable denomination, and mosques, and synagogues, and what have you, it’s well over a hundred million people. I’ve seen numbers, a hundred fifty million people or more. I will leave our three hundred religious and congregational leaders to make a judgment as to how rapt their attention is, but I put that aside. That I leave to them. But my view was, wow, I couldn’t think of another experience that so many people in this country had on a regular basis.

And so what made this so interesting to me was not just what you said at the beginning, to get a better appreciation of the role of religion as a dynamic in international affairs. It means a lot to me because I was originally a religion major at Oberlin College. I got my first degree in Middle Eastern studies, very interested in comparative religion and all that, flirted with becoming a rabbi, and for better or for worse chose another path, which I’m happy to return to. But my view was that religious leaders, congregational leaders had a connection with people that was unparalleled.

And so my view was if I could somehow, if we at the Council on Foreign Relations, could establish a relationship with them, if we could become a resource for them, also, what an opportunity to expand awareness, understanding of critical issues in the country and the world if we could, if those who were giving the sermons, if those who were teaching classes inside churches and synagogues and mosques and the like were essentially a better position to educate their congregations? So it was, in a sense, a two-way relationship. I wanted us to learn more from them about the role of religion in the world, but I also wanted to be a resource for them in terms of just what the content of what it was, whether it was in sermons or whether it was in classrooms associated with religious institutions, I wanted to increase conversation about critical subjects that I thought was simply not happening in other places.

TIPPETT: That world in which you and I were young people interested in foreign policy was also a world in which—I always liked this thing that Peter Berger said, great sociologist of religion, that in the late twentieth century—what did he say—in polite circles, polite society, religion was something done in private between consenting adults. And it’s just telling that even though you studied, you did religious studies in college, this looking at the religious world and taking it seriously from the perspective of being a foreign policy expert, came to you in the twenty-first century. And I’m curious, also, about what you now would say you didn’t yet see about all the layers that there are to, again, that phrase, the intersection between religion and foreign policy. What have you learned?

HAASS: Any student of history would go back and would look at the role of religion and conflict, whether it was the Thirty Years’ War which ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, which is really the rise of the modern state system, so that kind of stuff was pretty well-known. But it wasn’t until I really studied the Middle East that I got a much better appreciation for I guess the word that comes to mind is fusion or integration. Because, or another way to put it is universities have departments; the world doesn’t. So you have the religion department, the sociology department, the economics department, the politics department. The world doesn’t have one, and these things all mix together. And it’s true of individuals. That’s why I’m very careful about ever ascribing motives to people because it’s always many things at work. But same thing with societies.

And I was involved heavily in everything from the Gulf War to the Iraq War to Afghanistan. I was the U.S. envoy to Northern Ireland; the U.S. envoy to Cyprus, the peace talks. And in every one of these positions, how could you be involved in these things and not understand the interplay? In some cases this was obvious at the surface, say in Northern Ireland or in the Middle East. Other places it was more suffused, when I was involved in India and Pakistan and so forth, involved in diplomacy between them. So I actually think any diplomat who ventures out and doesn’t have some understanding or feel for this set of topics that forms the core of this group, this workshop, I think is actually underequipped. I guess I would put it that way, is underequipped for the task.

TIPPETT: And has it been your experience in these years that a wider swath of policymakers see the importance of understanding religious people, communities, leaders?

HAASS: Not enough.


HAASS: I got really frustrated at times in government when I thought that people didn’t understand that enough. And it’s religion, it’s culture, it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins. But when I look at the biggest mistakes the United States has made in the world—and I would say, two of the three biggest mistakes were Vietnam and the Iraq War—the lesson I take from that is we get in real trouble when we don’t understand local realities. And anytime we try to see the world through a lens of geopolitical abstraction rather than getting immersed in local realities, we get in real trouble. And we got in real trouble in Vietnam and in Iraq because, I would argue, we did not come close to understanding the nature of these societies we were intervening in, the nature of these societies we sought to transform.

So one of the lessons I took away is, yeah, hey, I’m always described as a globalist, but I always tell people you’ve got to know local. At times you’ve got to think local even if you’re acting on a global stage.

TIPPETT: Yeah, and the major traditions are the original global institutions, right? I mean—

HAASS: Absolutely.

TIPPETT: The Catholic Church—(laughs)—for example, was there before American foreign policy.

HAASS: For example. It’s still there, last I checked.

TIPPETT: Yes. (Laughs.)

HAASS: I think, again, one way or another these are powerful forces. And it’s just part of the tapestry or mosaic, whatever phrase you want to use about what motivates people or explains societies. And again, unless you have a feel for the range of what explains a society, I don’t think you can be, you’re not nearly as effective as a diplomat or an analyst or anything else if you lack that.

TIPPETT: What would you like the people in this room, our virtual room, to be attentive to? How would you advise them to strengthen their voice and their presence and the agency they have in these important intersections?

HAASS: It’s a big question. I will probably be, and please forgive me, characteristically immodest in my answer. (Laughs.) But I’ll try to be sensitive.

Let me start out with the fact that I am genuinely worried. I am worried about the future of this country. Our democracy is nearly two-and-a-half centuries old, and for the first time in my life I don’t take its future for granted. I’m worried about the future of international relations, given certain dynamics and certain capacities that have spread. And I’m also worried about the future of the world, the planet itself, in many cases because of the gap between these challenges and the collective responses. So let me just choose three issues, three of many, that I would hope that people in this virtual room would give voice to.

One is what I just alluded to, is climate change. We are stewards of this Earth. And one of the things we have learned is depending upon how we collectively, the eight billion of us, live our lives, how we use and consume fuel and the rest, we are changing this planet, and in the process, changing its ability to support life as we know it. God created the heavens and the Earth. We’re custodians. And I believe that responsibility towards the planet and climate change is one that we all share, that we need to leave it in better shape than we found it. Now, the actual policies that are adopted, that’s a different subject. But the importance of responsibility, of collective responsibility for the planet, that is one thing that I would argue needs to be—voice needs to be given to.

Secondly, and even more immediately, is to save life, which is the most precious thing of all. If I’m right and COVID’s killed around ten million people, we have got to act faster to save lives, and that means expanding the production and availability of vaccines. The United States just announced yesterday we’re going to make twenty million doses of vaccine available by the end of June. That’s probably enough for one day in the world. We’ve got eight billion people we’ve got to get vaccinated. Many of them are going to be two-dose vaccines. That’s sixteen billion doses. That’s a lot of doses. So we’ve got to dramatically ramp up collective efforts to make vaccines available, and it’s got to be done simultaneously not just for the human part but for ourselves. You know that line in the airplane when you all get, I mean, in the old days when you and I used to get on airplanes, and there you stood, some voice used to come on and say, in the event of loss of cabin pressure oxygen masks will drop down; put yours on first, and only then help your neighbor. No. That kind of sequentialism is not the right metaphor. It’s got to be simultaneous. We’ve got to help our neighbor and help ourselves simultaneously with COVID. Who better to argue for life on humanitarian or any other grounds or self-interested grounds than the people in this room?

And then, thirdly, something, again, I never thought I’d have to talk about, is American democracy. And I’m not saying that people in the clergy should preach you should be for or against this issue. That’s not the point. But there’s got to be something about nonviolence, something about civility towards those we disagree with, something about respecting laws, respecting norms, to talk about the importance of norms, the unwritten rules that are the glue to a society, to civilization. Again, I think, without getting into controversial matters of policy, which is beyond what arguably those in the clergy should be talking about, but how we go about our politics, that seems to me to be exactly in their wheelhouse.

So in those three areas, the planet, saving life, how we conduct our politics, I would think that the people in this room have tremendous opportunity, and I would say with opportunity goes responsibility, to be a clear and consistent voice.

TIPPETT: I think one more question and then let’s open it up because I think that would be a great conversation to have with this group. Just curious, is there an issue or an area where you’ve seen what you would consider to be good modeling of what this kind of, it’s not really, “collaboration” is too small a word. You’re talking about  kind of walking alongside each, I mean, really, some of what you just pointed at is moral imagination and kind of where, and also action, and so where those things are joined effectively and generatively with other kinds of civil and political and foreign policy efforts. What comes to mind?

HAASS: One image that comes to mind, I’m not sure it gets at what you raised, and if it doesn’t do justice to it come back at me, it was during the protests you mentioned, the racial protests we’ve had over the last year, and it was a policeman with a protester and doing it together. And to me, it was so powerful that, because we think of  many of the marchers against the police, and the idea that they essentially joined in a demonstration of mutual respect and acceptance, just to me it just stuck in my mind as just a very powerful, it was a bit of a We Shall Overcome kind of moment. And I’ve seen it, I mentioned before, I was the U.S. envoy in Northern Ireland. When the various mothers got involved, and wives, in marching for peace. And they were from cross denominational lines, Catholic and Protestants alike, how powerful was that? And it actually, it made a difference. And it makes a difference. It’s a little bit of humanity coming before policy. But that’s, in and of itself, a powerful political statement. So, yeah, it’s when individuals showed not just the morale. It takes enormous courage, enormous courage.

I’m writing a book on citizenship now, which is not what you would expect a foreign policy guy to do in his spare time. And the reason I’m writing it is that I’ve decided the greatest threat to the future of this country is not anything external, like China, or Iran, or North Korea, or terrorism, or what have you, but it’s us. It’s our own ability to come together. And I reread a book I hadn’t read, I’m reading all the things I haven’t read in forty or fifty years, from The Federalist Papers to de Tocqueville. And I reread Profiles in Courage. It was a book, of all things, I had gotten for my bar mitzvah four hundred years ago. And it’s just a reminder about—

TIPPETT: By John F. Kennedy.

HAASS: Yes. How normal—

TIPPETT: You need to remind—everybody here hasn’t heard of that book.

HAASS: Oh, yeah, like I said, four hundred years ago. John F. Kennedy wrote about, I think it was, eight or so senators who he called them profiles in courage, did truly courageous things often at the cost of their own ambition and careers, and put principle or country before ambition and self. And I actually think we’ve had some demonstrations of it recently. And it just shows me how—sorry to go on so long—but I’ve been lucky enough to work for four presidents.

There’s so little that’s inevitable in history. So little is baked into the cake. But human agency matters tremendously, for better and for worse. And what Profiles in Courage is, are vignettes of human agency that mattered for better. So I believe in that. That’s the reason I’m not a pessimist. Throughout history you see examples when people step up and do the right thing, despite the cost, despite the risk, despite the pressure. And one just hopes that those become less the exception and more the rule.

TIPPETT: I’m so curious at that formulation of humanity over policy. Was it something that would have occurred to you in the early part of your career, back in that Cold War world? Or is this something that has evolved within you?

HAASS: It’s evolved because, again, I’ve been so fortunate in many ways. But one of them is I’ve been involved in things at high levels in this country and other countries. And I’ve seen what people do. And I’ve seen people evolve and grow. The favorite, I’ve interacted with a lot of remarkable people in my life. Again, I’ve been really lucky. But if I had to choose one person, and I’m often asked that, who’s made the biggest impression on me, it was Yitzhak Rabin, who, when we first met it was even before he was defense minister. Then he became defense minister. Ultimately, he became prime minister.

And we had many, many, many conversations. And what I loved about him, and he talked about it a little bit in public on the lawn of the White House at the signing ceremony when he was up there with Yasser Arafat, after Oslo. And he basically said: This is not easy for me, what he was being asked to do. And how can you not be impressed by that? And what makes people great is that. And I have tremendous respect for George Bush forty-one, the forty-first president, the father. You know, when we worked together, it just showed me close up the power and the impact of individual choice.

And again, I’ve seen, I won’t go into the areas where I’ve been disappointed, because I’ve also been tremendously disappointed. Where I thought people had within their grasp potentially wonderful things and they let it slip through their fingers for whatever set of calculations or emotions. So for better and for worse, close up, I’ve seen people step up to history and people step away from it. But it made me realize how personal it is. It’s funny—one last thing. For a long time there was a fashion in history that so-called great man or woman idea or history was incorrect, and that underneath what really mattered were these great societal, cultural, larger forces. And those forces matter. We’ve been talking about them, you and I.

But also, it’s those people, I don’t know what the metaphor is, but who kind of surf or ride on top of them and who steer them a little bit or resist them if need be. So again, there’s so little that is inevitable. And when I talk to young people I always talk about the power of what individuals can do. And it ought to be a great—people say how can I make a difference? And one of the arguments I use for reading history and studying history, is history is in many ways the record of people who have made a difference.

TIPPETT: OK. Well, Rivka, I think you can guide us into opening this conversation up to everybody.


The first written question will come from Marie Anne Sliwinski at the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, who asks: The more global empathy toward the Palestinians shows how the pandemic has changed people. Would you agree?

HAASS: I don’t think I would agree. I don’t see how the pandemic has changed thinking about Palestinians. I think there was and is sympathy for their plight. Less sympathy for those, such as the leaders of Hamas, who use violence to advance their goals. But I think, unless I misunderstood the question, I don’t see a particular connection between the pandemic and Palestinians. Although, Palestinians have had it particularly hard because, particularly in places like Gaza, you have such dense population. You’ve got two million people in an extraordinarily small piece of land. You’ve had inadequate access to vaccines and medical help.

But by and large, I think the Palestinian problem, situation, however one wants to characterize it, had a dynamic that long predated the pandemic, will have one that will, is now trans-pandemic, and will be there post-pandemic. And I think the factors that drive that issue, many factors that drive that issue, all of which are in the press today, are essentially largely apart from the pandemic. And I don’t see that, for example, affecting the coverage or the reaction to events of the last week.

TIPPETT: Another question.

OPERATOR: We will take the next live question from Pastor Mark Burns. He is from the NOW Television Network.

BURNS: Great. Thank you so much.

My question is a piggyback question in regards to the Israeli-Palestine conflict that is currently taking place. Christians in general, especially Evangelical Christians in general, support Israel. What is your opinion on the latest conflict? Is Israel at fault, or is there a justification for the Palestinians’ attack?

HAASS: Well, we could use the rest of the time to go into that. And I think what we’ve seen in the last ten days are all sorts of things. We saw the protests in Jerusalem over legal issues dealing with title to land. We saw the use of force inside Islamic holy places, that I was critical of. Even before that you had the postponement of the, by the Palestinian Authority, of elections, which again was unfortunate. Then you had the use of, the firing of rockets by Hamas from Gaza into Israel population centers. That was wrong by any and every measure. Israel had the right to retaliate in the name of self-defense. I think that was appropriate.

The question is whether there’s been sufficient retaliation. And I’ve been arguing for the last several days that we, the United States, ought to be pressing harder for a ceasefire. That too many innocents on both sides are losing their lives. I also think for Israel there’s other risks, like continuing a loss of support in some quarters. I think it strengthens, potentially, the political hand of Hamas and weakens the political role of the Palestinian Authority. I also think there’s a potential here to radicalize the two million or so Israeli Arabs, which would be a threat to the fabric of Israeli society. But more than anything else, I don’t see the purpose or justification for continued attacks. I think what we need now is a mutual stand down, a de facto or more formal ceasefire. It’s happened in the past after previous rounds of fighting. It will happen again now. I think the question is when, not if. And I would simply say the sooner the better.

And just to be clear, if and when we get to that point it will not have dealt with any of the basics, any of the underlying causes of this conflict. But it will stop the destruction and the loss of life. And then the question is, is there enough for diplomats and politicians to work with to address the more fundamentals of the crisis. I’m not a real optimist. I don’t see an end when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinians’ feud anytime soon. But at least it would stop the destruction and death that we’re seeing now on both sides.

TIPPETT: Another question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from P. Adem Carroll at the Burma Task Force USA, who asks: The harsh and sometimes genocidal persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, notably in China, India, and Myanmar, has resulted in a mixed response from the West and silence from many other nations. At the same time, many corporations prefer to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. For example, Disney in Xinjiang, or Chevron in Myanmar. Speaking of corporate responsibility, what is the future of Corporate Social Responsibility in a world where Responsibility to Protect struggles to survive?

HAASS: It’s a really thoughtful question. So thank you. Look, let me make one or two general points, and then I’ll come to the question of corporate responsibility. I think for governments this question of speaking out on behalf of religious freedom, human rights, and so forth, I think it’s important to do so, but I think one has to at times also look at the question, as what is, well, what influence do you have? Countries have the ability to push back not just big and strong countries like China, but even weak, relatively weak countries like Myanmar. And also from a policy point of view, there are tradeoffs sometimes. And we have to ask ourselves if we, are we willing to mortgage, or jeopardize, or place hostage, whatever phrase you want to use, an entire relationship to concerns over human rights or religion?

Take an example of Russia. We, obviously, fundamentally disagree with what Russia is doing in Ukraine. Obviously, fundamentally disagree with the mass incarceration of political protesters, the attempted killing of Mr. Navalny. On the other hand, the United States recently signed a multiyear extension of a nuclear arms control agreement with Russia. And the question is, how do we look after certain interests at the same time we try to show a decent respect, and a necessary respect for religious freedom and human rights? And that’s a serious conversation that’s ongoing. But I think there’s no necessary right or wrong, it’s just that’s a foreign policy challenge to figure that out, understanding, one, the limits to influence sometimes and, two, that we have multiple interests, and we have to work the tradeoffs.

On the question of corporate social responsibility, I think this is a growing issue. We’ve come a long way since the days that corporations and CEOs were just responsible to shareholders and shareholder return. We see it in a pronounced way with environmental, and climate, and energy issues. We see it with, and we’re going to see it more and more with human rights and labor issues. Trafficking is another issue, the tens of millions of people around the world trafficked. And I would argue that corporations have a responsibility to make sure that their supply chains, the goods and services that are going into the products they produce, that people are not, that there’s no slave labor involved in those supply chains, or forced labor, and so forth.

So the answer is, yes. I think this has got to be a consideration. Shareholders and other investors should raise it. And I believe that CEOs have, and Larry Fink, who’s a member of our board here at the Council of Foreign Relations, the head of BlackRock, one of the largest asset managers in the world, has basically made a powerful argument for an expansion of the responsibilities of a CEO. And a CEO has to, yes, worry about shareholder return, investor return. But also has to be sensitive to his employees. He has to be sensitive, he or she, to customers and clients, but also to principles. And that’s, again, a balance act.

But I think they ought to be confronted with it. I think that shareholders and the public more broadly have every right to press corporations to take these other factors into account. And then the corporation, it seems to me, has to make a decision on how to respond, and then just to justify that decision. Has to justify that decision in the marketplace. And if people aren’t pleased with their decision or how they’ve justified it, I expect in some cases they will pay an economic penalty. People won’t want to own a stock, won’t want to buy a product or a service. So there’s lots of ways to influence these decisions. So there’ll be tradeoffs, shall we say, there, just like governments will have to make tradeoffs. So too will corporate leaders.

TIPPETT: Let’s have another question.

OPERATOR: Our next question will be live from Tereska Lynam from the University of Oxford. Please accept the “unmute now” button.

LYNAM: Can you hear me OK?


LYNAM: OK, great. Thank you.

This is also a written question. How do we confront and move beyond the real divisions in our information sources, which are filtering our way into our news, obviously, but also our spiritual communities? And so much reporting, even what seems to be benevolent and benign, has a partisan stance. And kind of on that, we just had Shavuot. How do we love our neighbors as ourselves when in many cases we are taught that so many of our neighbors are actually our enemies? Thank you for your consideration.

HAASS: No, thank you for your question. My honest answer is I don’t have a great answer. It’s something I’m struggling with. It’s extraordinarily difficult for a democracy to have a conversation or a debate about an issue if the foundation is not fact. You know, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was the Harvard academic who then became the senator from New York, his famous line was that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion just not to his or her own facts. And one can be, one could either, and by that, I think that’s important two ways. One is, one could just grab onto falsehoods. But there’s also the inaccuracy of grabbing onto 5 percent of something and ignoring the other 95 percent.

And I think part of the obligation of schools is to do a better job of helping people understand what facts are, what are judgements, what are opinions, where to go. The idea also of multiple sources. I was, in the old days before the pandemic, when I used to go to a gym, one of the things I used to do is when I worked out on the elliptical, if I had a half-hour workout, I’d spend ten minutes on three different networks, and just get a different sense of it. And I try to do it now with podcasts and others. Or I’ll read multiple newspapers.

But we live in an era of narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. And that’s dangerous. So part of it is to encourage people to move out of their comfort zones. And by the way, I don’t think universities do a great service in encouraging this notion of safety and safe spaces. I think people need to learn to be a little bit uncomfortable, to be exposed to things that challenge their own beliefs, what they had accepted as orthodoxy. So I think we ought to encourage people to go—I mean, there’s two things.

One is to encourage people to go to multiple sites, sources. And some are better than others. And but also how to practice the art of disagreement in a civil way. I think we need—we don’t want to stop arguing. We don’t want a ceasefire in the conversation. But we want to have, if you will, the equivalent of the laws of war. We want to have the Geneva Convention about how to have conversations in the public marketplace about what is legitimate and what is not, and how to disagree without turning people into enemies.

There’s a lot of experimentation going on. I’ve seen it with groups where you bring people together and you do polling at the beginning of the group. I think it’s called deliberative polling; I may have the wrong phrase. And then the idea is that people talk, and they get to know one another. And then you do polling later on in the process. And in my experience, when people are exposed in a civil, relaxed way to different points of view there’s often a bit of, not transformation, but a bit of movement.

And so I think, again, religious institutions potentially provide a great vehicle for doing that, for bringing in speakers who represent different points of view within the congregations. For getting people to have conversations on certain issues. To bring in experts who can provide an educational background to help people reach more informed opinions. And again, as I said before about democracy, to talk about the civility of disagreement, about how it is we, what democracy requires in the way of norms.

I actually think norms are incredibly important. Norms aren’t laws. They’re not things you have to obey, but they’re things you ought to. They’re the ought-tos and the shoulds of societal existence. They’re the lubricants that make societies work. We can’t just be a society of law. Law is too narrow. Potentially it’s too black or white, or too brittle. Norms become the conventions that allow us to find ways to disagree and coexist. And again, I think religious institutions can become places to exercise that and to even train that.

TIPPETT: Another question.

OPERATOR: Our next written question is from Simran Jeet Singh of YSC Consulting.

He asks: As you express your concerns about the state of our world can you speak about the state of religious freedom and how it’s been manipulated and politicized? From your vantage point, what would an appropriate and meaningful vision of religious freedom look like?

HAASS: By definition religious freedom is, for me, the ability of any individual on the planet to worship or not worship as he or she pleases. It’s about, in the phrase, “religious freedom,” it’s the freedom to practice or not to practice, and practice in whatever direction and whatever manner one would want to. I would say I’m not an expert on the state of religious freedom around the world. I will say though that over the last approximately decade and a half, plus or minus, there—if one were going to—I’ll use a financial metaphor. If there were a share of stock in a market called state of democracy and freedom in the world, it would have lost value over the last decade and a half.

In the previous decade and a half after the end of the Cold War, say from 1990 to 2005, there was an expansion of freedom in the world, political and otherwise. And in the last fifteen years, there’s been something of a contraction. And that, to me, is a worrisome development. And what we’re also seeing in many cases is greater intolerance and various justifications used for limiting religious freedom, or, not just religious freedom, but for treating members of religious groups with discrimination, I guess is a—which is what we’re also seeing in more  societies than we did before.

And that’s part of the greater illiberalism of this era. Lots of reasons why. We can talk about it. But religion can’t escape a trend of greater illiberalism. It’s one of the reflections or victims of the time. And illiberalism has grown in democracies and non-democracies alike over the last decade and a half.

TIPPETT: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next live question comes from Chloe Breyer of the Interfaith Center of New York.

BREYER: Yes, hello. Thank you so much.

My question is as follows. It’s a written question as well. A generation of young women and men have grown up in Afghanistan having received an education supported by the United States and international aid groups. What is it the U.S. can do to make sure this progress is not completely lost, particularly in women’s health and education, while drawing down our troops there?

HAASS: Thanks, Chloe. In part because of my concern about what you just raised the reason is I oppose the policy to withdraw all Americans, and with it then allied, troops from Afghanistan. Having them stay there was not a guarantee that women and girls would get to continue to benefit from the gains they had made: access to school, health care, and so forth, employment opportunities, but it certainly increased the odds they would. As American and allied troops withdraw over the next few months, there’s really grounds for being worried. Assuming that withdrawal goes ahead, and I see no reason to predict it won’t, it seems to me it makes a case for a large-scale assistance to the Afghan government, military assistance, economic assistance, and so forth.

It means in some cases I think, protecting those who worked with us. And if they’re not safe in Afghanistan, I think we have an ethical and moral responsibility to accept in this country those individuals in particular who were widely knowing, including by the Taliban, to work with us, who have worked with us, who will be targeted. And I think they and their families ought to be provided safe haven, asylum in this country. I think we, if things begin to go badly in Afghanistan, I think preparations have to be made for large refugee flows around the—provisions ought to be made for that.

So I don’t have a good answer, because, again, I’m extraordinarily worried about the likely increase in violence and the likelihood of Taliban gains. And I see no reason to believe that the Taliban have—what’s the word—have mellowed. I see no evidence of that. And so I think that risk is real. And so I would say we ought to do everything we can to bolster without a physical military presence. Maybe through provision of arms, intelligence, training, through contractors, economic help, diplomatic help, convening a regional security forum. We ought to do everything we can to strengthen Afghan authorities. We ought to—pressure ought to be put on Pakistan to limit the sorts of sanctuary and support that the Pakistani government continues to provide the Taliban in parts of Pakistan.

And we ought to prepare. If we still don’t succeed, then we ought to look for ways to help as many people as we can as they flee to areas of safety. I hope I’m painting too negative a picture here, but I fear I might not be.

TIPPETT: Another question.

OPERATOR: We have a written question from Rob Radtke of Episcopal Relief and Development, who asks: As the U.S. becomes a more secular society, how would you suggest building faith literacy amongst policymakers?

HAASS: That’s a really interesting question, since just yesterday I was having a long conversation about how to build greater technology literacy among policymakers. Because people like me, my generation don’t understand technologies enough from robotics to artificial intelligence to quantum computing. But these issues all matter. Thirty or forty years ago, the challenge was how to increase economics literacy among a lot of policymakers, because a lot of policymakers had studied politics or government but hadn’t studied economics. And as I said before, universities have departments, but the world doesn’t. Seventy years ago, the challenge was how to bring together military types and foreign policy types and mathematicians. And out of that was born this discipline called arms control. And it became way for regulating and structuring nuclear weapons to make it much less likely that they were used. And it has proven to be, shall we say, enormously successful.

I think the idea of greater faith or religious literacy amongst policymakers is a great idea. Again, began as a comparative religion major, so I kind of tripped into it. I would think a couple of ideas come to mind. One is for some foundations to step up to that. And the foundations would offer things like the funds for a summer institute at this or that, it could either be at a theological school for foreign policy types or it could be at places like the Foreign Service Institute. Or you take the schools of, Johns Hopkins, SAIS, the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, the Kennedy School of Government, other places that are great training grounds for people who go into this field.

That either a separate summer institute or executive programs for people who are midcareer. But essentially to make this training available, that this, again, we teach people the arts and crafts of negotiation, or we teach them a little bit about history, or you learn the details of decision-making, or what have you, or budgeting. So why not add this to the curriculum. And that would be the best thing, is that what you’re just describing would become part of the curriculum of, say, these graduate schools of international relations.

I would also think, I don’t know what the State Department does now, but you would never send someone to certain parts of the world without, say, a year or two of language training. Why would we send them to a part of the world without a year or two of faith, of training to learn about the cultures, the religions, and other forces that shape the society? So I would think that ought to be part of the curriculum. And just more broadly, the more interdisciplinary, the more things can be, the more exposure individuals can have across these disciplinary lines, the better. But I love the idea of giving people in this field something of a grounding either in religion, per se, or if they’re going to specialize in a certain country or region of the world to make sure they got added exposure to that.

I also think corporations, before you send somebody, instead of just sending them to business school, why not have, again, some exposure here if they’re going to be located in Africa, or the Middle East, or Asia? This, I would think, would be part of the outfitting, if you will, of preparing somebody for that experience.

TIPPETT: One more question?

OPERATOR: We’ll take another written question from Anna Thurston from the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, who asks: In Dr. Haass’s remarks today he mentioned that some step up to history while others step away from it. How does religion influence whether people step up or step away from history? Could you give examples of both cases?

HAASS: I’m a little bit reluctant to give examples of those who stepped away from it. Let me put it this way, I think religion, it’s hard to generalize. I’ll speak for myself. Religion to me, among other things, besides the traditions and the practices—and I don’t know if my rabbi is in this virtual room right now so I’m going to be very careful with what I say—but it’s also, there is a code. And I think there’s codes of behavior. And as I said before, not just laws but norms. And one of the things I like in my own tradition, in the Jewish tradition, there’s a, and I’ve talked about this before, there’s things that one is precluded from doing, things that one is encouraged to doing. And one, it forces a kind of awareness or consciousness, and not to act in certain times, not to do things, can be every bit as consequential, and I would argue even wrong, as to act.

If one sees an injustice taking place next to you or an act of aggression, to simply stand by or turn away seems, to me, to be wrong when there are opportunities to move towards agreements that would increase protection for people, peace, greater freedom, what have you, not to take advantage of them, not to take some reasonable risks for them seems to be wrong. I would simply say that where we’ve seen success, and I’ll give you certain examples, places like South Africa, when you had both Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, or parts of the Middle East when you had an Anwar Sadat and a Menachem Begin. We’ve seen people on both sides, or multiple sides of an equation, who were both willing and able, two critical measures. Willing and able to take risks for peace, or to compromise.

And where we’ve seen failure is that we haven’t seen that kind of parallelism amongst the various parties involved in a negotiation or in a process, where either no one was willing to do it, or only people on one side or another. And essentially some people were not willing to step forward. In places where we haven’t seen progress, that is often the case, where people, I believe, forfeited opportunities, one might say responsibilities, to take some risks for peace. And I think, again, one has to, you’ve got to decide what code you live by. You’ve got to decide how you, what you’re comfortable with in terms of both action and inaction. And I think that’s something for everybody, it’s a personal reckoning. It’s a personal accounting of one’s behavior that I think we all need to take.

TIPPETT: OK, we have time for a couple more questions.

OPERATOR: Our next written question is from Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons from the Center for American Progress, who asks: You mentioned the mistakes of the Vietnam and Iraq Wars. There was significant faith-based opposition to those wars. How can U.S. faith groups help influence U.S. foreign policy and promote peace?

HAASS: Well, again, people who are faith-based, they have every right, same rights as every citizen to use their voice, to use their vote, to get involved in political processes, to encourage, to organize. And it seems to me it’s totally legitimate. I think for you all it’s a slightly different question, because there’s one thing in your individual capacity but you’ve also got, many of you, institutional capacities. And—(laughs)—when I got this job eighteen years ago, Tom Friedman said to me: The job you’re going to take, you’re going to run the toughest congregation in New York City. And we’ve got about five thousand members. And there are days I think he had a point.

And one of the things I have to reckon with, and I’ll square this circle in a second, is to think about what I can and can’t do, because I’m no longer a totally free individual agent. I’ve got responsibilities to represent an organization. And we’ve got three hundred fifty, four hundred staff, we’ve got five thousand members, and I’ve got to keep that in mind. And I think the same is true for you all. If you lead a congregation, you’ve got to be aware that if you take certain kinds of stances or encourage certain behaviors, if you yourself do certain things, they may have consequences. You may find certain people leaving the congregation, or not contributing as they might have otherwise, and so forth.

You’ve just got to weigh that. You’ve got to weigh it. And again, life’s filled with tradeoffs. And there’s matters of conscience. There’s matter of practicality. You might say I’d like to take more of a stand on issue X, but if I do I then won’t be able to speak out on issues A, B, C, and D. So it’s not simple. It’s not black or white. So I’m not going to sit here and, you know, reduce it to some kind of a formula, other than to say, again, in your individual capacity and your leadership capacity, you’ve got the power of example and you’ve got the power of voice. And what you do and what you don’t do, what you say and what you don’t say is all consequential.

And I think we’re living in a moment—let me say one other thing, which I think I expect if I could see you nodding your heads I think you would. I see it in the people who work with me at the Council on Foreign Relations. We’re living at a time where, particularly for a lot of younger people, there’s widespread concern about what they see, a certain loss of confidence about the future, and a lack of confidence in secular authority. And I believe there’s something of a vacuum. I would believe that people in this virtual room have the potential to help fill that vacuum. And our politics are in many ways polarized, they’re gridlocked. I’m not naïve. I understand where ambition will win out over principle, where party will sometimes come before country. I get it.

And as a result, a lot of people are looking to other institutions. Someone asked before about corporations. There’s the nonprofit world, that I represent. And there’s the world that you all represent. So I believe people who are in positions of authority and responsibility, who lead other types of organizations or congregations, I believe this is an enormously important moment just because, again, so much secular authority in this country and other countries, I believe, has let people down. So I actually think there’s, again, opportunity but also responsibility to probably play a larger role than perhaps you thought you were going to play when you were undergoing your religious training. I think things have changed a bit.

TIPPETT: OK. I think we have time, a couple minutes for one last question.

OPERATOR: We’re going to just do two quick ones, actually. We’re going to take a live question from Felice Gaer from the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights. And then we’ll take one last question after.

BLAUSTEIN: Thank you very much.

Richard, the number of killings of Christians in Nigeria has been huge. And some people have blamed Boko Haram for much of this and say it’s a religious conflict between Christianity and Islam. Even the U.S. government has named Nigeria a country of particular concern under the IRFA. But others, including experts at the Council itself, say it’s really about other issues of development and that’s all that we’re seeing with ongoing impunity exacerbating the problem. What’s your view?

HAASS: Just to be clear, I don’t claim to be an expert. You know, John Campbell, who is one of our experts, was our ambassador there. Boko Haram is obviously responsible for much, but also the weakness of central authority plays an enormous role. I mean, John’s whole argument is that in some ways it’s almost wrong to think of Nigeria as a traditional country with this central government that performs or fulfills the obligations of a sovereign entity. Sovereign governments are meant to provide protection to all those within their borders. Well, the government of Nigeria will not and cannot.

So he actually advocates for a U.S. foreign policy not just towards the central government, but towards many other aspects of the country. Because, again, power and capacity are so distributed. And so it means, in a funny sort of way, or, not funny, but diplomats getting out of the capital, not just meeting with foreign ministry types. Essentially, being out there and looking for other ways to provide help, to build capacities locally, and so forth. So I don’t think it’s an either/or. Boko Haram is a menace in all sorts of ways. But there’s so many other fault lines within the society, and so many limits to the capacity of the central government that this is a—there’s too many—how would I call it? There’s too many vacuums of authority there that are getting filled by the wrong forces.

So one of the challenges, and it’s not unique to Nigeria, it just happens to be on such a large scale, about what we can do, NGOs can do, what the U.S. government can do, what the EU can do, what the AU can do. And again, there’s not a solution in sight, but whether you can do something to make it less bad. But I think it’s not an either/or. I think it’s an and.

TIPPETT: So—oh, sorry, Rivka, are you going? Do you have another question?

OPERATOR: Our final question is from Tom Getman of The Getman Group, who asks Krista: Of all your interviewees, who was the most inspiring and helpful in dealing with the needs of the interplay that Richard mentions, now thinking of Israel-Palestine?

TIPPETT: Oh, gosh. Can I just say I’m terrible at a question about, when I’m supposed to think of one thing, I can think of nothing. Obviously that question has been on my mind a lot in recent days. We actually did a production trip to Israel-Palestine a few years back. Honestly, you know, I keep thinking of the conversation I had with people who are involved in the Bereaved Families Forum, who take in the pain and the grief and, as Richard said, that human dimension, which also gets manipulated by religious language and religious energy when it’s not necessarily religion that is at play.

It’s a very hard time to talk about this. But that’s what’s on my mind. If you don’t know about the Bereaved Families Forum, which are people on both sides of that conflict who have lost loved ones and have said that they do not wish their grief to be cause for another round of violence. But as we’re here today I have a lot of despair about what’s happening there right now. And that’s just—

HAASS: By the way, Krista, there’s an equivalent group in Northern Ireland. When I was last involved as an international mediator, there were families that had come together, all of whom had lost loved ones during the Troubles. And some of the most extraordinary meetings were with these people who, what they had in common was that they all had lost, and yet were willing to work through it. And it was quite—it was about as powerful and as emotional as anything I’ve ever encountered as a negotiator, was dealing with these people I thought were remarkable in what they were doing.

TIPPETT: And I think religious leaders, and texts, and traditions, and rituals, and communities walking alongside that kind of energy is a whole other way to talk about religion and foreign policy, one of these other layers.

I so wish that we were in person and I could now mingle with all of you over coffee. And maybe that fantastic dream will come true one day. What an incredible richness of conversation you have ahead. And thank you, Richard, for this. Thank you for having me. Thank you, all of you, for joining this discussion. And thank you for what you do.

HAASS: Thank you, Krista. And again, thank—let me just join you in thanking everyone on this call for—and this meeting for what it is they do. Yes, thank you.

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