After two decades as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass discusses his experience with leadership both inside and outside of government, lessons learned along the way, as well as his ideas on the obligations of citizenship and the foreign policy challenges facing the United States.
Members are encouraged to include their high school- or college-age children or grandchildren in this event. All members are welcome to attend.
Both Richard Haass and Shannon O'Neil will be speaking from CFR's headquarters in New York.
O’NEIL: Well, welcome, everybody. Today’s—this is today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Dr. Richard Haass. I’m Shannon O’Neil. I’m the vice president of Studies and the Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin America studies here at the Council, and I’m going to be the presider over this discussion.
Today in our audience you can see here—for those in New York—you can see we have a full house, some who are trickling up to the front. We have over a hundred people in Washington—so hello, Washington—and then we have another two hundred virtually. So lots of folks, and hopefully lots of questions when we get to that part.
Before we begin, I want to thank the Marc Haas Foundation and then I want to thank the Shanley S. Shuman Family Foundation. And we have two members right here in the audience, David and Stanley, and then online Michael and Sidney (sp) are with us. So thank them all for this wonderful support for this series, the Daughters and Sons Series. Thank you. (Applause.)
HAASS: Yeah, give it up.
O’NEIL: I also want to welcome some attendees we have from Global Kids, which is a great program that the Council works with, especially in the summers. We’ll see them more in the hallways this summer. But welcome today for participating here. Yay! (Applause.)
All right. So we are going to begin this conversation up here for about half an hour, and then I’m going to open it up and turn to all of you. So please be ready with your questions. And we are going to start in a different place than we usually do with Council meetings.
HAASS: We’re already in a different place. I’m not presiding.
O’NEIL: (Laughs.) This is true. And I would like to start—I’d like to take you back. I won’t say how many decades I’d like to take you back, but I would like to take you back to a time when you were the age of many in the audience. You were in high school and you were in college. When you got up in the morning you went to class, not to the office. But you were thinking about graduation and you were thinking about what your next step would be and what you were aspiring to do. So what did that younger Richard Haass, what was he thinking about and aspiring to do?
HAASS: OK. Full disclosure: I didn’t always go to class. (Laughter.) Start with that. I can’t probably in this setting discuss what I was always thinking about. I was a teenage boy, for God’s sakes.
O’NEIL: What professional career were you thinking about and aspiring to do? (Laughter.)
HAASS: I didn’t have the faintest idea, to be perfectly honest. You know, I was always amazed by my friends who, like, at seventeen would say: I want to be an orthopedic surgeon. I didn’t know what an orthopedic surgeon was. Actually, now in retrospect, I kind of wish I did. (Laughter.) But, no, I never knew what I wanted to do. And what I simply did was follow what interested me. So in high school, you know what I mean, you didn’t have much choice. So it was just you study and you do sports and all that. Most important, the summer between high school and college I went to Woodstock. I will probably be, I think it’s safe to say, the only Council president to have gone to Woodstock. (Laughter.) I think that will be safe.
Chose to go to the college I got into because I got into it. I got rejected, I think, from six of the seven schools I applied to. So I showed up there, and I asked—I didn’t know what I particularly wanted to study. I went through multiple majors. And I finally stumbled across it, because I asked my friends who was the best professor and what’s the best course? And they said, oh, you should take this one Professor Frank’s class. And I said, oh, what does he teach? And they said, New Testament. I said, that’s interesting. We never got around to that one in my house. (Laughter.) But I was game. Studied it. And great teachers can make any subject fantastic, and he was a perfect example of it. And at some point, he then said, what are you doing next summer? And I said, I don’t know. I didn’t have a lot of answers. And he said, why don’t you come to Israel, we’re doing an archeological dig, and do that?
So, anyhow, to make a long story short, I got really—I then stayed in Israel. Spent my junior year abroad. Learned some of the local languages, studied history, studied archeology, came back and got my degree not in religion but in Middle Eastern studies. Went to—you know, went to graduate school in England and decided I didn’t want to be a Middle East expert. So I got my graduate degrees in international relations. Had an internship along the way on the Hill. And then I was—as a postdoc, went to a think tank in London. And one day, I gave a paper at a conference. And there were some people there who said: Would you like to come back to Washington and work with us? And said, well, what do you guys do? And they said, oh, we work at the Pentagon. And I said, sure.
So in 1979, I found myself working at the Pentagon. And it was just fortuitous, because I had done my doctoral dissertation on the part of the world, what the Brits called east of Suez, but we would say Persian Gulf, as many as any other place, and some points east. And when I got to the Pentagon in 1979, that—the end of that year, two great developments. One was the revolution in Iran, the hostage-taking at the embassy. And secondly was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I had just been to Iran and Afghanistan and written my doctorate about that part of the world. Suddenly, it was a really interesting place to be.
My point is simply, don’t over plan it. Just do stuff that’s interesting. I got my doctorate because I thought I wanted to be a college professor. Very quickly I said, I don’t want to be a professor. And I think I’ve spent four years out of my career as a professor. So I think so many people put so much pressure on themselves to figure out what they want to do from the get-go. And I think that’s the wrong question. I think it’s just put yourself in interesting positions where you tool up and you learn a lot. And it might be your first four jobs you learn what you don’t want to do. And I went through lots of majors, and I decided I didn’t want to do them. I went through some jobs, I didn’t want to do those.
And you just—I just try—and even now. I’ve been here for twenty year. I thought I’d be here for five to seven years. And now I’m going to start some new things. I just think it’s—to construct a life where you try to do what’s really interesting and where you learn the most. And not over plan it, and don’t put the pressure on yourself to figure out where everything is going to take you, what’s the exact right thing for you. Because so much of an experience—like, where you go to school—depends upon an experience you can never anticipate in advance. So certain teachers will make a difference in your life, or a certain boss will either make or break your experience in a certain organization. But you can’t know that in advance, so don’t drive yourself crazy trying to answer everything in advance before you do it.
O’NEIL: Well, let me take you to one of those stops. Let’s talk about government, because you had a long career in government, and different stops along the way in there. So what was the most useful thing you learned working in government, as you think back in your career?
HAASS: Probably the most interesting thing in government, and it’s something we then taught when I was teaching at the Kennedy School, is that being smart is not enough. That we used to teach at the Kennedy School that 90 percent of life is implementation or execution. So, in government, it’s important to have ideas. But it’s really important to get stuff done. And so you’ve got to think just as hard about how to translate ideas into policies and actions, win support from colleagues across either your own organization or other parts of the government, that you’ve got to match the intellectual with the operational. And if you’re just one or the other, you’re not going to succeed. If you’re just intellectual, you might as well be on the planet Zod. But you’re not going to get stuff done. But if you’re only operational it’s like running on a treadmill. You can run really hard and you’ve work up a hell of a sweat, but you will not have gotten anywhere. So it’s really important to marry the two.
O’NEIL: So you said in that first part that, you know, some bosses, they’ll make or break you. I might not ask you to name names, but—
HAASS: I certainly won’t ask you to name names. (Laughter.)
O’NEIL: Definitely me. Definitely me. Tell us about a boss that either made you or broke you?
HAASS: I’ll talk about the worst boss I ever had and the best, how’s that?
HAASS: The worst boss I had—the worst boss I won’t name. I’ll name the best. The worst one was somebody who was really—he kicked down. He was abusive towards his staff. He violated one of the cardinal rules of being a boss. He used to criticize in public, which I think you never do when you’re a boss. You should only do it in private. He would disparage his people in front of his boss. So literally he once said to his boss, who was the secretary—he said: Here is this memo. I had to rewrite it. What I got from my staff—and I was standing there; and I had been the one who wrote the memo—was really a piece of you-know-what. But now it’s ready for you. He hadn’t changed a word.
And I swore to myself if I ever got the chance to be, I would—I actually learned as much watching him as I learned watching good people, because I learned a lot of negative things I would never do. But he had a reputation of being someone who, shall we say, broke a lot of China wherever he went. And those people at the end of the day, they can’t last. It exhausts everyone around them and alienates everyone around him. So he had his creative, talented moments, but it wasn’t worth it. So that was not one of my best experiences.
The best boss I ever had was Brent Scowcroft, and also became one of my closest friends. But he was totally open. Could be—in a really interesting way, was both forceful, without appearing to be forceful. He was the most successful person who ever was the national security advisor to the president because he was able to balance the role of making the whole process work, but also be a private counselor to the president. And he had the discipline and the character never to let his role as an advisor get in the way of his role as the person who was responsible for the integrity of the process.
So watching Brent manage that, better than anyone before or since, was just a real lesson. I remember one day, Bob Gates—the three of us became very close during the Gulf War crisis. We’re talking now 1990-91. And the three of us—ever Saturday the three of us used to meet in Brent’s office. And Brent used to say to us: OK, what aren’t we thinking about? Which is actually a really good thing to do when you’re in a busy situation. And Saturdays were a little bit slower, but these are six-and-a-half days a week jobs. And we’d go through it.
But we also had a lot of fun, because when you work—I mean, it’s a little bit different now in the age of Zoom. But think about it, if you’re in jobs twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day, five, six, six-and-a-half days a week, a big chunk of your life is the people you’re working with. It’s your colleagues. And it’s almost got to be fun. I mean, because you spend so much of your waking time with them. And I remember at one point Bob just saying: You know, it’s never going to get better than this. Because we really liked working with each other and we were doing what we thought—you know, they were important things. You know, people can judge whether we did them well or not. That’s a different thing. And so government at its best is great. And Brent made it really great.
O’NEIL: Let me ask you about the think tank world, because you have done spells at a number of them, right? You’ve had times at Brookings. You’ve been here at the Council on Foreign Relations for twenty years. So why are think tanks important? And why have you spent such a big part of your career working at them?
HAASS: Plus, you left out two others. Carnegie and the Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Yeah, I think think tanks are really important. It’s actually sad. Think tanks are so important because universities have made themselves, in many cases, so unimportant. IN many cases, American but also not American universities have opted out of doing anything that’s policy relevant. You know, we say here, we are explicit that we do policy relevant research. And if you’re interested in policy relevant research, think tanks are probably a much better place for you than universities.
Universities often pride themselves on doing non-policy relevant research. It’s almost like a medieval guild in a lot of them. They want to—or, in skating it would be the equivalent to school figures rather than the free skating. But universities are really very—they’re obsessed with things that can be measured, quantitative analysis, theoretical stuff. Policy relevance in most cases in university is a distant consideration, if it’s even a consideration.
So think tanks have essentially occupied the place that universities have increasingly have—that universities have abandoned. Thank tanks, like the Council or Brookings, came into being, though, even earlier, about a hundred years ago. And there, the original rationale was to introduce some integrity and oversight into the policy process, because this was the age in which you had the spoils system. Government was often unresponsive, amateurish, corrupt. So think tanks were meant, in a sense, as part of a reform movement to introduce greater rigor. Social science into public policy. I think that was the original motive.
But the massive proliferation, just thousands and thousands of think thanks in this country right now, particularly based in Washington, I think is largely to fill a void. It’s almost a space between universities, which have opted out, and people in positions of power in government and business who are too busy doing what they do to have time to think. So think tanks operate in a kind of in-between zone. And at their best, they can provide really relevant, useful ideas to people in positions of authority, who can’t generate them themselves, and the universities aren’t generating them for them.
So, which is why, by the way, it’s a useful—it can be a career path, it can be a stint in a career, it can be something you do before government, after government. But I actually think, particularly in this country—it can be foreign policy, domestic, there’s a zillion different things, specialized think thanks, broad-based ones—but I actually believe it’s an important venue in this and other societies now.
O’NEIL: How does CFR fit into that? And especially how has it changed over these last twenty years? What have you tried to do to take it to make it—you know, as part of these thousands, that you were mentioning? What’s changed? What are you most proud of changing here?
HAASS: Look, when I got here the Council was already an important, major institution. It was close to eighty years old when I got here. And, you know, it was born after World War I. Published the leading magazine in the world about the world, Foreign Affairs. Had a famous studies program. The place where Henry Kissinger essentially got this start in the 1950s, writing a seminal work about nuclear weapons and foreign policy. The Council had a storied history. Like any other institution, it had its good decades and its not-so-good decades. But what it principally had become by the time I got here was a place that was producing policy relevant work through the studies program and discussed in our meetings, in the magazine, for people who, I would say, were inside the professional foreign policy debate. Be it as journalists, business leaders, academics, government officials.
And I said, that was great. And we’ve got to continue doing that, and we’ve got to get better at it when we’ve reformed what we’ve done and so forth. But I said, the only problem with that as a mission is it leaves—you know, it leaves out about 330 million Americans. Because we had, when I got here, four thousand members. And it just wasn’t enough. So I said, we have to continue to target, if you will, the establishment, the elite, whatever you want to call it. People who are inside the foreign policy conversation. But we had to figure out a way to get beyond that. And that’s what we’ve done through our education program.
What I would hope, for all the students here, that they regularly do things like look at CFR.org, which is the best website in the world. The education—I’ll blow our own horn there. It’s fantastic. Things like World 101, the curriculum we have. You know, Foreign Affairs magazine. The two websites, the Foreign Affairs website, the Council’s website, all the public events we’re doing. What we’ve tried to do is take all of our traditional missions—the think tank, and the studies program, the membership dimension, the meetings dimension and so forth—and add to it this whole other dimension of education. And that’s, in the larger sense of the world, both in and out of the classroom. And that’s what I feel better about than anything else.
O’NEIL: Well, let me take you out into the world and what you do as your day job. So as you look—and, first, go international. As you look around the world, what worries you most?
O’NEIL: I want you to do international first. Look out international first.
HAASS: OK. But, OK, I’ll do that. But I do think what worries me most about the world is us, because if we can’t act in a concerted way, the world will unravel. The world—it’s like a high school science experiment, when you learn that the basic state of things is entropy. The world doesn’t come together by itself. International order is not the natural state of things. The natural state of things is places like Russia invading places like Ukraine. That’s the natural stuff of history. And if we’re not in a position to help either prevent such things or respond to them, that will be the future of the world. So let me just say that. So that’s why I am increasingly focused on us, not because—
O’NEIL: Let’s talk about that. What worries you most about us?
HAASS: I thought that you wanted to talk about the world. (Laughs.)
O’NEIL: Well, you started this, then we’re going to go to the world.
HAASS: Make up your mind!
O’NEIL: Well, you started—you started down this path. So what is it that worries you about us?
HAASS: What worries me about us is that our democracy, after two and a half centuries, has increasingly gotten sclerotic. And the special interests, in many cases, have crowded out the general interest. And we’re no longer as responsive as we need to be. And it worries me—Justin Trudeau was sitting up here about two weeks ago. And he made what I thought was a really good point. He was saying that if democracy can’t deliver, people are going to turn against it.
And I was thinking about it, I look out in this room and a lot of you are a lot younger than I am. But just say you’re in your twenties or thirties. And you look at the last ten, twenty years. We’ve had, what, 9/11. We’ve had a pandemic where over a million Americans lost their lives. We’ve had two highly costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We had the 2007-8 financial crisis. We had the more recent banking and inflation crisis. We had middle class wage stagnation for much of this time. We’ve had growing economic inequality. We had January 6th.
And you go, what has democracy done for me? I can see what democracy’s done to me. And that—so that’s why—and I worry that—so I worry that we’re going to turn away from democracy, full stop. That our democracy won’t be able to deliver. Lots of reasons how we got to this point, which is why I wrote the book to try to generate a national conversation about that. But if we’re not able to function here at home, we won’t have the resources we need for an international world. We won’t have the bandwidth. We won’t set an example that anybody wants to emulate.
And we can send out diplomats till the cows come home talking about—lecturing the world about democracy. But if we don’t practice it, if we don’t walk the walk, why is anyone going to listen to us when we talk the talk? And so, yeah. So I think—and if we’re unpredictable. It used to be—think about it, until recently it didn’t really matter all that much who won an election at the presidential level. Don’t get me wrong, obviously there were differences between the parties. But if I can use a sports metaphor, the differences between Republicans and Democrats, per se, were within the forty-yard lines. Yeah, there’d be differences but actually what Democrats and Republicans had in common was far greater than what they did not.
That’s no longer true. So if you’re a foreign country, an ally, and you’re dependent upon us, that’s kind of unnerving. If you basically don’t know who the United States will be in two years, and whether we’ll be there for you, pretty hard to put your eggs in our basket. And so that’s why I think American democracy matters so much, that we’re dependable, we’re reliable, we set an example, and so forth to our own people to embrace it, but also for the rest of the world to be willing to depend on us. Because if not, then we go back to if we’re not there for the world, then I think things begin to spin out of control.
So we can talk about the world now.
O’NEIL: So let’s talk about the world now. So we are in a weak place facing the rest of the world, so what worries you most? Which of the conflicts or the potential—the potential challenges worry you most?
HAASS: I actually feel OK about what’s happened with Ukraine. I mean, I think it’s been a sobering, helpful lesson. I can’t tell you how many academics were publishing nonsense about how war was obsolete. So I think it’s been a healthy wake-up call. And then, what’s even healthier, is the response. I think what Ukraine has done, what Europe has done, what the United States has done, quite extraordinary. If we had had this meeting fifteen or sixteen months ago, very few of us would have predicted that things would be where they are now. You know, as bad as they’ve been, not bad, in terms of the larger story. So, you know.
Oh, go ahead.
O’NEIL: So how do you see China and the United States?
HAASS: OK. So I feel OK about that.
O’NEIL: That side—if that side’s OK, how about—
HAASS: Well, I still worry. I mean, we have to see this through. And it’s really complicated. But I feel OK about that. I think China’s a bigger question. If Russia’s the most pressing, immediate national security or international threat, I think China’s a bigger question. And the issue is, how do we deal with it? How do we—you know, unlike Russia, China’s truly integrated as an economy. It’s one of the reasons the Cold War metaphors don’t work very well.
China’s everywhere, economically. And it’s increasingly capable and active diplomatically and militarily. So we don’t—the old handbook won’t work. And so the question is, how do we avoid the worst of China—conflict over Taiwan or something like that—which would truly be a transforming, in the worst sense of the word, development? And how do we potentially even do some things together? So I think that’s the biggest policy challenge in the geopolitical sphere. We’ve got other challenges, with North Korea, with Iran, and so forth. So there’s that.
I think the other big thing in the world are global issues. So there’s a—increasingly, I’ve come to think about a geopolitical order and a globalization order. And the geopolitical order is dealing with the traditional stuff we at the Council deal with, war and peace. The globalization order is things like pandemics, climate change. And there, I think we’re badly missing it. I think the gap between the climate change challenge and the collective response is large and growing. I think it’s—before this—I would actually—if things don’t improve before this century is over, the greatest threat to mankind is not going to be geopolitics. It’s going to be climate.
And I worry that we’re not doing anything like what we need to do. You know, people use this phrase all the time in what Shannon and I do about a(n) international community. There isn’t one. It’s an aspirational idea. I’d like there to be one. But there isn’t one. And we’re not even coming close. We’re not in the right ZIP code on climate. I think climate’s tough because it’s almost—it’s a slow-motion crisis. It’s hard to galvanize a response. It doesn’t have the immediacy, the urgency. And by the time it does, it’s going to be too late. So I worry deeply about that.
And then the other thing I worry about, it’s almost a third sphere. Geopolitics, global, is technology and the emergence of these new technologies. And how are we going to corral them? And, you know, all technologies have positive and negative dimensions, benign and malign applications. So with things like AI, how is it we try to accentuate and take advantage, exploit in the best sense of the word, the benign side? But how do we try to rein in, domestically and internationally, the other side? And I worry about that because it’s happening so fast. And, you know, there’s some really silly, useless ideas getting bandied about, like six-month pauses. I mean, are you kidding? What, we’re going to blow the whistle and there’s going to be a time-out, and we’re going to get off the court, and the other side’s not going to score a few baskets? Are you kidding?
So I worry about the lack so far. Indeed, I think it’s a real priority for an institution like this one. How do we think seriously—to use—one of the words in this business is “regime.” Not in the sense of a government, but in the sense of a global arrangement. How do we build a regime that would try to promote the good sides of these new technologies, but rein in the bad sides? We did it, in some ways, sixty, fifty years ago with nuclear weapons. Different challenge now—a much more difficult challenge. That’s a big, big issue. And it’s actually an issue for places like this.
O’NEIL: So I am now going to open it up to your questions.
(Note: The Q&A session was off the record and not transcribed.)