DC Book Launch: The Bill of Obligations by Richard Haass
CFR President Richard Haass discusses his new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, with Mary Louise Kelly.
In The Bill of Obligations, Richard Haass argues that the very idea of citizenship must be revised and expanded. Haass introduces ten obligations that are essential for healing our divisions and safeguarding the country’s future. Through an expert blend of civics, history, and political analysis, this book illuminates how Americans can rediscover and recover the attitudes and behaviors that have contributed so much to this country’s success over the centuries.
HAASS: Ah, there’s flowers. How nice.
KELLY: Thank you. Good evening, everybody. Good evening, good evening. Welcome.
HAASS: Thank you.
KELLY: I want to welcome you all to the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Mary Louise Kelly. I host All Things Considered on NPR. I’m going to be moderating our conversation tonight. I want to welcome everyone who is here in person in Washington, and people joining us online from all over the place. If there were ever a man who needed no introduction, in this of all buildings—(laughter)—it is this guy, my partner in conversation tonight. Richard Haass has been our leader at the Council for twenty years now. Congratulations.
I will share a tiny glimpse behind the scenes from this past week at NPR, just to illustrate how much your voice is in all of our heads on matters of international affairs. We were having a planning meeting to tee-up our Ukraine one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion. And we’re doing a big special hour. And as editors are going through saying, all right, who are we going to hear from in Russia? Who can we hear from at NATO? Who can we hear from in Somalia, to speak to the global famine that has, you know, resulted from wheat exports being delayed, and so on. We’re going through all the guests. And then someone said, and then we need the voice of wisdom, of God, to sum up and just—(laughter)—make sense of everything and give us the big picture. And another editor, this is honest, said, 1-800-Richard Haass, next? (Laughter.) So. You’ll be getting that call, if you haven’t yet, at your 1-800 number. (Laughter.)
But we’re gathered here tonight because Richard has decided to turn his attention for your new book, which hopefully you all have your hot hands on and which he’s here to sign a few afterward, from overseas to home. And the title is The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. So you and I are going to spend a little while kicking that around, and then open it up to all of your questions on this.
I want to start with why? Was there a particular moment, was there a particular conversation that made you think, I got to look—I got to look home?
HAASS: It was not—well, first of all, thank you for doing this. Thank you all for being here. Thank you, also, for what you do day, day out. What you and your colleagues at NPR do. It’s a real public service.
I don’t think there was a single aha moment, but there were two things that led to this book. One is, and my wife Susan is here, over the years I would talk about issues. And whenever I raised the question of civics, and how we’re raising a generation of Americans who are not learning their own country’s story—in part because you can graduate from virtually any two- and four-year college or university and not be required to take it, even if it’s offered. Many high schools no longer offer it, and what they do offer is quite modest. And there was a sense in the room that people knew that was missing and that was wrong. And you could just feel it.
And indeed, more broadly, I think people sensed that there’s something not quite right. And then, secondly, when I’ve been asked after I do my normal talks, and people would say, what keeps you up at night? You know, is it Russia? Is it Putin? Is it Xi Jinping? Is it Iran? We were just talking about North Korea, what have you, terrorism, climate? And I said, yeah, all those things are real and they ought to concern us. But what really keeps us up at night is us.
Because if we are somewhat together, and focused, and have the resources available, history suggests we can probably manage those challenges—not solve them but manage them. And if we’re divided, and distracted, and don’t have the bandwidth, it’s going to be bad because we won’t be able to manage them. And if we can’t
manage them, it’ll make things here at home even worse. And then we’re in a really bad loop. And after giving that answer enough times, it seemed to be rather odd that I wouldn’t sit down and write that book.
KELLY: Is that true? I mean, is this actually keeping you up at night, you’re worried about our democracy?
HAASS: Well, some who see me after 10:00 at night would probably say it’s not true, because nothing keeps me up at night. (Laughter.) But that’s probably a sign of age or something. Yeah. And what’s different about it, this is a recent thing. If we had had this—well, we wouldn’t have had this conversation ten years ago, because I would not have written this book. But if I had written a book and we had been having a conversation about it I would have said, yeah, I’m a bit concerned, but.
But when I used to wake up in the morning in my—like, you have different piles in your intellectual desk. And one of them was things I don’t really have to worry about just now, but I do have to worry about these other things. The state of American democracy was not one of the things I would have said I’ve really got to focus on today. To some extent, we could all take it for granted. And, yeah, I no longer do. I no longer feel confident not necessarily—I’m not saying we’re going to have a, quote/unquote, “authoritarian” system. I’m not worried about that.
But the idea that American democracy could lose a lot of its features and advantages, it could degrade—and it has degraded in some ways, but it could degrade more seriously. That we could have the kind of decentralized, politically inspired violence that shaped Northern Ireland for three decades during the Troubles, and I spent years there as a U.S. envoy and a member of the international media, I no longer find that far-fetched.
KELLY: Where are you on the scale of concern? Like, one to ten?
HAASS: Oh, I’m pretty high. I’m in the eight-nine range. I mean, in terms of—it’s really two separate issues. One, will we be able to come together sufficiently to meet our domestic challenges? And it’s a long list, whether in the next couple months debt ceilings, or borders, and we can go through the, you know, many other challenges to this—to this country domestically—immigration more broadly, infrastructure issues, political reform, what have you, inequality. So there’s those. So there’s the gridlock issue, the functionality issue, which has been a long concern. And I think it’s been deteriorating. And the other is the potential for political violence. And that concern has gone up. And, again, the idea that we have to have that conversation, I actually find that remarkable in a worrisome way.
KELLY: All right. Well, before we all run screaming for the hills, I want to note that your book is prescriptive. You have some ideas for what we might do about this, if we could get our act together.
HAASS: It’s actually ideas that will help us get our act together, because one of the things that led—when I was researching this book—I’m sorry to interrupt.
HAASS: I read all these reports that were put out there. And a lot of them were really good. And people say, well, we’ve got to fix gerrymandering. Or we—they had a long list. Some people say we got to do this, you know, with the Supreme Court. Or we got to do this with voting, or so forth. And I think that’s a pretty good idea. The only problem is, it ain’t gonna happen. So a lot of what I wanted to write about was not good ideas, per se, but how do we get American politics to the point where we have an environment politically, or a context, where decent ideas have a chance of sprouting? Because that’s what worries me. So the problem is not the absence of good ideas. It’s the absence of ideas that actually can enjoy sufficiently broad backing to get enacted. And I think that’s more what I’m focused on.
KELLY: More than each of us could do as individuals, regardless of everybody else in the room has their act together.
HAASS: Hundred percent. Yeah, because, again, if we wait for American democracy to be saved, I think it’s going to be a long wait. So I’d rather have people think more about what can I do to make a difference?
KELLY: I want to—it’s, again, the title, The Ten Habits of Good Citizens is the subtitle. I want to focus on the first and last that you’ve identified. The very first one is: Be Informed. Which sounds Captain Obvious in a democracy. (Laughter.) But what does that look like in the context—
HAASS: I’m thinking of what my Captain Obvious uniform would look like—(laughter)—and whether I could become, like one of those characters or whatever, with a—
KELLY: You have a cape, yeah.
HAASS: A cape that looked like a bookmark or something. Well, it’s actually not obvious, the more I thought about it. I mean, it’s obvious in principle. It’s not obvious in practice. Here we are, we’re swimming in information. But we’re also swimming in disinformation. And the question is, how do we manage that? It’s one of the contradictions of the age. And we can dial up the Google machine anytime we want, or go on Wikipedia. But we also go to a lot of other places. We can also go on TikTok. We can go on Facebook. So we live in an age, pardon me, of narrowcasting rather than broadcasting. And people can find outlets, often unedited without quality control, where they can go and feel comfortable.
So we have that problem. We have the problem I alluded to before. School doesn’t often train people. Just last week, by the way, a really interesting milestone. The state of New Jersey became the first state in the country to pass a law requiring that schools teach information literacy. So when you go through the public schools in New Jersey now, you will learn how to recognize a fact, how to discern the difference between facts and other things, be they opinions, misstatements, whatever. Where do you go for these things? How do build confidence then? I think it’s a fantastic idea. And they’re pretty much doing the same thing, by the way, in Europe.
And idea that civics courses will not only teach the basics of American government and history, but they’ll also teach this, information literacy, I think is a really good idea. Because it’s—you know, why do we think that people are born as critical consumers? The answer is, they’re not. So I actually think we have to teach the critical consumption of information. So that’s part of being informed. But I would like to think an informed citizen has a background in the basics of this country’s history, what makes America America. Again, they don’t get that, because we don’t teach civics for the most part, we don’t require it.
I would like them to have some basic understandings about how things work at the federal level, state level, local level, about where to go for information. I mean, NPR’s a good place. No, shall we say, certain types of call-in AM radio may not be quite as good. Not every newspaper is equal. The idea of multi-sourcing information. You know, I admit in the book, when I used to go to gyms back before COVID, my time on the elliptical was divided between MSNBC, Fox, and CNN. And then, if I was really feeling energetic, what would really get me going is more time for ESPN. That’s what I really wanted to do. But the idea of multi-sourcing, having a competitive information space, is not a bad thing. So I think Americans, to become informed turns out to be tougher than anyone would think, in an age where we’re deluged with information.
KELLY: Share, if you would, what your personal—like, what’s your regime of where you’re getting your information? And no judgement. You’re allowed to read whatever you want. Any news or AM radio is fine.
HAASS: Here comes the confession.
KELLY: I know. Where do you go?
HAASS: So I read five newspapers every day. But the first is the New York Post. (Laughter.) I admit it. I admit it. It’s by far the best sports section. (Laughter.) And that’s how I start the day. I then read, in no particular order, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the FT—the Financial Times, and the Washington Post. So I read those five things. I then go on certain websites, including our own, by the way. CFR.org is a sensational website. (Laughter.) Seriously, about the world. If you don’t—as they say about certain newspapers, if you don’t get it, you don’t get it. But go on it, it really is sensational.
I then read—I’m lucky, I—well, not lucky—I subscribe to all these news services. There’s, like, really good ones about China and about Russia-Ukraine. A friend of ours, John Ellis, puts out something called News Items, which is a sensational compilation every morning, which also has a lot of science in it, which is not something I’m necessarily comfortable with. I read the Economist. I like to look at the Atlantic, the New Yorker. So, yeah. You know, I’ll listen a bit to NPR. And I will watch a little bit of television. And podcasts also. I find certain podcasts are really helpful in terms of just—not so much for information, but just for analysis and to hear, again, a range of them.
KELLY: And you’ve mentioned civics, and that we’re not teaching it in our high schools and colleges a couple of times—you mentioned it a couple of times. I want to ask what that looks like, because unless the federal government gets involved and mandates something, you’re looking at that happening state by state. And I’m imagining the curriculum could look quite different depending on what state you’re learning.
HAASS: That’s exactly what’s happening now.
HAASS: So—(laughs)—there’s a move in Congress to fund some of it and mandate it. The funding is minimal. By and large, education does not happen at the federal level in this country. It’s pretty much state and local. And in the preamble to the law, it says: Nothing in this act should be construed as dictating what a national syllabus or curriculum should be in civics.
KELLY: But that’s the whole point, is you want us to have a common—
HAASS: You’d think. Exactly. So we are exactly where you suggest. So of the fifty states, I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but maybe thirty-five or so teach a degree of civics at the high school level. Most are half-year programs. A couple are a little bit more now. Some of them teach—and wildly, wildly, wildly, I’ll use a generous word, uneven in what they cover and how they cover it. And it’s, and alas, improving this is going to be rough, because, as we all see, education now has gotten politicized more than ever. Almost weaponized, I’ll be honest.
And so my idea on this is it’s probably impossible in the short run to get a good national civics curriculum even though, you’re right, it defeats the purpose of not having it. What I’m hoping is—and I may dedicate part of my post—and, yeah, I’m likely to dedicate part of my post-Council life to this—is producing a civics curriculum that can be test-driven by several states. And almost going back to the idea of states as the laboratories of democracy, to use the phrase—I think it was Justice Brandeis. Correct me if I’m wrong, any of you constitutional lawyers in the audience. But I think that’s the way to do it, to get certain states—just like New Jersey is test-driving this law on information literacy. I would think that we’d produce some really good state civics programs. Maybe a couple of states could band together, being to create some critical mass.
And then what I’d love to see, if they’re good, maybe certain colleges would say, hey, we like that. We might see that as an important attribute of somebody applying here, or certain employers might see that as something useful. Parents would start saying, hey, why aren’t we doing that in our school?
KELLY: It is interesting. I have a first-year college student at the University of Chicago. And he’s taking Italian because he has to take a foreign language. And he’s taking biology because he has to take science. And he’s going to have to take calculus, because AP calculus was rocky senior year of high school. We won’t go there. (Laughter.) But he’s not taking civics. He’s taken it in high school, but they don’t know that. It’s—you know, why is learning calculus, no offense to the mathematicians out there, more important in a liberal arts education in our country in 2023, than civics?
HAASS: Well, the answer is that there’s been a crowding out phenomenon. STEM has crowded—so it turns out that things like basic civics courses get crowded out, for just the reason you say. By and large, professors at universities, in particular, do not love teaching basic courses. There’s a whole culture against core curriculum. No one likes being told. And so I actually think it probably won’t change until certain universities start doing it, succeed at it. And then it becomes a calling card, where other universities or parents say, hey, why aren’t we doing something?
So Stanford, just to name on, this year is testing it. Next year, so that’d be the ’23-’24 academic year, Stanford is planning to have a module for every freshman, all 1,700 freshmen, that they will be exposed to civics. And the plan is to make that happen at Stanford next year. Johns Hopkins, whose president wrote a really important book about what universities can do for democracy, Ron Daniels, has made it a priority at Johns Hopkins. So my hope is that enough schools do it, and that basically more and more parents and would-be students start saying, OK, this is actually a positive. And I want my kid, if I’m going to shell out this money or whatever, go to campus, this is one of the things he or she ought to have under their belt when they leave campus.
KELLY: Number ten on the Bill of Obligations is: Put Country First. And since you mentioned politics being weaponized in our country, I do have to ask: Is “put country first,” is that a slight dig at those who have put party above country in recent years?
HAASS: It’s not a slight dig. (Laughter.) Why be slight? It’s a big dig, as we used to say in Boston. (Laughter.) And it ought to be. First of all, I should have my Captain Obvious suit on again. By the way, I want a Captain Obvious suit here. The idea that one has to say that, that putting country first is something that—and, by the way, obligations are not things that you can legislate. They’re not things that you can mandate. They’re not matters of law. They’re matters of should. They’re matters of ought. And we hope that people do it because they come to see it as right. But also, if they refuse to, we hope that voters and others put pressure on them to do it. And we reward certain types of behaviors, and we penalize others.
So, yeah, putting country first is the sort of thing we want to see from those who have positions of power, and influence, and responsibility. And we ought to hold them up to that. We ought to insist on it. And if they don’t do it, we ought to vote them out. And we ought to—we ought to—that’s up to us. Actually, again, it’s, to me, remarkable that one has to say this. But I think we do. You know, Kennedy wrote—John Kennedy wrote Profiles in Courage about, I think it was eight, the number could be wrong, senators who he thought captured this. And interestingly enough, some were people, in his view, who put country first by compromising. Who basically were willing to sign onto a politically unpopular but necessary compromise. And some were people who refused to sign on to politically popular, but misguided, policies. And he went through it.
And it makes an interesting read. And I think in recent times I would put Liz Cheney in that category, someone who put country before party or person. She paid a direct political price. Some may be secretaries of state who—you know, who basically stuck by the book in terms of certification of electors, often in the face of physical threats to them and their families. Just remarkable. So we’re still seeing people who are willing to put—to put country first. But to the extent it’s not universal, that’s on us.
KELLY: What does it look like for the rest of us, who are not in elevated positions in Washington or elected office? What does putting country first look like?
HAASS: One of it is when you vote. So I had an awkward moment this November. And the truth—this is kind of true confession here. I had been preaching in the book, and the book was not yet out, that we ought to put country first, and also democracy first. And essentially, that we needed to put democracy before policy. So I then faced a choice, where in one of the races I was eligible to vote in there was one candidate with whom I agreed on about 90 percent of the issues. The other I agreed about 10 percent of the issues. But the 90 percent I agreed on was an election denier.
So there I stood in that voting booth, and it was my moment. I had to vote against that person, even though, again, the preponderance of their policies was much more to my liking, and I think would have been better in the job. But I just thought that sometimes you’ve got to draw a line on principles. But all of us have that option to vote. And, by the way, putting country first means being an informed voter. Getting informed in voting. Why is it that at one of the most critical midterm elections in American history, some 55 percent of eligible Americans didn’t vote? That, to me, I would say, is not putting country—that’s a pretty simple one, in doing it.
But other people have authority. Religious leaders who have great moral authority, why aren’t they standing up and delegitimizing the use of violence for political purposes? That ought to be pretty consistent with religious precepts. The educators can stand up and talk about how they, you know, supported civics, or talking about compromise. I mean, compromise—we would not have had a Constitution, the last I checked, without compromise. It was fundamental to reaching the Constitution. It’s filled with compromises. Compromise is, if you will, as American as cherry pie. So how did it become a dirty word?
So I think that—Ronald Reagan, one of the wonderful things I came across were some of the quotes of Reagan, who actually said something like—he’s one of the more quotable figures in American history. And he said: The most important room in America may be the dining room. And it’s what happens at the dinner table every night, and what parents say to their children, and what behaviors parents model to their children. So I think there’s ways in which these—we don’t have to wait, if you will, for Washington to get it right. Indeed, I would argue, we can’t wait, because they won’t. And we have to put pressure on those in politics to reform their ways.
KELLY: you know, so much of what you’re saying sounds right, sounds reasonable. Is it realistic? I mean, you’re preaching to the choir here, in a headquarters meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. And everyone’s chosen to come out on a rainy, chilly night to think deep thoughts about our democracy. But you obviously are optimistic that there is possibility for change in our country, or you wouldn’t have written the book. Do you worry, is this naïve? I can write this, but is anybody going to do it? Is it going to change?
HAASS: Not that. I mean, I wrote the book because I’m optimistic, but not sanguine. If I thought it was just going to turn out OK, I could have saved myself a lot of grief in writing the book and all this. So I’m optimistic, but not sanguine. I’d say that to begin with. I think there is real—there are real grounds for concern. I’m not a fatalist. I don’t think anything’s baked into the cake. So I’m also not a defeatist. And this country has shown its capacity to change and reform. It’s, in some ways, one of the hallmark advantages of democracies, our capacity for reform.
But, again, it won’t just happen. We’re obviously going through something of a populist phase now. So there’s lots of things that have to—that need to be fixed. But my view is, again, a lot of what needs doing, I fear, won’t be doing because the political system won’t support its doing. So I am trying to get new people into the political process. I’m trying to get people better informed. I’m trying to get businesses to get more—why is it that businesses—I understand why businesses, corporations, are focused on sustainability and diversity, equity, you know, other such issues. I get all that.
Why are American businesses not being held to account on democracy? Last I checked, if you’re running a business and you need workers to come to work, and get along in the office or factory, if you need consumers to be able to shop and buy and the rest—why aren’t businesses more concerned about the rule of law in this country? Why aren’t investors holding up the business and saying, hey, if I’m going to invest in your company,
if I’m going to buy your product, I want you to meet certain standards? Certain standards on climate. Certain standards on diversity. Why not certain standards on democracy? Why are we investing and buying the products of businesses that support outlets that are supporting election deniers, or people who advocate violence in American politics? Where is the voice of business?
Now, business—I’d say the same thing about business as I’d say about politicians. People are not born responsible, but they are born responsive. They feel pressure. So why are we as consumers and investors not pressuring American business to stand up for American democracy? Why are we looking the other way when they invest and support outlets—advertise on outlets that are undermining American democracy? So I think, yes. I think there are things we can do to put pressure on politicians, corporate leaders, and others in our—in our society.
So, yeah, I think we—and as parents, we can demand certain—look, people are going to have big debates, whatever the merits or not, about, you know, CRT and other things, about education. Why aren’t we having more debate in this country about civics? Why isn’t that the subject of a school meeting? So, yeah, I think there’s things—I don’t think you have to be the president of the United States to make a difference. I think that democracy is about the people. So it’s time to get going, people. (Laughter.)
KELLY: There we go. I’m going to open it to the floor in one minute, so get your questions ready. We have a mic. We’ll be moving it around in one second. But I want to—I’m just going to exert moderator privilege and weasel in one question on the news and on your wheelhouse, on foreign affairs, while we’ve got you.
I mentioned that the anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is nearly upon us. February 24th. And I was thinking back, February 24th last year, the day of the invasion, we had Admiral Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, live on NPR and asked him: Are we witnessing the world order shifting? Like, in real time, today, as we speak? And he said, yes. And I’ve thought about that often since, and thought, were we? Like, has that held—has that held? Do you think that’s proven true? Were we witnessing the changing of the world order? Are we now? How much has actually changed in a year?
HAASS: I’m going to give you a clear answer.
HAASS: Yes and no. (Laughter.) The fact that the invasion happened shot a real hole through a lot of the literature in the academic world and elsewhere that wars between countries didn’t happen anymore. This is about as naked as it gets. And after the end of the Cold War, a lot of literature and other had been saying that this was a thing of the past. Territory didn’t matter anymore. Seriously, you’d be surprised how many articles and books came out about it. So I think it was a heavy, heavy dose of realism.
And where he might be wrong, but might not, is how this plays out. Now, on one hand, you could say already the fact that Ukraine is where it is—a year ago, I would think that most or all of us had basically been given the option that a year later Ukraine would be where it is, we would have taken it. It’s been an amazing act of resistance on the part of Ukraine. But also, every one of Mr. Putin’s assumptions was wrong, about his own military, about Europe’s willingness to stand up to him despite their energy dependence, Ukraine. Us, after Afghanistan, given January 6th, and our divisions.
But I still think it’s in the balance in the sense that Putin’s policy is predicated on the notion that time works in his favor. And by definition, it’s too soon to say he’s wrong. You know, at the risk of being tautological, only—that is one of those—I hate that expression—but that is one of those things that time will tell, whether time works more in his favor or the West’s favor. And by the West, I mean the United States, Europe, and above all Ukraine. And the answer that question will have tremendous implication not simply for Europe, but writ large.
No, I think already, though, the war has had a salutary effect on order because the Chinese and others have clearly taken notice. War ain’t an easy thing. We’ve gone from an America first to an alliance first foreign policy, both in Europe and Asia. And I think that has been a very salutary demonstration of resolve. So I think this is—all things being equal, so far, at least—has been a net positive for world order. But what none of us know is whether we’re in the second inning, the eighth inning, or something between.
I will say one other thing, and it connects to the book in an indirect way. Which is, again, it shows the importance of domestic politics. That our ability to be a reliable, consistent actor over time depends on things here. And again, that remains to be seen, because we have political forces, certainly on the right, to some extent on the left, whose enthusiasm for long-term, costly commitment to campaign—their enthusiasm for that is, shall we say, finite. And so we’ll just have to see how that plays out. And again, a lot will follow on from that, because people take notes. And as we used to say, you know, universities have departments. The world doesn’t. People will take notes.
And they will draw lessons about, among other things, the United States and how we—it’s not simply our ability, but it’s our will. And so I think—so I think the kind of stuff we’ve been talking about here is it’s not just a domestic thing. It has major implications for American foreign policy, running from the appeal of democracy to the perception about whether American democracy has the capacity to see things through over time.
KELLY: All right. Your questions. Lay them on us. I want to invite everybody in Washington to weigh in. We have people online. Please signal and we can see if we can get in as many as we can. I want to remind everybody we are on the record. And I will take our first question here in Washington. Get your hands up, and we’ll see if we can get a mic to you. I see a gentleman here, and then we’ll work our way back. Let’s start right there.
Q: Thank you. Alan Raul from Sidley Austin.
Teaching civics is great. No argument on that. Modeling civics is even better. And I think that’s what I take on principle ten, or obligation ten, on putting country first. You mentioned a couple of very rare examples—Liz Cheney and the state secretary—secretaries of state who did the right thing. I’d put the Electoral Reform Act also in that category. But you make the point that people are responsive. So you can’t just tell them to do the right thing. You need some inducement, some pressure, if you will.
What are the pressure points that could make the people in exalted public officer to model better civics behavior? Could we get the Soroses, and the Kochs, and the Gates, and the Zuckermans (sic; Zuckerbergs), and the Elon Musks to put some dollars and mileage behind civics? What about unions and parents associations, rotary clubs? What are the institutions, are there any, that could help, you know, induce—put some pressure to make the politicians and other more responsive on putting America first, putting country first? Thank you.
HAASS: If the goal is to change the behavior of sitting politicians, probably not. Because the goal will—I think policy preferences will take priority, pride of place, over what it is. And that’s what we see, all the people you name, their policy preferences will drive their political contributions. Could we get various foundations or wealth individuals to support civics? Absolutely. And I think you’ll see—you’ll see more of that. No, I think the main way to get politicians who, again, are responsive, always responsive not always responsible, is through what Mr. Churchill called the Order of the Boot.
And certain political behaviors need to be rewarded with reelection or election. And other political behaviors need to be penalized. We saw a little bit of that with the midterms. We’ll see what happens next time. And that’s where, again, I think an informed electorate will help, because people will understand more what—better how they understand people in power, whether they’re acting in ways that are consistent with their interests.
Now, it’s hard to break through. But we’re going to have an interesting demonstration with the debt ceiling. Now, my view on that are pretty pronounced. My enthusiasm for, you know, playing politics with the debt ceiling are modest. You know, I think part of the problem is most Americans don’t understand that when you’re voting on the debt ceiling, you’re not voting on future spending. You’re voting on your willingness to raise necessary funds for already committed to or spent spending. So if you want to cut spending there’s other vehicles, shall we say, to do it, going forward.
And we can have a legitimate debate in this country about spending and taxation. And we should have that debate. That’s what politics are all about, about priorities and how we pay for them. But I think that’s the kind of debate where—and another group it’s going to put a big challenge on is the media, to explain it. I mean, it’s—I’ll be self-referential for a minute about the Council. The most popular feature on our website are explainers. That tells me—and I realize we’re not necessarily typical media. But there is a hunger out there for understanding some of these things. So I would say to the media, rather than just getting into the horserace every day, spend a little bit of time explaining what are the issues, what’s at stake. I mean, again, that ought not to be impossible.
KELLY: There were a couple in the back, two side-by-side back here, and then we’ll work our way over.
Q: Thanks. Hi, Richard. Alex Toma with the Peace and Security Funder Group. So I’m glad, Alan, you brought up the funders. That’s who I work with, day-in, day-out.
We are the—THE—group that connects the funders. There’s fifty-five of them. And that is it. It includes the Kochs. It includes Soros. It includes Zuckerberg. But they don’t—a lot of them see their work siloed. There’s peace and security over here, foreign policy, national security. There’s political violence over here. There’s the democracy funders over here. There’s the human rights funders over here. They’re not connected.
So my question for you is how do you connect those dots? How do you draw the line between political violence, what we’re seeing here, and the political violence we’re seeing in Brazil with Bolsonaro, who could basically take Trump’s playbook, and just—and has—and do it in Brazil? So how do you—I hear what you’re saying, and I’m seeing it on the ground, where funding—private funding is less than 1 percent—less than 1 percent—of all philanthropic dollars. So how do you make those connections?
HAASS: Again, I think there is growing concern in this country about this country. And so—that’s actually the least of my concerns. Can I be honest with you? Based on my own conversations with people, and talk about funding some of this work, I am not worried, ultimately, about the resources. And I think what we need is demonstration projects and just gain political support. And it ain’t gonna be easy. It’s a little bit of a Woody Hayes football, for those of you who follow that, three years and a cloud of dust as opposed to a Hail Mary pass. It’s going to take a lot of work, and it’s going to be slow. I don’t think this is the sort of thing we do quickly, or easily, or overnight.
But I’m not worried about the resources. And I find—this country’s amazing for its philanthropy. And you’re right, it’s not connected, but there’s a lot of it out there. And this institution’s, you know, a tremendous beneficiary of it. In my experience, people are—people of means are more than willing to support things they believe in. And my own sense is people are worried. So I actually think this will be an area of growing philanthropic interest. And I hope that people support various experiments in charter schools, various—one of the great things about our higher education system, we just have so many private options. So we can try things. Stanford can do what it’s doing. Johns Hopkins can do this. Some other school can try that. We can then look at the results, look at the syllabus, have a conversation about it. So I do not think, at the end of the day, this is—that resources are going to be the problem.
KELLY: Huh. Can I follow on that? Because if the resources aren’t the problem, if the money and paying for it isn’t the problem, I’m fully willing to take, you know, responsibility as the media that we are part of the
problem—although, there are legitimate news organizations, including my own, who are trying our level best to explain, to fact check, to do the right thing here. What does it take? I would say a giant wake-up call, but we had that. We all lived through January 6th.
HAASS: Again, if the biggest—if one of the biggest problems is people not voting I don’t think it’s basically a question of resources. I think to some extent, but why is it—now, getting—is one day, given the hours we have set, the right approach? Employers giving people time off, why isn’t that part of corporate social responsibility, to make it easier for employees to vote? Why couldn’t pressure be put on them? That is something. You know, national service is one thing that would take resources. And I think national service would be a wonderful reform.
That could come from lots of directions, both private and public, and even maybe a partnership. Because one of the great things about national service is it could break down some of the barriers in our—I mean, it’s good that we don’t have a draft. The all-volunteer force—I see General Brown here—is a remarkable accomplishment. The only problem is increasingly the sources going into the AVF are increasingly narrow, socially and geographically. And so I believe we need more experience to bring Americans together who would normally never, ever—never otherwise get together.
But I don’t think what’s holding—maybe to some extent at the state level some schools don’t have enough resources for teacher training. OK, that’s a legitimate thing. If what was really holding back civics was teacher training, great. I bet we could get the resources for that whether, again, it was philanthropic or public-private. Again, I’m not worried about that.
KELLY: There were at least one or two more in the back, and then I’m going to come to this lady in the front. Right here, sir, in the back row. Hi.
Q: Thank you. In the Bill of Rights—
HAASS: You have to introduce yourself.
Q: Welby Leaman with Walmart.
In the Bill of Rights, and in particular in the First Amendment, there has always been sort of a tension between two camps. Let’s say the Cass Sunstein camp that sees the First Amendment as being about contributing into a robust civic discourse, and then let’s say Jack Balkin’s famous piece in the Yale Law Journal that quotes Sheryl Crow’s All I Want to Do is Have Some Fun and it’s really about protecting your right to have the life you want. Are you, through the Bill of Obligations, seeking to dissolve that tension between those two? Does that tension collapse? Or does it still exist there in a, you know, some people get paid to think grand thoughts and other people have to work two shifts?
HAASS: Well, to me, there’s—yeah, economic rights are a very different area. And I do not delve—I discuss economic rights in the book and I discuss political rights, but this is not a book about economic and political rights, in part because both debates are already so articulated and so out there. What I’m interested in is whatever you think, advocate in the way of political and economic rights, the question is: How are we going to have a public conversation about them? And my point is simply that we need to introduce obligations alongside whatever rights you advocate for. So I’m not trying to do away with the tension you describe, I just think that we need to reimagine citizenship.
I mean, you can’t—I do not believe a rights—a democracy based on rights alone can endure. Inevitably, those rights will come into question. A mother’s right to choose versus the rights of the unborn. Your right not to get vaccinated or wear a mask, my right to public health. Your right to bear arms consistent with the Second Amendment, my right to safety. I can go down a list. So how does one navigate it? And one of the problems if it
becomes all or—if rights become absolute, I believe a society where it becomes all or nothing between your rights or my rights, that’s then a prescription for violence. Because if you get everything and I have nothing, what do I have to learn? I give up faith in the political process. So I think—that’s one of the reasons I do think that compromise is important as a—as an obligation.
So rights inevitably come into conflict. So the question is, how do we deal with that? How do we manage that without dissolving into violence or dissolving into gridlock? So that has been—I’m not trying to say what our economic—what the floor should be, what safety net should be. I’m not going to issue learned things about, you know, Section 230, and how do we manage the tech companies and free speech. Those are issues for the political process. What I’m interested in is how do we create an environment where we have a chance of dealing with those questions in a constructive way. That’s what I’m about.
KELLY: Up here in the second row. Yes, ma’am. The mic is making its way to you. Right here.
Q: Thank you very much. My name is Alexa Chopivsky. I’m the recently appointed executive director of the Women’s Foreign Policy Group. And prior to that, I was living in Ukraine, in Kyiv, for the better part of eleven years.
Thank you so much for writing this book. I look forward to reading it. Principle number ten, put country first. The Ukrainian people have demonstrated that principle to the global community at the very highest level. Principle number three, stay open to compromise. According to my very informal kind of focus groups amongst friends, colleagues in Ukraine, they are not willing to compromise. Who invaded who? They would like a return to the pre first invasion map. They want to maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity. So again, number ten, put country first. Number three, stay open to compromise. How do you square that circle in this situation? And what is your opinion, how do you see the end of this conflict? Thank you.
KELLY: What happens when the obligations come into conflict?
HAASS: Well, first of all, a couple of reactions. Thoughtful question. I talk about the need to stay open to compromise, to consider compromise as a worthy option. I don’t always say compromise is the best option. And I talk about periods in history where a refusal—Gandhi, for example—a refusal to compromise might be totally legitimate. You just have to weigh the consequences. So to me, it’s an instrumental sort of question, where you can—you’ve always got to look at what are the costs, in this case, of not compromising? What are the likely results? What are the costs and benefits of compromise? Obviously, it depends on the compromise. So that’s—compromise, it seems to me, is implicitly neither the right nor wrong option. It’s just, like everything else, depends upon the content and the—and the alternatives. So that’s my point on that.
For Ukraine, yes, put country first. And, by the way, before I answer your question directly, I think Ukraine has put country first. And there’s been a coming together—one of the many ironies of Vladimir Putin is he has done more for Ukrainian nationalism—(laughter)—than just about anybody else imaginable. Indeed, I think his principal goal for the war was to eradicate Ukraine, because Ukraine represents an alternative future tied to the West, democratic, market, for Slavic peoples. That’s the one thing, if you’re Vladimir Putin, you can’t—and that is a moral threat to his Russia and to his rule. So I think this is not about territory, in the end, for Putin. This is about something much more, I believe.
But, no, look, for Ukraine it’s got to decide this question. I understand 85 percent of the people want to go back to the 2014 lines. Totally understandable. The question is, will that prove possible? Unclear. How long will it take? At what human cost, economic cost, physical cost? What are the alternatives to that? There’s obviously an unlimited number of territorial options. There are associations with the EU and NATO. There’s the question of what Russia would have to agree to in the way of reparations, war crimes, whatever.
So I think the answer is you may say it’s premature for Ukraine or anyone else to be talking about compromise now, but wars, you know, only end in one or two ways—formally end. Either they end with one side defeating the other completely or there’s some type of a compromise. They can get frozen in between. In some ways, the Korean Peninsula is a war that has not formally ended but has been where it is now for, what, sixty-five, maybe I got the math wrong, but, you know, since the mid-’50s. And that’s a possibility, by the way, for Ukraine. And that’s, indeed, where I think we’re likely to be for the next few years.
My own prediction is that neither side is prepared to compromise, and neither side can impose its will on the battlefield. So that suggests to me that a year from now or two years from now, whatever, the situation is more likely to resemble the status quo than to look like something fundamentally different. That is my prediction. Now, at some point that may change for various reasons, possibly militarily, more likely political-economic. But I just don’t think we’re there yet. But that’s—look, that’ll be a decision for Ukraine, and also for Ukraine’s supporters.
And that’s what gets offered. At some point, Europe, the United States, and others—it’s one thing to say, as we’ve said, that our war aims are exactly what Ukraine’s war aims are. But that is, shall we say, ahistorical. Partnerships between sovereign countries often has friction between both the means and ends of the conflict. World War II had that all the time amongst the allies. United States and Israel have had that at times. United States, Israel, France, and Britain had that in 1956. So it’s conceivable to me that the day will come that there will be differences about ends. There’s already differences about means.
As recently as today, President Zelensky was asking for a degree of support, and President Biden said no, when it came to fighter aircraft. So we already have some friction about means. I think there is an implicit friction potentially about ends. We’re just not there yet. And that day, my own sense, is some time away. And it’s quite possible Ukraine could have to make some difficult decisions. Russia may have to. Others may have to. But at the moment I just think that’s premature. And my guess is that something like a version of what we see will be a version of what we’ll see for some time.
KELLY: See if we can squeeze in one, maybe two more, depending on how long they both are.
HAASS: I will try to give a shorter answer. I apologize. Thoughtful questions, though, require longer answers.
KELLY: I saw this hand first. So we’ll go to the gentleman right here. And then if we can, we’ll work our way back to the back of the room over here again. OK.
Q: I’m Jim Himes. I’m a member of the House of Representatives.
Richard, thank you for writing this book. After January 6th in my town hall meetings, I would tell my constituents that elected officials can play a little bit with the structure, think about the primary system, look at social media, think harder about social media. But my conclusion was, this is really up to you and everything that you’ve talked about. So thank you for writing this, because this is the roadmap.
My question—I’m bristling and looking for more thought on number ten, which in some ways should be the most obvious, put country first. The reason I bristle is because I hear that all the time in a polarized political environment. And people say, why are you just voting your party? Put your country first. And nine times out of ten, that means why don’t you vote the way I ideologically want you to vote? And when you use the word “country,” country, of course, can mean, and does mean, all sorts of different things to all sorts of different people. And I know you’re not talking about policy here, but isolationism versus engagement, et cetera. I mean, it can mean so many different things.
To really put a point on this let me offer my observation on January 6th. When I left the chamber I saw up close and personal the people who had broken in and committed hideous crimes. And I know that those people
thought that they were acting in the service of their country. I’d be shocked if any one of those, if interviewed, said: No, in that moment I knew I was doing something profoundly evil, moved by a lie. So my question is, because I’ve never squared this in my own mind, who is the arbiter or what is the arbiter of what the country is? And when do I know that that is what I need to do, versus the ideology of my party?
HAASS: Congressman, it’s a great question. And I come back to Ronald Reagan. And Reagan said he didn’t just want patriotism, because you’re right, every one of those people would say: I’m a patriot. And they genuinely believe they are. Ronald Reagan said: Being a patriot is not enough. We need to be an informed patriot. I want an informed patriotism to define the United States. And that’s what he talked about our obligation to become informed. And that would be my answer. Those people may have thought they were patriots. They were misguided. And they were operating under false assumptions.
What they were doing was threatening the very fabric of what makes this country this country. It was un-American, given that the history—given the DNA of country, given our democracy. They may not be aware of that. That’s where, again, an informed patriot—essentially, we have to walk it back. How do we get that so views like—so people who want to do what they did become such a distinct minority that they’re not a significant political threat? And I think that’s the only way to do it, ultimately. And there’s no one—there’s no one-stop shopping to accomplish that. But that’s where, again, religious leaders, educators, business leaders, families, political leaders over time can make a dent in that.
But I think your point—what you point to is a real problem. Everybody, of course, thinks what they’re doing is in the best interest of the country. Everybody thinks, of course, I’m a patriot. People who disagree with me are advocating for things that are bad for the country. But that’s where there’s no way to get around the idea that not all ideas, not all agendas, are equal.
KELLY: And it sounds like you’re coming round to the—you know, to the congressman’s point, as he’s trying to figure out how do I vote on this, how do I put country first? Does that mean I’m voting yes or no on this—whatever the bill du jour is. Are you coming round to the—again, I’m going to give you one last chance to put your Captain Obvious cape on, but to the Captain Obvious point that that is—that is our democracy. That two congressmen who are both doing their best to be well-informed and vote in the best interests of the country can arrive at a really different decision of what that looks like and how they should vote? That’s the point?
HAASS: Look, the idea that we could have honest, intelligent people reach very different positions on matters of public policy, of course. That, to me, goes without saying. Even—and even if you’re doing it from a single basis of fact. And that’s a prerequisite. You know, Moynihan’s—Senator Moynihan’s comments that everyone’s entitle to his own opinions, not just to his own facts. So we’ve got to have this argued out on a common foundation of facts.
But then you could have legitimate debates, like you have in the Fed, over where to set, you know, quantitative easing or rates. Of course, you could have different opinions. Or, now about spending levels versus taxation levels. Of course, how much aid to give to Ukraine. I mean, of course you could have those. The policy debates are the stuff of democracy. Again, it’s one of the advantages of democracy. I would think that places like China suffer from the fact that when they were debating COVID policy they didn’t have much of a policy debate. So—or, Putin didn’t have much of a debate before he went into Ukraine. So I want to have those debates.
But I want to have them done on the basis of facts. And I want there to be attention given. And I want people to challenge them—which is partially media and others. And then I want people to be held accountable. So, I mean, what makes these—what makes these debates important is not that you always get it right. You don’t. But I then want people to be held accountable for how they—what they advocated for, or how they voted. And that’s on us, again. That ought to be held up.
When you voted for this, and it turned out this way, I’m therefore not going to vote for you this time, or I’m going to support your opponent, or send money here because you got that wrong. And people can ask, you know, why are you supporting that, and so forth. I think, again, we need a—there’s got to be more political accountability. Again, the whole idea of obligations is not legal accountability. We have a system of law for that. We have courts and the rest. This is in the court of public opinion. It’s very different. It’s what people should do.
And again, it ultimately becomes the society, the political process if you will, that has to differentiate. So even if people think they’re operating from the best of motives, they may not be. Or, even if they are, it doesn’t matter. At some point decisions have consequences. And whatever motivates them to do it, I mean, if they break the law, they ought to be held accountable. That’s easy, the January 6th people. There’s no—you know, society—a democratic society cannot allow violation of the law. That’s the whole basis of civil disobedience, all that. You have to be held accountable. But where in those situations where people opt for policies that are consistent with the law, just misguided, then they ought to be held accountable for them. And that, again, is up to us.
KELLY: With that, I am going to bring us to a close. I have three remaining duties for tonight. The first is to tell you all that the video and transcript of the conversation we have just all enjoyed will be posted on the amazing, spectacular CFR website. (Laughter.) The second is to invite all of you who are here in Washington, please join us. We’re going to be outside with a glass of wine, some nibbles, and continue the conversation out there. For those on Zoom, please raise a glass at home. And my third is to thank all of you for coming out on a rainy night. And particularly to thank you, Richard Haass, for your time, for your wisdom, for taking all the questions tonight. Thank you.
HAASS: And I want to thank Mary Louise, just—again, not just for tonight, but for what she and her colleagues do. You asked about resources, and NPR is one of the—one of the best. And thank you all, again, for coming and for showing interest in this. Good to see you. (Applause.)