NY 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 Juju Chang.
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.
CHANG: Well, hello. Good evening. We have a packed house, which is lovely. And I know we have people joining us virtually as well.
HAASS: Superspreader event.
CHANG: Actually, it’s another superspreader event. No, it’s not. (Laughter.) We all showed our vaccine cards. We’re all in perfectly good health.
I’m Juju Chang. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with CFR President Richard Haass, who actually needs no introduction. But what does is his new bestselling book, The Bill of Obligations, which was dropped, as they say in the business, on Tuesday, and it’s already in the top fifty, right, on Amazon. And Richard told me, you know, sort of on the sly that he wasn’t sure who was more surprised, his publisher or his wife. (Laughter.) Susan Mercandetti is a longtime hand in the publishing world. But I know we are not at all surprised because the timing is important, the subject is important, and that’s why we’re here. So here we are.
HAASS: Thank you, Juju.
CHANG: Let’s start with a question that I’ve asked you many times from this stage, which in many ways kicks off the book as to why you wrote it, which is: What keeps you up at night? What makes you most nervous about the world? And how did that lead to this book?
HAASS: This wasn’t a book I planned to write. I’m actually surprised I had to write it. You know, I always—you know, I talk a lot, as you’ve all noticed. I give speeches. The questions come up: What keeps you up at night? What worries you? Is it China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, climate change? And all of those things, obviously, worry the likes of me and everybody in this room. But increasingly, my answer to the question was us. My feeling was if we couldn’t come together we wouldn’t be able to carry out a consistent, effective foreign policy; and we wouldn’t set an example anyone in the world would want to emulate; and our friends wouldn’t have confidence in us, our foes would not be worried about us. So, increasingly, I came to see our domestic disarray—to choose one of my favorite words—as a real national security threat to our own well-being, which is what led me to this.
CHANG: You quote Jimmy Carter as saying our nation can be—can be strong abroad only if we’re strong at home. Clearly, democracy is a(n) important aspect of that. So why is it important, in your mind, to strengthen, you know, democracy here? And how will that affect foreign policy, as you scan the globe and look at hotspots?
HAASS: Well, when the rest of the world looks at us, in part it’s the question of whether we’re going to be willing and able to do things. So I think, for example, when a Vladimir Putin takes our measure, and if he feels we’re too divided, too focused inward; he looks at things like January 6th; that, obviously, leads or encourages him to believe that he can act with a degree of impunity. The Chinese love nothing more than to post pictures on their television of things like January 6th and say, hey, Chinese people, this is why we’re lucky to have an authoritarian system and not have a messy democracy which leads to anarchy. There’s that.
I also worry about that, if our democracy isn’t functional, how are we going to have the economy we need? We’re about to have a real test with the debt ceiling. If we can’t meet that, that’ll have all sorts of economic as well as political consequences—we won’t be able to meet the array of challenges that we face and we’re not going to be as competitive as we should be.
So, again, I wrote a book years ago called Foreign Policy Begins at Home, and the message of that is national security is a two-sided coin as to foreign policy is domestic, and I think that’s true. And the big change between me now and ten years ago is I’ve grown far more worried about the functioning of our democracy. And January 6th was something of a low point, but I don’t think it was necessarily a one-off. So I no longer—I wake up in the
morning, and I don’t know about you, but five or ten years ago it never occurred to me to question that tomorrow American democracy would basically be as good as it is today. I’m kind of there. And now I question that.
CHANG: And we’ll dig into your Bill of Obligations. But you know, in that framework, in that way of looking at the world, how does yesterday’s headlines about the U.S. and Germany coordinating sending tanks to Ukraine fit into that reference point?
HAASS: Look, I think it was—it was a decision by the administration that was more right than not. It was also more reluctant than not. It was a long time in coming.
I think the good news of it is it keeps the alliance together. It’s consistent with an alliance-first foreign policy as opposed to an America-first foreign policy. It gave Germany cover to do what it would not otherwise have done. It sent the signal to Putin, who is counting on the passage of time as fraying the Western alliance, and it sends a signal to him maybe that yet another one of your assumptions may not be right.
So I think, for all those reasons—but given what happened with the House, given some of the moves there, there are questions about the degree to which one can assume that American support for Ukraine will continue, certainly at levels that it’s been.
CHANG: But does it give cover, then, to other European nations to deliver goods as well?
HAASS: Absolutely, beginning with Germany, that this was a necessary decision. You know, I think you can have a foreign policy conversation—which isn’t the subject of tonight—about I think it will help blunt any Russian offensive. I’m not persuaded it will necessarily turn the military balance in Ukraine’s direction, just given how many Russian forces are there, how dug in they are, the delay in delivery of the American tanks, and so forth. So I doubt this is going to be decisive.
CHANG: I wanted to point out that my copy of your book is dog-eared and notated.
HAASS: Duly noted.
CHANG: Yes, thank you. And it’s called The Bill of Obligations, so I want you to sort of give the audience a sense of, you know, you talk about the Bill of Rights and other founding documents and why this differs in the sense of sort of, you know, reexamining core values.
HAASS: Look, the Bill of Rights were an essential piece of the American political story. At the time, we had the Articles of Confederation—if you will, Constitution 1.0. And if you haven’t ever read or recently read the Articles of Confederation—which I hadn’t read them in probably fifty years—go ahead and re-read them. It is a stunning experience. It is a design for a government that is designed to fail. It was the weakest central government imaginable, essentially without an executive with any authority. All the power, essentially, accrued to the states. And when the Constitution—which is essentially Constitution 2.0—was put forward, what people were worried about is that by creating a strong executive authority—and this was still rather recently after declaring independence from Great Britain—that you were going to create something too strong. So you had to build assurances into it, which is the Bill of Rights. What the Bill of Rights—which gave people, individuals and states—and that’s a critical point—protections against the central or federal government—and those are, obviously, the first ten amendments of the Constitution. And ultimately, America decided that wasn’t a good formula. Among other things, it contributed to the Civil War in the sense that states’ rights, slavery, and all that didn’t offer individuals protections against states. And that it some ways was the critical divide in American politics for the first, what, seventy, eighty years of the country’s experience. But the Bill of Rights are essentially providing individual freedoms.
But think about it. Rights are obviously necessary, but are they enough? So someone says: I want to have a right to bear arms, Second Amendment. But what about rights to public safety? A mother’s—a woman’s right to choose, but what about rights of the unborn? My right not to get vaccinated or wear a mask, but what about the right of public health? So how do you—how do you navigate the zone between rights, particularly when rights become absolute?
CHANG: And you bring up the harm principle to talk about how to draw those lines.
HAASS: Yeah, and—yeah. And you know, Mill, you know, introduced it. But it’s one thing—you know, my right to swing my fist ends at your nose. (Laughter.) Not an original line, but by a Supreme Court justice. And the question is: How does one deal with the world? And how do we, as a country, deal with that tension? And that’s where obligations come in.
And obligations, just to be clear, are not legal obligations in the sense of requirements or stipulations, things you have to do. My argument is that obligations are things you need to do or should do if we’re going to avoid either the gridlock of the absolutism of rights or, even worse than gridlock, friction.
I spent three years as the U.S. envoy in Northern Ireland. The last thing I want to see is a version the Troubles come to the United States. I never imagined until several years ago that was even conceivable. It’s now conceivable. And what happened on January 6th, no one should assume it’s a one-off. Why couldn’t we have that again, if not in Washington at one of fifty or more statehouses? And the rest.
So I think this question of how we moderate, how we deal with a society where rights are asserted but rights come into conflict, I think that’s a big issue. Hence, the call for obligations.
CHANG: You bring up January 6th. Rejecting violence is number five in your Bill of Obligations.
HAASS: Yeah, I’m going to help you on that.
CHANG: You talk about how you have a fear—
HAASS: Juju, I’m going to give you this card and this will help you.
CHANG: Oh, OK. Thank you. (Laughter.) I have my notes, but this is far better—a better font, actually. (Laughter.)
So if rejecting violence is that, I mean, you actually talk a lot in other settings about your fear of politically-inspired violence. And talk about some of the roots of that, whether it’s social media, misinformation, or the combination therein?
HAASS: Look, social media is more social than media. Let’s be honest. And what it does is it reinforces a phenomenon in this country—the academic word is sorting, S-O-R-T-I-N-G—where increasingly, rather than a country of or society of common overlapping experience, we’re now a country of separate experiences.
When I grew up, the big debate in the social science literature—the poli-sci literature—was between the America as a melting pot and a mixing pot. And the question was where the hyphen went, whether you were something-American or American something. And now actually I think there’s a third category. Rather than mixing or melting pots, it’s separate pots.
There was an article in the New York Times this week which stunningly enough used the phrase—it’s by Tom Edsall, who I think writes some of the most thoughtful stuff about American politics. And I heard a—I saw a phrase I had never before seen. He talked about “rural-urban apartheid” in the United States. That is stunning, if
you think about it, that degree of separateness. And then other people were talking about the calcification of differences in the United States, which suggests a real lack of social and cultural and economic mobility.
So I’m increasingly worried about this separateness. It’s one of the reasons, for example, one of the obligations—a different one—calls for national service, which I think would be a helpful way to get people to actually do some things in common and meet somebody who you’re not necessarily going to meet on the Upper East Side of New York if you’re not from the Upper East Side of New York.
CHANG: You draw AmeriCorps and other public service organizations as examples.
HAASS: Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, the military is an AVF—it’s an all-volunteer force—but you’ve got overseas things like the Peace Corps. You’ve got VISTA, AmeriCorps, what have you. We could expand those. There’s an idea for a climate corps. You could incentivize people to go into it, offering them student loan forgiveness. Businesses could basically say we’re going to give priority in hiring people who exit these programs after. Two-year colleges could give them preferential admissions. But I think this would be good both at building bridges in this society and breaking down some of the suspicion of government.
Too many people think that government’s the problem. Well, guess what? About 25 million people in this country work for government if you add up state, you know, local, and federal government, governments everywhere. And to me, to basically treat it as the enemy is really—just the government’s us. And the challenge is to make it more responsive, more accountable.
CHANG: I love how he’s just improv-ing. He’s gone from obligation number nine to obligation number eight, which is respect government service, just going all over the map. So I’m glad you handed me this.
So let’s go back up to the top. The first two are be informed, get involved. You point out that democracy is not a spectator sport. What prescriptions do you have for getting involved?
HAASS: Well, before getting involved is getting informed.
HAASS: I think that’s more basic. It’s the first one. You know, Ronald Reagan called for not just patriotism, but he called for an informed patriotism, and that’s what we want. We want Americans to be informed.
One of the great movements in this country—and just last week, I think it was in New Jersey, New Jersey was the first state in the country to pass a law—Phil Murphy, Governor Murphy, signed it into law—requiring that information literacy be taught in public schools in New Jersey, basically to help young people say: OK, this is a fact; this isn’t. This is where I can go for facts; this is not where I go for facts. I think it’s a fantastic thing. Finland also has it. I would love to see those kinds of laws passed in all fifty states. Indeed, there are civics courses being taught in high schools now, I learn—I’ve gotten an amazing reaction from civics and high school teachers around the country that the courses both teach what we tend to think of as civics—The Federalist Papers, the Constitution, how a bill becomes a law sort of stuff—but also information literacy. And I think that’s a really healthy development in this country.
And now I’ve gone on so long I forgot what you asked me.
CHANG: No—(laughs)—critical thinking is one of them. I mean, you segued to number nine. Just we should pass out these cards.
HAASS: I’m sorry, I—
CHANG: Nine is support the teaching of civics. And I think part of it is what you do in the book is you then have to define what civics is. I was surprised to learn how few high schools—public high school jurisdictions require physics (sic; civics), and I was even more surprised at how few colleges. I think you said less a fifth of colleges—
HAASS: Require it. Virtually—
CHANG: —require physics (sic; civics).
HAASS: Just to be clear, virtually every university/college offers—offers—American Government 101, civics of some form. Very, very few require it. So if you get clever in how you juggle and navigate your distribution requirements—
CHANG: My sons are doing that just now.
HAASS: —you can emerge from that campus without ever having been exposed to any of the basics of American democracy or citizenship. Many high schools can’t offer it. It’s gotten crowded out by STEM and other such things. Many do offer it, but it’s often half a year. It’s an elective. And what’s offered, shall we say, is wildly uneven.
One of the really nutty things that I encountered writing this book is that there’s legislation that’s been introduced in Congress to mandate civics. And literally, in the opening paragraph of the legislation, “nothing in this law should be construed to mean that we are going to specify what should be the curriculum.” So the idea that in different states of the country we would learn, quote/unquote, “different civics,” I don’t know, call me madcap, but that kind of defeats the purpose of the whole thing, I would have thought. And—
CHANG: And so how do you avoid having it crash into so much of the political debate right now around critical race theory? Governor DeSantis yesterday, you know, rejected AP Black history. You know, it becomes part of the political buzzsaw.
HAASS: You’re right. As difficult as it was a couple years ago, it’s become orders of magnitude more—well, everything’s politicized now. Five years ago, vaccination wasn’t politicized. It was just something you did, and you got a lollipop afterwards. This is now—so I think that’s the first thing. There’s nothing that’s not politicized. We’re swimming in a sea of disinformation. So it’s going to be harder. What I try to suggest is there are some things about civics that are factual. We have documents. Those are the documents. We have dates. Those are the dates. So there’s a degree of history, shall we say, that is not up for grabs.
But there are things that are up for grabs legitimately, some things illegitimately. And the things that are legitimately up for grabs—and I would say, well, you don’t try to teach, quote/unquote, “one history.” But you basically say, here’s different interpretations. Coming back to Northern Ireland, I once proposed, unsuccessfully, a museum of the history of Northern Ireland. And the whole idea was not to say this Protestant or this Catholic interpretation of history was right, but here are the facts. Here’s the milestones. Here’s the stuff that happened. This protest happened, this law was passed, this many people were killed, and this meant—and here’s the different interpretations. Expose the students to them, debate it out.
And I think the same thing is true of American history. We’re never going to agree on a single history. I think what’s more important, we have a large history with various dimensions, we expose students to it, and then let the conversation begin. Take them original sources and have it. But again, I think it’s gotten much harder. But I don’t think we can afford to give up. Can I give one other analogy?
CHANG: Sure. It’s your (set ?). (Laughter.)
HAASS: Well, thank you. I don’t know if I paid for this microphone, but I’ll—(laugher)—associate—
CHANG: You’ve already gone off topic a million times, it’s fine. (Laughter.)
HAASS: So Jews every spring at the holiday of Passover gather. They have the ritual meal to celebrate Passover, the celebration of Jewish exodus from Egypt. And the reason—what’s so interesting about this holiday is it’s celebrated in the home, not in the synagogue. Why? Because Jews for much of their history didn’t have access to the holy temple. So they had to come up with basically what a friend of mine once described as portable Judaism. The idea was you could teach Judaism where you didn’t have access to centralized institutions. They didn’t exist, you had persecution, what have you. So you have this, the Haggadah, the telling of the Passover narrative. And you tell the story. And the reason is that every generation can’t assume the next generation somehow is born knowing this. You’re not. You have to pass it on. You have to transmit the narrative of history in order to preserve it.
Well, think about us. This is a country—we’re not founded on religion. We’re not—we’re not founded—you know, we’re not a hereditary monarchy. And we’re not founded on race, though obviously we had terrible racial issues when we were founded, beginning with slavery. But, you know, the idea of America—we didn’t always live up to the ideas—was based on certain ideas about opportunity, about freedom. Well, we have to pass those on. We have to teach them.
And I think, by failing to teach them, we make ourselves much more vulnerable to being hijacked by populism or hijacked by conspiracy theories, or other imposters who are—who are representing what they say is the American tradition. Well, guess what? It’s not. But you can’t beat something with nothing. And I think too often we fail to transmit our own narrative.
CHANG: So many of the obligations revolve around norms, right? About remaining civil is number four. And you point out the example within the Supreme Court, both within the relationship with Justice Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as well as more recently protests outside of some of those Supreme Court justices’ homes. How does that fall into the remain civil narrative?
HAASS: Norms are, and civility, are both important. Norms are, again, they’re behaviors, they’re traditions, they’re rituals that we think ought to be celebrated, or embraced, or followed, again, not because they’re mandatory but because inside them are good things. They’re virtuous behavior. They in some ways embrace character—the kinds of character or virtue we want to celebrate and encourage people to adopt. One of the most basic I talk about in the book is when you lose an election. You conceded.
One of the great moments, I think, traditionally every four years in American history, or every eight years, is when the losing candidate for president, or the predecessor, drives down Pennsylvania Avenue and you have the peaceful transfer of power. What a remarkable demonstration. And it’s remarkable only because in so much of the world it doesn’t happen. And the fact that it was so unremarkable here until recently I thought was a brilliant and important norm.
So I think norms—I think norms matter. It’s respect for behaviors, for institutions. The idea of not protesting outside the house of Supreme Court justices, again, it’s a personalization. I may have real issues, in some cases I do, with Supreme Court decisions. But the idea of—it’s not only that it’s politically, I think, counterproductive. Put that aside, on an instrumental aside. But just the idea that you would bring that kind of protest to the home of an individual, whether in the court or in Congress or whatever, seems to me wrong. If you have problems with the behavior of the Supreme Court, then go to the Supreme Court, outside there, and organize a peaceful protest.
What I loved about the relationship between Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, they were kind of, I wouldn’t say in the endzones, but they were clearly on their respective sides of the playing field.
CHANG: The red zones.
HAASS: As I Giants fan, I tend not to use football images anymore. (Laughter.) We’ve put that on the back burner for the time being. It’s been a—it’s been a tremendously bruising few weeks there, few days there.
HAASS: But the fact that they had such a close personal relationship and continued to learn from each other I thought was a real model of civility. And it’s one of the reasons that I’m such a believer in debate, is if you’re open in a debate you inevitably learn. And actually I love it also when you have to switch sides. And then, again, you get insights into the thinking of the—of the other side. So I always find the Ginsburg-Scalia relationship a wonderful example of—almost of a—what’s sad about it, it’s almost a Washington that doesn’t exist anymore. And, you know, one of my goals, I’d love to see it come back.
CHANG: You point out in “stay open to compromise,” that’s obligation number three. And as the foreign policy folks in here would like to know, you point out the Cuban Missile Crisis as a great example.
HAASS: Sure. At least until recently, that was arguably the closest the world ever came to the nuclear brink. And the fact that the two sides did manage to climb down from the brink with formal and informal understandings. We agreed not to invade Cuba, essentially accept the ’59 revolution. Took our Jupiter missiles out of Germany. Russians took their missiles out of Cuba, and so forth. Yeah. I mean, look, I’m not saying every compromise is automatically right. And you always have to ask, is what you’re—is it worth it? What are the alternatives? It’s a whole, long conversation. But you—but compromise can’t be a dirty word.
Indeed, it’s interesting, if you go back and reread, which I recommend, Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, what’s so interesting is several of the people he talks about are people who stood firm. But several of the senators he celebrates are senators who compromised, because he said that was the gutsy thing to do. That was the profile in courage, their willingness to compromise when others were saying don’t sell out and all that. So again, everyone has to, obviously, gauge when a compromise is called for. But certainly to compromise on the details of implementation so you get—you don’t get 100 percent of what you want, but you get 50 percent or 30 percent, well, in most cases that’s better than the alternative. Something tends to be better than nothing.
CHANG: You talk about Profiles in Courage, which jumps to number ten, obligation to put country first. You call that “thinking institutionally,” more broadly. And you point out that if there were such an award of profile in courage that Liz Cheney would be one that you would nominate.
HAASS: Absolutely. I mean, here is someone who, certainly for now and the foreseeable future, sacrificed her political career. Who knows about her long-term political future. I don’t think anybody can see that far ahead. But the idea that she stood against her party, she clearly—she lost her reelection chance, to get nominated again, I guess it was. But she did it out of principle. And, you know, I can disagree, as I have, with Liz on various policy issues, but I thought the fact that she did that was so admirable.
And I found it really discouraging the other day when even a handful of Republicans—look, you know, here, we’re sitting in a nonpartisan institution. I was a Republican for forty years. Let me just put that on the table. But when you couldn’t even get a handful of Republicans the other day to basically break from the Republican majority and work with the Democrats at potentially getting a speaker that would stand for something that was more centrist—I just found that discouraging. I think this idea of party first, no matter—or, no party, no matter what, or personal ambition no matter what, that is a—you know, to say it is truly unfortunate would truly be an understatement.
CHANG: Number seven is “promote the common good.” And I can’t remember if it’s under here, but you do talk about the role of corporations. Not just personal involvement. You give the example of Spotify. And I’m sure there are others that pop to your head, where you put the common good.
HAASS: Well, I think corporations—it’s interesting. So many of the debates we’ve seen in the corporate world, debates about, you know, what Larry Fink and others have written about, of things like ESG, DEI, what’s surprising to me is how little corporations in this country have weighed in on behalf of democracy. Now, I would have thought if you’re an American corporation, what are your comparative advantages? Well, one is the rule of law in this country. That we’re a stable society. That you don’t have the government used for partisan purposes. How would corporations feel if every day they woke up the IRS or the Justice Department or the EPA politicized what they did against corporations because we didn’t like the fact that the CEO or some member of board was contributing to this or that politician?
So I would think that American companies have an enormous stake in democracy. So I’m frustrated by the fact that this has not gotten the priority it deserves. Why are corporations giving money to politicians that are election deniers or advocates of violence? Why are corporations advertising on outlets that give such people a voice? Why aren’t corporations doing more to protect the American democracy. This is not, in some ways, corporate social responsibility, though it is. I would call this corporate self-interest. That’s a movement I’d like to see.
CHANG: You sort of touched on this, but I want you to go deeper, if you will, on number eight, respect government service. And obviously civil servants are under that umbrella. You know, there’s been a lot of talk of the deep state. And it sounds very conspiratorial, in part because it is, I suspect. Give us a sense of why it’s important. You know, there are other institutions—you can point at the fact that, you know, journalists were referred to as enemies of the state, that this is—you know, this idea of, you know, respecting government service, respecting institutions.
HAASS: Well, some of that language worries me because I think it leads to violence, to call journalists enemies of the state or to call people in government the deep state, I think, inspires, instigates, is something of a precursor of violence. At a minimum, it delegitimizes what it is they do. So I think it’s—where we can—you know, the laws about—and I’m not a lawyer, as you’ve already figured out. But laws about incitement have very narrow criteria about imminence, and specificity, and the rest. So they may not meet the legal definition of incitement, but I’m working more from the political definition of it, which is a larger one. And it worries me, that kind of language.
But again, more important, government, as I said before, you’ve got a—I think my numbers are right—something close to twenty-five million people one way or another, including the military, all the people working at various agencies at the local, state, and federal level—government’s pervasive. We want the best and brightest to go into government.
CHANG: You said it’s a third of our economy.
HAASS: Not a third, but it’s—I don’t think. But it’s a sizable chunk of it. And so what we want to do is make government service attractive. Now, yes, it’s got to be accountable, yet—and so forth. We can’t—we should have zero tolerance for corruption and the rest. But we want the best and brightest to go—we want government service—to go into government, you’re not going to make a ton of money, you’re going to give up some privacy in many cases, you’re going to work pretty—you know, pretty long hours, and the rest. So there are sacrifices that come with it. But to add disrespect and physical vulnerability to it, why do we think the best and brightest are going to either run for office or decide to become civil servants in that kind of a context? So if government gets worse because it doesn’t get the best and brightest, who is going to pay the price? We’re going to pay the price—American society. So it just seems to me incredibly self-defeating.
CHANG: We’re going to take questions in a few minutes, so I just want to warn folks at home and here to get their best questions ready.
But one of the things we talked about is this idea that when you look around the globe, where do you see democracy in peril, and the fact that these threats often are not from outside, but from within?
HAASS: Well, I think there is something of a phenomenon now going on in a lot of the democratic world which is populism, and the reason is that in a lot of the world people are frustrated with the status quo—in some cases for economic reasons: stagnating wages, inflation, job insecurity, inequality.
In this country I think you have frustration with the 2007/8 financial crisis. You have frustration with the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan. So there’s a sense that elites have not performed, and that’s—we see a degree of populism in this country.
We just saw it in Brazil. I think what saved Brazil was a pretty robust legal and court system.
We see a real degradation of democracy in Mexico—you know, backsliding there. We’ve obviously seen it in parts of Eastern Europe, Hungary first and foremost.
So we also see robust democracies in much of Europe, in some parts of Latin America, in some parts of Asia, but the message I take is no democracy is immune from backsliding, particularly in an age of social media, in an age where delivery of services and economic performance and to the rest (as populations ?) is anything but automatic.
So you want to build in—you want to build in safeguards—you want to build in institutional safeguards, but also attitudinal and behavioral safeguards among citizens. You know, that old saw that your war is too important to be left to the generals; in some ways, democracy is too important to be left to the political class. And part of my argument in this is that there needs to be some greater bottom-up involvement.
One statistic: we just had one of the most important midterm elections in American history. Guess what? Less than half of Americans who are eligible to vote voted. Why is that? Why is that? OK, yes, in some cases it was difficult to vote—I get that—the hours weren’t good, there weren’t enough polling places, but that does not account for the lion’s share of the non-participation. We have got to get more involved—again, hopefully in an informed way—but we need to hold government accountable, but the way to do it is to get involved.
CHANG: That’s obligation number two—get involved.
CHANG: So circling back—
HAASS: What have I missed? (Laughs.)
CHANG: I don’t know. I feel like we’ve jumped all over the place, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job.
I do want to double down, though, on this idea of number five, reject violence. You touched on it. What can be done to turn down the volume because, again, I’ve talked to you in other settings where you are like, this really makes me nervous, especially based on your, you know, Northern Ireland experience, that this is—this kind of politically based violence could be very disruptive.
HAASS: A couple of things: one is I would think religious authority—people who are congregational and religious leaders, who better placed? This is a pretty religious country still; maybe less so than we were in the past, but still much more religious than many countries.
Why aren’t religious authorities essentially saying, whatever your differences, there is no difference that justifies a resort to force? How many people are preaching that from the pulpit? That ought to be a pretty regular message I would think, pretty consistent with the various scriptures.
Second of all, I also think that our gun situation is part of the problem—a big part of it, and my view is that we’ve to become more restrictive on who has access to guns, and we’ve got to become more restrictive on the kinds of guns they have access to. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not talking about abolition, I’m not talking about extremes, but we’ve got to set up processes and constraints.
By the way, the lion’s share of the American people agree with me on that. Again, it’s an argument for getting involved. If more people who felt that way got involved, guess what? Politicians would react to it.
My one insight about the political class is they are not always responsible, but they are always responsive. And if there are political benefits or penalties that would react to certain political behaviors, that will change political behavior in the elites.
CHANG: As you know, I just got back from Monterey Park, California, from the mass shooting there and, you know, talking to yet another group of victims and victims’ families; talking to, you know, gun control experts who—you know, because California has, as you know, among the tightest gun regulations and, you know, initially, at first glance it’s like why are these mass shootings still happening. And the truth is if you look at the data, California has a lower death rate by gun violence than other states. So it’s worth noting.
HAASS: Actually, could I say—I mean, we put out some stuff on our website—CFR.org if I may boost the home team here—about the contrast in gun possession and fatalities between the United States and the rest of the world. It is stark. And to argue that it’s only about individuals and not about—that’s a hard argument, shall we say—
HAASS: —to make. The availability of guns to all sorts of people who they ought not to be available to, and the availability of certain kinds of weapons—automatic weapons and the rest—that is part of the—a part of the problem here. And again, it’s a question to me of politics; that an intense minority is driving gun policy and regulation, and the question is whether others will get more involved in the political process calling for other types of policies.
CHANG: My last question—and then we’ll go to the audience here first for a question—which is—because I don’t think they’re going to ask this—but your obligation about supporting the teaching of physics—civics, physics—
HAASS: Or physics, yes. (Laughs.)
CHANG: And physics, too. Where does one go for the proper curriculum? I know that you did a lot of reading and a lot of research.
HAASS: Interestingly enough, one is not a universally accepted one.
CHANG: It’s a great, great bibliography—all of your reading lists.
HAASS: And as you all—some of you may have heard, my time here in this job will end this—at the end of June. I would think one of the things I will spend some time on is that. I will spend some of my future time thinking about it, hopefully developing just what such a curriculum might look like.
This has been a—whenever you write a book, you learn a lot. I think I learned more in writing this book than any book I’ve ever written, in part because it forced me into areas that I hadn’t been looking at for most of my professional career, and consistent with what led me then to write the book, my concern about what’s going here, I think I will devote some of my calories and time in the years ahead to trying to develop both the substance of the curriculum and seeing if I can’t build some support for a civics curriculum in this country.
CHANG: Well, that’s a reassuring note. So we’re going to start by inviting members first for a question. Yes?
Q: Thank you. Paul Sheard. Looks like a terrific book, Richard. Congratulations.
HAASS: I think you should buy it and read it, Paul, and find out. (Laughter.)
Q: I’ve got my ten bullet points.
CHANG: Oh, you’ve got your chart! (Laughter.) (Inaudible.)
Q: My question I think is sort of—works a little bit off Juju’s second-to-last question on violence. One of the habits of a good citizen that I think is very important is not explicitly mentioned in the ten list, but I read it into—I can see it in two, three, maybe four of them—is to avoid ad hominem attack. Could you talk a little bit about how that fits into your understanding of this issue?
HAASS: Funny you should mention it. I advised—like most of my advice, it’s not always accepted—but I advised the fellows here, when they engage in political debates, to avoid two things. One is ad hominem attacks—doesn’t improve the quality of your argument, and second of all is to avoid ascribing motives.
It’s hard enough to know why you are doing what you are doing much less why someone else is doing what he or she is doing, and usually it’s for multiple reasons. And that comes to me under the banner or heading of civility. To make it ad hominem, to repeat an argument, to make it louder, none of those things strengthens the argument. Plus, if it’s ad hominem, it makes it much less likely you will reach a deal with that person, a compromise, and it makes it much less likely you’ll be able to work with that person on the next issue or the issue after that.
So it’s in there; it comes under civility, but it’s not just a moral call or a politeness thing. It’s actually quite practical.
CHANG: This is just a slight reminder that this meeting is on the record, and I think our next question will be from someone virtual.
HAASS: From digital land.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Cedric Suzman.
Q: Well, thank you.
Richard, thank you so much; particularly, too, for the contribution your book is making to the discussion.
I would like to ask you about two ideas on civic engagement. How would you promote more wide civic engagement? Would you support, for example, compulsory voting that does exist in some countries? How could we improve the participation of the average person who really sees themselves as somewhat removed from the mechanisms of government?
HAASS: I’m against most things that are compulsory. I see two individuals who hail from Australia in the room here, so Australia does have mandatory—well, if not quite voting, mandatory arrival and showing up at the polling station. Then you can foul your ballot if you so choose. And then you get fined, though, if you don’t show up at the polling station.
I think we would then have a whole debate here about the mandatory-ness of it, which I don’t think is a healthy—plus you could never get it approved because one side or the other would see it as helping them or the other side. And shockingly enough, the side that thought it would help the other side will move against it. And
that’s true, by the way, of every conceivable reform you can think of. It’s one of the reasons I don’t have a whole lot of interest in a lot of reform movements; not that the ideas aren’t wonderful, but I don’t the politics exist to make them happen.
I think the way you make civic engagement more—what—more prevalent is you make the case for it. That’s where, again, civics education would help, I think national service would help. I think basically you have—I think businesses could make it easier for employees to go out and vote—give them the day off. If we made voting—one idea would be to make Election Day—rather than on a Tuesday, maybe make it on a Saturday or Sunday.
What about how—you know, the whole idea of voting through—you know, not on voting day, but for weeks before, though I should add I don’t like the idea that people can vote before the last debates are done. I want to, again, have a complete backdrop to it.
But I think essentially you have to make it easy, and you have to, I think, educate people, and get out there and make the case for why your vote—why your vote potentially matters. And obviously if you look at recent elections, a tiny number of votes has had enormous, outsized impact. And I think—again, I look at the 40-odd percent of Americans who don’t vote who are eligible, don’t vote in presidential elections, with 55 or so percent of Americans who don’t vote in off-year elections, and that’s a lot of unused capacity and influence.
CHANG: I was at a polling site this midterm in Detroit and watching the ships’ workers come in after five to vote. There’s something really moving about that—but you’re right, less than 50 percent.
We’re going to take the next question from here in New York. Let’s—sorry, oh, that’s fine. (Laughs.) Go ahead, just say your name.
Q: Thank. My name is Ned Shaw (sp).
And my question ties to something you sort of alluded to just now. Do you see any role for national legislation in this congress or ones you could see coming down the pike for addressing some of these issues? I started last month at the Treasury Department, so I’m hoping it’s not completely hopeless—the federal government’s ability to affect some of this—but is there any room for compromise, or is it all going to be at the business and civic level?
HAASS: I was on TV this morning talking about national service, and that’s an issue where historically you’ve had a degree of bipartisan support. And I think so long as it’s not mandatory, I think that’s an area where you could have a bit of—a bit of progress, conceivably some areas with civics education, and that’s a bit tougher. So I don’t think some of that is hopeless. Difficult, yes, but hopeless, no.
CHANG: And would break down some of the melting pots—the separate pots, yes.
Let’s take the question back there.
Q: Albert Knapp, NYU School of Medicine. Richard, fantastic book. I read it.
HAASS: Albert’s what we call a real doctor. (Laughter.)
Q: My question is, in reference to being informed, how would you address the really scary prospects of the AI, chatbots, and deepfakes?
CHANG: Dr. Haass? (Laughter.)
HAASS: Well, it’s a great question. So ChatGPT is a—for any of the professors or teachers in the audience it’s going to be a real challenge. It’s already a real challenge for you.
I spent a few hours on it the other day. I had to give a eulogy for Ash Carter, who was a close friend and a member of our board. And I went on ChatGPT, and I had them write—ChatGPT write the first paragraph of the eulogy—not because I couldn’t do it, but I thought if Ash were alive he would have gotten a real kick out of it, and then he could have been the only person in the room who could have explained it because he actually—
CHANG: What did you input to get that out?
HAASS: I wrote Ash Carter, Eulogy, and I got something that was quite personalized.
HAASS: Oh, it’s quite stunning. And I think if you add up AI, if you add up things with visual images, deepfakes—I think at the moment we’re entering a period—there’s always—whether it’s in war or anything else, technology—both the introduced technology and the response technology are never exactly balanced. There is always a lag. And my sense in many of these areas, the introduction of this technology in terms of text or images is ahead of our ability to deal with it. And I think that will be the case for—I don’t know if we’ll catch up. I’ve already said more than I know about it.
But I think this is a real issue, and think about it in terms of the ability to put out information that someone impersonates—this is a statement from this president. Imagine in a situation—OK, we’re in the foreign policy business here—where something is put out there, an image or some text, in a situation where time is of the essence, and you don’t have the time to put it under the necessary scrutiny to ascertain whether it actually emanates—or where it purports to emanate from. So I think it’s potentially dangerous.
So again, I—and I don’t have a lot of confidence—with most new technologies—in the ability of any type of international regime of regulation or strength, so my guess is the best way to deal with dangerous technologies will be technologies that counter them.
HAASS: And that’s—but at the moment I worry a little bit about the lag.
CHANG: The quote was, “We’re watching the death of the college essay in real time. And there are—
HAASS: Well, there was a time in my life I would not have regretted that development, but—(laughter)—
CHANG: But there are technologies that may be able to help spot it.
HAASS: Yeah. I mean, I think you’ll actually have—it’s like the old thing in MAD magazines, Spy, counter-Spy. I think you’re going to have technology, counter-technology in all these areas.
CHANG: I saw a woman’s hand—with the glasses—up. Yes.
HAASS: Hey, Patricia.
Q: So Patricia Rosenfield, Herbert and Audrey Rosenfield Fund, but many, many years a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and delighted with yet another timely book, Richard. Congratulations.
And I’ve just managed to look through the last chapter and the table of contents—your list—and the index which, of course, is what every scholar goes to look at first, the index.
HAASS: Yeah, you’re supposed to look at the—yeah, the index and the—that’s the Washington read. You begin with the index.
Q: Right, the Washington read, from the back.
HAASS: I’m sorry your name is probably not in the index.
Q: No, it’s not, but also not in the index is a whole sector, and I’m just wondering if you could talk about that. That has worked for more than a hundred years on promoting obligations of citizenship, and that’s the non-profit and philanthropic center starting with the General Education Board of John D. Rockefeller, the Carnegie Corporation’s methods of Americanization in the ’20s, and more recently, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Our Common Purpose—all, I mean, a hundred—more than a hundred years of trying to tackle the issue of responsible citizenship.
I do teach civics. I do teach community engagement. And we’re not paying attention so much to the rural/urban divide, but just really how do you reach all Americans. So I’m just wondering, how would you promote this book in terms of drawing on the deep history of the not-for-profit sector trying to promote exactly the really crucial issues in your ten bill—your Bill of Obligations, amplifying the Bill of Rights?
HAASS: Well, since Stephen Heintz of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is sitting two rows in front of you—(laughter)—
Q: This is not a paid-for—(laughter)—
HAASS: I think—
Q: I didn’t see him. I don’t recognize him from the—(laughter)—but I just—
HAASS: His willingness to purchase a hundred thousand copies and distribute them widely in the country—
Q: This is called collaboration across the philanthropic center—the Carnegie Corporation right there—
HAASS: —to make a major dent in the problem.
Look, I think it’s a good example of civil society, and whether it’s individual philanthropy, which we are seeing increasingly in this country; institutionalized philanthropy; corporate philanthropy, there’s a large place for you, and again, it’s part of what I would call a bottom-up approach. And, you know, the thing that you—the project you alluded to, Our Common Purpose, is a thoughtful piece of work. And Steve and I were exchanging emails about just this week because there is more than a little overlap between us.
And so the question is how do we build the critical mass in these areas, and I think there is a place for philanthropy. And again—so I—again, the question is—but I guess I’ve come to the—the reason I wrote this book is I think too much of the effort that I’ve seen in a lot of places has been based on political reforms, and I simply don’t think the context is right to pass those political reforms. So what I tried to do is write something not about the reforms, but about the behaviors and the attitudes that if they gain more traction, there would be a better chance for some of these constructive reforms to actually be passed.
So I wanted to take it one step back. As I wrote this book I was impressed by how many thoughtful studies emerged, but I was also depressed by the fact that a lot of these thoughtful studies hadn’t gained a lot of traction. And that’s why—that’s why I chose the emphasis I did.
CHANG: And then, ultimately, it’s up to each individual to take on these—Bill of Obligations.
CHANG: We have a member here—
HAASS: Can I say one thing on that? You know, it’s interesting—let me quote Reagan again. Reagan said the most important room in America is the dining room, and it’s what happens around the dining room table. And I really like that idea that it’s—you know, for families, for parents, it’s one of the places I think you can really—again, it’s part of this bottom-up approach. Rather than waiting for the government or Washington to deliver the answers, I think what happens at homes can make a real difference.
Q: Hi, Richard. Congratulations on your book. Andrew Siwo, adjunct professor at NYU.
Earlier you mentioned that—
HAASS: What are you a professor in?
Q: The Wagner School, NYU.
HAASS: Well, OK. But—oh, you’re at Wagner?
CHANG: What do you teach?
HAASS: What do you teach?
Q: I teach corporate responsibility—ESGs, sustainable investing.
So you mentioned that January 6th—that you didn’t think that that was necessarily a one-off, and I agree with you. And I’m curious how those obligations challenge what we consider to be normal. So for example, you can be an elected official, contrive your background, and go into office, and it’s normal. You can, like, not like election results, and it’s normal to challenge those, and in a representative democracy, you—sixteen attempts to elect a speaker, and it’s normal.
How does obligations just run up to what we consider normal?
HAASS: Well, I think I’m a good person to answer this question because I both played third base for the Yankees and I was an astronaut. (Laughter.) And so—and so I feel—I feel uniquely qualified to—look, somebody like a Mr. Santos never should have gotten where he got, and somewhere along the ways, the vetting process, shall we say—whether it was media, his own party, the opposition party—didn’t work. Politics is meant to be something of competitive place, and somehow that broke down.
But once he got where he was—this is where the norms issue comes in. I find it truly discouraging that he is being put on committees by the speaker. I just think—you know, when I talk about norms, there ought to be some standards. And if they can’t—if and when it’s—you know, well, I won’t get ahead of myself. If it ever were to be demonstrated that he violated the law, OK, that’s a different issue.
But I’m writing about obligations, and I would say what’s missing here is the obligations to do the right thing. We want people to respect government. People in government have tremendous authority. The idea that he exercises any authority, that’s outrageous. This is not somebody deserving of that, but he can’t be expected to police himself, look at who he is. So this is where we expect those in positions of responsibility to act responsibly, and they are not. So then it’s up to—the media can do its thing; ultimately, it’s up to voters. We have to decide—and again, we get the government we deserve. It may not be the one we need, but we get the government deserved.
So we’ll see what lessons we take from that, and the Republicans now enjoy power in the House. We’ll see how they—you know, with power comes responsibility. We’ll see how they act. They didn’t get off, shall we say, to a great start, and what we’ll see, ultimately—in two years, we will have a—we’ll have a track record, and we voters will have to decide how we want to respond.
CHANG: With power comes responsibility—I feel like you quoted Spider-Man there, which is really good. (Laughter.)
One of the big norms at the Council on Foreign Relations, as you know, is to finish on time, so I will make this, perhaps, the last question.
HAASS: Yeah, we’ve got time for—we have time for one or two more.
CHANG: OK, I’ve been overruled—(laughter)—two questions. Let’s start here.
Q: Richard, in the order of—
HAASS: Please introduce yourself.
Q: Sorry. Sorry. Manoj Singh, Bank of America.
In the order of precedence, if you were to do a hierarchy of the Bill of Rights, bill of obligation and democracy, where do you start with the Bill of Obligations as having more precedence than the Bill of Rights, and then once the world has made a determination as to what the Bill of Obligations and the Bill of Rights are, democracy comes a distant third to decide on every other issue.
HAASS: Well, it’s interesting if you go back to the founders because I thought about that when I was writing the book. I made—you know, I explained to some extent before the origins of the Bill of Rights. If you read the Federalist Papers, you read other documents and statements by the—they didn’t think a Bill of Obligations was necessary. In many ways they thought—if you read Madison in particular—that the checks and balances would protect us. They thought the fact that you had representative government would increase the odds that people of some virtue—which used the word that was used at the time—would enjoy responsibility.
Jefferson and others believed that the free press would play its role. So essentially they thought that the rights needed to be explicit, but the obligations, if you will, would be implicit. And they thought that would be an adequate basis for success.
And I think what history has shown is that it worked pretty well for a long time, but not so much recently. And in modern times it hasn’t worked so well. So I’m not arguing for a Bill of Obligations—because again it almost is antithetical to the idea to try to create a legal structure for it. It’s meant to be a moral, or social, or cultural rationale for it. So again, all you can do is hope that individuals in our political process will start measuring people by these standards, and they will reward people who meet them and penalize those who don’t.
But I don’t think we need another ten amendments to the Constitution calling for obligations. What I think we need is political awareness and involvement that holds people to account on that basis.
CHANG: We have one minute. One last question? There.
Q: Thank you. John Sacowicz, the host and producer of Peers and Patriots at KMUD and syndicated in many public radio stations in Northern California.
First of all, Dr. Haass, thank you for your good citizenship, both globally and as an American,
HAASS: Thank you.
Q: I was—on my show I interview many people that I consider to be my personal heroes and true American patriots, and chief among them have been people like Edward Snowden and Coleen Rowley, who was the 2003 Time Magazine Person of the Year, who got fired for saying that 9/11 could have been prevented except for the negligence of the FBI, and Tom Drake of the—
HAASS: Is there a question here?
Q: —Tom Drake of the NSA, who—
HAASS: Is there a question in this?
Q: Yes—who lost his job as well.
So my question is: What is the role of whistleblowers in citizenship, particularly when you consider that about a third of our economy is government or military service? How do whistleblowers fit in, and are they adequately protected by the law? Thank you.
HAASS: Well, I simple say as a predicate, we have a slightly different definition of heroes.
But, look, I think there is a role for whistleblowers. There’s protections for them. They ought to be protected. They ought to be protected politically, legally, physically. Whistleblowers—you know, there’s mechanisms where we need people to sound the alarm when certain things are being done that ought not to be done, and there’s paths for them to make their case known.
One also has to protect the potential targets of whistleblowers against whistles that are, shall we say, ought not to be blown because there is not a case for doing it. But again, I think there’s laws and protections, and I’m not an expert on whether we’ve got the balance exactly right. But, you know, I like transparency, I like accountability, and accountability, you know, can come from the outside with things like media, or congressional hearings, and so forth, or accountability can come from the inside when necessary. And there’s a role—a structured role for whistleblowers. But again, I would say it needs to be structured.
CHANG: I want to thank everyone for attending the meeting, both virtually and in person. (Applause.)
I just want to note, thank you, Richard, for writing the book. Today’s event will be online at CFR’s website, and I absolutely would recommend the book—the reading list in the back alone, as well as the wonderful thoughts and insights from Richard Haass. Thank you all.
HAASS: Thank you all. (Applause.)