Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar: A Conversation With Richard Haass on Promoting the Common Good

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

President, Council on Foreign Relations


Senior Analyst, Religion News Service

CFR President Richard Haass, author of the New York Times best seller The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, discusses how to reenvision citizenship if American democracy is to thrive or even survive. His guide is particularly relevant for religion leaders, given its emphasis on civility, compromise, nonviolence, and promoting the common good. Thomas J. Reese, senior analyst at Religion News Service, moderates.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.


FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Webinar Series. This series convenes religion and faith-based leaders in cross-denominational dialogue on the intersection between religion and international relations. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record, the video and transcript will be available on CFR’s website,, and on the Apple Podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

We’re delighted to have Father Reese with us in conversation with CFR President Richard Haass. Dr. Haass founded CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program in 2006, and throughout his tenure, has been a dedicated proponent of CFR serving as a resource for the religion community and deepening the understanding of global issues. Father Reese is a Jesuit priest, and senior analyst at Religion News Service. Previously, he was a columnist at the National Catholic Reporter and editor in chief at America Magazine. Father Reese is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, where he authored three books. And He currently serves on CFR’s Religion Advisory Committee.

So I’m now going to turn it over to Father Reese to take the conversation away. Thank you.

REESE: Thank you, Irina.

I’m delighted to be here with and with Dr. Haass. Everybody—I think, almost everybody on this webinar knows Richard Haass. He has been the president of the Council on Foreign Relations for twenty years now. In fact, he has been a prominent and authoritative spokesperson on foreign policy issues. He’s worked in the State Department, in the Defense Department, in the White House, under four presidents, both Democrat and Republican. Even as a younger man, he worked on Capitol Hill. He has a wide experience of foreign policy issues, and the way in which foreign policy is made.

I mentioned that he’s been at the Council now for twenty years. And we are honored that this is actually his last official event for the Council. And I think this shows how seriously he takes the whole question of religion and foreign policy. Because this program was one that he himself started. So maybe I could just begin by asking you, Richard, why did you start this program on religion and foreign policy? Why did you think that that this was important? And what is the role of religion in foreign policy?

HAASS: Well, thank you, Tom. Listening to the introduction, I learned something we had in common which is maybe not obvious. But you’re at, is it, the Woodstock Theological Seminary?

REESE: Yes, uh-huh.

HAASS: And in 1969, I was at Woodstock. (Laughter.) It’s amazing our paths have not crossed. So why did I do this? A couple of reasons. Look, I’ve always been interested in religion both personally but also academically. When I went to college, I went to Oberlin, which used to have a great theological seminary, by the way. And when I got there, I asked people: Who’s the best professor on campus? And people said, “oh, it’s Professor Tom Frank.” And I said, “OK, what does Professor Frank teach?” And they said, “New Testament.” And I said, “well, that’s interesting. We never got around to reading that one in my house, but I’m game.” So I took it.

And, as is always the case, a great teacher can make a subject come alive. Professor Frank did that. One thing led to another. I was a religion major. Ultimately, it morphed into Middle Eastern studies. That’s when I first studied, though, Christianity, Islam, I had a background in Judaism. So I’ve been interested in religion. And then when I became something of a Middle East expert, you can’t work in the Middle East and not understand the impact of religion on politics. And actually, I thought so many people coming out of a narrow political science background didn’t often have a feel.

One of the rules I made in one of my books, I think it was Intervention—or, maybe it was War of Necessity, War of Choice, that before the United States invades another county, it ought to understand it. And one of the elements of understanding, is to understand the role of religion and its impact on the culture, the society, the politics. So one reason I wanted to do this is I think knowledge of religion is so central if you want to be in the foreign policy or the diplomacy business.

But also, you all—the people on this call—have enormous influence and reach. After getting to CFR a few years afterwards, I remember reading somewhere the statistic as to how many Americans once a week went to either a mosque, a church, a synagogue, a temple, what have you. And the number was extraordinary. It was well over 100 million people. Now the poll, I should be honest, did not say how many of them stayed awake for the entire sermon, but they did get exposed to sermons. And I said, wow, these individuals, these men and women, are a powerful force in American society.

One of the things we’ve tried to do here is be a resource for groups of individual who, what I call, are “multipliers.” That these individuals reach many. Teachers, obviously, check that box. Journalists check that box. Business leaders do. And congregational and religious leaders do. So I thought it was a major opportunity for us to learn from them about the impact of religion on politics in this country and other societies, and at the same time for us to be a resource for you all. And hopefully some of that would influence what it was people talked about. So that’s how it all came about.

REESE: That’s fascinating. It reminds me of Madeline Albright once saying that when she was a young student of foreign policy, they ignored economics. Economics was not something that foreign policy people were worried about. And then she said, today religion was something that foreign policy people didn’t worry about. And—

HAASS: You’re right. One of my favorite—Tom, one of—sorry to interrupt. One of my favorite sayings is, “universities have departments, the world doesn’t.” So much of the intellectual preparation is siloed—economics, politics, whatever, religion. There’s very little cross-fertilization or interdisciplinary work. And as soon as you do work at the White House, or the State Department, whatever, just you want to write history or anything, you’ve got to work across silos, across disciplines. So I just think it’s essential.

REESE: Let’s talk a little bit about your book, which I think is absolutely fascinating. I just read it this week and was very impressed by it. Your new book is entitled The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. And it’s already become a bestseller. So why did you decide to write this book? You’re a foreign policy expert. You could have written about Ukraine, you could have written about refugees, you could have written about global warming, a hundred different topics. Why did you pick this one for your book?

HAASS: Well, I mean, I have written about all the subjects you mentioned, and I continue to. They’re obviously important. It’s not either/or. But what led me to write this book is that, funnily enough, it’s almost a version of our conversation now. Where I give a talk about Ukraine, or Russia, or terrorism, or climate change, or China, or what have you. And then hands would go up at the end of the talk and people would say: What’s your biggest concern? What keeps you up at night? Is it any one of those things? And I’d say, look, those all worry me, obviously. But what worries me most is us. So I decided to write a book about us.

And the intellectual connection was I was worried that if we were at odds with ourselves, or worse at war with ourselves, we wouldn’t be able to set an example that anybody else in the world would want to emulate. We wouldn’t be a partner that anybody wanted to depend on, such as our allies. We wouldn’t have the bandwidth, or the unity, or the resources to be a force for good in the world. And the lesson of history is that good things just don’t happen in the world. Over the last seventy-five years, I’m prepared to argue, a lot of good things happen. And in no small part because of the significant role of the United States.

So what led me to write this book is a genuine concern that the foundation, almost the prerequisite of a successful American role in the world of foreign policy, which is a functioning American democracy, was increasingly at risk. My motive, in a sense, was to say: We’ve got to think about ourselves on democracy as a national security issue. And that we’ve got to take it seriously, and we’ve got to understand that it’s in some vulnerability. The good news is things can be addressed, the ship can be righted. The bad news is, good things don’t just happen by themselves. So I wanted to start a national conversation about how to rethink, almost to reimagine citizenship in a contemporary democracy. And that’s what led to this book.

REESE: Yeah. You play off the Bill of Rights, the first “ten amendments” of the U.S. Constitution. And you point out how at least since the civil rights movement the question of rights has been an important motivating and just an important intellectual driver in the United States, in our politics. The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ movement. All of these founded on a concern about rights. And yet, you’re now telling us we ought to be worried about obligations. What’s going on here?

HAASS: Funny you should ask. Just so there’s no misconception, I’m not against rights. Rights are obviously at the core of the American democratic experiment. The Constitution, which was, if you will, the second Constitution. The Articles of Confederation proved to be really feckless. The Constitution, which did create a strong central government with a strong executive, that was only ratified by the states with guarantees or assurances about rights. And that’s the first ten amendments. That was the requirement if you were going to get ratification. Several states made that clear.

One prism through which to view American history then is the struggle for rights. The Civil War is obviously the most intense moment. The right to be free, not to be a slave. But other rights as well. Again discrimination, whether based on gender, race, religion, sexual preference or identity, what have you. And that is, to use Mr. Lincoln’s phrase, that was or is our “unfinished work.” There’s still a gap between what we proclaim in the Declaration of Independence and the reality. It’s a permanent struggle, I would argue, to make sure that rights are respected.

My point in writing the book is that even if somehow you, or I, or anyone on this call had a magic wand and could eliminate the gap between our principles and our practices, essentially to finish Abraham Lincoln’s work, my view is that American democracy would still be in danger. And that’s because rights inevitably collide. Take an issue that, shall we say, is central to the politics and religion of your faith, which is abortion. The rights of the unborn versus the rights of the mother. How does a democracy navigate that debate? Or on guns, the rights of individuals pursuant to an interpretation of the Second Amendment, versus the rights of others to public safety?

Or we went through lots of struggles during the pandemic. This person’s right not to wear a mask or not to get vaccinated, versus someone else’s right of public health. And, as Justice Breyer said when he was on the court, Steve Breyer, that the most difficult cases are not right versus wrong but right versus right. And when we have this situation they collide. And collisions could lead to gridlock, because we can’t agree. Nothing can get done. Or, worse yet, it spills over into violence. And my view is that somewhere along the way we lost sight of the fact of our obligations, the other side of the citizenship coin, the obligations the two of us have to one another and the obligations all of us have this country of ours, to government and to the country.

So this is not a book that’s in any way against rights. Let me make that clear. But it’s a book that says, that’s not enough. As we always used to say in academia, rights are a necessary but not sufficient condition for a democracy to thrive or even survive. So what I wanted to do was start a conversation about what are those obligations, why they’re necessary, what it takes, and why it’s in our collective self-interests. And that’s what I’ve been—it’s been five months or so since the book came out. I’ve been traveling around the country talking about it in front of all sorts of groups and audiences, from college campuses, to high schools, to religious groups, to just town halls of citizens.

REESE: Obligations is something that churches are very familiar with. We preach obligation all the time. (Laughter.) We don’t tend to preach rights. We tend to preach obligations. Because of your interest in religion and this very program, I was a little bit surprised that religion is not mentioned very much in the book. If I could talk you into writing an addendum to the book, what would you tell religious leaders about their role here in American politics? I mean, religion can be very divisive also. So I was wondering you could preach to the preachers. (Laughs.)

HAASS: Oh, I love this. Turnabout is fair play. It’s what every member of a congregation is desperate to do, is to preach to the preacher. Well, look, I do actually write a little—I mean I draw from my own religious experience in the book. The first idea in the book, and originally I was going to begin it there and then I moved it later in the book, was from the Jewish holiday of Passover. And for much of their history, Jews were denied access to their holy places, to their synagogues or temples, or often persecuted. And what’s so interesting about Passover, it’s the story where Jews tell the story of—it’s a holiday where we tell the story of the exodus of Egypt. It’s central to Jewish identity.

And it’s so interesting, because the story is told not in synagogues but in homes. It’s a decentralized holiday. It’s a mobile holiday. It’s Judaism dispersed, often out of necessity. And you have a generational obligation to tell the story, to teach. It’s a teaching holiday. And literally you have this traditional meal. Every food is symbolic. It’s done in a certain order. Indeed, the word for the meal is Seder, which is the Hebrew word for “order.” And the book that informs the meal is called the Haggadah, which is Hebrew for “the telling.” It’s the telling of the story. And that’s what you do.

And for me, that’s very similar. We in America have—we fail to tell our story. Which is why I’m so insistent on civics being a staple of education in middle schools, and high schools, and colleges. This is a country founded on ideas. We should not take for granted that these ideas are understood, much less transmitted. So I think we do a terrible job at that.

But getting to your question, now that I’ve digressed, I think religious authorities have a big role in at least four of the obligations. And you also have the opportunity to do something about it. Most basically is probably the opposition to violence. I don’t care what your political views are, none of them justifies violence against others. And indeed, let me just make a larger point, none of the obligations involves a political point of view. I’m not taking policy positions on guns, or abortion, or mass, or Ukraine, or anything else. This is—in that sense, I don’t know if it transcends politics or what, but one is to preach the importance of nonviolence.

Second of all, the importance of civility—to treat people, in a sense, the way you’d want to be treated. Which, by the way, is just practical. One tends not to be more persuasive if one acts badly. Thirdly, to be open to compromise. Doesn’t mean you have to accept it, but at least consider it. And, fourthly, to look out for one another, to be one’s brother or sister’s keeper. Those seem to me, those four obligations in this secular book, are totally consistent, I would think, with what you and everybody on this call, one way or another, tries to impart to one’s congregants. And so I would argue that people who are in a position to preach have, if you will, an obligation to preach.

And so that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do this call, in speaking with Irina, is you’re all in such a position of potential influence that I wanted to give this message. And, by the way, I’ve talked to business leaders about their special obligations. I’ve talked to journalists about theirs. I’ve talked to educators about theirs. I’ve talked to parents about theirs. So I think different groups in American society have special obligations based upon their positions and their roles. But I would think that in at least four of the ten obligations, people who have congregations have an enormous opportunity—though, again, I would prefer to use the word “obligation” as well—to make a difference.

REESE: As a former civics teacher, I was really happy to see your second to the last obligation, about supporting the teaching of civics. But what we teach in school has become a battlefield in and of itself. There doesn’t seem to be much consensus there. I mean, all fight over what we teach about race, et cetera. How do we deal with these kinds of conflicts that, before we can even fulfill your obligation of supporting civics, we’ve got to get some agreement about what we’re going to teach.

HAASS: You’re right, 100 percent. Because people could agree in principle but may not be able to agree in practice. And, as you said, education’s gotten politicized, or even weaponized. So I get it. I’m not naïve. I spent time as the U.S. envoy in Northern Ireland. Three years as the U.S. envoy. Then I went back for a second tour, for my sins. And I was brought in by the local parties to try to broker a common understanding of the past—which in Northern Ireland, as you know better than anybody, was rather painful and divided.

And I tried to get them to support what I called the Museum of the History of the Troubles. For those on the call who are not familiar with the Troubles, these were three decades from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, in which there was an enormous amount of friction that often spilled over into violence between and among various paramilitary groups, some of the Catholic tradition, some of the Protestant, as well as between either of the groups and British police and military. Somewhere in the order of, what, between three (thousand) and four thousand individuals lost their lives. Because I think history can, to some extent, repeat itself, if not exactly, I wanted there to be a museum that was built that would teach people about the Troubles. And in part I figured that it would make them more wary of descending into—or, adopting certain positions, because violence could happen again.

I did not succeed, but I learned a lot in the process about how to structure an education that takes into account exactly what you’re getting at. My view is that when it comes to American civics, we can’t impose a single interpretation of history. That would be a nonstarter. But I think we can suggest certain documents be read. The Declaration of Independence, for one. The Constitution, for another. I would love people to have some access to the great literature—The Federalist Papers, de Tocqueville, what have you—to major presidential speeches, to major Supreme Court decisions and dissents, and understanding of the basic history. And then you could expose people to various interpretations of this.

You say, this is what happened. Here’s the two or three contending schools of thought. And then you could have debates and classroom conversations about it. I think there are ways you can do it. And, look, I’m not naïve. There’d be massive, intense debates over what to include and what to exclude. This ain’t beanball. This ain’t easy. OK. But I’ll give you another Jewish reference. On Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, there’s a prayer where everyone asks for—goes for forgiveness about the various acts of commission. And there’s a long list because we all sin a lot, as you know on your side. And then the last of the sins is you beg forgiveness for when you should have done something and you didn’t. It’s the act of omission, when you should have acted in the face of something that required action.

And that’s how I feel about this. We can persuade ourselves it’s impossible, but in that case then what we have now stands. Either not teaching it, or teaching it terribly. So my view is take a run at it. And, again, look, I’m stepping down from here. I’m not retiring. Despite the rumors, I’m not going to go to Saudi Arabia and joining the LIV golf tour. What I am going to do, among other things, is stay active in this conversation and debate. I’ve already spoken to several governors, several university presidents. And I’m going to devote a chunk of my time to working at this. And I’ll be speaking about it and writing about it. And there are various individuals and groups out there. So I have no illusions, but I’m going to take a run at it.

REESE: Terrific. I’m having a lot of fun asking you questions, but I also want to open it up to all the other people. So let me just ask you one last question before we open it up. And anybody who wants to ask a question, use that little hand thing on the Zoom call.

In the title of our webinar, we use the term “common good.” And that is also used in your book, where you say “we should promote the common good.” What is the common good? And how do we promote it? And, of course, my particular interest, how can religion promote the common good?

HAASS: I’ve thought about it a lot. Not as much as you have, but I’ve thought about it a lot. And there’s different ideas about—and the fact that you had ask the question is revealing, because there is not a single or consensus definition of, quote/unquote, “the common good,” or what is the promotion of it. One is behaviors that avoid harm to others.

And that’s where you get at things like—and there’s Supreme Court decisions about it—about the need to be vaccinated if you’re carrying certain types of disease that you could transmit to others. So that’s the way you look out for others. Obviously, controversial in the age of COVID, I understand. But with smallpox and others, that was a decision that was reached by an earlier generation of Americans. And we require all sorts of vaccinations with kids when they go to school, both for their own good, but also for the good of others.

We have all sorts of rules in moral society. Some things are for our own good, a seatbelt rule. But other things are for the common good. We have speed limits, traffic lights, and stop signs. Those are for the common good. In all sorts of areas, we have debates about where to draw the lines between, again, individual rights and common goods. And we can do that. So that’s one sort of thing. That’s the rights, if you would. Individual rights versus collective rights, is one way to think about it.

Another thing about common good, some would say, common good needs a social floor or safety net. And there’s a lot of conversation about that. Guaranteed incomes. And we have that to some extent in our society. We have unemployment insurance; we have Medicaid, Social Security for elderly things, different food programs, and so forth. The whole idea is we have social floor, economic floor. And that’s a form of common—debates about where it should be pegged, how conditional it should be, work requirements. Again, but there is a sense that no American should live a life—no citizen in this society—below a certain level.

I’m big also on the idea of common good means making equal opportunity a reality, that that’s something we owe one another. That means everything from there should be no discrimination. And I’m radical on this. There should be no negative discrimination, traditional use of the word, but I’m also against certain types of positive discrimination. I’m against legacy admissions. That’s a form of positive, if you will, discrimination in favor of some. I think that perpetuates certain types of unequal opportunities. It means certain people can be born, if you will, on third base. I think that’s unfair for those who aren’t. It also, by the way, lights under me a real fire to make things like public education better than it is. Because that’s one of the ways to make equal opportunity real, rather than simply a slogan.

So there’s not a common, if you will, or universal definition of common good. Again, I don’t pretend to have a universal answer. But I want that to be into people’s consciousness, because it gets, some way a little bit—I think this country is, at times, too taken with this notion of rugged individualism, that we only have to worry about ourselves. And the answer is, we may be all born equal in principle under the law, but we’re not born equal in practice in terms of health, or in terms of wealth, or in terms of opportunity. And I just think we need to have an honest conversation about that in this society.

REESE: That’s terrific. Thank you. And now I’ll pass it onto get questions from the other people on the webinar.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question will come from Charles Strohmer from the Wisdom Project.

STROHMER: Thank you both for being here. I really appreciate it a lot. I’ve followed you for a long time, Dr. Haass.

My question is simply: Do you or Father Reese see any ways in which principles in the Sermon on the Mount can help us be better at fulfilling what I call our duties, or what you’re calling our obligations, that we have toward one another, both as human beings who are also American citizens? Thank you.

HAASS: Tom, I’m going to defer to you on that one. That’s your text more than mine. And so I’m going to defer to you.

REESE: (Laughs.) Yeah, I think it’s pretty clear to anybody who reads the gospels that Jesus has an emphasis on the fact that we are all brothers and sisters, with the same god as father. And of course, we as Christians inherit that from our Jewish brothers and sisters. And I think Jesus really emphasized that. He emphasized it in the Sermon on the Mount, and the parable about the Good Samaritan. Jesus was always concerned about the sick, about the poor, about the hungry—all of these kinds of things, and these people, and it was very personal. And yet, he was also very nonviolent. He was not leading a revolution. In fact, people were upset with him because he wasn’t leading an armed revolution.

And so I think there’s a lot of things we can learn from the gospels about our obligation as citizens to be supportive of the common good, as Richard said, and to treat one another as brothers and sisters. And, frankly, not just our neighbors here in the United States, but seeing everyone in the world as our brothers and sisters, whether they’re migrants that are drowning in the Mediterranean, people at our borders. It doesn’t tell us what policy we should enact, but it does tell us that this has got to be a concern. We’re not going to get a plan of action out of the scriptures, but we are going to get an orientation, as Richard said, of our obligations, of our values. And I think those need to guide us as we try and figure out where we go in terms of domestic and foreign policy.

HAASS: Can I just add to that? Agree with that totally. Part of what I remember studying that, there’s a lot of norms in there. A lot of the teachings in that are not things you have to do, but they’re things you ought to do, that you should do. And that’s really what a norm is. And religion is filled with laws, but religion is also filled with norms. Not everything can be specifically and narrowly proscribed. So I think a lot of the teachings in any of the faiths are such things. And Sermon on the Mount’s a perfect example of it. Our doing things and asking that others do them as well, because they’re right. I think that’s a powerful thing.

And then, again, I think people who were preaching, it’s not a big step from there to talking about the norms in the political space, about how you treat a political opponent or something like that. That there’s something larger in this than your own narrow political ambitions. And I think, again, people who have standing in churches, or synagogues, or mosques have tremendous authority to address these subjects without—again, without getting into you’ve got to support this or that policy. That there’s no—indeed, I think it would be a mistake to politicize these issues. I want to have them be one step removed from policy.

REESE: A great example of that was when Pope John Paul II came to New York and preached at Yankee Stadium. He was using the Jesus story about the rich man and Lazarus. And of course, the rich man had walked—just stepped over Lazarus, who was at his front door, poor, hungry, starving, and just ignored him. He didn’t kick him. He just ignored him. And John Paul looked out over the audience, at the congregation at Yankee Stadium and said: You are the rich man, and the third world is Lazarus. Whew! I mean, talk about hitting you right between the eyes. Now, he didn’t say what to do. But he said, you’ve got to do something.

Anyway, next question.

OPERATOR: We have a written question from Noel Rubinton, who writes: First, kudos to Richard for all he has done for this Religion and Foreign Policy program. My question: In your book, you raise many ideas, more than ten, about citizenship. But if you could get people to take just one action to increase their citizenship, what would it be?

HAASS: Well, thank you, Noel. I appreciate it. It’s always a hard question to answer. It’s sort of like asking which one of my children do I love most. (Laughs.) It’s a tough one. Look, at a minimum, I’d say get informed and vote, the first two obligations. It’s no coincidence that the first obligation is to get informed, and the second one is to be involved. Democracy can’t be a spectator sport. It requires informed, involved citizens. So that’s the basic.

Probably the one, though, that’s nearest and dearest to my heart is what we’ve talked about a little bit, is civics. It’s where I began this journey that led to this book. And I just think there’s something very wrong that we, quote/unquote, “educate” young Americans, and the great preponderance of our schools, whether they’re high schools or universities, allow students to leave the campus or the building without any exposure to civics. And we’re about to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in three years. I want to make sure we can celebrate the 350th and the 450th. We’d better start teaching civics in a serious way, though I respect Tom’s point before.

But we just can’t assume this democracy is somehow permanent. History suggests not. History suggests that just the opposite. So if I could just do one thing, I’d like to kick off something of a civics movement in the United States. That would be my own personal preference.

REESE: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Ani Zonneveld from Muslims for Progressive Values.

ZONNFEVELD: Hi. Good morning. Good afternoon. Thank you, Richard, for all that you’ve done for CFR and religion. Ani Zonneveld from Muslims for Progressive Values.

You had a quote there that I’d like for you to repeat that is just fantastic about the world not having departments. That’s number one. And then, number two, you spoke about the Jewish prayer seeking forgiveness for not acting against injustice. And I was just wondering, once you step away from CFR, if you will be using this particular faith/moral compass to poke the politicians and policymakers—(laughs)—towards a more just policy? Thank you.

HAASS: First of all, thank you. Yeah, the first quote was just that “universities have departments. The world doesn’t.” That’s actually original. Just something I noticed along the way. But feel free to use it. You can claim it as your own. (Laughs.) I don’t get royalties for it.

Look, I’ll be honest, I’m not afraid of poking. I’m a serial poker. And I’m more than comfortable challenging the conventional wisdom, or the powers that be, or the status quo. And whether it’s questions—whether it’s injustice or just things that I think are unwise. I mean, I’ll be honest with you, most of my focus on foreign policy over the decades has been on issues that I think are unwise. That I think are when we do things that are just against what’s in the national interest. I was a very sharp critic of the Iraq War, for example, not so much on the basis—it wasn’t based on injustice. I just thought it was a terrible idea based on my own analysis. And I argued against it from the inside. I continued to argue against it after I left government.

I’m a little bit more hesitant to fight against, quote/unquote, “injustice” in other countries because I’m sensitive to several things. One is, we often have a range of interests at stake. We don’t have often the luxury of just focusing on injustice. Second of all, we’ve got to be mindful of our—it’s not enough to posture yourself to say the right things. You have to be confident that by doing so you’ll have the desired effect. And that’s not always the case. So I’m just careful about that sort of involvement in other societies. I’m more comfortable about speaking out on these issues here at home. One, I understand them somewhat better, and you have a certain standing as an American to speak out about American society that you don’t have if you’re not a member of another society. Your words may not be welcome, but they’re seen somehow as a little bit more legitimate, I guess is the word I use.

So, yeah, I’ll continue to speak out particularly here at home. And you got a sense of some of the things I feel strongest about. If I had to choose one, again, it’s that we do not have equal access to equal quality education in this country. And that is dangerous for American democracy because education—public education is the ladder—L-A-D-D-E-R—of American mobility. It’s how over these decades and longer people have been able to improve their lives. And what worries me, if that ladder is lifted up then what becomes of us? It’s a very, very different society if the American dream, if the idea of improvement is just a dream and is no longer an achievable reality for a meaningful number of Americans. I worry about that. So, yeah, I’ll continue to speak out on that, trust me.

REESE: Next question.

OPERATOR: We have a written question from Erik Owens, a professor of theology at Boston College.

Who writes: Your list of obligations is excellent and well-advised. But they all seem to require a baseline of social trust that is in short supply these days in American society. People mistrust their government, scientific experts, academic experts, lawyers, politicians, et cetera, et cetera. Do you think we must first rebuild social trust in order to enhance the commitment to these obligations? Or are social trust and a sense of civic obligation really the same thing?

HAASS: It’s an interesting question. You’re right, we have a social trust deficit in this country. I think it’s a fair, and good, and important insight. One of the ways we build social trust, in my experience, is by people doing things together. When Tom Brokaw and others would write about the Greatest Generation, the fact that so many Americans from wildly different backgrounds, geographies, you name it, went into the military and fought in World War II, that became a great generator of social trust.

I think one of the problems now is we have fewer and fewer experiences which Americans have in common. And indeed, because of modern technologies, we’re going the other way. Increasingly, we’re getting separated so we tune into our own social media site, or this or that, cable channel, or radio station. People stare at their devices all day long, and so forth. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a supporter of a public service, is I want to bring some people together to do things that are inherently good things and valuable things for the community, but also gets people to work together who normally would never have the experience.

One of the reasons I’m working with lots of universities on what’s called “freshman year experience.” When people come to campus, I want to start building some social trust. Have them talk about some of the issues we’re talking here today. They don’t have to always agree, but I want them to hear what other people have to say, and so forth. One of the reasons I like debates, it exposes you to different points of view and it has certain norms and rules associated with it. But I don’t have any magic wand for building social trust. But, again, I think people on this call can help also.

There’s things that happen within your congregations, various activities you can—the kind of conversations you have. And that when somebody shouts somebody down, or acts really uncivilly, or whatever, I think there’s ways in which you can structure a conversation. Just bringing people together can build social trust. So I’m not sure what’s the sequencing, but I think it goes hand-in-hand with a lot of what we’re talking about here.

REESE: Great. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Galen Carey from the National Association of Evangelicals.

CAREY: Thank you, Richard.

You talk about civics education. Our civic system doesn’t seem to be very good at encouraging long-term thinking, whether it’s thinking about our budget deficit and the debt we’re passing on, or our stewardship in the environment. What could we do, what could faith leaders in particular do, to help foster more courage, political courage, for thinking about long-term issues when we have short-term elections?

HAASS: I wish I could disagree with your premise, but I cannot. We’re short termers in how we think. And part of looking out for your fellow citizen, being your brother and your sister’s keeper, is one has an intergenerational responsibility. It’s not just for people of your own generation. We have a responsibility to one another. And I think older people have a responsibility and obligation to—and I’m leaving this institution after running it for twenty years—or, leading it for twenty years. One of the things I saw my obligation was to leave the institution considerably better off than I found it. Not a criticism of my predecessor, and I hope my successor can say the same thing. I think we’re stewards.

I think you all have a particular potential on environmental issues, on climate change. Last I checked, one of the things God did in the beginning was to create the heavens and the Earth. OK. Well, He created them. We’re the stewards. We’re not doing such a hot job. So I’m surprised actually there has not been more involvement of religious leadership in this country on behalf of protecting, if you will, the commons here. I think that’s—I’m surprised that people who would say we agree in the gospel, we read about this in the Bible, the creation and so forth. OK. Well, creation is the beginning. Then we want to see the continuity. We want to see the protection, the stewardship, the custodianship. So I believe that religious leaders should take a larger role in that. I think it could make a real difference. I’ve spoken to Evangelicals leaders about doing it. I think they could have a real impact.

Budget deficit is more complicated because everybody can agree the deficit is bad, or the debt. We now have a $34 trillion debt. That is a bad, bad thing. And we can agree in principle that it’s a very bad thing. We cannot, however, agree on what to do about it and whether the answer is this on discretionary spending, this on defense, this on taxes, this on entitlements. So very quickly you get into fundamental policy debates indeed at the heart of some of the divides within and between the major political parties. So even if one preaches, if you will, responsibility on the debt, I’m not sure that takes you very far because very quickly you get into policy prescription.

And I’m not sure that’s the comparative advantage of the people on this call. I’m not sure whose comparative advantage it is, because nobody seems successful at moving us on that. We’re on a terrible trajectory. The consequences of a larger debt, particularly with high interest rates, it just crowds out all sorts of other forms of useful spending. So we’re on a terrible trajectory. We’re not investing in our own future. But I’m not sure, again, how you translate agreement in principle to agreement on policy.

REESE: Yeah. I’m really glad you brought this up, Galen. I mean, frankly, one of the things that gives me pride as a Catholic is Pope Francis’s leadership on the global warming issue, with his encyclical Laudato Si’. The sad thing is I don’t see a lot of bishops in the United States making this a priority in their preaching or in their work in their diocese. For me, it’s the issue of the twenty-first century. It’s going to determine what kind of Earth we leave to our grandchildren and great grandchildren, and whether we have a civilization to leave to them. So I’m glad you brought that up, the importance of the long-term vision.

Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Hays Rockwell, a retired Episcopal bishop of Missouri.

HAASS: You probably want to unmute yourself.


I just want to say about thirty-five years ago, at a weekend meeting in the summer, to which I attended a number over the years after we left the city, stimulating always. But this particular one I stood up at the end and said: It’s wonderful to have these brilliant discussions, but one factor of human experience has been left out. And I mentioned religion—no mention of religion and its effect and importance to foreign policy in a variety of ways, both for good and ill. Well, I don’t think that Richard was there to hear that observation of mine, but very shortly thereafter he took hold of it and it became a significant part of the life of the Council on Foreign Relations. And I just want to thank him for that with all my heart.

HAASS: Well that’s very generous. Thank you. I feel very fortunate that early on I was a religion major in college. I actually think it did infinitely more for me as I went through my life, either as a practitioner in government or as an academic, in my foreign policy-centered life, than any amount of theory would have done. I actually see the theory that we teach our international relations studies, and I think it’s mostly a colossal waste of time. And, by the way, I would say that if this were a call of international relations professors. I’d lose them all, but I can live with that.

I actually think religion turns out to be not just a useful, but an essential component, I think, in preparing people for public life, be it in this country or in my field of foreign policy. And I always thought it gave me a great advantage when we were sitting around the State Department or the White House talking about this or that effort to transform this society in the Middle East, or some other part of the world, or going to war in this or that society. I just thought I had a massive leg-up, because I actually not only had studied it and had some appreciation of the culture.

And, by the way, what it usually did was make me—it kind of added—it’s not my most natural default position, but it made me a little bit more humble, a little bit more careful about what I thought we could do. It turns out religion is so intimately connected to culture that it becomes a really powerful force. And for those of us who want to transform other societies, and we preach universalism on certain things, I just think we also have to be mindful of local realities and differences.

REESE: Yeah. Thank you, Bishop. Next question.

OPERATOR: We will take our final question from Father Rafael Capó from the St. Thomas School of Theology and Ministry in Florida.

CAPÓ: Well, good afternoon and thank you for your leadership, Dr. Haass. It’s been amazing what you have done throughout the years in supporting our contributions from the religious academia and pastoral ministries with our collaboration with the Council on Foreign Relations. So thank you.

My question is, how do you see peacebuilding efforts on the part of the religious community—specifically, the role of religious diplomacy to contribute to conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts in regions marked by war?

HAASS: First of all, thank you for what you said. There’s this old line that war is too important to be left to the generals. I think there’s an argument that peacemaking or peacebuilding is too important to be left just to the diplomats. I think religious authorities can have tremendous impact, because they have tremendous influence on people and on civil society, just society across the board. I spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland. I spent a lot of time with religious leaders in Northern Ireland.

I knew that they had to be partners in what I did. If we were going to get rid of violence, get rid of guns, if we were going to have some possibility of normalization between the principal religious traditions of Northern Ireland, it would only happen if it were supported by religious leaders. Northern Ireland is a perfect example of, if you will, a post-conflict society. It’s been twenty-five years now since the Good Friday Agreement. And where it still has a long way to go, in part because certain religious leaders haven’t done as much as they could or should.

So it turns out religious leaders have an enormous role to play. Where it is played, it makes a positive difference. Where we’ve seen it not play, then we see the potential for backsliding much, much, much greater. I see religious leaders as essentially partners in the peace enterprise, whether it’s in the pre-negotiating phase, the negotiating phase, or the post-negotiating phase. Religious leaders just have tremendous actual and potential voice and influence.

REESE: Well, I want to thank all of our participants, especially those that gave questions. Really contributed to the discussion, and excellent questions. And especially, I want to thank Richard. I mean, your work here for the Council and especially for this Religion and Foreign Policy program is really, really—we are all very, very grateful to you for all the wonderful work you have done. Thank you. I really appreciate being able to moderate this last event that you are doing for the Council. I’ll now hand it over to Irina.

FASKIANOS: Thank you both again. Richard is going to continue to be very prolific. You can follow him on Twitter at @richardhaass and subscribe to his weekly newsletter, Home and Away. It’s published on Substack. You can get it at You can follow Father Tom at @thomasreesesj. Thank you all for your questions. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy program on Twitter at @CFR_religion. You can write to us at [email protected] with suggestions or questions. We appreciate your joining us.

Richard, do you want to say one last word?

HAASS: Yeah, I just want to thank you all for your participation. You’re all busy. I appreciate your time. And may you all be well and go in peace.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

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