Richard Haass discusses The World: A Brief Introduction, his new book designed to provide readers of any age and experience with the essential background and building blocks they need to make sense of today’s complicated and interconnected world. The World focuses on essential history, what makes each region of the world tick, the many challenges (including but by no means limited to pandemics) that globalization presents, and the most influential countries, events, and ideas that shape the world and in turn shape our lives.
CHANG: I want to welcome everyone to this Zoom chat featuring Richard Haass. It’s a virtual meeting. And please note that the audio and transcription of today’s call will be posted on the CFR website.
As you well know if you are home at CFR, Richard Haass wears many hats—that of veteran diplomat, of ambassador, of professor, U.S. coordinator on the future of Afghanistan, special envoy for Northern Ireland, frequently Morning Joe contributor, and, of course, our fearless leader, the president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations since 2003.
But today we are here convening to listen to Richard Haass the prolific author and academic who’s just come out with yet another book entitled, not very ambitiously, as he said, slightly ambitiously, The World: A Brief History, in about three hundred pages. He calls it a little bit of a departure from his previous books, and we’ll get into that in a minute.
But I want to start, Richard, because it was only after you turned in the manuscript that the world was confronted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And in the roughly two months since that happened, this crisis has highlighted so many of the themes and concepts that you tackle in the book.
So I want to just ask you outright, what does the pandemic tell us about the world right now?
HAASS: Well, thank you, Juju. Thank you for doing this. Thanks also to everyone on this call. Needless to say, I hope everybody is well and safe, as we all get through this one day at a time, or, as I’ve begun to say, one Groundhog Day at a time.
What I think the pandemic tells us, first and foremost, is that the world matters. And that’s perhaps an obvious thing for a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. But it’s, I don’t think, an obvious thing for everybody. The world matters. What happens around the world doesn’t stay there.
In this case, it was a small city in China, in Wuhan, where a virus broke out, got worse, ultimately spread through China, and then spread to the United States and elsewhere around the world. On 9/11 it was terrorists trained in Afghanistan. Other various times it was what we’ve seen with climate change coming from everywhere, financial contagion from this or that country.
So what this should tell us is that these two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, are not moats. There’s no drawbridge to pull up. Sovereignty, whatever else it is, is not the same thing as security. We are—we’re affected by what happens in the world. Foreign policy, in turn, is how what we do affects the world. And I think there’s a loop.
But the most important message to take here is the world matters. And isolationism, denial, sticking our head in the sand, whatever else you want to call it, is simply not a serious or viable strategy.
CHANG: You talk at length about the interconnectedness of the globe and the interdependence. How has the American response to this global crisis reflected some of the things that you bring up—the notable absence, for example, of the U.S. in the European convening to tackle the vaccine for COVID-19?
HAASS: Yeah, this has not been a good experience, shall we say, or demonstration of U.S. connectedness to the world. But again, it begins with the fact that we’re connected, like it or not. Globalization is many things. It’s not a choice. How we respond to it is the choice. But globalization itself is a reality.
And as you say, Juju, we chose not to participate in the European-led effort to pool resources, intellectual and financial, to work toward a vaccine. It seems to me that probably reduces the chance that effort will succeed, or succeed quickly. It also means that if it were to succeed, we’d be very hard pressed to make the argument that we ought to be towards the front of the queue. I think a lot of Europeans and others would say, hold it, you weren’t there when we needed you. Now suddenly you need this. Why should we favor you over others? So I think that has hurt us.
I also think even more what’s probably hurt us has been the example we’ve set. Such an important part of what foreign policy is about is not what diplomats say or do. It’s not what soldiers say or do, as important as those things are. It’s the example we set, the functioning and vibrancy of our democracy, when we have equality for all Americans, when our economy grows at a healthy clip, or, in this case, how we respond to a foreign challenge.
And no one around the world, I think, gets up in the morning and says I want to do this just like America. I really respect how they are doing it. Inconceivable that that sentiment is being expressed.
CHANG: And what about, again, another chapter in your book, the role of multinational organizations, right, like the World Health Organization? President Trump has repeatedly, you know, threatened to withdraw funding at a time when people like Bill and Melinda Gates have doubled down and increased funding. Thoughts?
HAASS: Lots of thoughts. Look, one of the realities of this world is there’s an enormous gap between global challenges—climate change, pandemics, terrorism, the digital cyber domain—and global arrangements. There’s an enormous gap.
We use this phrase all the time in my business, in our business, international community. And there really isn’t one. The World Health Organization, like most international organizations, struggles to try to narrow that gap between the challenge and the response, but it’s no stronger than the major powers will let it be. The United States now has pulled out funding. China has essentially ignored a lot of its requests.
So what this tells us—we see this time and time again—is, whether it’s the U.N., the Security Council, in this case the World Health Organization, global governance, global arrangements, and all that, are only as strong as, again, the United States, China, and others will allow it. So either we have to improve it after this crisis or I would say we need to find ways to supplement it, to work around it, to come up with other ways of pooling our efforts, because the other lesson of this world, isolationism is a dead end. The other, I think, fundamental lesson of the pandemic and of foreign policy more broadly is that unilateralism is also not a viable approach to the world.
CHANG: You mentioned China and its role in this pandemic. There’s been a lot of criticism of intelligence and lack of transparency. But also what is the role that China has played in this crisis, say, about its role in the globe right now?
HAASS: Well, the first thing it reminds people, as if we needed reminding, of what an authoritarian society China is. And clearly mistakes are not admitted. And when mistakes were pointed out in China’s initial reaction, those who were pointing them out were silenced. China now still continues to push off requests for any sort of investigation.
So the first thing I think, it’s a reminder of what the nature of China is. It has not met its international obligations to cooperate fully with the World Health Organization, in cooperating fully with our response to it. That to me is the basic message. Also, while this is going on, China has been doing some pretty nasty things, including repressing democrats in Hong Kong, just to mention one other thing.
At the same time, this isn’t necessarily a rationale—we could probably have this conversation; I’ve also been writing about this—for the United States to take it up and say, OK, we now need to place hostility to China at the center of our foreign policy. Yes, we need to push back and criticize China where need be, and we can talk about that. But also wouldn’t it be a much different and much better twenty-first century if, on occasion, we could persuade China to work with us, for example, against future pandemics; for example, against climate change; for example, to rein in North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions?
So I think the real foreign-policy challenge, one way to think about it, is how do we push back against China where necessary, but also how do we protect pockets, if you will, of cooperation where it serves our interests and theirs? That will be a major challenge to the next generation of diplomats in both countries.
CHANG: You talked about how the pandemic is—has similarities to other global crises; for example, climate change or cyber terror. In what ways do those challenge the order or disorder of the globe?
HAASS: Well, the similarity, again, is it doesn’t really matter where these things start. They spread everywhere. They don’t respect borders. You can deny them but you can’t insulate yourselves from the consequences.
I’d say on climate change, one of the interesting reactions is how, in this country, the rejection of science and experts. We see it on the pandemic. We see it on the public-health front. We also see it regularly on climate change. And one of the things I’m hoping—and I admit it’s a hope; it’s not a prediction—that comes out of this is greater respect for facts, greater respect for scientists, greater respect for experts. The wide respect, say, for Dr. Fauci to me is a welcome development.
But the basic lessons are the same where we began. These are global challenges. You can’t ignore them and you can’t solve them by yourself. So, again, I keep circling back to the rejection of isolationism and the rejection of unilateralism.
But let me say one other thing. You know, the first part of the book is about history. And what’s so interesting is how much of the last few hundred years of history were about great-power jockeying. And often that jockeying got out of hand, and we had World War I. We had World War II. We then went through the Cold War, which was a very managed great-power competition.
We’re going to have competition with China. We’re going to have obvious differences with Russia. But what I think really defines this era that we’re living in, defines the twenty-first century and makes it qualitatively different, is that I would predict that the major challenges of this years are not so much great-power competition, the familiar challenge, one that continues to exist. But the bigger challenge could well be how do we contend with these global challenges?
Just thirty more seconds; sorry to go on so long. Imagine we’re successful at pushing back against China. That still doesn’t provide an answer to climate change or future pandemics. As you know and I know, there’s going to be COVID-25 or COVID-30. It doesn’t help us deal with terrorism. So it’s necessary to deal with major-power competition. But I think one of the lessons of this is that it’s not sufficient.
CHANG: I just want to highlight my very dog-eared and highly highlighted copy of your book. It’s called The World: A Brief Introduction, as I noted. It’s now on Amazon’s bestseller, ranked fifty-three among books. I know you took great satisfaction in edging out Goodnight Moon for a moment, although that bright shining moment passed, I know. It’s number two in world history, number one in international and world politics.
And yet you said—and I must say, one of the most fun aspects of it for me is just seeing you pop up, Hitchcock-style, in the chapters as a young State Department, you know, administrator or another—you know, as a diplomat.
What made you write this book? Because you said it is a bit of a departure from your 15 others it is that you’ve written or edited.
HAASS: Fourteen. But who’s counting?
CHANG: (Laughs.) I tend to exaggerate.
HAASS: What made me write this, more than anything else, was a concern that—you know, what we were just talking about. The world is so fundamentally important. If you’re a young person, say, in high school or college, that means you were born right around the turn of the century. And if you have the kind of long lifespan that we’re now hoping for, that means your life will be a twenty-first-century life.
But what’s so striking to me is how many young people don’t have even a rudimentary knowledge of this world that in many ways could make or break their lives, whether it’s professionally, personally, physically.
This book came out of a day where, rarely enough for me, I was out fishing, of all things; not something I’m known to do. And I met this young man who was going from his junior to his senior year at Stanford and he was a computer-science major. And I said, well, that’s interesting. And I said, just out of curiosity, what do you study when you don’t study coding and computers? I said how many history courses have you had? And he said, actually, I haven’t had any. And I said, oh. Well, how many economics courses? Well, I haven’t had any of those either. And we went on through the liberal-arts curriculum. And clearly this was a really intelligent young man who is going to graduate with a very narrow intellectual foundation.
And then when I came back to the Council, what I noticed was that this was not an exception. You can graduate from virtually any college or university in the country and avoid these courses. So they’re offered virtually everywhere, but that’s a different thing. They’re not required.
And so what made me want to write this book is that so many Americans, young, but also not so young, it seems to me, lack the foundation, lack the knowledge, in order to, among other things, hold elected representatives and officials to account.
How can people walk into a voting booth this November if they haven’t read up on the positions of the candidates and if they haven’t said, well, that doesn’t make sense, or why is that in my interest? I want people to essentially get empowered so they can become better informed and, as a result, more active citizens. That’s essentially what this is about.
CHANG: Right. I mean, you’re fighting, I think, the illiteracy, the foreign-policy illiteracy, I think, is what you—I know that’s one of your missions at the Council on Foreign Relations as well. I take exception to the fact that you had to mention my alma mater at Stanford, because when I was there, there were distribution requirements. I took a few history classes.
But I will say, part of the joy, again, of reading this and part of the reason why I highlighted it is I also think that we are in an era of specialists where you can take nothing but Asian history or nothing but African history and miss out on what the early chapters of your book does, which is highlight the global perspective on all of it swiftly.
HAASS: Well, I’m a great believer that history is extraordinarily valuable as a background. It was Mark Twain who said history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. And it really does, in many cases, inform our decision-making, inform our analysis. I’ve been lucky enough to work for four presidents. And in every one of those occasions, history was brought into the conversation.
Now, like anything else, history can be used or abused. But just as a background, it’s really helpful in order to make sense of the flood of stuff that’s coming at us. Again, when you think about it, between the internet, television, radio, newspapers, what have you, there’s just such a flood of information. And what I thought people needed was something of a filter to make better sense of it.
CHANG: And I am a big champ because my son is going through AP history testing and I was able to help him, because the Treaty of Westphalia, you know, is right on the tip of my tongue. But I would recommend it highly, clearly.
CHANG: Give us a sense of your writing process, because you are—we know you have a day job, and there are a few crises that you’re handling. How do you write? When do you write? What’s that process like?
HAASS: This book was different in the sense that I had to think really hard about what went into it, because if you want to write a brief introduction to the world, by definition you’ve got to rule a lot of stuff out. And also the whole idea was not to write a book that assumed anything, not to assume that anyone had taken these courses, not to use any jargon.
So one way I write is by taking a lot of long walks around Central Park and thinking about it. And then when I sit down at the keyboard, I’m ready to write. I write most mornings pretty early for a few hours. And then my only advice to would-be writers is never to accept working breakfasts. They are the killer. Spend a few hours when it’s quiet, because days—the telephone starts ringing; emails start coming in later. So if I can get a few hours in the morning and then a few hours on weekends and I’m lucky, I can write quickly. But that’s pretty much the approach. And—
CHANG: Are you writing before or after the Morning Joe appearance that you’ve made?
HAASS: I do it after. The other advice I’d say for all writers, as I always tell them, is don’t think of writing as a sequential process where first you do all your research and then you do all your writing, but instead start writing. My wife Susan’s an editor, and Susan always tells aspiring writers is what you want to do is think about not just your conclusion but the review you would like to have written of your book. Start there. Start at the top and then build a book then from the bottom, but think a lot where you—why you’re doing it, what’s your readership, what reaction you want to have, what you’re trying to accomplish, and then do it before you get buried in the details.
CHANG: I read a number of reviews of your book. The one in The New York Times, there was a quip that I should have written down, but it was something along the lines of, you know, Haass takes a departure from his usually cautious, didactic style and weighs in—
CHANG: —on the isolationism or, you know, interventionist position. You did make a calculated choice to do that. Why tiptoe into it? And why is it so fundamental to you?
HAASS: Well, I wanted to write this book in a way that wasn’t an argument. I wanted people, whether they were in one end zone or the other politically—I wanted this to be a book that was foundational. The purpose of this book is not to tell people what to think, whether to support this policy or that, but rather to give them the background and the tools to come to those conclusions by themselves. But as I read what I had written, I realized that certain themes were so intrinsic or fundamental to the book—criticism of isolationism, criticism of unilateralism.
So I thought at the end, yeah, I would come out and, basically, say, you know, we can argue all the details we want about, say, what our goals should be in the world and what tools we should use. Those are legitimate policy arguments.
But I didn’t think there was an argument about either ignoring the world or thinking we could—the foreign policy was a solitary—it was a game of Solitaire. I thought those two points were so basic that, yeah, I had to come out of the closet on them.
CHANG: And if you were—I envision you now coming out of the closet, and if you were sitting in the State Department today, what overarching advice would you give on COVID?
HAASS: Oh. Well, on foreign policy in general, if I were at the State Department I would, basically, make a big push for diplomacy. I would make a big push for working with allies. Allies are real force multipliers. I would make a bigger push for explaining American foreign policy to the American people.
For COVID, more—by the way, the other thing I’d do if I were at the State Department is put a great emphasis on recreating the Foreign Service. It’s one of the real historic strengths of this country. People are essential, whether they’re soldiers or people in the intelligence community. But we need diplomats. We need people who are trained to represent this country around the world and also to advise the president sitting in Washington.
But on COVID, look, it’s beyond the purview of the State Department to argue what governors or mayors or even the president should be doing domestically. But it’s not beyond the purview of the State Department to argue for our participating in collective scientific efforts here dealing with antivirals and vaccines.
It’s not beyond the purview of the State Department to be designing the economic help that United States would coordinate with others in order to help other countries both get through this and then recover afterwards. It’s, obviously, not beyond the purview of the State Department. It is the purview of the State Department to focus on all the other problems. You know, we’re focused on COVID. I get it. It’s understandable.
But there’s no giant pause button out there in the world. History hasn’t stopped. North Korea is still developing nuclear weapons and missiles. Iran is gradually moving to—you know, getting closer to the edges of the 2015 agreement. It’s reduced the warning time we would have if, in fact, it did choose to make a dash for nuclear weapons.
Venezuela is still hemorrhaging people. Russia is still occupying Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine. China is still expanding its physical presence in the South China Sea.
So we can go around the world. And my point is, simply, that we need the State Department to stay focused on the rest of American foreign policy and national security. Indeed, one of the things I’d say about this crisis is, you know, we have all the old problems in the world.
Now we have a whole new set of problems, and then all of this comes at a time when the United States is going to be focused inward and we’re going to be spending trillions of dollars not on the world but ourselves. This is a really dangerous combination and I think it makes it even more important that the State Department keeps its eye on the ball, in this case, the rest of the world.
CHANG: You, essentially, answered my next question before I asked it, which is you have said not just in the book but on your numerous television appearances that this is a very precarious time, that this—that the order or the lack thereof or the declining order in this globe keeps you up at night. And you mentioned the hot spots, but I want you to dig into sort of what you think is being ignored most while we’re preoccupied with, you know, COVID and what’s at front of mind.
HAASS: Well, I do think, first of all, let me just sort of reinforce the point that it really is a critical moment. You know, for a lot of my career when I was younger I used to do things like analyze arms control agreements. European nuclear forces, strategic arms control. But all of that took place, as intricate as it was and, to some extent, as important as it was, it all took place within a pretty defined framework.
When we got up in the morning during the Cold War we pretty much knew what we were going to wake up—wake up to. What’s so interesting about this moment in history is there are far fewer givens, obviously, far fewer assumptions about what the United States will do. The old order is increasingly unraveled either because the institutions couldn’t keep up with change, you had rising powers who couldn’t be accommodated, and most of all, the United States is not prepared to play its traditional role.
So what worries me is we’re at a moment of history where you have all this dynamism. Now you’ve got the overlay of this—of this pandemic and its economic and human cost. And, to me, the real question is whether we and others are going to have the bandwidth to deal not just with the problems caused by the pandemic, and those are plenty big, needless to say, but all the other problems that are out there festering. So in a macro sense, that’s my biggest concern.
Otherwise, though, I’d say two things, two problems in particular. Both we’ve mentioned. One is the U.S.-China relationship. As this relationship goes, so will go a lot of this century, and I worry about this relationship, which was deteriorating before this crisis. Now this deterioration is accelerating.
The other issue is climate change. What’s so interesting about climate change is even though it’s another form of a global crisis, unlike COVID, it’s a slow-motion crisis. So, as a result, it’s harder to galvanize either a national or international response. But we saw the fires in Australia or in California, the floods, the warmer weather.
It’s going to have all sorts of agricultural and human and other impacts on us, and that worries me is that we’re—our response is not even close to being adequate. And before this century is over, it’s quite possible that climate change will be a, if not the, defining challenge, and what we’re doing is we’re losing the moment. We’re squandering the moment to head it off or to deal with it while it’s still, in some ways, manageable.
CHANG: I’m going to ask my last question and then I’m going to open it up to members who are online and, hopefully, will be able to present those questions, and that is, you know, to borrow a phrase from your previous book, The World in Disarray, what are the forces that are causing, you know, additional disorder, disarray, in the world?
HAASS: Well, someone just mentioned the United States that’s pulling back from its historic positions, things like a rising China, a Russia that doesn’t buy into any of the principles of restraint. We’re seeing a growth in authoritarianism. We’re seeing, in some ways, the biggest challenge to the whole European project that has stabilized Europe in ways that have been fantastic for the last seventy years. But the ruling, say, in a court in Germany the other day which questioned the authority of Europe’s institutions and the resentment in Northern Europe to economically help Southern Europe—you know, I can go around. But it’s—
CHANG: So but let me—let me stop you on one. How do you lasso Russia? I mean, we’ve seen all sorts of examples of their projecting force, whether it’s in Crimea or whether it’s influencing American elections. How do you lasso them? How do you sort of confront that power?
HAASS: Well, lasso is a good word. We may not be able to in the sense of lasso. We have to still act with restraint. Russia not only has conventional military power but it, obviously, has nuclear might to destroy the entire planet. One would, though, be, I would say, we do want to—we want to negotiate nuclear arms. So whoever wins this election one of the first decisions he is going to have to make is what do we do about the then soon-to-expire strategic arms control agreement, and I would say we want to, at a minimum, expand it.
We don’t need to add a nuclear competition to all else. I think, you know, in terms of making ourselves less vulnerable to Russian political mischief, we should do what we can but also besides sanctions I would look at ways of retaliating in kind.
I think Mr. Putin’s quite vulnerable. Russia has paid an enormous price for its mishandling of the pandemic and, second of all, the—you know, the plummeting of oil prices has really hurt the Russian economy because the Russian economy is one dimensional.
So I would, on one hand, show Russia respect. I would talk to them. I’ve never thought in my life that diplomacy is a favor we bestow on others. It’s the tool of national security. But I would be tough with Russia. I think this administration—you know, I often disagree with it.
One area I thought they were right was to provide defensive support to the government of Ukraine. So I’d work, again, to shore up Ukraine where I could. But I would push back against Mr. Putin and look for ways to, basically, say, if you interfere in our politics we are going to look for some ways to interfere—to interfere in yours.
CHANG: You have a chapter on cyber terror. What’s the strategy? What’s the best way to, from a counterterrorism perspective, deal with misinformation and the cyber terror that’s coming out of these rogue nations?
HAASS: Well, it’s really hard because it’s a totally unregulated space. The analogy I like is the American Wild West—you know, lots of people with guns and very few laws and very few sheriffs—and that’s kind of where we are, and we can’t agree on what the rules of the road ought to be in cyber. It’s not even close to, say, arms control. We don’t have the equivalent for cyber where we set rules. For example, the United States and China agree that there wouldn’t be theft of the economic secrets. China went ahead and violated that agreement.
I think it’s tough. I think it particularly tough with nonstate actors. One of the other reasons this moment in history is so hard to manage is countries, states, are not the only players on the chessboard and we’ve got to deal with others. But I would work together initially with the companies but also with Europe. I would think if the United States, Europe, Japan, Australia—essentially, the modern developed democracies—came up with rules of the road, well, that’s already 60 (percent), 65 (percent), 70 percent of the global economy. Let’s start there. They’re democracies. They’re market oriented. Let’s set the rules there. Then we can tell the Chinas and the others and the Russias, you want to have an economic relationship with us, we’re 70 percent of the world. Here’s what it’s going to take.
CHANGE: OK. It’s 5:30. I want to be nothing if not prompt, and so I’m going to introduce the question/answer session. We’re going to unmute. Just know that there are north of five hundred people participating—members. So we’ll try to get as many questions as possible. We’ll urge Richard to be brief so we can hear from many people.
But let’s unmute the first questioner.
STAFF: (Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Shaarik Zafar.
Q: Hi. This is Shaarik Zafar. I’m with Facebook and formerly with the State Department. Thanks, Richard. I’m looking forward to reading your book.
What’s going well, if anything? Are there any positive trends that are happening that we should pay attention to, maybe double down on?
HAASS: That’s a good question. I do have a default option which, at times, is through the—toward the negative. Look, one thing is just to take a step back and say one thing that isn’t present in this world is great power conflict, and it’s worth pointing out simply because for the first half of the twentieth century we had two World Wars. Then we had a Cold War. And the fact that that is not defining is, obviously, a good thing.
Second of all, it may seem bizarre to talk about positive things in the area of health, but let’s for a second put aside COVID-19. Life spans are far longer today than they were just a generation or two generations ago. All sorts of diseases have been, largely, eradicated. I think that’s really important. And, again, let’s put aside the recession that we find ourselves in now as a result of the pandemic. But economic standards of living in the United States and around the world is much, much higher than it was decades ago.
Even though in recent years there’s been some setbacks for democracy, if one were going to look at, say, 1950 versus 2000, the world is far more open than it was. The internet, technology, have brought us some extraordinary advances, and one could hopscotch around the world and find some countries that are doing really quite well.
Colombia, for example, you know, twenty, twenty-five years ago had a terrible civil war. Well, now it’s one of the poster—it’s a poster child of a successful country, in many ways, in the Americas. There’s countries in Africa that have come out of some very difficult times. They look good. Asia is still a very successful region of the world and it’s the area where you have the greatest concentration of wealth.
So I think there’s still lots of things to be positive about. What I’m worried about in many cases are some of the trends. But if one were to take a snapshot—again, let’s put aside the pandemic—in many ways, from a historical perspective, I’d say not bad. But what is truly worrisome is where we are compared to where we were ten years ago and where we might be heading.
CHANG: OK. Next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Jim Zirin.
Q: How are you, Richard? I just unmuted myself so I hope you can hear me. The—
HAASS: Jim, we could hear you even if you didn’t unmute your phone. (Laughter.)
Q: Well, I’m shouting again. I’m down in Florida. But I think you and Juju might be able to hear me all the way in New York.
In any event, my question is do you see anything in the policies and programs of either presidential candidate that address at all the problems you describe in your book?
HAASS: Well, look. You know, in terms of this president, the policies are there to see. He’s an incumbent. He’s got a record of three and a half years. He is, in many ways, someone who, when he took the job, made it clear he did not buy into the value of a lot of his inheritance and, in many ways, he’s gone out of his way to dismantle that inheritance.
I’m quite critical of that, in large part because I don’t think he had anything better to put into—to put in its place. Selectively, I think he’s done some good things. I think he was right to “call out China,” quote/unquote, about some of its behaviors. I mentioned Yugoslavia, and despite some of—and despite—I mean, Ukraine I mentioned.
And despite some of his—you know, a lot of his policies on trade, which give me heartburn—the unilateral tariffs, the opposition to the WTO—there still has been some progress, whether it’s in, you know, NAFTA 2.0, the USMCA, or some other bilateral agreements.
The question, though, what he would do with a second term he hasn’t articulated. I think Vice President Biden would be more in keeping with the traditional forms of American foreign policy. What I would say is simply that every president from Harry Truman through Barack Obama essentially operated within the thirty-five or forty-yard lines, maybe on one side of the field or the other. Republican or Democrat, if you like.
As I just suggested, President Trump does not. I think a President Biden very much would. The problem for a President Biden or a President Trump, if he were to be reelected, is the inbox, and because of some dynamics in the world, structural change, because of COVID-19, because of many of the things this administration has done, I think the inbox will be extraordinarily demanding, daunting, challenging for whosever sitting in the Oval Office and it will come at a time, again, when the U.S.-Chinese relationship is in worse shape and when U.S. resources will be stretched because of all of what we’re having to do at home.
So I actually think it will be a very difficult foreign policy challenge for whosever sitting in the Oval Office next time around.
CHANG: Excellent question. Next.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Fred Hochberg.
Mr. Hochberg, please accept the “Unmute now” button.
HAASS: I’m not hearing anything. So we may want to go on to the next question.
Q: Oh, is that me? Did you get—did I—did I lose you?
CHANG: You’re on, Fred.
Q: Oh. Thank you. Richard, that was spectacular.
I guess two questions I have that are somewhat related. You’ve said today and other times very compelling in terms of America’s goal. How do we better get the American public to follow? Because one of the challenges we’ve had in the last—whether it’s on trade, whether it’s on America’s role in the world, is getting the American public to sort of see this as in their interest.
You know, I know—you know, I believe Americans have benefited enormously by our role in the world as being a global currency. But if you ask many voters, they think this is an elite idea. It’s very interesting. But it isn’t—they don’t see how it’s improving their—
Q: Trade is one way because we do exporting. As you know, I feel passionate about that. It’s a way people see that, why, it creates a lot of jobs. But it seems very hard to make the case to the American public. So how can we do that?
HAASS: Well, look. It’s a great question, and I think it’s essential that we do that because, again, I would argue that we have been stunningly well served in broad strokes by America’s involvement in the world since World War II. I’m not going to say we didn’t make errors. We, obviously, did. Various wars of choice in Vietnam and Iraq and all that were, clearly, strategic errors.
But, by and large, you know, we’re safer. We’re much more prosperous. The world has avoided major power conflict. Trade, on balance, has been a great driver of American economic improvement. I’d also say immigration, on balance, has been a great driver of American innovation, and so forth.
So I think we’re well served. How do you make the argument? Well, let me say two things. One is I think presidents and other senior officials need to—need to explain things. You know, fireside chats are quite a powerful tool, and presidents—the Oval Office can be a powerful classroom if a president wants to use it.
The other thing, though, is what I try to do in this book, which is to make the argument that the world matters. There are things we have done or can do that would make a positive difference in all of our lives. I would say that parents should push those who decide what a high school curriculum is—why isn’t there mandatory civics so people understand our domestic political DNA? Why isn’t there the international civics equivalent so they learn the basics of how the world is?
Same thing on college campuses. What would be wrong with requiring every graduate to at least take one core course in the basic of how the world works, and why and how it matters, and some of the basic or fundamental choices that come with foreign policy? I think that would be—that would be, to me, really doable and important.
Let me say one other point, Juju—yeah, I apologize for going on so long—but Fred’s question made me think about it. There is virtually nothing in history that’s inevitable. There is nothing about the future that’s so baked into the cake that we can’t do something about it—all the things I talked about from climate change to pandemics, to the U.S.-Chinese relationship. There’s tremendous possibility. And what I want people to do is to get interested in and potentially excited about the prospects, and how they could leave the country better off, and how they could leave the world better off, which is not simply an act in philanthropy, but it would, again, rebound to our own advantage.
So, yeah, again it sounds like a cliché, but I do think that from the top down, from leadership, that can make a difference. I think also the news media can make more of a commitment to cover these things. You’ve got what happens in high schools and colleges.
And one last thing I’d mention: the Council on Foreign Relations. Over the last ten years, we have added a whole new dimension to what it is we do, and we basically said we’re going to continue to live up to our traditional mission of being a resource for those who are inside the foreign policy conversation around the country, in Washington, and elsewhere, but also, we’re going to get into churches and synagogues, and mosques. We’re going to be a resource for local officials, mayors, and governors. We’re going to get into classrooms at virtually every level. We’re going to help journalists around the country. Essentially we’re going to be a resource to help Americans better understand the world and foreign policy choices. This book is essentially consistent with what I think is now our much larger mission.
CHANG: Excellent—well worth the extra time.
All right, next? Thank you, Fred.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Sewell Chan.
Q: Thank you so much, Richard.
I wanted to actually—can you hear me?
HAASS: I hear you perfectly, Sewell.
Q: Congratulations on the book and thank you for your insightful remarks.
I wanted to ask you about kind of threats to press freedom and also threats to the kind of media ecosystem, including those that come from, you know, rapid technological change. I work for an organization, the Los Angeles Times, that is very much committed to, you know, expanding international understanding. But it’s certainly true that there are probably fewer correspondents for American news organizations working overseas than there were, you know, ten or fifteen years ago. And I wanted to ask if you could address that because I think it is part of the education issue.
HAASS: No, it’s true. On the other hand, there is also a space for quality journalism. We see that at the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, your newspaper—are all continuing to cover the world. I wish the major networks covered more of it, but we see it selectively on cable—a show like Fareed Zakaria’s on CNN, PBS, NPR. You then have things like ProPublica where people contribute to it. Our own magazine, Foreign Affairs, is doing better than ever; the numbers are way up. All this tells me there’s a—there’s a demand for and a space for quality journalist, quality analysis.
And again, the optimist in me—which may not always be apparent—but the optimist in me is hoping that out of something as awful as this pandemic comes growing interest in the world, growing awareness that the world matters. So I haven’t given up on the idea that we will support or demand greater coverage of the world, and if and when consumers show that they’re interested in it, trust me, the supply will—the supply will be forthcoming.
CHANG: Thank you, Sewell.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Nili Gilbert.
Q: Hi, there, Dr. Haass. It’s great to see you. Congratulations on your new book, and many thanks to Juju as well.
When you speak of the need for acknowledging and responding to issues of global interconnected and interdependence, it strikes me that one barrier to this is our institutions—from nation-states themselves to international organizations, and all of the institutions that are funded by nation-states. They just seem unable to deal with issues that no one specifically owns.
So I wonder if you can imagine any new type of organization that could manage issues of the commons. How could you imagine these being governed, and particularly if you have any thoughts on people—citizen-led movements? Thank you.
HAASS: Look, I think it’s a really important question. You know, coming back to what we were saying, which is unilateralism is not an answer, global challenges are real; we need collective responses.
The problem with existing institutions is all institutions, in any—whether it’s a business, a non-profit, there’s always a resistance to change. And that’s obviously true where high politics come in in the U.N. system. So one—you know, one path is to say how do we modernize, adapt these existing institutions.
But another idea is to create new ones—you know, the whole idea of coalitions of the willing or coalitions of the willing and able, I think, is an important idea. And you bring together those entities that are willing and able, and relevant. So that way you don’t have to worry about a hundred percent approval, don’t have to worry about vetoes. Maybe you get ten or fifteen countries who account for, say, 75 or 80 percent of the climate change problem. They’re the principal emitters. If they can come up with rules about their own behavior and how they will deal with non-members of this group, that’s gets you—that gets you somewhere.
In cyberspace, same sort of thing. As I mentioned before, you could get the United States, the other democracies, the other big economies. Maybe we can come up with the rules of the road there.
And it shouldn’t be—and I think you are getting at this—just governments. How could you have a serious conversation about cyberspace without the big Silicon Valley companies there? Or now, if we were going to talk about the pandemic, you’d obviously want companies, you’d want the Gates Foundation, the Bloomberg foundation there because they are big actors.
When I was put in charge of Afghanistan after 9/11 I would have these interagency meetings, but we also had groups like Doctors Without Borders represented and the IRC. They were also invited to the meetings because even though obviously, you know, they’re a non-government organization, they were on the ground, and they were relevant. So I think we have to become really flexible and really creative; flexible on who we include and creative about giving birth to new arrangements because, in some ways, it will be easier to give birth to new approaches rather than try to change existing ones.
This, by the way, is what happened with AIDS. When the World Health Organization proved unable to adapt and meet the challenge, essentially you had new organizations come into being that proved to be extraordinarily effective. So I think we should be open to that sort of thing going forward in all sorts of realms, not just international public health.
Q: Thanks very much.
CHANG: OK, next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Jeffrey Rosen.
Q: Hello, Richard. Good book, good presentation as always. I am tempted to ask you what the next book is, but I’ll let you preserve that as a secret.
HAASS: Resist that temptation please. (Laughter.)
Q: Assume a Biden administration. How do you—or what would your advice be to the president about how to, in the first instance, reposition the relationship with China so that it is more consistent with what you think the right set of objectives should be without necessarily conceding whatever strong positions the U.S. has today in that relationship? And the second, more broadly, is how do you rebuild trust with world organizations and with traditional allies in the reliability of America’s commitments and words—again, without having to concede too much to do so?
HAASS: Let me start with the latter. Look, your second question—how do you rebuild reliability, trust, and the rest—it takes time. As a first step, we would have to reenter certain agreements or processes, or if we didn’t want to reenter them in their existing form, we would say we would be prepared to reenter them under these conditions. And so essentially we begin a serious dialogue, whether it’s dealing with climate, dealing with Iran, dealing with migration. You name the challenges—the reform of the WTO—so we would essentially enter into—either enter into these organizations or reenter them as is or, again, we would use our entry as a lever for reform. Now that might work.
With China I would say two things. But, by the way, Jeffrey, just to finish that one thought—but it will take time. Again, reliability—people have come to see us differently, and a new president would have to, through day-in-day-out actions, words, and so forth, demonstrate that the United States was reliable and had become more predictable.
In terms of China, I would say two things. One is I would invest much more in a private conversation with China. When I was in government, we also used—we often used the phrase “strategic dialogue,” but in my experience almost no dialogue that was called strategic was. You had dozens and dozens of people in the room, every agency on God’s green earth was represented, and you couldn’t have a serious conversation.
I actually think we need serious, high-level conversations, whether it’s the secretary of State, the national security advisor, the president, the vice president, but at that level, sustained basis, and about what it is—you know, about goals, meetings, you name it. And we would have to first decide what our priorities were, where we were going to push China domestically, and regionally, and globally, and where we were going to back off—but a serious, serious conversation about where we’re going in this relationship.
But secondly, we wouldn’t do it in our current context. The first and probably most important thing we could do to increase the odds that conversation might bear fruit would be to shore up our relationship with our traditional allies in the region and around the world. You can’t be beating up on the South Koreans and Japanese over burden sharing and expect them to work with you on China. Same thing on Europe if we want to have them have a common front on technology issues with China.
I also think one of the biggest strategic mistakes the administration made was in its first week by not becoming a member or by leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was close to coming into force at that time. That would have provided a regional political economic basis for basically going to China and say, hey, here are the standards. Here are the rules of the road. If you want to have more developed trade and investment with us, you have to raise you game rather than lower it. These are the rules you’ve got to play by or we’re simply not going to give you access.
So those are the kinds of steps I would take. But it will all take time. It’s not simply a decree. You know, a lot of these changes—or a lot of these trends that have been troublesome or problematic, they were reinforced and accelerated by this administration, but some of them, you know, could be discerned beforehand. So there—in foreign policy, certain elements sort of have a supertanker quality that will take a little bit of time and sustained effort to turn around. But I do think those opportunities will be there.
CHANG: Excellent. Next question.
STAFF: We’ll take the next question from Kilaparti Ramakrishna.
Q: Thank you, Richard. It was an excellent book, and I got my copy this morning. And I’ve gone through almost half of it. And the conversation between you and Juju helped pique the interest even more.
You identified two as the defining problems: U.S.-China relations and the climate change. And in fact, on climate change you have pointed out clearly in the book that this could conceivably be the defining problem of the century.
Given where we are today—particularly with the Trump administration—if that were to come back to power, what are the chances that you put on making progress on, you know, either of the two issues? And the second is, given the amount of money that we have spent on pandemic—you know, the COVID-19—you know, what sort of ability is there for the world community to—really to deal with what the climate change expenditures are moving forward? Thank you.
HAASS: You know, at my last job in government, I was the director of policy planning, and I used to say I did policy planning, not policy predicting.
I don’t know what a second Trump term would do; whether it was simply an extension of the first term. Might there be some changes on climate because of events? It’s conceivable. I’m not going to say it’s—you know, it’s obviously likely, but it’s conceivable if some of the costs of climate change became pronounced enough.
With China you’ve had an odd combination of extremely—what’s the word—generous rhetoric at one level and some behaviors which are both—some are generous, some are not or are overly generous, so we say.
I don’t know. I can’t discern a pattern, but I worry that the overall thrust right now is negative, and the pandemic is reinforcing it. So it would take real diplomatic intervention to improve the U.S.-Chinese relationship, not just from us, but also from China.
I’m not sure I understood your second question, but in terms of climate, if we didn’t change, you know, could the rest of the world do things? Sure. But it’s limited. You know, middle powers, the Europeans, some of the Asians, can, I think, set certain standards, set certain principles. But at the end of the day, they are not a substitute for great power involvement. They simply don’t have the heft in terms of economic weight, diplomatic weight, military might if that’s what it comes to. So it’s very hard to make the sort of progress we’re going to want to make without the major powers, and above all, the United States.
I think—you know, I don’t much like phrases like we’re the indispensable power. It sounds arrogant. But I would say that we’re necessary. We’re not sufficient, but we are necessary, and that’s why I think it’s so important that the United States find a way back to playing a leading role in the world.
CHANG: Let me get you to elaborate on that. That’s an excellent question.
The idea—in your book, you go swiftly through carbon offsets, carbon capture, you know. What about reengagement in the Paris accords? What kind of direct policy recommendations would you make?
HAASS: Well, two things: one is we need to do much more at home. I would say that in terms the regulatory environment—you know, with cars and so forth—closing coal plants. I also think that the pandemic is a potential opportunity. Just think about it, Juju. The government is now paying massive amounts to various businesses. Well, why don’t we condition that? Why don’t we basically say one of the conditions is for automobile companies—these kinds of CAFE or mileage standards? Or this kind of business you use these kinds of energy sources? So I think we’ve got a tremendous lever in order to influence the domestic energy picture.
I think globally the real question is how do you get others to do it. And I think, you know, it was an interesting article in Foreign Affairs, the other issue, by Professor Nordhaus where he basically said we should band together with other like-minded countries and essentially say we’re going to possibly introduce a tariff to the goods of those countries that don’t meet certain climate standards, so essentially incentivize them to do it. And I think that’s an interesting thought. I’m still working on it.
But I think it’s also—going back to a previous question—you’ll never get that agreed to globally, and I think Paris has real limits because everybody is there, and even if it’s goals were met, it’s not sufficiently ambitious. So we may need to now think about workarounds. What is it we do with like-minded, relevant countries that would put us on a trajectory to—a more ambitious trajectory to deal with climate—not one that’s imposed on us but one that we agreed to?
One other thing, I think, on climate—Alice Hill, one of our fellows, works on this—we’ve got to accept the fact that some climate change—one, it’s already happened and more is going to happen. Even if we got our act together on climate tomorrow, a lot more climate change is baked into the cake, so we’re going to have to look at a lot of things we do in this country and around the world, and how we do that in terms of insurance, in terms of where people are encouraged to live, what are the rules about where, say, elevator mechanicals go, and so forth, because right now we’re on a trajectory where we haven’t prepared this country for climate change in some ways any better than we prepared this country for a pandemic.
One of the key words I think we need to think about and start using a lot more is resilience. A lot of these problems are going to come at us. We’re never going to be a hundred percent successful in stopping climate, or pandemics, or terror. So how is it we make American society more robust? How do we build in resilience so we can take hits from these global challenges and still pretty much continue? That is going to be a real challenge for the 21st century.
CHANG: Richard, that’s excellent. I know, in keeping with the tradition at The Council, we end on time. It’s now 5:59, and since I’m entirely skeptical that you can answer a question in less than a minute—
CHANG: —I am not going to ask another one. But I will take a moment, as moderator’s prerogative, to echo what you said at the top and hope that everyone out there is remaining safe and well during this pandemic.
Richard, thank you. Your wisdom and insights are always indispensable—even though you don’t want to use that towards greater powers. Your final thoughts?
HAASS: Thank you, Juju, and let me just echo what you said about being healthy, and safe, and careful out there. May I just also say that these are important issues, these are important times, and it’s great to have not just you involved, but so many people interested and participating. So thank you all. Thank you all for that.
CHANG: Good afternoon.