'A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order'

Monday, January 9, 2017
Lucas Jackson/Reuters

President, Council on Foreign Relations

David Remnick

Editor, New Yorker

CFR President Richard Haass joins the New Yorker's David Remnick to discuss A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, his new book that examines a world increasingly defined by disorder–how the rules, policies, and institutions that guided the world since World War II have run their course, and what the United States should and should not do about it.

REMNICK: Good evening, and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations book launch for “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order”—wait for the new order—by Richard Haass.

Richard Haass is a hard name to spell but a very fine man to know. It’s a privilege to be here for this conversation on the occasion of his book. For the past 14 years Richard’s been president of this august institution and led it with a firm and kind hand. He has served four presidents. And he speaks his mind. At the State Department as director of policy planning under George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, he opposed the Iraq invasion. And in previous administrations, he has done distinguished work on everything from Afghanistan to the Middle East to Northern Ireland. He graduated Oberlin, and as a Middle Eastern expert he earned a doctorate in international relations at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. And this is the very important thing: He is surely the most patient and serene regular guest on “Morning Joe.” (Laughter.) It’s, like, not even any competition. He’s written a baker’s dozen of books, and his new one, “A World in Disarray,” is the subject of our discussion today. He and I will talk for a while, and there will be, as always, questions and answers. And this meeting is on the record. So you want to release anything of any newsworthy note—Amy Davidson’s probably here and put it in the New Yorker in two seconds. (Laughter.)

Richard, the Obama administration seems to be at an end. This weekend—(laughter)—

HAASS: That’s on the record?

REMNICK: Yeah. I’m releasing new information all the time.


REMNICK: I also have an ulcer. (Laughter.)

This weekend, Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said that Obama had made the United States weaker, that thanks to the Obama administration, we’ve lost credibility in the fight for American interests and ideals. Defending his own administration, Obama himself, in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in a publication, the name of which I can’t remember—(laughter)—said that Obama—that Obama made a firm argument for his kind of modest, rational foreign policy that avoided, if it did anything, for the most part major self-destructive entanglements, when you can’t say that for every administration, that his policy was one of a kind of sensible retrenchment. Who’s right?

HAASS: I think Lindsey Graham is closer to it. It’s retrenchment. And I think when historians get together and write about this administration, I think it will be known more for what it didn’t do in foreign policy than what it did.

And you’re right, they avoided large-scale things on the—I mean, there’s been three great self-inflicted follies of American foreign policy since World War II: the decision to go north of the 38th parallel to reunify Korea by force after the South was retaken; secondly, Vietnam; and third, Iraq. And Barack Obama hasn’t done anything like that. He’s had no act of commission, shall we say.

But what he has done is he’s proven the equally valid point that acts of omission can be just as consequential. And when historians write about Barack Obama, while there are some acts of commission to take exception to—say, the invasion of Libya, the decision to pull troops out of Iraq, the decision to tie the presence in Afghanistan to an arbitrary calendar—I think the biggest critique will be the series of things he didn’t do in Syria. And as we’ve seen, that’s just as consequential towards the—in terms of the human as well as strategic consequences.

REMNICK: What could’ve the—what could the American administration, what could the Obama administration have done with any confidence of success and without further horrific entanglement in Syria? He—Obama in that interview to Jeff Goldberg says that one of the proudest moments of his administration was, in fact, not following through on his famous red line declaration.

HAASS: Let me say a few things. One is you’ve had an interesting qualifier: “with any confidence of success.” Look, I’ve been in the Situation Room I don’t know how many times over how many years. You almost never have guarantees of success. And what you’ve got to then decide to do is you weigh it out and you think about what are the likelihoods—you know, what’s the likelihood of this or that outcome at this or that cost. And invariably—and we’ve seen it with this administration time and time again—you’re much more rigorous in assessing the likely costs and downsides of acting than you are of likely costs and downsides of not taking steps. And, you know, the old expression was paralysis by analysis. And we’ve seen that time and time again. So they sat around in the Situation Room telling us, ah, if we do this, we’re not sure, if we use force even though we said we’d use force after they use chemical weapons, we’re not sure what it would lead to—and they ended up doing nothing. And what we’ve seen again, it was remarkably consequential.

I would have said lots of phases in Syria where we could’ve done things. It’d admittedly become more complicated once Russia got in. But Russia wasn’t in for the first several years as well. I mean, taking the red line, once Syria crossed it—and I think the president is kidding himself; maybe he’s comfortable with that thought—and I don’t mean that disrespectfully because I supported him on lots of things, but I think on that, history will be properly extremely critical—we could and should’ve, for example, taken that—taken out the Syrian air force. Could’ve done that very easily. No Russian forces were in the country. We could’ve grounded the Syrian air force in a day. We could have destroyed chemical—we could’ve grounded the air force, and we could’ve said, unless you hand over all your chemical weapons, there will be further steps that we will take. We could’ve done more to help the opposition because it was after that that the potential opposition that we could worth—we could work with got truly demoralized, and you had a splintering. And I think it’s important not to revisit the issues of four or five years ago or three years ago with recent conditions. And I think there’s been a little bit of collapsing or telescoping of it.

But earlier on, there’s things we could’ve done or could not have done. I mean, when he said Assad must go early on in—was it 2013, if I have my years right—or might have been even earlier—well, I would’ve said, don’t do that unless you’re prepared to act to it—act on it. Any time there’s a gap that grows up between means and ends in foreign policy, you’re asking for trouble. And the administration asked for trouble, and they got it. So either I wouldn’t have done that—I wouldn’t have said that Assad must go—or I would’ve had a plan to accompany it to put pressure on the regime, or more important, to empower the opposition. So I think there’s more we could’ve done in terms of indirect help militarily. And it’s a straw man to say that it would’ve required another large-scale—

REMNICK: The Obama—the Obama argument would be, OK, you can—sure, you can do all these things military. You can take out an air force. What about the next day? Aren’t we—aren’t we in now for the long haul?

HAASS: And the answer is that’s one of the reasons you might have thought twice before you say Assad must go.

REMNICK: So the sin was Assad must go, or the sin was not knocking out the air force?

HAASS: Well, I would’ve said both. I mean, I would not have—I would not have lit the fuse and said Assad must go. But once that fuse was lit—and it could’ve been lit without us, to be fair—that things might have reached that point, the boiling point, without any rhetorical intervention by the United States, then there was more—you know, we could’ve taken out the air force. We could’ve helped certain groups. But you’re right. One of the things you learn in the Middle East ought to be a degree of humility or modesty about your ability to control events.

REMNICK: And you thought he over-learned that lesson.

HAASS: I do. I think presidents tend to over-learn lessons and often from—they want to undo or be the opposite of their predecessor. And I think he did over-learn the lesson of the error of the Iraq War. And I think it colored a lot of his approach—his approach to the world.

REMNICK: So we now have a new president on the 20th of January who, to many, seem to be—I don’t think that he’s going to be paralyzed by analysis. I think that’s—(laughter)—

Prediction is the lowest form of journalism, but I’m sticking with that.

What strategic vision do you see coming out of that camp during the—during the campaign and during the transition? What does Donald Trump want in terms of foreign affairs? What vision does he have? And if he doesn’t have it, who’s got it?

HAASS: The honest answer is I don’t know. And in any case, even if I thought I knew it, there’s not a necessary correlation between what he says during the campaign or the transition or how he’d govern. They’re really different—they’re different situations because you—the old line that you campaign in poetry and you got to govern in prose. There’s a level of detail that comes with governing. And also, you don’t begin with a blank slate. It’s not that you—it’s not just that you have an inbox coming at you, but you have this inheritance of policy. And you have bureaucracy that has certain views about it.

But look, there’s certain elements that we’ve seen. One is economic nationalism. I mean, bizarrely enough, one of the—might be the only thing, I could be wrong—that Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump agree on was they all opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I think all three were wrong. I actually think that economically and strategically—

REMNICK: Did you think all three were sincere?

HAASS: I’ve learned—(laughter)—one of the few things—one of the few things I’ve learned is not to try to discern people’s motives or their sincerity, so I don’t know. But the fact is that’s where it came out.

And I think the one thing that’s coming out of your question, one thing we have is economic nationalism and more broadly a worldview—and we saw this in some of the comments—that the price of American leadership outweighs the benefits. I actually take issue with that. I think the price is quite modest. If one looks at the overall amount we now spend on—of our GDP on defense and related issues, it’s what, 3 (percent), 3 ½ percent? That is modest by post-World War II standards. And I think the returns have been extraordinary in terms of stability in the world.

So I—but I think there is a kind of economic nationalism. I think there’s things we need to do here at home. My previous book was called “Foreign Policy Begins at Home.” But in no way is it either/or. Everything we need doing at home need not and should not come out of the pot that says “foreign policy.” I mean, you can do entitlement reform without undermining America’s foreign policy. You can build infrastructure. You can improve our schools. None of those things—it’s not—this whole guns verses butter tradeoff I simply don’t think is valid.

You know, after that, there’s—I can’t tell, David, whether America first—because Mr. Trump constantly says it’s not an echo of the past, but whether it means a degree of unilateralism or a degree of sort of—how do we put it—that we can act in what we think at that time is our own best interest, so it’s a little bit of unpredictability—that would seem to be possible. And I think there’s potential—you know, I have some concerns with that because I think as an—as a—as a country that has allies who are depending on us, I think there is a lot of value to be assigned to reliability and unpredictability. We don’t want to turn the world into a self-help system, which would be something that would encourage proliferation.

The kind of thing we saw when Saudi Arabia invaded Yemen—which I thought was a really misguided action on their part; I think it’s the potential to become their Vietnam—but in part they did that I think because they had lost a certain confidence in the United States after the Iran agreement and after Syria. I don’t want a world in which countries which have been, whether they’re formally or informally associated with us, I don’t want them all essentially saying national security now is something we have to undertake ourselves without deference to the United States. I do not think that is a more stable world.

REMNICK: But could you work for Donald Trump? If you were offered a job in the foreign policy establishment—and this has been in the papers, this possibility—a lot of names percolate up—is there enough where you feel that you are—overlap with him in some way that you could be useful? Or you think, too distant, I can’t do it?

HAASS: I mean, the honest answer is if anybody asked you to work at a fairly senior level, you got to—you got to—putting aside personal issues—you got to—you got to make yourself confident about two sets of answers to two questions. One is, is the—is the concept of the job that they’re discussing with you something that you’re comfortable with? That would depend what job it is and what’s the definition of job. And the other is, do you agree on the big issues?

And let me say, look, I mean, you mentioned my disagreement about Iraq. I probably felt the most comfortable when I worked for Bush the father. We were most in sync on—

REMNICK: Ideologically, strategically.

HAASS: Yeah. Approach to the world, our sense of how to read the world, America’s place in the world, how to—how to go about it. We didn’t agree on everything, but we agreed on most things. And I think to say that you have to agree on everything is silly. But you have to agree on a lot of things, and you have to agree on the big things, particularly if you’re going to go out and defend it and represent the administration. You can’t day in day out disagree and day in day out be representing it. You—they should—they would do better to find people who are more comfortable with it.

And I would have to—if they were to ask me to consider something, then that would be the conversation we’d have to have about whether there was enough alignment I guess is the world I’d use between their thinking and mine. So I’d have to be confident I can make a difference, and I’d have to be thinking—confident that I was in an environment that the likelihood that we would agree more often than not would be high.

REMNICK: What do you conclude?

HAASS: Pardon me?

REMNICK: And what do you conclude?

HAASS: Well, this conversation hasn’t happened. At the moment I think it’s unlikely those criteria could be met.

REMNICK: OK. (Laughter.)

It’s called experience, ladies and gentlemen.

Now, one more current events question, and we’ll get to the heart of the book. We—last few days we’ve—the business of—hack of the Democratic National Committee has come up, and you have the three main intelligence bureaucracies coming forward issuing a declassified report, which is full of conclusions, and a classified report that presumably has a lot of evidence to buttress those conclusions.

HAASS: Probably the sources and methods by which they—

REMNICK: Now, that’s problematic to put in public, but in light of Colin Powell’s experience at the United Nations and Iraq and all the things that we’ve been through over the years with intelligence that has sometimes led us astray, with all due respect to those agencies, how should a normal citizen think about those reports? Because on the surface of it, it seems like a foreign power, and not a friendly foreign power, has done the obvious: It has interfered with our most sacred democratic process, the presidential election.

HAASS: What the reports say is yes, a foreign power has done that. What the report shied away from was any assessment of the significance of the impact, whether in any way—

REMNICK: About the result.

HAASS: The result, yeah, whether it affected outcomes.

I draw—I think this is true, and I would say two things. One is it’s not an outlier. By that I mean if you look at Russian behavior—you’re the expert on this more than I am—but if you look at what Russia has done in Crimea and done in eastern Ukraine, you look at what Russia is doing in the Middle East—I mean, it’s ironic; the big idea in international relations 10 years ago was humanitarian intervention, the so-called responsibility to protect. So we finally get foreign intervention in Syria. What does it do? It commits atrocities. So you—so all I’m saying is this type of action by Russia is not an outlier. It’s part and parcel, unfortunately, of Russia’s behavior, both in its near abroad as well as in the Middle East. They’re not—they’re not operating according to I guess we would call the conventions, the norms as we see it. My hunch is they’re busy trying to do the same in Europe now with the French and German elections coming up. So what I would think is we need a concerted strategy for pushing back.

REMNICK: But you know what the Russians would say. They’d say, look, who are you? You’re lecturing us on democracy? Please. And then they’d name Iran in 1953, Chile, all our—all our various sins of commission in a sense—

HAASS: But the purpose of governing is not a debating society. They can make those points. And the point is we would do what we think is necessary to protect our interests. And I would say it’d be reintroducing greater conventional military forces into NATO Europe, doing whatever it is we choose to do in the Middle East, helping Europeans protect themselves against this type of mischief-making in their own political processes and thinking about what would be the points to push back on Putin, whether it’s cyber-related or sanctions or what have you.

I mean, look, what I want—what I would stop is the idea that we want, quote, unquote, a good relationship with Russia. You can always have a good relationship with another country if you’re not focusing on what the terms of the relationship is. What we want to have—

REMNICK: Sounds like marriage, I guess. (Laughter.) I’m so not going to go there. (Laughter.) One of the—after 14 years in this job, I’ve learned not to say everything that comes into my—(laughter)—so there’s a chance for a 15th. (Laughter.)

HAASS: Chance to stay married, too. But I digress. Anyhow—

REMNICK: My bad. Let—this is very much related to it. Seems to me that in your book, when you referred to—in your work overall, when you referred to world order 1.0, you’re referring to a postwar superpower-shaped configuration.

HAASS: Not quite. I’m actually talking about something older than that and more basic than that. After the Thirty Years’ War and the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid-17th century, you had this major innovation. It really was the great big idea of its era. And that was the idea of forming nation-states and that they would be based on this concept of sovereignty.

And sovereignty had two dimensions. Essentially, countries would not use force to change the borders. And second of all, they would respect those borders. Now, what happened within the—within the territorial confines of a fellow nation-state was their business. Essentially, it was a mutual hands-off society. Now is a big idea—it may not sound like much, but before then you had a world of nonstop interventions. So this actually was a constructive big idea.

And for the last few hundred years this has been the basic structural idea, what I would call world order 1.0. It was often violated, World War II obviously being the most dramatic; more recently Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, Russian action in Crimea. But it still was the ordering principle.

And my argument is it’s necessary but not sufficient, that in a world of globalization, increasingly, what goes on inside any country is no longer its business alone. And my purpose is not to say we want to get involved in its politics. But think about it. There’s terrorists operating out of that country.

REMNICK: Pandemics.

HAASS: Pandemics. Climate change if they’re using tremendous—having tremendous amount of coal-fired generating plants. Hackers. Basically, you can’t use your territory as something to hide behind. So my argument is, we have to respect it, but if sovereign states are going to derive the benefit of sovereignty, they’ve also got to meet the obligations.

And what I’m arguing is that this order being now the next operating principle for the world—I call it world order 2.0—

REMNICK: Sovereign obligations.

HAASS: Sovereign obligation. And this ought to inform the consultations the United States has with others. And it deals with all these issues, with what do we do—and we’ve spent a lot of time, and a lot of you have probably had careers on it—preventing nuclear proliferation. There’s consensus on that, though countries don’t always live up to it. What happens when it happens? What then? Do you just live with it? Well, look at North Korea. Probably the greatest national security challenge coming down the pipe the next four years will be in North Korea that can put nuclear warheads small enough on missiles that can go long enough to reach the United States. What do we do then? What are the rules for dealing—do we simply live with it through deterrence or defense? Or we—or under certain circumstances, is the use of military force warranted, or other forms of force?

And what I—what I simply think we need now is an operating system for the world that takes all this into—

REMNICK: What is—what is that operating system?

HAASS: That’s what I call sovereign obligation, the idea that sovereign states have obligations as well as rights, and that what we need to do is get them elaborated, in some cases formally institutionalized and in some cases simply informally understood, for dealing with every one of these issues, from providing sanctuary to terrorists, to what do you do about countries that proliferate, to dealing with disease, to dealing with cyber, trade—down the list, every single global issue—refugees, you name it—and that what we need do to is establish a set of norms, principles, rules—

REMNICK: But institutions as well. But we have—we have some of these institutions.

HAASS: Yeah. The problem is these institutions were largely designed for a world where global issues were not paramount. I mean, the institutions we have have served us pretty well. There was a tremendous creative moment after World War II. I mean, Dean Acheson’s memoir is properly titled “Present at the Creation.” And if you look at—I see Benn Steil there writing a book now. You look at things like the Marshall Plan, the rise of NATO, the World Bank, the U.N., all these institutions, but the problem is they haven’t adapted. They haven’t adapted to the changing of political realities. Look at the U.N. There is no person in this room I would state confidently that would design a U.N. Security Council that looked like this one if you were given the pen and paper. Zero chance you would design that one today. Inconceivable. Or in lots of way, how can you have a serious conversation about global health without a pharmaceutical company involved?

REMNICK: But isn’t this difficult to reform these—it’s difficult to reform something like the United Nations as it is to reform the Electoral College.

HAASS: I agree. So you—

REMNICK: But so you have the interests are in place, they never reform it.

HAASS: Exactly. And those who feel that their position would be worsened by reform will block it, which is, by the way, why the Security Council looks the way it is. It does.

So then you have to think about new institutions or new arrangements, whether it’s coalitions of the willing or other smaller institutions, where you find like-minded countries that are willing to sign up to a set of operating principles. And out of those things, that becomes the nucleus. And maybe in some areas you can use the G-8, G-7, G-20; in some areas you may simply be ad hoc. This is not going to happen in a month or a year or even a decade. But my argument is, if we’re going to being to close this gap between global challenges and realities, if we’re going to have a world that is not in ever-increasing disarray—because at some point, you take out your thesaurus, disarray becomes not just disarray, it becomes chaos or anarchy. We do not want to reach that point. And my argument is, this is the sort of operating principle—

REMNICK: You feel we’re getting there.

HAASS: Yeah. Well, I think it you were—you know, the analogy I use early on in the book is—since it’s New York, I’m allowed to use financial metaphors.

REMNICK: You are.

HAASS: If there were a share of stock called World Order, Inc., it would’ve—this is bear market territory, friends. (Laughter.) Hasn’t crashed, but it’s bear market territory. And I don’t like the directionality. I can’t sit here and tell you there’s a rally in sight, things are going to turn around. I simply don’t see it. I don’t—I don’t feel it. And that—yeah, that concerns me because one of the things the Middle East tells us, there’s nothing about this world that’s self-organizing or self-correcting. Things just don’t get better by magic.

REMNICK: So what is the American role in this? You use this wonderful phrase about being global sheriff and—a sheriff, not a policeman, which is quite different in your terminology. How—so what’s the American role in this movement forward if you had your way?

HAASS: I would say we’re necessary but not sufficient. And that means that we’ve got to have the capacity and the will to use it. We’ve got to be willing to lead on this. In some areas we also may have to accept certain constraints. You know, I think at times when we—

REMNICK: But take a problem like—take a problem, though, to make it concrete, a problem like North Korea. What is the ideal policy for the United States in 2017 as a sheriff?

HAASS: I would say the ideal policy for the United States would be in the first instance to work with China, to see if we couldn’t persuade China of the negatives if they continue to allow North Korea to go down this path. And the Chinese plead a lack of influence, but I am unimpressed by their arguments.

REMNICK: But hasn’t that been our forward—been our argument for years now?

HAASS: We haven’t made it a priority, in terms of talking to them about the downsides if things continue. And it—for example, the Chinese are extremely unhappy with what this administration properly did, which was introduce a layer of missile defense to South Korea. And the Chinese are worried that if this continues to build up, it could have implications for their own nuclear system. So my answer would be yes, it would. So you’ve got to do something. I would be prepared to reintroduce nuclear weapons if the—to the peninsula, if need be. I would also be prepared under circumstances to use military force against North Korea. Imagine you were in the Oval Office and the director of national intelligence walked in and said, “We have intelligence that North Korea is putting certain missiles with nuclear warheads on alert.” Do you think you would necessarily let those missiles fly? I don’t think so. But also, there’s things we could do to reassure the Chinese in terms of the configuration of a Korean Peninsula after there were change, about American troops.

Also with China, there’s some things I wouldn’t do. I would keep the focus on this. I wouldn’t pick a fight with them on trade. I wouldn’t introduce a two China policy. I wouldn’t go to town criticizing them for their domestic politics just now. I would make this the test case of U.S.-Chinese relations.

REMNICK: You describe all this in policy terms and in somewhat theoretical terms in the book, and at the same times in real terms were looking at not the ’90s, in which there was a forward march of democratic leadership, but rather right now where there’s an enormous wave of neo-nationalists, authoritarian, xenophobic leadership taking hold.

HAASS: Sure.

REMNICK: Is Angela Merkel the last best hope of this kind of leadership in Europe and beyond or—

HAASS: Well, she may be the last best hope of the European project.

REMNICK: Who would be a voice to a book like this in a political sense?

HAASS: Can I just say, I mean, one of the things that makes me really worried is that one of the great accomplishments of post-World War—the post-World War II world was the European project, what began as the coal and steel community grew into the European community, grew into the European Union. And people take it for granted, or they criticize Brussels for being—this or that regulation, and that’s all fair. But the strategic contribution of the European project is enormous. This—we don’t wake up worrying about things like Franco-German or anybody else’s conflict. Well, that was the principal driver of history in the 20th century, followed by the Cold War. So I worry that this generation of Europeans seems to have forgotten the importance of European institutions. And, yeah, what’s good about Angela Merkel is she hasn’t forgotten it. Some other—we’ll see what happens with the—with the politics of France. But, yeah, I think she’s important, though she’s paid an enormous price, obviously, for her policy on refugees.

REMNICK: One last quick question and then we’re going to go to questions from the members here. What headline do you dread seeing in the morning? What—as if—(laughter)—by the way, it can get worse. How?

HAASS: That’s actually one of the two rules of understanding the Middle East. One is that the enemy of your enemy is—can still be your enemy. (Laughter.) And the other is things have to get worse before they get even worse. (Laughter.) And if you understand those two things, the rest—the rest, as they say, is commentary.

REMNICK: That’s very reassuring. That’s good. (Laughter.)

HAASS: The—on my—on my short list of things that—one would—one would be—again, returning to Russia, one of the things that frightens me about Mr. Putin or worries me about him is—I don’t know if the word exists in English, but he has deinstitutionalized his country. Think about October ’62.

REMNICK: Privatized it in a sense.

HAASS: Not just privatized, but he’s eliminated governing institutions that would put in place some sort of check and balance on him. Khrushchev, at the height of the missile crisis, in October ’62, he had to deal with the Politburo. He had to deal with other power centers. What worries me about Vladimir Putin is if tomorrow he wants to do something vis-à-vis a Baltic state, that he did with Ukraine, I think it’s done.


HAASS: I don’t see anyone or any organization within Russia that would stop him. That’s on my short list of things I worry about. North Korea. We’ve talked about—I always worry about grand terrorism, where some group gets a hold of a bomb—the idea at some point, you know, that a Pakistan or something like that could lose control over some of its nuclear weapons. We have Pakistan as the fastest-growing nuclear inventory in the world, and you—it’s a—it’s not a failing country, it’s not a failed country, but there’s elements of weakness, shall we say, and to say the least in political governance.

So I’ve got a long list of things that—one of the things that—one of the consequences—and then I’ll stop—which is that this is—Donald Trump is inheriting an extraordinarily daunting inbox. You know, I call it a world of disarray, but this inbox is piled high with a lot of difficult stuff. One of their rules then ought to be, I would say, is don’t make—don’t add to it. So don’t introduce a variation of the one China policy. Don’t tear up the Iran agreement, whatever flaws, real or imagined, it has. Don’t—if you will—it’s piled high. It will keep people busy for sufficient time, this inbox. (Laughter.) I would think that for the first six months of the year, focus on getting the right people in place, focus on exercising the national security process, because no administration is ready for the first crisis that hits it. You’re never ready because you don’t know really what’s going to hit you. And don’t add to the inbox. Stuff—enough stuff’s going to come at us.

REMNICK: Don’t move the capital—the embassy from—

HAASS: Don’t move the embassy to Jerusalem. I think—again, I just wouldn’t go looking for things to shake stuff up, because right now the world is sufficiently shaken up.

REMNICK: Questions? Yes.

Q: Thank you.

HAASS: Pamela, wait for a microphone.

REMNICK: I think I’m supposed to say state your name and serial number and all the rest.

Q: Hi, it’s Pamela Fog Falk from CBS.

On a recent interview about this book, you said that—

HAASS: Oh, you’ve done research. That’s not fair. (Laughter.)

REMNICK: Somebody has.

HAASS: Yeah. (Laughs.)

Q: At least some of it. You were talking about Russia—and either you or David can talk about this—that you would speak to Russia—it wouldn’t be worth it not to—but that also it was important to present challenges to Russia domestically because that is their Achilles’ heel. Can you elaborate?

HAASS: Sure.

Q: You mentioned cybersecurity, but what kind of challenges would you present? Thank you.

HAASS: Well, two things. One is, I would speak to Russia. This idea of isolating or ignoring Russia, I don’t see any purpose in that. I used to call it the Aretha Franklin school of foreign policy, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Show the Russians respect. Deal with them. Don’t make—I mean, for example, one of the mistakes I think we made over the years was to denude formal arms control of its importance. The Russians liked formal arms control because it was—it still had echoes of a bipolar world, and these are still significant issues. So why do we have to do that? It’s a longer conversation about things we’ve said. I mean, Barack Obama I think was wrong to call Russia a regional power.

REMNICK: A regional power.

HAASS: That was—they were—Russians have been sufficiently humiliated by the Cold War and the aftermath and NATO enlargement. I don’t think we have to—we have to add to it. Indeed, I think part of Putin’s genius—and it is genius, or his skill—is his ability to connect with this sense of pervasive humiliation and turn it to his advantage.


HAASS: And I think that—and so I don’t think we ought to add to that. So I would have a serious dialogue. No, on things like cyber, I will look at—I would—I’m not enough of a Russian expert, but whether it’s putting out information on Putin’s wealth, or the corruption in the country—now, it may be that no matter what we put out there is ignored. It wouldn’t have an effect. But what does Putin care most about? I would say it’s his own hold on power. What he wants—I think one of the reasons he so feared what happened to Yanukovych was that it set a nasty precedent, from his point of view: authoritarian leader chased out of the ruling palace by a mob. That is not something he wants to see happen in Moscow, and Kiev was too close for comfort. So what—you know, I would—I would surround myself with the 10-best Russian experts and say what would be the things that would get Mr. Putin’s attention. That’d be a useful list to look at.

REMNICK: Right there, sir, on the aisle with you. Yeah.

HAASS: Jason.

Q: Jason Forrester, a Council member.

Speaking of getting President Putin’s attention, Richard, what about President Trump taking a step, akin to President Reagan’s step, to work toward radical nuclear reductions with the Russians?

HAASS: I’m not against radical nuclear reductions between the United States and Russia. We’ve actually had fairly significant nuclear reductions over the years. This is an issue you follow more closely than I do. If we brought it down somewhat more, I wouldn’t have a problem. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. It will have no impact whatsoever on the nuclear postures of Iran or North Korea or anybody else. So we may want to do it for either political or strategic reasons vis-à-vis Russia, but we shouldn’t think it’s going to—dealing with the vertical proliferation problem is not going to help us with the horizontal proliferation problem. But I mean, I’d be happy. And part of—if that were important to the Russians—one of the interesting questions for a Russian expert would be whether the Russians would want that or whether this is now one of their few—it’s one of the few domains in which there’s still arguably a superpower or a great power, then you may actually get resistance from Russia in that area.

REMNICK: Yes, sir, and then over here.

HAASS: Mr. Zirin.

Q: Jim Zirin.

HAASS: But you have to wait for a microphone, sir.

Q: A microphone.

REMNICK: Oh, I’m sorry; I’m making your job hard, whoever’s doing the microphone. Sorry.

Q: Yes. Well, getting back to the relationship with Russia, which you spoke about, you tweeted this morning, not necessarily at 5:00, but I did my own research—(laughter)—

REMNICK: You too? Et tu, Brutus? (Laughter.)

Q: —that your—

REMNICK: Take that phone away from him. (Laughs.)

Q: —your approach would be, first, to make them modify their behavior, and then to talk about a better relationship.

HAASS: I think you misread the tweet, Mr. Zirin.

Q: Well, in any event, you did make reference that they’re modifying their behavior, and how would you get them to modify their behavior, and how would you retaliate against them if that were indicated for the hack of the election?

HAASS: Well, again, what I was trying to do was make the point that the goal in foreign policy is not smooth or good relations. The goal in foreign policy is seeing that your interests are looked after, that other countries’ behavior takes your interests into account. And in the case of Russia, if their behavior showed greater deference to our interests and our concerns, then the relationship would improve. That was my—but—that my argument.

But I—what I don’t want to have is a cosmetic era of good feeling. That kind of stuff doesn’t do a lot for me. The other thing, by the way, I’d add to that, though I didn’t tweet about it—it’s never too late—(laughter)—is American presidents over the years—and this is going back to FDR and others—almost always succumb to this sense that their personal relationship with this or that leader of an adversary can turn it around, and I just think, by and large, that’s a conceit that almost never pans out, that at the end of the day foreign leaders are going to do what they see is best either in their national interest or their own narrow political interest. We have to understand that. So the personal dimension tends to be exaggerated in terms of its—of how much influence or impact it ever had. No, I mean, I talked about what I would do with Russia, but I would—you know, I would link any sanction—I’m happy to put sanctions relief on the agenda, but let’s talk about the conditional. What’s the reciprocity there?

I would, no matter what, beef up the Baltic States. I mean, NATO essentially demilitarized after the end of the Cold War, and we now have—I mentioned before in the case of Syria—any time in foreign policy you have got a gap between stated policy and actual capability, you are asking for trouble. We now have that gap in NATO Europe. We have got to do more to close that gap. The only way to close it is by raising capability up. But I’d be open to working with the Russians on Afghanistan. I’d be open in principle—details matter, obviously—to talk about the Middle East, to work there or on terrorism. So I’m happy to have those—I’m happy to have more of a strategic dialogue with them, and I’m open to selective cooperation.

And one of the things I also argue in the book is I don’t think we ought to have a policy of linkage, and by that I mean if we can selectively cooperate with the Russians in one domain, I think we should. I don’t think we should insist that we also have to cooperate with them on six others before we can cooperate with them anywhere. I’m more interested in an ability to work with them where we can. We disagree where we –

REMNICK: That was the rhetoric of the reset in the Obama administration, selective engagement.

HAASS: Well, yeah. Selective engagement, and I think that actually—and I think it—and one of the reasons we need that—and not just with the Russians, but the Chinese and others—we’re probably in an era of history where most relationships are not going to be one-dimensional, all friend, all foe. They’re going to be in between, and we need a foreign policy that reflects the inevitable degree of—almost like—it’s like each relationship now has multiple personalities, and I think we need an approach to these relationships that takes that into account.

REMNICK: Right here, and then I think there was a gentleman here.

HAASS: Leah.

Q: Thank you very much. Leah Pederson Thomas.

Just a quick question on the sovereign obligation concept, unpacking that a little bit further. So the idea of us supporting each other around common goals alongside our allies, how would you—how would you foresee mitigating factors and byproducts of the Bretton Woods agreement that didn’t work out too successfully and creating a have-not/have type of environments or north/south-type environments? And what could be some of the negative drawbacks?

HAASS: OK, the honest answer is I don’t understand. (Laughter.) I don’t—let me try it this way, which is the Bretton Woods agreements—and there’s some real experts in this room—you’ve got the trade dimension, you’ve got the monetary dimension, you’ve got the development dimension, even though technically the trade dimension was apart from—let me just focus on the trade because that’s the most pronounced. In terms of the—in this country, I think we need a whole agenda. If there’s any chance of resurrecting trade, I think we need a whole agenda of things like what we used to call trade adjustment assistance. I think we need really economic adjustment assistance now for jobs that are eliminated whether it’s because of trade or technology. We need to have a way of retraining and reeducating. We can’t have prolonged—high levels of prolonged unemployment in this country. It will be corrosive to the fabric of the society. We need portability of all sorts of assets—I think IRAs and health accounts and all that sort of stuff. I think wage insurance is a really interesting idea, that if people had a job—the argument says if they’re paid $100,000 now, that job disappeared, now they have a job that pays $50,000, you top it up to some extent, and the government is willing to do that. So it doesn’t replace work, but it incentivizes people to find new work, even if it isn’t paying at the same level.

REMNICK: What do you think of the guaranteed income?

HAASS: That’s the—the Swiss had the vote on that. I worry about that because it’s a substitute for work, and I—but I think we—David—

REMNICK: But if work is being eliminated, if automation is the biggest problem with employment that we face internationally—

HAASS: I think we are headed towards a debate on that topic. Now there’s a whole school of—(laughter). No, I mean, I think we are headed—because even though there’s a debate among the technology types who say, yes, jobs will be eliminated, like driverless vehicles will eliminate millions and millions of jobs, but they’re saying other jobs—technology will create others. I’m not sure if it’s a one-to-one relationship. And also, the skillset for the jobs that are eliminated don’t match very well the skillset necessary for the jobs that are going to be created.


HAASS: And it’s very hard if you’re, say, my age and suddenly you’ve got to—it sounds great to talk about retraining and all that, but it ain’t so easy. I can’t even work a TV remote. So—

REMNICK: That’s why we have children.

HAASS: That is why we have children. It is the best argument for children. (Laughter.) The—but I—no, I think I have—my bias is against this—you know, what was voted on in Switzerland, but I understand if people—I mean, I guess the question is what conditionality. And I haven’t thought about it hard enough. It can’t be unconditional. You can’t have a society where some people have an equal income who choose not to work as opposed to those who have maybe—or even if they can’t find work, as opposed to those who have made the sacrifice or whatever to get educated or retrained and then go out and find something. So there’s got to be some differential, because the incentive has still got to be to find work—not just for economic reasons, but I think for reasons of family stability and psychological fulfillment and all that. I’ve now said more about this topic than I know. But I do think—

REMNICK: Perfect. (Laughter.)

HAASS: But I do think this is one of the, if not the big debates that needs to be—that needs to be taken on in our society.

REMNICK: The Council’s pretty strict about time, but since the boss is here, we’ll just get two quick questions. Right here. (Laughter.) Right here.

HAASS: All rules are made to be broken.

REMNICK: And right here. All right.

Q: I’m Gerald Pollack.

My question concerns the flood of refugees that have been destabilizing Europe.

HAASS: Yeah.

Q: What could have been done better to ameliorate this problem? And given the situation today, what should be done now?

HAASS: Look, the best way to deal with the flood of refugees is to take action so you don’t have a flood of refugees. And I don’t mean to be glib, but this is one of the consequences of inaction in Syria. So you can’t have a refugee policy that’s divorced from an intervention policy. It’s not going to happen. That’s true –

REMNICK: As every refugee will tell you.

HAASS: As every refugee would tell you. So people don’t choose to become refugees. They’re not economic migrants. These are refugees. They’re fleeing for their lives. So the most important thing is to get serious about dealing with the conditions that made—that turn people into refugees in the first place. Secondly, you want to focus on where they go, and that’s where economic and other forms of support for the refugees becomes important. We had the pledging conference in New York in September, President Obama led. I would simply say a lot of countries that could be paying a lot more, are not, and they should be ashamed for it.

We’ve got to deal with conditions of refugees, particularly for girls and women. Being a refugee, bad enough that you get bombed where you live, you’re forced to flee with none of your possessions, and then you’ve got to face rape and other sorts of challenges to your life. We’ve got—there’s got to be closer standards and—higher standards and there’s got to be greater accountability there. And obviously, you know, there’s two other things. One is letting people in, you know, and that’s quotas. You know, and here, you know, I understand the politics of it, not easy. I think it’s unfortunate where we are as a society there, but so be it. The other is also to control flows, and that gets at border issues and all that. But again, and you—people are going to find ways to cross borders if they’re not safe where they are, and that’s where, again, the sine qua non of this issue is security.


Q: Thank you. Hi. Nili Gilbert from Matarin Capital.

When you think about the crisis of the old order and the limitations of our traditional institutions to be able to address the changing world, how do you see the Council on Foreign Relations in all of this, which is itself quite an old institution? (Laughter.)

REMNICK: She didn’t mean you.

Q: (Laughs.)

REMNICK: Maybe—just the institution.

Q: What key changes in strategies or tactics do you think will be appropriate in leading the organization in the future?

REMNICK: Thank you.

HAASS: Thanks, Nili. Let me say, when I talk about the crisis of the old order—it’s a take—by the way, it’s not original; it’s a take on Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s famous work on this—it’s the crisis of the old order in two senses. One is the old order of global institutions, that a lot of them, as I said, were forged after World War II, and that was just a very different world in so many ways. Many of the issues we’re challenged with simply didn’t exist. Globalization was orders of magnitude less of a dynamic than it is now. The other is foreign policy. We need to think a little bit about the institutions and ideas that inform American foreign policy for doing it. So I think both the institutions out there and the thinking in institutions here are inadequate.

I think for places like the Council on Foreign Relations, I’d emphasize two things. One is—or maybe three things, very quickly. One is ideas matter. Take cyber. We’ve been talking about it. Cyberspace is the Wild West. There’s no rules, there’s no laws, there’s virtually no sheriff. Well, what should be the rules that inform cyberspace? What would success look like? That’s an area where outsiders, I think, can make an intellectual contribution, just like they did two generations ago on nuclear. This new thing came about called nuclear weapons, and the whole rise of arms control and deterrence theory didn’t just happen. Some of the most talented people in this society worked on it. I think we need to do things like that on cyber. That’s one thing. Second of all, places like the Council need to train people, our various fellowships programs, all that. We’ve produced, I don’t know, something like 600 fellows who’ve got into—in and out of government over the decades. Each year we take on a half dozen, five military fellows, more than half of whom will become general or admiral. So it’s a way of basically training people, because I’m worried in lots of areas.

One of your specialties, Russia. I worry about the thinness of the next generation of expertise. I say that about Russia. I say that about parts of Europe. We’re just not producing people who are specializing on these international subjects. We’ve got a lot of China hands, and that’s great. What I’m finding—because, you know, as we look at the field—

REMNICK: Why is that, Richard?

HAASS: I just think that—I don’t know if it’s people going into finance, or certain countries or issues seem of the past. When the Cold War ended, my guess is lots of people said, geez, being a Russian expert’s not a great investment in my own future, or people aren’t focusing on Japan enough. But I just think—it’s like fashions. I could be wrong. But look at how many schools in this country teach Mandarin. How many speak—teach Japanese or Russian, tremendous—or Turkish, or Portuguese, or what have you?

The third thing we’ve got to do—and it’s probably the biggest change in this organization—is we’ve got to do a better job at educating our own citizens, and places like the Council on Foreign Relations and—are—you know, it’s an elite institution, consciously, and the idea is to shape the debate in this country about this country’s role in the world. OK. But one of the things I think this election showed to us, it can’t just be a debate at 36,000 feet. And one of the things we’re trying to do is get into high schools, get into colleges, use the—we want to basically have a more what I call globally literate society, people who want to have a better understanding of why the world matters and the choices facing the United States, what the pros and cons are. And this country, you know, will be able to play the kind of role I think is necessary. It’s not simply a question of economic resources or military resources. It’s also a question of political support.

So I think places like the Council, too, can help with the intellectual resources, but I also think that we can help get the citizenry in a place where it is more interested in these—these issues, because, you know, again, what happens out there will affect—will affect this country for better and for worse, and people need to be informed, and also to hold our political leaders to account. This campaign, whatever else you want to say about it, the debate about foreign policy, shall we say, was not uplifting. (Laughter.) And the gap between what the 45th president—whoever it was, whether it was Hillary Clinton, or anybody else, or Donald Trump in this case—the gap between the—what that individual will be able to do and the consideration of that during the campaign is something that should trouble us as citizens, because we didn’t have a serious, sustained questioning about what people would do if they were—if they were put inside the Oval Office. And I just think as a country we should not allow ourselves to get—to get in that position. That’s not a criticism of the outcome, it’s simply a criticism of a democratic process that we’re all going to be affected by the results, so it seems to me we ought to vote in a more informed way and we ought to make sure that certain questions are raised.

REMNICK: Richard, thank you. I hope you’ll read the book. (Applause.)

HAASS: Thank you.

REMNICK: There’s a reception outside. Thank you.


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