President Biden’s First Year, With Richard Haass

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, sits down with James M. Lindsay to assess how the Biden administration has handled foreign policy in its first year in office.

January 18, 2022 — 39:20 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Richard Haass

President, Council on Foreign Relations

Show Notes

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, sits down with James M. Lindsay to assess how the Biden administration has handled foreign policy in its first year in office.

 

Books Mentioned in the Podcast

 

Richard Haass, The World: A Brief Introduction (2020)

 

Podcasts Mentioned

 

Richard Haass, Nine Questions for the World, Council on Foreign Relations

 

Anne Appelbaum and Richard Haass, “Can Democracy Survive?Nine Questions for the World, December 16, 2021

 

Fei-Fei Li and Richard Haass, “Can Societies Keep Up with Technology?Nine Questions for the World, December 16, 2021

 

Michelle McMurry-Heath and Richard Haass, “Can Biotech Be Harnessed?” Nine Questions for the World, December 16, 2021

 

Elizabeth Perry and Richard Haass, “Will This Century Belong to China?Nine Questions for the World, December 16, 2021

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Transcript

James Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is President Joe Biden's first year.

James Lindsay:

With me to assess how the Biden administration has handled foreign policy in its first year in office is Richard Haass. Richard is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the epitome of a scholar practitioner. He has served in government under four presidents, including stints at the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department. He has also worked on Capitol Hill and he has written widely and well on international relations and foreign policy. His most recent book is The World: A Brief Introduction. He has also jumped into the podcast business. He is the host of the CFR podcast, Nine Questions for the World, which I highly recommend. Richard, thanks for joining me.

Richard Haass:

Good to be with you, Mr. Lindsay.

James Lindsay:

Well, Richard, Thursday marks a year since Joe Biden took the oath of office. You often note that presidents inherit challenges and situations that need to be managed and mitigated rather than problems that can be solved. Against that backdrop, how would you assess Biden's handling of foreign policy in his first year?

Richard Haass:

The cheap and easy and evasive answer is as a former professor to award him an incomplete. He's 25% of the way through these four years, and there's not a lot you can complete in that time, even if the force is with you. The one thing he did complete to some extent was Afghanistan, and there, I would give him very low marks. I thought the strategic decision to leave was flawed. I don't believe the costs of staying were nearly as high as people argued. U.S. combat casualties had plummeted, not with the signing of the 2020 agreement, but in 2014, when U.S. participation in combat operations came to an end. So I believe we could have stayed at a reasonable cost given the totality of American foreign policy, as well as the numbers involved.

Richard Haass:

President disagreed with me, we got out, indeed it was a rare case of bipartisanship because what he essentially did was implemented the agreement, his predecessor, I thought, ill-advisedly signed. And then it was extremely messy and people focused on that. And what to me that shows is that he got it wrong in two ways. One is he assumed the worst possible case about what would happen if the United States were to remain, thought it would become extremely costly, and assumed the best possible case if the United States were to leave. That it would be essentially an administrative leaving, and shall we say it was anything but. So that was the one thing that was completed with the exception that we may have departed Afghanistan in the military sense, in the diplomatic sense, but Afghanistan is not necessarily done with us. It's a humanitarian crisis on stilts, millions of people in the winter there are facing the most extreme and awful conditions. It's repressive again, and the potential for terrorists to make all sorts of inroads is there.

Richard Haass:

Poppy production is going up. Refugees and internally displaced numbers are high. So what we've done in some ways is put Afghanistan squarely back on the regional and international agenda, even though U.S. involvement, at least a chapter of U.S. involvement, came to an end after 20 years. Other than that, Jim, we can go around the world as I expect we will, but I would not be wildly optimistic. Climate, COP26 gathering in Glasgow was a real disappointment. It was long on pledges and short on actual actions. In the United States, there's a gap between our rhetoric and our policy in many cases, our own use of our fossil fuels. It's also related to another flaw on the Biden foreign policy. Again, a bipartisan flaw I would add, which is the lack of a trade policy. And by not having much of a trade policy at all, we forfeited one of the potential vehicles for promoting climate-related ends.

Richard Haass:

We could use trade policy and basically tell China, if you want to export into a certain zone, say if we had joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a zone that represented nearly half the world's economies, you would face tariffs if you continued say to export goods made with coal. But by not entering that trade bloc, the United States has forfeited enormous leverage, not just economically and strategically, but also when it comes to climate. I'd be hard pressed to talk to you about policy towards Latin America or Africa because I can't. Like trade policy, I find it hard to find. COVID has been disappointing. Here we are in the place which has produced extraordinary vaccines. A real marvel, and one shudders to think what this all would be like, had it not been for them. And even though we may have done in absolute terms more than anybody else, what we're doing is still woefully inadequate in terms of global production and distribution of vaccines.

Richard Haass:

And as we're seeing with these variants, be it Delta or now Omicron, our borders are not walls. And so put aside humanitarian concerns, just enlightened self-interest argues we ought to be doing more. I can keep going, in the Middle East, you have the Iran challenge where the administration, as part of a larger policy of reducing American involvement in the Middle East, has found Iran, shall we say a reluctant partner in that process as it goes ahead with its missile and nuclear activities. North Korea, essentially nothing has happened. The administration has tried to reach out to North Korea, but they keep knocking on the door and nobody answers. And then the only other two things I'd mention, I'm sorry to go on for so long, would be Russia and China. With China, you have a lot of continuity with the previous administration. And there, I think, we can talk about it in some greater depth. There're some things I think they've got right, some things not.

Richard Haass:

Where I'm probably most complimentary is with Russia. I think the administration has handled at least thus far, this Russian challenge on Ukraine's border about right with a mixture of toughness saying here's what we're prepared to do in the way of sanctions, in the way of military responses, here's what we're not prepared to do in terms of direct military intervention ourselves. But also giving Mr. Putin, should he wish to avail himself of it, a diplomatic off ramp. It's not going to give him everything or even much of what he wants, but if he wants a peaceful resolution, it's there on terms that in no way would humiliate him. And what I simply don't know, no one else knows, maybe even Mr. Putin doesn't know, which is what is his definition of success here?

James Lindsay:

Richard, I do want to drill down on some of these issues, but before we do that, I have a broad question to ask you. And that is now that we're a year into Biden's presidency, is there anything on the foreign policy front that has surprised you in what the president has done or not done?

Richard Haass:

When I'm struck by is one, the degree of continuity with his predecessor. Yes, Mr. Biden, doesn't push allies out of the way physically. Though on once or twice, he may mislead them or ignore them as he did say with the French over our submarine sales with Australia. But he basically sees allies as partners, I understand that. He believes in international organizations, things like the World Health Organization or the Paris climate process. So he's more of an internationalist, yet I'm still struck by how inward looking this administration is. How it derives a lot of its lessons in terms of getting out of Afghanistan, not getting back in the Middle East. The absence of a trade policy, I've already referred it to, the tough rhetoric towards China. So I think one thing that surprises me is the degree of continuity with the previous administration, which I think is a judgment worth focusing on for a second only because it suggests that Trump might constitute less of an aberration than many thought. And that Biden might represent less of a restoration than many thought.

Richard Haass:

That there's more continuity from late Obama through Trump and Biden, which may tell us something about what you might call post Cold War American foreign policy. It's not isolationists, but it's rather modest in many ways. The other thing that I think is noticeable from where I sit is the emphasis rhetorically on democracy. The summon of democracy, the rhetoric on democracy, but I find myself scratching my head on it, Jim, for two reasons. One, it's hard to imagine a worse time for the United States to be setting itself up as the face and voice of democracy given all that's gone on here in recent months and years. We're hardly a political system that others wake up every morning and want to emulate. And second of all, if we're thinking about a world where we've got these regional challenges like Iran and North Korea or global challenges like climate and COVID the only way we're going to make significant progress is if we're able to cooperate with non democracies.

Richard Haass:

We're going to need the Chinas and Russias and others like it, the North Koreas, the Iranians and others, to some extent to work with us. So to divide the world up into good guys and bad guys, I just don't understand how that is a lens or an approach to the world that makes much sense. So I am surprised that the degree of emphasis on it in a world increasingly defined by global challenges. And again, at our time where our own democracy calls out, shall we say, not just for being fixed, but also you would think calls out for some modesty on our part.

James Lindsay:

I get to sense Richard, that you're not convinced that America is back as President Biden likes to say.

Richard Haass:

In a bumper sticker, I would agree with you. I'm not sure I would have him say America's not back, but I would advise him to stop saying America is back. It's a little bit in the old days when people used to call us indispensable. I never was comfortable with that. Let others not Americans say that about ourselves. We shouldn't say we're back. I would much prefer when friends and foes said, "Oh, the United States is back." And they might do it with relief or with anything but relief, but at least they would do it with respect. And in the old days, I never liked it when we said we're indispensable, that's the kind of thing I wanted allies to say. I think we should stop talking about ourselves and just simply focus on what we can do and let others draw their own judgements and conclusions.

James Lindsay:

So let's drill down on some of these issues, and let's begin with China since the Biden administration essentially has said that China is priority number one in foreign policy. You have mentioned that there's a lot of continuity with the Trump administration. Is that a smart move?

Richard Haass:

I'd say two things. One is, I'm not sure I would call it priority number one in foreign policy. A thought experiment for a moment, just say U.S.-Chinese relations were pretty good or at least better than they were. Would that necessarily get us where we need to go on all sorts of other issues? Not necessarily. A lot of global or regional challenges wouldn't necessarily be fixed by that. And indeed our approach to China is not to improve the relationship, it's more to modify Chinese behavior in ways that we want. So I'm not sure that making China our central competitor, essentially our principle geopolitical rival and setting it up that way makes sense given that we would like their cooperation in lots of areas. And I'm not sure this is a way to get it. And even if we manage to push back successfully against China, we still have a host of problems out there.

Richard Haass:

So I have real problems with that. Second of all, I don't mind having an emphasis on China up to a point, the question, and I thought, for example, the last administration was wrong to talk about regime change in China, getting rid of the Communist Party. It's not in our capacity to bring about. With this administration, there's been a surprising emphasis on human rights and the like, and again, I'm not sure we're going to be wildly successful if we push that. China is wlling and able to push back, willing to pay a price for it. As I mentioned before, we haven't done the single thing that would give us the most economic leverage, which would be entering into regional trading blocs. We seem unwilling to do that for domestic political-

James Lindsay:

Richard, could you just spell out for a second? What's the logic for linking regional trading blocs, however, big to countering China?

Richard Haass:

If the United States wants to see Chinese behavior improve, whether it's vis-a-vis the South China Sea or not to attack Taiwan in the geopolitical sense, if we're interested in their behavior when it does come to human rights, not for example, having forced labor in Xinjiang, if we want China to stop stealing intellectual property, if we want China to stop having so many coal fired plants producing for its energy, trade might be the single best lever we have because China needs to export. The Communist Party and the leadership of Xi Jinping depends upon a degree of economic success as a justification. Indeed, the bargain the Communist Party in China has had with the people of China for decades now is essentially, you let us run the country. You don't worry so much about political rights and freedoms, but in exchange, we will give you a much better life. We will provide basic services, standards of living will go up, and so forth.

Richard Haass:

So that suggests to me that if we were to condition China's ability, to some extent, to continue growing at a clip that they need to for domestic political reasons that would give us enormous leverage over these other areas of Chinese behavior. The best way I know to get the leverage is for the United States to join with others, with China's principle trading partners, Japan, South Korea, India, and others, the ASEAN countries, we would get together with them. And we would try to set common standards that China would have to meet in order to enjoy market access or to get the investment it wants. And this is simply with cooperation comes leverage. We're ourselves 20 odd percent of the world's economy, but we can double that or more. If we go with the countries of the Asia-Pacific and some even in the Latin America, which also border on the Pacific as well as with Europe, which is another core 20, 25% of the world's economy.

Richard Haass:

So in that sense in union is strength. To have American participation in these economic arrangements, above all the trade pacts, would give us far more leverage, vis-a-vis China in the areas we care most about.

James Lindsay:

I take it that the Biden administration is not going to go near TPP, or as it's been re-christened CPTPP. But one of the things the administration has done is to try to persuade American allies in Asia but also in Europe to take a tougher line in dealing with China, pushing the Japanese and the South Koreans to be a little bit more forward leaning. Are you impressed by those efforts? Have they yielded anything worthwhile?

Richard Haass:

At the risk of being difficult, part of my response would be too soon to tell. So far at least, the Europeans, for example, had signed a trade and investment treaty with China during the transition between the Trump and Biden administrations, and then put it on hold. Interestingly enough, less for strategic reasons, if my memory serves me right than for human rights reasons.

James Lindsay:

Correct.

Richard Haass:

A real question would be though, would the Europeans be willing now to signal China say and say to China, if you ever were to move against Taiwan militarily, here's the economic price you would pay? In some ways akin to what we're trying to get the Europeans to do with Russia, to forestall an invasion of Ukraine. To essentially signal the cost and hope that that adds to the deterrence part of it, because the jury's out on that. I'm skeptical. But the jury is out on that. I think the most interesting thing with allies in Asia is China has alienated many of them, very heavy handed foreign policy. We would have trouble at times, designing a Chinese foreign policy more likely to alienate its neighbors if it were up to us. And what might be the most interesting but quiet story, Jim is the emergence of a different Japan. I actually think Japan in some ways is the Rodney Dangerfield of countries. It doesn't get the attention or the respect it deserves. It's still the world's, what, third largest economy?

James Lindsay:

Correct.

Richard Haass:

It has one of the world's largest and most capable militaries. It's called the Self Defense Force, but it obviously has the inherent capacity to do a lot more by virtue of its geography and where it is. If the United States ever wanted a contingency built around Taiwan, a war with China, access to Japanese facilities would be critical. Indeed, it might be the single most decisive determinant or influential determinant as to how things would unfold. And what we're seeing is the emergence of a Japan in some ways that's been hardened by what it sees coming out of China. China's heavy hand in this is beginning to have impact on Japan. So you now have Japanese politicians saying things and at times doing things that would've been unimaginable say a decade ago.

Richard Haass:

So we're finding the—what's the word—the envelope for what is politically possible in Japan is enlarging, is growing significantly. And that's simply a space I'd watch. So I'd want to watch that dynamic. Obviously we're going to have to decide what we're prepared to do to deter or defend against certain types of Chinese actions again, one against Taiwan. But I would say the two places I would really watch are the willingness of our security allies to join with us on the economic front against China. Because we have this, as you know, this structurally difficult challenge where our allies in the security realm, their principle economic partner is in many cases, China, and that's a difficult balance or tension rather to navigate. So that's one, can we get them to work with us? If you might say geo-economically, the political side of trade and investment.

Richard Haass:

And second of all, are they willing to line up with us geopolitically to do what might be necessary to deter or defend against China? And that's all in train. And I think it's simply too soon to make judgements, but I find that those to me are probably the two biggest questions about that part of the world in addition to whatever it is China might decide it wants to do.

James Lindsay:

You mentioned Taiwan. So I have to ask, Richard, are you worried about a conflict over Taiwan in the near future, next one, two, three years?

Richard Haass:

Probably not. If I were going to talk about my near-term concerns to what keeps me up at night list. For this year, I would have two things, in addition to that third unexpected pile that you can never foresee. One would be obviously Russia with Ukraine, what it might do. The other would be Iran. If we continue to get to a point where Iran does not reenter the 2015 nuclear deal, continues to advance its nuclear related activities, continues to shrink the time it would need if it wanted to make a dash for nuclear devices that it could get there and essentially present us in the world with a fait accompli. The question is whether that leads to some type of military action by the U.S., by Israel or Saudi Arabia or somebody else. So I think those are the two big geopolitical things I would say for the next year or so, Jim.

Richard Haass:

And then I worry about COVID, the next variant, the fact that there's still billions of people out there who haven't had access to vaccine. That we live in this bizarre world where in the United States, you have an excess of supply. And then most of the world, you have an excess of demand. And then I obviously worry about climate and what makes climate so pernicious as an issue is it's a slow motion crisis. And it's often hard to generate the urgency. This year's a perfect example, 2021 and 2022 coming out of COVID, there's a tremendous emphasis in the United States, in China, around the world, India, of getting economies back up and running. I get it. But the only fuel available in the short run is fossil fuels. So what we're going to do is actually exacerbate the climate challenge. So everyone, not everyone, but most give lip service to climate change as the existential problem of our time, but they don't act that way. There's a significant disconnect between the rhetoric of climate change and the reality of climate change related policy.

James Lindsay:

Well, let me ask you about that. We just had a major summit held in Glasgow, the city of my ancestors. Are you impressed with what the Biden administration was able to achieve at COP26, to use the technical lingo?

Richard Haass:

In a word, no. It actually reminds me of the old Brezhnev joke. He was at a press conference and he was asked about the Soviet economy and he said, "And so in a word comrade General Secretary, what do you think of the economy?" And he said, "Good." And he said, "Could you say a little bit more?" And then he said, "Not good." And that is basically my view of COP26 in Glasgow. It was good if you will, at a rhetorical level, the pledges very weak when it came to action. To me, the one interesting development, and it's almost a... What's the word? A reflection of the disappointment of what governments are willing to do is the significant role of the private sector. I actually think companies are taking the lead here and that's interesting in two ways, Jim one is technology. I've actually come around to the conclusion that if there's going to be a major breakthrough on climate, it's more likely to come out of laboratories than it is out of diplomacy. I think that's going to be critical.

Richard Haass:

And then companies, because they face pressure from consumers and boards and investors, my sense is, so-called ESG, my sense is a lot of them are going to be far more forward leaning on the climate issue than governments, because governments are always balancing things out and they're talking one way and acting another. So that might be the one interesting part of Glasgow, and we'll see what happens going forward, that you have this kind of corporate-led response. But the behavior of governments, no, I don't know anyone who seriously thinks one COP27 meets, I think it's in Egypt, late in this calendar year that we're going to have significant, that there are many cases, even any progress. I actually think it's quite possible given the coming out of COVID reality we face that we could have backsliding.

James Lindsay:

I'll just note for the record that U.S. emissions are up 6% in 2021. And if I'm reading the news reports correctly, 2021 is now the seventh in a string of the warmest years on record. So directionally we're going in absolutely the wrong direction. But let's go back to the issue of Russia. And President Putin has made the case that NATO has been encroaching upon Russia's neighborhood, that it poses an unacceptable threat to Moscow, to Russia. Where do you see this going in 2022? And is the Biden administration doing the right thing by among other things saying U.S. involvement directly militarily is off the table, but there are economic sanctions that we will wheel out if need be?

Richard Haass:

The honest answer is I don't have any idea where it's going, because what will determine where it's going is what Vladimir Putin does. And if he knows he ain't saying, and I'm not even sure he knows. I can't prove it, but my guess is he is unhappily surprised by the robustness of the American led response, the cost that would accrue to him if he were to go down. My guess is he saw the United States divided in the wake of January 6th. He saw Afghanistan. He saw what the Obama administration did or didn't do in Syria. My hunch is he saw us as in a truly isolationist phase. And my guess is he thought he could maybe accomplish a lot at very limited cost. Because quite honestly, what he accomplished in Crimea was a lot from his point of view at a very limited cost.

Richard Haass:

What I think he's learned in the last few weeks is the cost would be far higher. So I don't know again, whether he's recalibrating. This could change by the hour, it's a little bit like asking me what North Korea is going to do with nuclear tests. These top heavy countries where you have such a consolidation of power, what characterizes them is the lack of collective leadership, the lack of institutional restraint. So—increasingly true of China, which is a real departure for China, compared to say previous periods, that you have a General Secretary with such power as you do with Xi Jinping. So I don't know what Mr. Putin is going to do, but I do think that the administration was right to take direct military intervention on our part off the table. Not that that was incredible. I got really tired, very fast with administration officials saying all options are on the table. Baloney.

Richard Haass:

They were never on the table. We weren't kidding anybody. Certainly weren't kidding Mr. Putin. Indeed, that's the kind of empty rhetoric that I feared would lead him to think he could get away with it. So I think the administration was right to show some discipline, cut out that kind of stuff. And instead talk to the Europeans and talk publicly about things we actually can do. Provide more capable military systems. We could expand military presence in NATO countries, if we so chose. We could do this in the way of economic sanctions. All of that is credible. All of that is doable, but still provide Mr. Putin an off ramp. No one's talking—indeed, what's so bizarre about this is Ukraine's NATO membership was not on the agenda six months ago. It's not on the agenda now. It won't be on the agenda in six months. So this is a manufactured crisis by Mr. Putin.

Richard Haass:

So it's a little bit hard to know whether this is simply opportunistic on his part or he's somehow worried about the dynamics on his borders, which is possible given Belarus and Kazakhstan. He's worried about the precedent as he was, what? Seven, eight years ago in Ukraine of authoritarian leaders, close to him being chased out of palaces by crowds in the street. That's not the kind of president, if you're Vladimir Putin, you relish. Somebody in Russia may notice. So this may be as much a forward defense if you will, against a "color revolution" happening in Moscow or in Russia. The honest answer is we simply don't know. So I think the administration's got it essentially, right. Which is you present him with some very credible costs if he goes ahead, including the cost of occupation. We can't stop you from conquering Ukraine, but we can ensure that the cost of keeping it will be large and growing.

James Lindsay:

Well, if you break it, you own it, and we can make ownership difficult.

Richard Haass:

A 100%. In a sense, turn it into another Afghanistan for you. And the last one didn't turn out so hot, because that was in some ways, one of the reasons that the Soviet Union came to an end. But again, we're not trying to humiliate him. And I think that's right too. So if he wants to get out of this with some negotiations and the rest and maybe some mutual or tacit understandings about force deployments, I think he can get out of. That option is on the table. The last thing the Biden administration wants is a major security crisis in the middle of Europe. He doesn't want a foreign policy crisis full stop. And to the extent he wants to focus on foreign policy it's in the Pacific. It's about China, he didn't come into office talking about Russia. Indeed, the first week of the administration, they extended the nuclear arms control agreement. In part, the purpose was to take Russia kind of off the table. So they could focus on other things above all China. So this is not a crisis this administration wants by any stretch of the imagination.

James Lindsay:

A moment ago, you mentioned top heavy regimes and you also mentioned one of your concerns is Iran. So let's talk about Iran as a top heavy regime, which has not bent to either the threat of pressure or the offer of incentives to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal that the Trump administration took us out of. How do you assess the Biden administration's policy there? And what are the options that the Biden administration has?

Richard Haass:

The Biden administration clearly wanted to have the United States reenter the 2015 agreement, have Iran come back into compliance with it. The last thing this administration wants is a major showdown in the Middle East. I just said they don't want to show down in Europe. They also don't want one in the Middle East. Indeed, the beginning of this administration's foreign policy was to dial down in the Middle East or the greater Middle East. Afghanistan, not to get heavily involved in Syria, not to get heavily involved in Iraq. That is the lesson that many of the people around this president, including the president himself, have drawn from the last 10 to 15 years of American foreign policy. They see American overreach in the Middle East as the crux of the problem. We need to focus at home, Build Back Better, America First, whatever you want to call it.

James Lindsay:

Are they wrong in drawing that conclusion?

Richard Haass:

Well, they're not wrong in drawing it. I think what we did in Iraq in 2003 was truly ill advised. Much of what we did in Afghanistan was ill advised. Where I think they're wrong is they haven't in any way matched their goals in the Middle East with their desire to avoid an investment. So if you want Iran to stay out of the nuclear business, well, or to not push for regional primacy, you got to do some things. Iran's not going to be a self limiting country. Iran wants to establish Iranian primacy in the Middle East and is doing a pretty good job of it. So that's the problem with the administration is there's a mismatch between its ambitious goals and its desire to significantly restrain its investment. In the region, you also now have a relatively new Iranian government that if anything is more radical than its predecessor, shows very little interest in exercising restraint.

Richard Haass:

So the administration may not get its preferred choice, which is to basically buy a decade, at least in the nuclear realm. And I just point out as a quick aside, that even if you were to buy that time in the nuclear realm, the agreement doesn't cover either missiles or other regional activities, support for Hezbollah or Hamas or anything else. So the agreement is not a panacea even if you could get it, it would only affect the nuclear realm. And then only for a limited duration. In another five or ten years, big parts of the nuclear agreement would begin to disappear. So Iran could remain in compliance with it yet still reach the brink of nuclear weapons, which is one of the reasons that people like me were never, shall we say enthralled with this agreement in the first place when it was negotiated and signed, what, six, seven years ago now.

Richard Haass:

So I think for the administration, if it can't persuade Iran to get back in the agreement, it's not clear to me at the moment, that looks wildly likely. For one reason, oil prices are high. And Iran has been able to do pretty well with oil sales, China and others have helped them out. There's the military option, but that's easier said than done in terms of what it would actually take to succeed. And then it's always easier to start these things than it is to finish them. And the question is, Iran has enormous means of retaliation, including thousands and thousands of quote-on-quote short-, medium-range rockets in places like Lebanon that could rain down upon Israeli cities. We still have several thousand American troops in Iraq. We have American forces still in Syria. We have American use of the Persian Gulf.

Richard Haass:

So we are not, shall always say without our own vulnerabilities. In terms of all that, what I would basically like to see is the United States have a conversation, I guess, the word I would use, not a negotiation, so much a conversation with Iran. And that would, if you'll pardon the expression, signal certain red lines. And basically say, if you don't do certain things, we are prepared to relax certain sanctions. But if you do certain things or go beyond certain lines, we will either add new sanctions or even contemplate other responses. By the way, it's the same thing I would say to North Korea, that rather than try to formalize in many cases an agreement, then there's no way you could get an agreement. You're the expert on the making of American foreign policy. There's zero chance on God's green earth that you could get any agreement you could negotiate with Iran through the United States Congress.

James Lindsay:

I think that is true.

Richard Haass:

So it's the null set. It's unbelievable. There's not something—

James Lindsay:

You're on safe ground.

Richard Haass:

—that would be acceptable in Tehran and Washington. So I think the best you could probably do with Iran is a set of tacit or informal arrangements. What is sometimes called in our world, arms control without agreements or regimes, but essentially tacit arrangements, understandings, red lines. And it would be structured in certain ways. So they would understand certain benefits that would flow if they respected them and certain costs they would pay if they did not. I think that's the most you can hope for. And I don't think regime change is coming. I can see why we wouldn't want to have a conflict. I also see, by the way, why we don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons, it wouldn't stop there. No one should think that the Saudis or the Egyptians or the Turks or others might not want to have their own.

Richard Haass:

And we shouldn't think that Iran with nuclear capability wouldn't be even more aggressive. Feeling that it gave them—what's the word—impunity to do what they wanted. So this is a hellaciously difficult situation where we want to limit what we do, but we have quite ambitious aims against a truly radical country we're trying to influence. An old friend of mine, Al Carnesale, who you know, was the dean of the Kennedy School. He was president of Harvard for a while. He was chancellor at UCLA. On his desk, he used to have three boxes in, out, and too hard. There are days when I talk about the Iran problem, I feel like it squarely fits in the too hard box.

James Lindsay:

I'm curious about that, Richard, as we think about Iran and how the Iranians approached this. If we were to go back five months with the ragged, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, there was an awful lot of talk about how that was going to destroy American credibility and empower and encourage American adversaries. Do you think the Iranians look at Afghanistan and draw the conclusion that they can push a lot harder on the Biden administration?

Richard Haass:

It's a really good question. I don't know how you answer it with confidence because countries won't necessarily tell you. I haven't had interactions with Iran much recently, but I did have it with a senior official of one of the other countries we've talked about, let me just put it that way. And what struck me about it was how dismissive he was of what we would do. And it was based upon Afghanistan and it was based upon our domestic, to use my favorite word, disarray and the post Iraq, post Afghanistan, just general turning inward. And the idea was we care about these issues at a core of certain disagreements, a lot more than you do. We are willing to pay a far higher price. There was a kind of dismissal or almost disdain for what we were prepared to do.

Richard Haass:

They were simply had a much greater propensity or willingness to pay a price. My guess is the Iranians may think that, and they would look at things like among other things, Afghanistan or Syria and so forth. And they may be tempted to think that. The fact that they keep edging in the direction they're doing is quite interesting. They are clearly probing how far they can go. And my guess is they may be more worried about Israel than us. And to me, the most interesting thing, and I don't have the answer to this, Jim, is whether, and I discussed it a minute ago, whether Israel's vulnerability to missiles that Iran could have fired against Israel, out of Lebanon or other places, whether to some extent that deters Israel from doing some of the things that normally it might be tempted to do against the Iranian nuclear program.

Richard Haass:

And I actually think that's a really interesting dynamic. We think of deterrence as like versus like, nuclear, as it was say during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union or India versus Pakistan, whatever. What we may have is a situation now, and I raised the question because I don't know the answer, is the nature of deterrence between Israel and Iran. And whether the Iranians think that they can deter Israel. A really interesting question related to this is whether the Iranians have decided that so long as they don't go all the way that maybe they go 90% of the way. And they park their nuclear program as a so-called, what's known in the lingo as a threshold or near nuclear power, so they're ten days away from having ten weapons.

James Lindsay:

Screwdriver's turn away as we like to say.

Richard Haass:

Screwdriver's turn away. But they don't advertise it, they have it, they keep it hidden and so forth. Whether they may think that that might be an acceptable posture and that they might also conclude that they could derive many of the benefits of nuclear weapons, but now not pay many of the costs of crossing the explicit "we've got them" threshold. I just put that out there. Because again, I don't have the answer to that question, but I think that is not an implausible possibility.

James Lindsay:

I think it's actually the most likely possibility. Precisely because it minimizes costs and maximizes benefits.

Richard Haass:

I do too, but I was more modest because I was the one articulating the idea. But if you want to say it's the most likely go right ahead.

James Lindsay:

I'm happy to make that wager. Richard, I want to close our time by actually shifting gears and talking about something slightly different. I mentioned at the top of our conversation that you have jumped into the podcast game with your nine-episode podcast, titled Nine Questions for the World. Again, I highly recommend it. In the podcast, you sit down with some extraordinary people to explore fundamental questions that we're going to face in the coming decades. You discuss biotech, China's rise, future of democracy, number of other issues. What was your takeaway from that conversation? Do you come away from it optimistic about where we're headed, pessimistic, somewhere between the two poles?

Richard Haass:

Few reactions. One is, my default option I will admit is pessimism.

James Lindsay:

Well, you're a realist, right? And I think pessimism is inherent in realism.

Richard Haass:

Yeah, but also I recommend pessimism, all things being equal. Because if things turn out bad, you can always say I saw it coming. And if things turn out well, well good. They turn out well. So I actually think pessimism is something of a can't lose framing.

James Lindsay:

I share that sense.

Richard Haass:

For getting up in the morning. No, and just to be clear, pessimism is not defeatism. There's nothing inevitable about anything. And you mentioned when you introduced me that I've worked for four presidents. I am struck by how little is inevitable. I am actually struck by how much a few people, whether it's in a situation room or an oval office, or maybe in a laboratory or on a battlefield can really bend history. So to say I'm pessimistic is not to say in any way I think anything's locked in. What I got from the podcast. Yeah, I am worried about—It reinforces my sense of concern about this era of history.

Richard Haass:

I feel that global issues, we talked about some of them like climate, are just moving too fast for our willingness or ability to deal with them. These new technologies I talked about with Fei-Fei Li, particularly AI and others, machine learning, again, I feel that they are outpacing our ability in some ways to understand or channel them. I worry about that a little bit. I was intrigued when we talked about things like China, about how much we don't know about and maybe underestimate their internal challenges. So much of our conversations, what China might do against Taiwan or this economic challenge, or we talked about Russia. But a lot of these conversations, particularly the one with Elizabeth Perry on China that I had, is really about China's internal stresses. Demographic, environmental, health related.

James Lindsay:

It's getting old and running out of water.

Richard Haass:

Getting old and running out of water. Ultimately the succession challenge. What Russia and China both have is they have created enormous succession problems for themselves. Because you have top heavy leaderships with no end date. That is to me, that's like kindling for the fire. And we haven't figured out what to do. And I guess one other thing, which is the technology, whether it's biotech or AI, there's still the promise there. And I think we talked about it before. I hope so because in many areas like climate, I haven't given up, but I don't see a lot of reasons for optimism to think that human nature and diplomacy are going to get us where we need to get. So almost like with COVID, the vaccine technology has been the great saving grace of this crisis.

James Lindsay:

That it has.

Richard Haass:

And it really is frightening to think about the human and economic and social price we would've paid without it. You remember when Tony Fauci was saying, normally it takes 10 years to develop an effective vaccine. It's just beyond horrific, but in biotech and possibly climate, things like carbon capture or geoengineering or whatever it's called these days, that might be the hope out there. That if the 20th century's going to turn out to be better. There's nothing about history that suggests human nature improves for the better. Geopolitics and international relations remain highly competitive, even when self-interest would argue for combining forces. So one thing I came away with is a better sense of just how critical technology might be. And in some cases it'll be governments, but also non-governmental actors. We think of the business you and I are in, we're always focused on nation states and who's on the Security Council or this or that summit.

Richard Haass:

But as we see in cyber, as we see with COVID, as we see with climate, some of the most important actors going forward will not be nation states. They could be NGOs or corporations or just individuals. That to me, came through loud and clear. That as we think about the 21st century, the dynamics of international relations could very much be affected by these other actors, by technologies. And again, by the internal developments in these countries, including our own. And one of the conversations we have was with Anne Applebaum, who's one of the world's leading experts on democracy. And you realize how much of the foreign policy conversation we've just had for the last 40 minutes or what have you assumes to some extent or presumes a degree of continuity in domestic realities.

Richard Haass:

But one of the things you quickly realize, and as we learned the hard way a year ago on January 6th, is we can't assume that anymore, even our country. So in many cases, foreign policy is going to very much be influenced by domestic trends, developments, socially, politically, economically, you name it. And that's what also comes through. And it comes through these conversations that how little is in some ways set in cement. You'd be hard pressed to be making confident predictions in more than a short amount of time out.

James Lindsay:

On that note, I'm going to close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Richard again, thanks for joining me.

Richard Haass:

Thank you, Jim. Always a pleasure to talk about this world we co-inhabit.

James Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. And leave us a review, they help us get noticed and improve the show. The books and podcasts mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on CFR.org. As always opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis, with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe did double-duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay, thanks for listening.

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