Home The Washington Diplomat February 2009

Council on Foreign Relations ChiefOutlines Obama's Global Opportunity

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When Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a book about U.S. foreign policy some five years ago, he boldly called it “The Opportunity: America’s Moment to Alter History’s Course.”

In it, he argued that no nation has ever possessed greater strength and few empires have enjoyed such wide-ranging advantages over their contemporaries as has the United States, which could, in cooperation with other major powers, shape the course of the 21st century and bring about a peaceful, prosperous world.

In an interview with The Washington Diplomat, Haass said that if he were to write such a book now, it would have a decidedly less exuberant tone — but he still contends that the United States, working closely with its allies, can influence the world in tremendously positive ways.

“This has been a tough five years for American foreign policy. Iraq has taken a toll on the U.S. military and the U.S.’s reputation in the world. We took our eye off of Afghanistan. The things we did — and didn’t do — had negative consequences to our absolute power and our relative power,” he said.

“But I still believe there is something between an opportunity and a necessity for the U.S. to forge regional and global arrangements to deal with the challenge of globalization. I think we are less well positioned to deal with it than we were a half dozen years ago. But only the U.S. can lead this coalition. And there is no way the U.S. can protect itself and promote its interests without the help of others. There is nothing the U.S. can do better without others.”

Haass is one of the preeminent experts on U.S. foreign policy. From his post at the Council on Foreign Relations, he closely monitors international affairs and offers astute analysis of global developments that appears in books and publications around the world. It had been rumored that Haass might serve as a Middle East envoy in Barack Obama’s administration, although as of press time, George Mitchell had been named special envoy to the Middle East and Richard Holbrooke as representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Haass though did discuss the litany of international challenges awaiting President Obama, saying that he is struck by the sheer enormity of the agenda: Among other things, Obama has inherited wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a military that is exhausted, a faltering strategy to deal with global terrorism and substantial anti-American sentiment across the world — not to mention problems at home.

But Haass argues that shoring up the economy must be Obama’s most pressing short-term goal. He noted that the new president faces a ballooning federal budget deficit that could easily reach class="import-text">2009February.Richard N. Haass.txt trillion in just the first year in office and a domestic recession coupled with a global economic slowdown that will increase instability in many countries.

“Obama’s priority needs to be domestic. Unless we get the economic foundations of this country restored, our future will not be anything like it can, or should, or needs to be,” Haass said. “I expect President Obama will spend the lion’s share of his time trying to get America out of recession, getting Americans back to work, establishing new regulatory structures at home, working with others as they establish new regulatory machinery in their countries, looking at the capacity of international economic institutions such as the IMF.”

Haass warned that the global recession complicates Obama’s international agenda in profound and far-reaching ways. “The economic crisis will make it harder to promote global trade, harder to reach an agreement on a global climate change arrangement; it will increase unemployment around the world; it will lead to state failures; it will slow the progress of millions of people around the world from poverty to something better,” he said. “My fear is that recession will add friction to societies. It will make it harder for governments to govern, harder for societies to function. I think it will be very hard on democratic institutions.”

As an integral part of America’s economic recovery effort, Haass believes the new administration should develop a rational energy policy for the nation. “It has been 35 years since the first energy shocks. The fact that we still don’t have a serious energy policy is a scandal — a bipartisan failure, a bi-institutional failure by both the legislative and executive branches,” he lamented. “We’ve had ample time and ample warning of the price we pay for not having a serious energy policy.”

Specifically, Haass recommends tackling issues such as safely expanding the use of nuclear energy, overhauling the electric grid, developing better carbon sequestration techniques, and radically improving battery technology. In addition, the administration should use government regulations to establish new building and appliance codes as well as other technical changes to make energy use in the United States more efficient.

“All of those need to happen. But the biggest single thing we should do immediately is to improve our conservation. And this is ironically one of these things we probably can do even better during a recession when people are focused on saving and conserving,” he said.

But domestic concerns can only consume so much of the president’s own energy. “I think economic issues will dominate at least the first year of the Obama presidency. That said, he does not have the luxury of telling the world, ‘Stop, time out.’ Indeed the economic troubles here have exacerbated our international problems,” Haass said.

On that note, naturally Iraq will require Obama’s attention, though the war shouldn’t dominate his presidency the way it did George W. Bush’s. “On Iraq, the trajectory is pretty clear: There will be the gradual drawdown of the U.S. presence,” Haass said. “We don’t know the exact details of the pace of the drawdown or the size of the residual force, but the arrows are clear.”

According to Haass, the new president will face much tougher decisions over Afghanistan, where “the Taliban is gaining ground. Security is deteriorating. Drugs and corruption are pervasive. More U.S. and NATO troops are needed, but any increase must be temporary, given rising Afghan nationalism.”

Haass believes that the chief priority should be training Afghanistan’s army and police, while Afghan and U.S. leaders launch talks with those with a stake in that country’s future, including Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and NATO.

“It may be better to view Afghanistan and Pakistan as one problem, since Pakistan provides sanctuary for the Taliban,” he added. “Pakistan’s government appears unable or unwilling to control its own territory. Increasingly this is one theater. The two countries’ relationship is so intimate, so intertwined, for better or largely for worse. I tend to think that either both will succeed — or both will not.

“I think the Obama administration will have to do more in Afghanistan,” Haass continued. “But I also think Obama has no illusions on how difficult that will be. The goal need not be complete success. The goal should be the avoidance of defeat. Sometimes in life you are on offense; sometimes you are on defense and are mostly trying to prevent bad things from occurring. This is an example of that.”

Pakistan remains a fragile and volatile nation. It has 170 million people, several dozen nuclear weapons, and many of the world’s fiercest terrorists, including the elusive hard core of al Qaeda. “These are in some ways the most fundamental nation- and state-building challenges the U.S. faces. The stakes are enormous and the difficulties are equally great,” Haass said. “And if that is not enough, you have Iran.”

On that front, Haass expects the Obama administration to make a vigorous effort to stop, or at least contain, Iran’s push for nuclear weapons.

“I think we may see a new diplomatic initiative forged with the Europeans, the Russians, the Chinese. Hopefully, the administration will also talk to the Arab states and the Turks. I expect it to be rather comprehensive initiative — with pronounced incentives and pronounced sanctions if the Iranians balk,” Haass speculated. “I think it should be pushed privately and publicly. There is a chance this could work. The challenge for the Obama administration is to fashion a package that enjoys real international support.”

But he cautioned: “If it doesn’t play out well, the administration will face, conceivably in its first year, an enormous choice with consequences that are hard to exaggerate.”

That choice, Haass said, is to either use force (or give a green light for Israel to use force) to halt Iran’s nuclear program, or accept an Iran that is moving toward nuclear weapons capability. This could ignite a regional arms race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others pushing for nuclear weapons.

Ideally, Haass said, Iran would give up its drive for an independent nuclear weapon capability or, if it refused, accept clear limits on enrichment and allow intrusive inspections so that the threat is clearly contained.

But the United States should try to curb the nuclear ambitions of other states as well, not just Iran. “The Obama administration should also press hard on nonproliferation efforts, which is a key feature of America’s relationship with Russia, Pakistan, India and Iran,” Haass said. “Nonproliferation is not just a technical issue. It affects almost all aspects of American foreign policy.”

To that end, Haass supports U.S. and Russian efforts to drastically reduce their nuclear arsenals and said that the goal of a nuclear-free world is worth considering. “You can have an argument about whether the number [of nuclear weapons] should be zero. But I don’t think you can have an argument that the number should be extraordinarily small. We should at least go to a low nuclear world if not to a no-nuclear world in terms of weaponry,” he said.

But a more immediate threat on the horizon is the conflict in Gaza. Writing in Newsweek, Haass said that the punishing Israeli attack on Hamas in Gaza demonstrated “that Hamas cannot shell Israeli territory with impunity, and that Israel is not bound by rules of proportionality.” Other than that though, not much will be accomplished without a return to actual diplomacy.

“Hamas will be weaker militarily,” Haass wrote. “But attacking Hamas has had the contradictory effect of strengthening its reputation as the main arm of Palestinian resistance. And images of what Israeli weapons in some instances did to innocent Palestinians has forfeited sympathy for Israel and made it more difficult for moderate Arab governments to normalize relations with the country. A ceasefire will prove to be little more than a break between rounds of warfare if something is not done to change the dynamics between Israel and its neighbors.”

Even before Israel launched its attack on Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Haass told The Diplomat that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians looked difficult and distant. He advocates vigorous work — much like the diplomacy undertaken in Northern Ireland, where Haass was the lead U.S. government official in support of the peace process — to improve conditions on the ground so that future diplomacy might be bear any fruit.

“If things aren’t working out, President Obama should articulate his thinking about the contours of an agreement,” Haass said. “We need to give Palestinian moderates a vision that they can take back to their people so they can explain that this is a productive effort.”

Haass potentially sees more value in the United States helping to broker a peace agreement between Israel and Syria. “It is less difficult than the Palestinian dispute. I would hope the U.S. government would re-establish a normal diplomatic relationship with the Syrian government. A peace between Israel and Syria would be a remarkable breakthrough. I don’t know if it can be choreographed, but it would be worth taking a run at it,” he said.

But the Middle East imbroglios shouldn’t come at the expense of another key relationship that the United States must not neglect: China. Haass believes Washington should work closely with Beijing on a range of issues and try to integrate China into the global leadership structure. A cooperative American relationship with China, he points out, could help stem the spread of nuclear materials and weapons, maintain an open global trading and financial system, secure energy supplies, frustrate terrorists, prevent pandemics, and slow climate change.

Haass, 57, is both a creative thinker and prolific writer about international relations. He has moved in and out of government and the think tank worlds, working at the National Security Council during the first Bush administration, then heading up foreign policy programs at the Brookings Institution during the Clinton presidency. He served as director of policy planning at the State Department during the first part of George W. Bush’s presidency, before accepting the presidency of the Council on Foreign Relations in 2003.

Founded in 1921, the Council on Foreign Relations is a widely respected, nonpartisan membership organization that also serves as a think tank and publisher, providing resources that range from discussions with world leaders to hundreds of articles, reports and books, including Foreign Affairs, one of the leading journals on international affairs and American foreign policy.

Under Haass’s leadership, the council has significantly expanded its Web site, www.cfr.org, which in addition to the council’s own material, features a wealth of information by other think tanks, government agencies and institutions from around the world. “Our goal is to make it the single best Web site for those searching for information and insights about international politics,” Haass noted.

Although his primary job is to oversee the operations of the council, Haass said he tries to set aside time to read and write, arriving at his office in New York City early most days to write before his work day heats up. The author and editor of 10 books on U.S. foreign policy, Haass writes essays on crises of the day while also offering a compelling big picture view of the world.

“I think the principal characteristic of the 21st century world is turning out to be non-polarity, which is a world dominated not by one, two or even several states, but rather by dozens of actors possessing and exercising various kinds of power,” Haass predicted. “This represents a tectonic shift from the past.”

He said this non-polar world will be difficult and dangerous territory for the United States, which should work with a core group of governments that are committed to cooperative multilateralism to manage global affairs and increase the odds the international system won’t disintegrate or deteriorate.

The key challenges of this new world — the spread of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, protectionism, infectious diseases, drugs, climate change — must all be met collectively or they will overwhelm the United States and the other powers, Haass warns, though he also sees the potential for a new dawn if these problems can be conquered.

“The opportunity exists for our era to become one of genuine global integration. Integration can be a bold, transforming strategy by which the United States can shape the next era of history.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014