Richard Haass’s ambitious and valuable book “The World: A Brief Introduction” has an unlikely provenance. One of the most respected foreign policy analysts in the United States, Haass had a conversation about a decade ago during a fishing trip with a student from Stanford University and was surprised that this young man lacked even a rudimentary grasp of global affairs. Haass later learned that students are able to graduate from the best American universities without any grounding in world politics and history.
So Haass set out to write a book to help make students and other readers globally literate so they could better operate in our complicated world and participate knowledgeably in public policy debates. He succeeds impressively. “The World” explains important concepts clearly and fairly and offers an excellent overview of global affairs.
Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, one of the premier international affairs think tanks in the United States. Before coming to CFR in 2003, Haass served in the Defense Department, National Security Council and State Department and worked at the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author or editor of more than a dozen books about American foreign policy.
“The World” is organized into four sections.
The first section provides an overview of world history from 1618 to the present. Much of this section deals with the World War I and World War II era, the nearly half-century Cold War and the complicated period since 1989. Haass reminds us that the Cold War could have ended badly, with a major power war or a nuclear exchange. However, prudent leadership and good fortune allowed the West to prevail without bloodshed as the Soviet Union collapsed.
The United States emerged from the Cold War with breathtaking power and influence and then managed to squander its pre-eminence by domestic infighting, weak political and economic leadership, and ill-conceived and poorly executed wars.
Haass sees the transformation of NATO as a case study of power without wisdom. As Haass explains, NATO expanded from an alliance of 16 countries in 1989 to 30 nations now without careful discussions or strategic debates. Consequently, NATO “morphed into something of an interventionary force for problems in places such as the Balkans, Afghanistan, and parts of the Middle East and Africa,” Haass writes, arguing that NATO’s expansion diluted its ability to act as a coherent alliance, alienated Russia and created obligations for members that they are unlikely to honor.
The second section of “The World” explores the six key regions of the world: Europe, East Asia and the Pacific, South Asia, Middle East, sub-Sahara Africa and the Americas. Here, Haass takes us on a tour of the world, offering interesting facts and important context. For each region, he provides basic history and explains its power dynamics and role in the global order.
The third section explains globalization and describes transnational challenges such as climate change, terrorism, cybersecurity, nuclear proliferation and international trade.
“Globalization is about the flows, often vast in scale and fast in speed, of just about everything you can think of, from people and emails to viruses and carbon dioxide, across the world and across borders,” Haass writes. “It is important to underscore what globalization is not. It is not — with few exceptions — a policy preference. Globalization is a reality. It is both good and bad, benign and malign.”
Haass provides an excellent chapter on climate change, clearly explaining the basic science and describing how it threatens us with higher sea levels in coastal areas, more severe storms, higher average temperatures and expanding desertification.
“Short of some technological revolution that would transform global energy use, we should be concerned, even alarmed, about the future impact of climate change on the world,” Haass writes. “It is the quintessential global challenge in that no single country can solve this problem on its own and there is no way for any single country to shield itself from its effects. Generating the required collective response, however, seems highly unlikely. As a result, climate change could conceivably be the defining issue of this century.”
Haass wrote “The World” before COVID-19 upended our lives but he anticipated the threat, saying that infectious diseases are a danger, in part, because globalization has made it much easier for diseases to spread. He cites recent outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, Zika and Ebola. “At the same time, a large-scale global epidemic — a pandemic — cannot be discounted,” he wrote before this year’s pandemic spread across the planet. “In the realm of contagious diseases, little stays local for long.”
The final section of book examines the current world order and explores concepts such as sovereignty, deterrence, balance of power, alliances and coalitions, the role of international organizations, democracy and international law.
The liberal world order, Haass concludes, is under serious threat. This order has been sustained by accepted rules and established institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This order is eroding due to declining U.S. power and America’s unwillingness to play its traditional stabilizing role, in addition to the rise of China, mischief by Russia and other destabilizing forces.
Haass observes that “effective statecraft is conspicuously lacking” and asserts that such statecraft is essential to tackle climate change, trade disputes, nuclear proliferation and the challenges of cyberspace and outer space.
Haass believes the United States must do two things to re-establish its global leadership. First, get its domestic affairs in order by reducing government debt, rebuilding infrastructure, improving public education, investing more in basic research, creating a sensible immigration system and fixing flawed democratic institutions. Second, it needs to act constructively on the global stage.
“The United States will need to show restraint and recapture a degree of respect in order to regain its reputation as a benign actor. This will require some sharp departures from the way U.S. foreign policy has been practiced in recent years,” Haass writes. “But more than anything else, the current reflexive opposition to internationalism and multilateralism has to be rethought. It is one thing for a world order to unravel slowly; it is quite another for the country that had a large hand in designing and building it to take the lead in dismantling it.”
Haass argues that the alternative to an international system led by the United States is one led by China or by a coalition of medium-size powers. However, he believes China is neither able nor willing to accept the role of global hegemon and that an order organized by modest-size powers in Europe, Canada and Australia is not practical.
“A more likely alternative is a world with little order — a world of deeper disarray,” he writes. “Protectionism, nationalism, and populism would gain ground, and democracy would recede. Conflict within and across borders would become more common, and rivalry between great powers would increase. Cooperation on global challenges would be all but precluded. If this picture sounds familiar, that is because it increasingly corresponds to the world of today.”
In Haass’s view, the fate of the international system is neither obvious nor pre-ordained. History, he argues, shows that stability and prosperity are not the natural state of affairs and do not just emerge or refresh themselves. They require a determined effort by governments and other institutions to set aside their differences to sustain them.
“The question is whether the governments and those who choose them in this era are prepared to make such a commitment. The answer to this question will tell us whether the past seventy-five years since World War II have been an aberration, and the world will come to resemble more what existed in the century before, or whether the liberal world order and its many benefits will endure.”
Those who read and even study “The World” will be educated, stimulated and challenged. They will become better global citizens.
Author John T. Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.