Octavian Report: Can you explain how your thesis -- that the U.S. needs to address its own issues before fixing the world -- differs (as it obviously does) from the isolationist view? What do you think in the current environment the chances are that your thesis will play out, as a practical matter?
Richard Haass: In no way at all am I suggesting the U.S. should retrench, much less be isolationist. That’s not my argument at all. As I’ve said to some people, playing off my recent book, foreign policy should begin at home, but it cannot end there. I think we’ve got to be smart and selective in what we do abroad. That’s simply to repeat a truism.
Secondly, we’ve got to pay attention to the foundations of American power. That’s everything from our economic power to our human capital. Unless we do that, we won’t have the resources to lead in the world. We’ll be vulnerable to the world. We won’t be able to set an example that others will want to emulate. The image that I like to use is the idea of U.S. national security, or national security in general, being a coin with two sides. One side is domestic strength, and the other is a smart foreign policy. That’s what I’m arguing for.
In the current situation, I’m actually more worried about the domestic side of things simply because it’s extraordinarily difficult to get agreement across party lines or between Congress and the executive branch on, say, tackling American infrastructure or on dealing with our long-term debt or modernizing U.S. immigration policy. It’s very hard to improve K-12 education, given the way it’s structured in the 50 states. For any number of reasons, it’s going to be very hard to fix the domestic side of the national security coin.
On the foreign policy side, we’ve got a pretty robust debate. There, I’m slightly more optimistic that there is a middle ground between trying to remake the world, which I think we’ve tried to do too often and to our detriment, and withdrawing from the world. Between overreach and underreach. I’m hopeful, even optimistic that there can be a middle ground that reflects American involvement and leadership. Obviously, we’re talking in generalities at 36,000 feet, and the devil’s in the details. But I do think it’s possible.
OR: Do you feel that our interest in foreign policy as a society has declined? Do you think this may be due to the absence of figures like Henry Kissinger, Dean Acheson, Brent Scowcroft, and their like? Or is that not fair?
Haass: I think in terms of general interest, I think it’s fair to say there’s somewhat less. We don’t teach international relations much, and what we do teach we don’t teach well (for the most part). Our media don't cover it as thoroughly or systematically as they might. I think after the end of the Cold War, there was a natural sense of relief: maybe the world didn’t require as much attention.
The combination of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars added to a sense of fatigue with the world. You put all this together, and you get a certain turning away. I think that’s just a fact of life that we have to some extent resist and to some extent deal with.
People like Henry Kissinger are extraordinarily rare. He’s arguably the great scholar-practitioner of his era. We’ve been lucky more broadly, not just with Kissinger, but after World War II with people like Dean Acheson or George Kennan. You mentioned Brent Scowcroft. We’ve been fortunate and then some as a society when it comes to our practitioners of statecraft. Some of the best and brightest have turned to this area of work, and I hope that remains the case, because it’s simply a fact of life that, given globalization and other realities, the present and future fate of the U.S. is intimately connected to the future of the world. We can’t become a giant gated community, whether you’re talking about our economy, our physical health, our safety, our values. We can’t separate the future of this country from the future of the planet.
So I hope that smart, influential voices remain willing and able to make the case for why the U.S. ought to remain heavily involved in what goes on beyond its borders. I have to say one other thing here: we’re only four percent of the world’s people. That leaves 96 percent elsewhere, and it seems to me pretty straightforward that our fate will be intimately and dramatically affected by what goes on in that vast elsewhere. I do hope that questions of foreign policy attract some of the best minds out there.
OR: How badly do you think our credibility has been damaged by foreign policy errors in the past decade and a half? Do you see the U.S. as being able, without a major internal change, to recoup those losses?
Haass: I’ll answer you on two levels. To some extent our credibility has simply been hurt by policies or by things that have happened. By that I mean we paid a price for what happened in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq war. Conditions unraveled on the ground there after the battlefield victory; the scandals around Abu Ghraib hurt us as well. The U.S. paid a price for that. We also paid a price for what we didn’t do in Syria in terms of setting out commitments and red lines and then not acting on them. I think the U.S. has been hurt that way.
I think we were also hurt by the 2008 financial crisis, much of which originated here. I think at times our prestige in the world has suffered when the world has gotten a window on developments here. For example, after Hurricane Katrina. All that works against the standing of the U.S. in the world. The good news is that that’s the sort of thing that I believe can be turned around if we do good things, and we do them well. That’s one reality.
Richard Haass has served as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations for more than a decade. His most recent book is Foreign Policy Begins at Home.