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Richard N. Haass on U.S. foreign policy, China, and the Middle East

Flickr. Reclaiming U.S. power abroad could require a comprehensive domestic policy overhaul.

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.

The other reality, which is perhaps more difficult to deal with, is that some of these issues of unpredictable reliability are internal and systemic. That gets back to the question of divisions within and between the political parties, back to the greater polarization of American politics. I think that can be harder to deal with. What you’re seeing in American politics, you see it in the composition of the Congress. You see it in some of our public debates. The middle is having trouble holding its own against the extremes. The danger there is that voices of moderation, or in the context of your question, voices of continuity, tend to get drowned out.

That to me is a danger. I simply don’t think we can be an effective, successful major power if our allies can’t bank on our predictability and credibility, and we’re not going to be in a position to deter others if they think we’re not serious when we make certain statements or commitments. It gets back, again, to the domestic basis of national security. I think there is some reason for concern.

OR: You talked in your book about the stabilizing force of multilateral institutions, be they the U.N. or the IMF. Do you think it’s fair to say that the U.S. needs to be primus inter pares among member states of multilaterals as a baseline condition for their efficacy?

Haass: Absolutely. What we’ve learned is the world is not self-organizing. Unlike the economic marketplace, there’s no invisible hand in the geopolitical marketplace. What you often need is the visible hand of the U.S. — not to act unilaterally, but to lead. That means putting together coalitions. Starting off, it won’t be within formal institutions such as the U.N., given the structure of the U.N. and its voting rules and the rest, but there are other forums of multilateralism that have legitimacy and that have demonstrated effect.

A lot of these institutions are talk shops, or they simply can’t act in the absence of the U.S. leading and not just exhorting. We still represent somewhere between a fifth and a quarter of the world’s economic output, and we’re by far the world’s largest military power. We have a standing and stature and a tradition of leading that no one else comes close to matching.

This is not bragging, and I hope this doesn’t come off as arrogance. It’s simply a fact of life that the U.S. is by the numbers first among unequals. It may not be the case legally, but it is the case in reality, and very little tends to get done if the U.S. is not prepared to participate on a meaningful scale.

OR: China talks about peacefully rising. Do you think that that’s right, that they really are intending to do that? Do you see their current upsurge in militarist display as being connected to the slowdown of their economy and the backfiring of their various interventions in the market?

Haass: The phrase “peaceful rise” is important. I don’t take either side of it for granted. By that I mean that the level of incline, the pace, and the speed, so to speak, of China’s rise are by no means clear, much less assured. The character of Chinese foreign policy is also not assured. A peaceful rise is one trajectory, but one could imagine rises that are not peaceful. One could also imagine a Chinese trajectory that doesn’t have a lot of rise in it.

I think China faces enormous internal difficulties from trying to shift its economy from an export-led to a domestic-demand-led economy. It faces as well all sorts of demographic challenges, given the aging of the population, and some of the unintended consequences of its one-child policy. This is to say nothing of its environmental problems or the large-scale corruption it deals with. China wants a lot of the benefits of an open society without having an open society. They want a lot of the benefits of markets without really having markets. It’s very rare in life that you can have your cake and eat it, and my hunch is that the Chinese won’t be any more successful than anybody else at doing so.

And I do think what the military parade commemorating the defeat of Japan showed was the temptation potentially to turn to nationalism and demonstrations of the might of the state as a rallying cry or as a source of legitimacy as the economy slows. What I believe we need to make clear is that such a turn isn’t acceptable. We continue to support China’s peaceful rise, but they can’t, if you will, substitute nationalism or various forms of assertive — much less aggressive — behavior for economic improvement.

This is all the more important because China has a legitimate role to play in the region and the world. Indeed, they have an essential role to play in the region and the world. We’re never going to succeed in dealing with climate change or global health or setting the rules for cyberspace or in keeping the Asia-Pacific region stable without a serious Chinese contribution. We should include them in these activities, encourage certain behaviors and discourage others. It turns out it’s going to be a very different century, depending upon the nature of China’s evolution.

We have an enormous stake in making sure they do experience a peaceful rise. I just don’t take it as a given. Encouraging it, to some extent, is beyond our power. They’re going to have to make certain internal decisions politically and economically. Yes, I think we can encourage certain types of behaviors, and we can make clear that we would welcome a stronger, active China, so long as it observes certain rules about regional and international life.

OR: Do you think there’s any possibility that China’s territorial irredentism in the region and the rhetorical brinksmanship going on between China and Japan might lead to an actual military incident?

Haass: Yes. Asia lacks a lot of the shock absorbers or confidence-building measures, much less the fully developed political-military framework, that you’ve historically had in post-World War II Europe. Plus, in Asia, you’ve got any number of territorial disputes, some over land, some over sea, some over air. You’ve got nationalism. You’ve got a historical dispute. You’ve got navies and air forces that often operate in close proximity to one another.

To me it would actually be more surprising if there wasn’t an incident. What you want to put into place, though, are measures to reduce the chances of incidents. More importantly, you want to put into place the arrangements — diplomatic hotlines and other safeguards — so if and when you have incidents they don’t escalate. I think of those both in the sense between the U.S. and China, but the issue is at least as important between, say, China and Japan, or China and Vietnam.

I don’t take for granted that this part of the world, which has been phenomenally dynamic yet surprisingly stable for three or four decades now, will continue that way. I think one of the important elements of U.S. foreign policy has to be to try to work with locals, like our allies Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, among others, but also with China in building a regional architecture not just in the economic space but in the diplomatic and security space.

OR: Switching gears to the other big topic in foreign policy right now, the Iran deal: you recently wrote an article talking about various tweaks that you would like to see.

Haass: Just to be clear, what I wrote was an article not about tweaks to the deal. I don’t think the deal can be tweaked. It’s additions or tweaks to the policy that would complement or supplement the deal.

OR: Do you think that the choice posited by the Obama administration about the Iran deal — that it was either this deal or nothing, and possibly war — was accurate? And how do you see the deal playing out over the next few years? Do you think the Iranians will abide by it? Do you think there will be any further crises in the short term?

Haass: I wasn’t a party to the negotiations, so I can’t sit here and say the U.S. could or should have held out for a “better” deal, and that it would have succeeded had it done so. I don’t know. I think it’s possible. I can’t prove it, so it’s not a terribly useful conversation to have. I would simply say that the deal that emerged, the deal that will enter into effect, has some strengths to it. It places caps on various aspects of the Iranian nuclear program and actually reduces activities in other areas.

I do, however, think the deal raises real concerns both in the realm of giving Iran access to significant resources to pursue its regional aspirations, and in not placing constraints directly on Iran’s nuclear capabilities after 10 years as regards centrifuges and in 15 years in the case of enriched uranium.

What I think we need to do now is come up with policies that deal with what I see as those shortcomings. That means that we’re going to have to compete more effectively with what Iran does in the region. We’re going to have to also try to reassure its neighbors, and in some ways make sure they have access to the necessary capabilities, and also discourage them from going down the nuclear path themselves.

I do think the U.S. is going to have to put into place with others certain open-ended limits on Iranian nuclear capabilities. I’m not willing to put all my confidence in simply saying the combination of the additional protocols outlined in the deal — i.e. the inspections — alongside the Non-Proliferation Treaty will be enough. The U.S. ought to, through negotiation or simply through making common cause with the Europeans and potentially China and Russia, make clear that certain constraints will be expected to endure beyond 10 and 15 years. And that If Iran were to choose to not observe such constraints, it would face serious consequences.

It’s not enough to say Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. What we need to do is maintain enough transparency and enough of a time window so that we can detect if they are moving toward acquiring or developing a nuclear weapon and prevent it from happening.

In terms of what you asked about compliance, that’s always a danger. Some of it is probably inevitable, in the sense that you’re going to have disagreements over compliance. You always do in arms-control agreements, but I’m actually less concerned about that than I am about the two Iranian behaviors I just mentioned, which are compliant with the agreement. By that I mean what they choose to do to promote their political ends in the region during the life of the agreement, and what they choose to do, or might choose to do, in the nuclear realm after the time limits expire. Unlike many observers, I’m more concerned about challenges of what you might call Iranian compliance than I am about the challenge of Iranian non-compliance.

OR: What do you view right now as the most dangerous spot in the world, in terms of a real crisis erupting?

Haass: There are so many to choose from. Let me range a bit beyond one obvious area — the Middle East — and say North Korea. It already has eight or 10 or 12 nuclear weapons, and is fast developing long-range missiles. I worry that some time, say, in the next three to 10 years, North Korea will be able to miniaturize warheads and put them on missiles that could reach the West Coast. I see that as one serious near- to mid-term danger.

I always worry about Pakistan. This is a country with more than 100 nuclear weapons (the world’s fastest growing arsenal), all sorts of terrorist organizations, and a very weak political and constitutional structure. But while Pakistan is a weak state in the political sense, it’s a strong state in terms of certain military and nuclear capacities. That combination of state weakness and state strength is, to me, quite worrisome to say the least.

I worry both about an Indo-Pakistani crisis, and what I said about Asia before is even more true about India and Pakistan in terms of the lack of architecture and machinery for preventing or calming crises. I also worry about the breakdown of order in Pakistan and the loss of state control over nuclear weapons or materials. That is, again, where state weakness combined with the presence of terrorist organizations is a frightening prospect.

OR: Do you see any hope for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Haass: Not in the short run. I once wrote a book about ripeness, and basically made the argument that in order for any agreement to be ripe or poised for a resolution, you needed three things: a process, the outlines of an agreement, and most importantly leadership on both sides willing to make significant compromises and able to make them politically, to sell them to their respective domestic bases. I don’t think in the case of Israel and the case of the Palestinians you have that last criterion. I think you have elements of the outline of the agreement. A process is not hard to come up with, but what you lack is the kind of leadership able to make compromise happen.

That reality (in the local sense) against the backdrop of all that’s going on in the region adds up to a context in which political leaders, I think, would be less likely to take risks. I simply don’t see this as a period of any optimism when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

OR: You were deeply involved in developing the U.S. policy implemented in Operation Desert Storm. As the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War passes, what do you think the lessons are, if any, that we can draw from it?

Haass: I’ve been thinking a lot about it as well. A number of lessons come to mind in no particular order. One, we should be realistic about what we ask or expect economic sanctions to do. They can do some things, but there’s a limit to what they can accomplish. Two, the U.S. should at least try to work with other states where it can. Multilateralism, all things being equal, certainly deserves to be explored. Three, we have to keep our goals limited when it comes to remaking other societies. We have to be, I think, far more sensitive to what you might call local DNA in the political and cultural and social fabric and in the history of local situations. I think that was true in Vietnam. I think it’s true in Iraq.

I think what the Gulf War showed was that there still is no substitute for U.S. leadership. The world would not have come together to respond as effectively as it did against Iraqi aggression without the U.S. I think those are all legitimate lessons of the Gulf War.

I would just make two general points as a corollary here. Whether it’s the 2003 Iraq war or Libya or other situations, sometimes rejecting the idea of limited goals, trying to do a lot, get rid of regimes, remake societies — all this can be a bridge too far. By trying to do too much, we often, I think, set ourselves up for failure. I also think Syria shows some of the dangers of doing too little. I know I sound a little bit like Goldilocks in avoiding doing too much and too little, and overreach and underreach, but I really think that’s where you have to come out.

There’s no formula that necessarily gives you the right answer in each place, but I do think we’ve got to focus really hard on local realities, and what can realistically be accomplished. I do conclude that there are dangers in the U.S. either doing too much or too little in today’s Middle East. To some extent, the turmoil that we see and are going to continue to see in the Middle East is in part, not in whole, but in part the result of moments the United States and others either tried to do too much or too little.

OR: Do you see the instinct to intervene changing?

Haass: It’s always hard to know. In my experience, wars are always fought three times. First, you fight over whether to go to war. Then you fight the war. Then you fight over the lessons of the war. If I’m right, then there’s unlikely to be a consensus as to what is the lesson to be learned from either the Gulf War 25 years ago, or more likely from either the Iraq War or Syria. The political battles that took place at the time decisions were made tend to linger as we struggle to answer the questions of what else should have been done and what else remains to be learned.

OR: Thank you very much.