CFR president Richard Haass

The Council on Foreign Relations president unpacks his text, Foreign Policy Begins at Home.

A widely respected foreign policy expert, Richard Haass has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003. He previously held various posts in the defense and state departments, was a principal adviser to Colin Powell and also served in the administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He was U.S. coordinator for policy on the future of Afghanistan and the lead U.S. official for Northern Ireland's peace process. Haass is a Rhodes Scholar and author/editor of 12 books on American foreign policy, including Foreign Policy Begins at Home, in which he argues that the biggest threat to the U.S. comes from within.


Tavis: Richard Haass, the president of The Council on Foreign Relations, maintains that the biggest threat to national security does not come from abroad, but rather from decades of internal neglect in terms of our schools, our aging infrastructure and our immigration policies.

In his new text, “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order,” Richard Haass argues that, until we restore the economic power of this nation, America will be over-reaching abroad and under-performing here at home.

He joins us tonight from New York. Richard Haass, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Richard Haass: Thanks, Tavis. Great to be back with you.

Tavis: Let me talk first about some issues, of course, that have been in the news of late and I suspect in the coming days will remain in the news. And these stories are becoming more and more dynamic. They change every day, in some cases by the hour. And then I’ll just straight away into the text.

In no particular order, let’s start with China. Obviously a week ago, President Obama spent some time with the president of China rather early on in his new tenure as president of the People’s Republic of China. Your thoughts now a few days after that summit about what was accomplished?

Haass: Well, in a funny sort of way, Tavis, we’re not going to know what was accomplished for a couple of years. What I think you had were these two leaders, one just taking office. In the case, there’s Xi Jinping, the other beginning a second term in the case of Barack Obama, essentially investing in the relationship, putting down something of a foundation.

They’ll now continue these one-on-ones plus they’ll put in motion various meetings for their staffs on some of the big issues including, for example, how to regulate cyberspace while continuing to deal with various regional or global issues. So not a lot was accomplished in the traditional measure of summits in so-called deliverables.

But again, far more important might be that they actually began a serious conversation about what the United States and China would do to manage various global and international challenges.

Tavis: I note, and obviously you know this as well, that just a week or so ago, Henry Kissinger turned 90. There was a big celebration for his 90th birthday there in New York City and everybody who’s anybody showed up for this celebration of his life. And one could debate…

Haass: It’s good I was there or I’d feel very badly now [laugh]

Tavis: I figured you might have been there, so I thought I’d just kind of make you feel better by framing it that way. But whether one likes or loathes Henry Kissinger, and we could debate all day long the good and the bad of Henry Kissinger, it does raise a question that I want to ask you now about how this relationship since the era of Kissinger as Secretary of State has changed, now that Kerry is Secretary of State and was seated alongside President Obama at that table.

Haass: Most changed in fundamental ways when you go back to the time of Kissinger and Nixon which now is really 40 years ago. This relationship was born out of a shared animosity towards the Soviet Union and that was the one thing China and the United States had in common.

That worked for about two decades until the end of the Cold War, but then the United States and China had to invent, if you will, a positive rationale for their working together, and it largely became economic. And that helped again for a decade or so. Now we’ve got a very involved economic relationship that does good for both sides, but it also causes more than a little friction.

But I actually think going forward, Tavis, the real challenge is going to be what the two countries can do to agree for dealing with regional problems, be it North Korea, Iran, Syria or what have you, or the global problems, climate change, a functioning world economy, what to do about health issues or the spread of nuclear materials.

And that will ultimately be the test of this relationship. And to the extent it works, the 21st century has a much better chance of working out. To the extent it doesn’t work, it’s really bad news for the future.

Tavis: So in a couple of years, we’ll have you back on to see, to your earlier point, what did in fact come out of this conversation between these two presidents.

Let me move now to Syria, again, speaking of stories that are dynamic, that are changing literally with the tick of the clock. Your sense of where we’re headed?

Haass: Sure. Well, I think Syria’s heading is where it’s been, prolonged, internal conflict to some extent fueled by the involvement of outside players. So if I were betting if we were going to have this conversation again in a year, I don’t think Syria’s going to be at peace.

It’s possible the government will still be there, but it won’t be in control of much of the country. The opposition will probably be fighting itself as much as it will be fighting the government. You could have the country effectively split along several fault lines.

I actually think, again, this is going to be a prolonged internal, but also regional, struggle, if you will, fought out on Syrian territory and it will probably find different ways of spilling over. I simply don’t think getting involved directly in Syria militarily, I don’t our interests quite warrant it.

More important, I don’t think we would ever have results that would justify what it would entail and what it would cost. I also think there’s a lot of other things we need to be worried about in the region around the world and at a home.

Tavis: So that I understand your point of view on this, would you say the government might still be around a year from now? Is that your way of saying to me you think Assad is still gonna be in power a year from now?

Haass: I think Assad could be in power, but it might simply be over an enclave of Syrian territory. You could have him nominally there, but it could be simply part of a rum state. And you could have the Kurds doing something of their own thing and then you could have the Sunnis law controlling large swaths of Syrian territory. So this idea of a nation state called Syria might become more and more of a fiction.

Tavis: One, again, could take exception with some of the tenets in your book. We’ll get into that right now. But one cannot argue is that Dr. King many, many years ago, 45 years ago, said that war is the enemy of the poor. He made the link 45 years ago that the way we engage around the world has a direct impact on how we treat or maltreat our citizens here at home.

I’m only raising Dr. King in that context because I’m wondering why it is that all these years later – and King wasn’t the first or the only one to make that point. But it’s been made for decades now and yet it seems to me that the folk who run Washington don’t get that link.

So here comes Richard Haass now, another respected expert, saying we’ve got to make the link between what happens there and what does or doesn’t happen at home. Why does that relationship not seem to sink in in the minds of those who run and make policy in Washington?

Haass: It’s a good question. Partially, as people tend to see the two worlds as apart, you have those folks who focus on foreign policy. You have those folks who focus on domestic policy, be it economics or social policy. Rarely do they ever come together. The Cabinet, for example, almost never meets and, when it does meet, it’s for ceremonial reasons as much as anything substantive.

So the idea that national security, to use as an image, is a coin with two sides, foreign and domestic policy, is an idea that actually never really happens in the real sense in Washington because people just don’t see it that way.

Tavis: So to your point, which is the central thesis of the text, that we’re over-reaching abroad, under-performing at home, let me start with the former. How to your mind are we over-reaching abroad?

Haass: Well, I believe the United States over-reached badly first with Iraq and then ultimately with what we did in Afghanistan, essentially launching the war against Iraq, then trying to build a very different Iraq.

And in the case of Afghanistan, I’d argue that while we were right to go in initially after 9/11 to get rid of the government which was harboring terrorists, we made a mistake in the Obama years to triple our force levels and try to remake Afghanistan.

So I think what we’ve done is over-reached in trying to remake the greater Middle East in our image. It’s unrealistic, given the local realities, local culture, local history, local politics, local economics, the splits between, say, Shiite and Sunni and so forth.

So we’ve tried to do too much of the wrong thing in foreign policy. And what I would argue for is not that we give up on foreign policy, but we do more in Asia, for example. That’s where the great powers are and it’s where, I think, the United States has tools that can do a lot of good.

So I would rebalance our foreign policy away from the Middle East and stop trying to remake a part of the world, coming back to what we were saying about Syria, that I think is in for a prolonged difficult era and that will resist the efforts of the United States to recast it in our image.

Tavis: Before I come back to domestic policy and our under-performing here at home, I’m titillated by your phrase “to remake the world in our own image.” I concur with that. I’ve seen too many examples just in my own short lifetime where I think we do that, much to our own peril.

What is it about us these years later, given what we’re up against at home and given how we see the world stage being reset, that makes us think that we can remake the world or that we should or that it’s our duty to remake the world in our own image? Isn’t that the height of arrogance and hubris?

Haass: It’s a great question. I think there is some arrogance and hubris. There’s also idealism, funny enough. If you go back for more than a century, American missionaries have been going around the world trying to spread not just the faith, but elements of American culture.

In many cases, after World War II, again, the United States had very ambitious ideas in some cases because of the fight against communism, about remaking other societies.

So sometimes it was born of geopolitical goals. In some cases, it was born out of American optimism or the idea that it was somehow our duty to spread certain ideas or maybe simply an opportunity. For all these reasons, some benign, some less so, we’ve had this impulse to spread our version of democracy, our version of market capitalism.

Don’t get me wrong. I tend to think that our version of democracy or most versions of democracy are desirable. I’m a great believer in markets. But the idea that we can impose these or spread this through American military presence I just think is unfortunate at times.

You’re right. At times, it is either arrogant or also at times it’s simply betrays a lack of understanding of local realities, that we look at these places as abstractions and we say we can change them. We have this great set of ideas.

We never really get to the bottom of what makes these societies tick. What are they bringing, if you will, to their lives that might make it more difficult for us to try to push them in certain directions?

Tavis: You used the word “betrays” a moment ago, Richard. Let me pick up on that word, “betrayal.” I think that part of – and we may disagree on this, so let me push you and get your take on it.

My sense is that part of the way we betray ourselves, we betray our values, that is, is when we over-reach, to use your term, in foreign policy by getting involved, getting in bed with, with thugs and rogues and dictators when it serves our best interest. I think that’s a betrayal of our values.

What say you about whether or not any part of the over-reach as you see it globally can be dissected in terms of the way and how and with whom we have these relationships again when it’s in our best interest?

In over the last two years, as you know, there’s a long list of those folk who we’ve turned on, who their own people have turned on, and we have finally seen the light. But one could argue what brought us to that point?

Haass: I think there’s two separate things going on here. One is what I call over-reach, again, this idea of trying to remake other societies. That’s what I had in mind when I used the word. I think you’re talking about something else, which is also really important, which is the idea that at times we get awfully close to individuals or regimes that have very little, if anything, to do with our values.

And we may do so for reasons of realpolitik. I think we simply have to ask the question is that wise? And on occasion, you might say, yeah, it is. We may not like it, but we have to do it for these certain reasons.

On other occasions, we may say, look, this is simply wrong or we have the luxury of not having to do it. I just think it’s a conversation we’ve got to constantly have, which is how much is American foreign policy informed or guided by reasons of state, if you will, and how much is it informed by values?

I think, more often than not, what I argue in the book, it needs to be informed by reasons of states. But we’ve got to be very conscious that, when we do things that are inconsistent with our principles or values, we pay something of a price for it and it’s quite possible also in the long run that it can come back to bite us.

Tavis: You talk in the text about these military engagements of choice versus military engagements of necessity. How are we doing as you see it at this point on making the right decisions about choice versus necessity when we engage?

Haass: Well, I was against the war of choice that was Iraq. I was against the war of choice that became Afghanistan. I think the administration is basically right in resisting what would be the war of choice in Syria.

What I think could well turn out to be the most difficult challenge for this administration over the next couple of years is what to do about the Iranian nuclear program. Now that would be a war of choice if we were to begin it. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It simply means that we had better be sure before we do it that that is the best available option on the table.

Tavis: You argue in the text that the choice, the alternative, I should say, to having a U.S.-led global gathering is not an India-led world, not a China-led world, but a world of chaos. I think I take the point that you’re making when I read your text and yet that sounds to me like a little bit of American exceptionalism. So why you don’t you disabuse me of that notion, Richard?

Haass: Yeah, I know. It can sound a little bit like exceptionalism or a little bit of arrogance. But let me just make two points. When I talk about an American-led world, Tavis, I’m not talking about American unilateralism, leadership and polarized partners. I’m talking about the United States working with others.

Secondly, when I look at the other countries, China, India, Japan, Russia, Europe, I don’t see countries that have the capacity. I don’t see countries that have the outlook to essentially devote a significant chunk of their resources to building regional or global arrangements.

The United States did this in quite a concerted fashion after World War II. It’s done it off and on ever since. And simply if the United States is unwilling or unable to lead, and the latter could happen if we don’t put our domestic house in order, I don’t see anybody else stepping up.

Look, I’d be open to it. And if other countries were willing to step up and do their share to build a stable, prosperous, peaceful world, I would say great. We should be happy to work with them. But I simply don’t think it’s going to happen.

Tavis: Let me shift now to that under-performing at home that you spend a good amount of time in the text talking about as well. I think I want to ask the question this way.

I don’t think that most American would disagree with you that there are a litany of things on which we are under-performing at home and I’m happy to have you share a part of that list with the audience.

But as you share that list, do me a favor and make the link, make the connection, for me between how under-performing in these specific areas that will now address impacts our standing and our engagement in foreign policy.

Haass: Well, there’s any number of things from the fact that our economy is growing at roughly half or so, the historic post World War II rate, all the problems with the lack of people who are working over the last, what, six years. We still haven’t caught up to where we were in the number of Americans employed, long-term unemployment is growing, income inequality is growing.

We don’t yet have in place a modern strategic immigration system. We’ve got at best third world infrastructure in many cases. Very few people line up at American consulates around the world to come to American elementary and high schools. So there’s lots of things are wrong and my argument is several fold.

On one hand, as a result, we can’t set an example that the other world wants to emulate, so we lose in the struggle or the competition of ideas. More important, unless we get these things right, we’re not going to have the resources to be a great power and to lead the world.

Come back to our previous conversation. If there’s no alternative to a world led by the United States, then what matters is the ability of the United States to act in the world and to play a large role. If we don’t have the capacity, this becomes an academic conversation. So unless we put our economic and political house in order, we’re not going to have that capacity.

So my argument is not simply we ought to do these things to make this a better society for the 300 million Americans who live here, but we have got to put our house in order so we’re going to be able to influence the trajectory of the 21st century which, by the way, will be good for the seven billion people out there, but also if the world is more stable, if the world is more prosperous, that’s good for us. If good things happen out here, then good things are much more likely to happen inside the United States.

Tavis: So since we’re talking domestic policy, does that mean that the answer is to raise taxes?

Haass: By and large, I don’t think so. I’d be in favor of certain kinds of taxes like carbon taxes. I’d be in favor of raising some of the investment taxes, taxes on invested capital. I’d probably lower income taxes. I’d certainly lower corporate taxes on the provision the corporations brought the money back here and built, say, factories where Americans could be employed.

Tavis: Do you think that, by and large, most Americans are – I want to phrase this the right way – even have on their radar foreign policy concerns, whatever they might be, given the under-performing nature of what’s happening in our nation right now?

Haass: The short answer is no. It’s not any easy thing for me to say. As you know, here I am, I’m the president of The Council on Foreign Relations. So, obviously, I would like to see a country that was much more focused on what is going on in the world.

But, no, I don’t think Americans see the connections either between what goes on in the world and what it might mean for us or vice versa, what goes on here and what it might mean for the rest of the world.

Again, circling back to kind of where we began, if I’m right and if national security is a coin with two sides, the foreign and domestic, obviously it’s all got to be organic. We’ve got to take it all into account. Look, we don’t teach it in our schools for the most part. When we grew up and they had courses like Social Studies and Civics, most of those have disappeared.

Even at your elite universities, you can get a bachelor’s degree and barely know the first thing about the world because you can select this or that course in your distribution requirements and never really study history or international politics or economics. Our media, for the most part, doesn’t cover it. Lots of foreign bureaus have been shut down.

So for 100 different reasons, Americans are much less aware about the world, know less about a world ironically enough at a time where globalization is so powerful, where, like it or not, the world will affect the lives of most American more than ever before for better and for worse. But Americans know less about this world, if I’m right, than ever before.

Tavis: This is something that one should never say to the president of The Council on Foreign Relations, and let me say it anyway to get your response. If I said to you, Richard Haass, that the folk in Washington from the White House to Congress on down are making a mockery of national security, they’re making a joke of national security in the minds of fellow citizens and the argument would simply be this.

That every time we see some other bit of nonsense, some other bit of hubris, some other bit of snooping and justifying and explaining and rationalizing what this government has done of late, whether you’re talking the Associated Press, whether you’re talking Fox News, whether you’re talking phone records being looked at, every time a story like that breaks, it makes it difficult for you and others to talk seriously about national security because while Americans want to be safe, this is a joke.

It’s a joke if anything and everything can be done in the name of national security.

Haass: Well, you’ve got to be careful about two things. One is in what we do overseas. I think now we’re suffering from what you might call intervention fatigue.

We did what I thought were the ill-advised wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now if some “appropriate” came along where the United States should use force, I think the president would have a hard time rallying the American people to that cause. That’s simply you pay a price, if you will, for having done the wrong thing overseas and domestically we’re got to be really careful. I take your point.

I probably don’t go as far as you, but I would simply say, if we expand the words national security to cover anything and everything, at some point it’s going to lose credibility. So the administration has to be disciplined. It has to be discerning, for example, in when it opts to shoot off a drone or when it carries out certain types of surveillance programs.

If it’s going to ask the American people to give up some of their privacy, the administration has to be sure that the benefits or the gains on behalf of the collected security justify that. Those are the kinds that cause benefit calculations. First of all, they have to make themselves and, second of all, they have to explain.

Tavis: The new book from Richard Haass is called “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.”

Richard, my research tells me and my friendship with you over the years suggests to me that you’ve been now the head of The Council on Foreign Relations for 10 years. We’ve been doing this show for 10 years, so happy anniversary to you as well, sir.

Haass: Thanks, my friend. Great to be with you again.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 17, 2013 at 3:11 pm