CFR President Richard Haass on World Order and the Challenges of the Future

Haass Headshot 3 scaled

Richard Haass has served as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003. He is an experienced diplomat and policymaker and has written or edited 14 books on American foreign policy. He is on Twitter @RichardHaass.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We would like to start with a few questions on the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath. In your recent article on the pandemic, you stated that for all the talk about the international community, the pandemic has exposed the absence of one. Do you find that the aversion to multilateralism displayed by many countries during the pandemic is primarily due to a lack of individual state incentive, or due to the incentives in intergovernmental institutions?

Richard Haass: It’s an interesting question. It differs in each domain of the international system. It has less to do with the shortfalls of the institutions, because the shortfalls of the institutions, in many cases, reflect the preferences of governments and countries. Institutions are not autonomous actors, for the most part; they’re mainly reflections or vehicles of what the major powers, in particular, wanted them to be. If I had to generalize, I would say that international institutions are not up to the task in most cases, because individual governments are worried that they will lose some freedom of maneuver and some of what they see as the privacy or protections of sovereignty. So they are not, in many cases, prepared to commit or to do things or to strengthen institutions, lest they find themselves in a situation where they get pressured to do something they don’t want to do, or the institution starts doing things they don’t want to do. Governments essentially hold back, and in the process, they hold institutions back. They tend to be more in favor of multilateralism in principle than they are in practice.

A recent article in Foreign Policy argued that while in early 2020, China had great success in containing the pandemic and the U.S. was floundering, more recently, in 2021, with the introduction of Western vaccines, it looks like the U.S. is set to have the strongest and quickest recovery. How do you see the relative success between the U.S. and China in dealing with the pandemic, and how that has played into the ideological and geopolitical conflict between these two countries? Who has come out on top, so far, and who would you expect to come out on top in the next year? Finally, what role do you think vaccine diplomacy will play in this competition going forward?

Richard Haass: Well, there’s a couple of ways to break down your question. In terms of initial performance in the face of COVID, China did better. As we were having debates about masks and the like, China was a much more controlled society. It’s one of the things that an authoritarian society has an advantage in, but also there were democratic societies around the world that were far, far more disciplined and effective against COVID when it initially broke out than the United States was. As a result, China’s economy also recovered sooner than ours.

But the Biden administration, in part building on some of the work done by the Trump administration with Operation Warp Speed, has introduced large amounts of vaccine and got them distributed at a rapid pace. The United States has caught up and passed most of the world in terms of not just absolute numbers but shares of population fully vaccinated. I’m not surprised that the U.S. economy has now taken off.

In terms of vaccine diplomacy, it’s been a disappointing area of U.S. foreign policy. We’ve made very little vaccine available to the rest of the world. And our idea of going to the World Trade Organization to essentially open up patents is a bad idea for two reasons. One, it will take way too long, if it ever happens, and two, I think it is potentially risky to the biotech industry, which is one of the real competitive strengths of the United States. There are other things that can and should be done to accelerate the production and distribution of vaccines around the world. The Europeans have come forward with an idea that’s preferable to our own. In the meantime, China, even though its vaccine is not nearly as good from all accounts, is doing quite well. Woody Allen, who’s a very famous strategist you may have heard of, said 80% of life is showing up; in many cases, China is showing up and we are not.

There is also a third part, which your question didn’t allude to: the long tail of this. It’s not just a question of the early phases, contending with this challenge, or vaccine diplomacy, but it’s the origins. China is increasingly on the defensive because of Wuhan. It wasn’t simply that it broke out, however it broke out, and China was slow to cooperate with the rest of the world and to come forward in a cooperative way. But more importantly, it now is at a minimum plausible, and some would say far more than plausible, many would say it’s probable — but again, we don’t have the full story — that COVID-19 broke out accidentally from the Wuhan lab. It seems, to me, increasingly plausible.

One, you would have to really believe in coincidences to think the virus broke out in the one city in China that had a lab doing serious experimentation on coronaviruses. Secondly, China has never been able to demonstrate the alternative path of transmission from bat to intermediary host to humans. They have also scrubbed that town within an inch of its life. Scientists are not available for questioning. There are all sorts of reasons to believe that the virus likely escaped from the Wuhan lab, as an accident — I’m not saying, and I haven’t seen anyone responsible claiming, that it was intentional. But this story is not going to go away. There may never be a smoking gun; China may make it its business to make sure there is no smoking gun. You’re all too young, but there was a law show on TV when I grew up called “Perry Mason,” and in the last three minutes of every show someone would stand up in the back of the courtroom and confess “I did it, I did it.” There’s not going to be a “Perry Mason” moment when it comes to COVID-19, so we may end up in a situation where China maintains that it was naturally occurring, that there was no leak and no cover up. Many people here, to say the least, will not be persuaded of that and will think just the opposite. That will raise questions about China vis-a-vis COVID — its obligations and its responsibilities — but also more broadly about China’s standing. This will clearly subtract from China’s standing and any gains that might have derived from COVID, either the provision of its vaccine or its seemingly relatively effective performance at home. If we use a sports metaphor, I don’t know if we’re in the third inning here or the sixth inning or the eighth inning, but this game isn’t over, and we’ll just have to see how this plays out.

On a similar note, we have a few broader questions about great power competition and the relationship between the U.S. and China. Could you please elaborate on the idea of a “concert of great powers” that you and Charles Kupchan advance? And to what extent do you think it’s possible for a new era of great power competition to avoid falling along the very clear-cut ideological fault lines that we saw in the Cold War?

Richard Haass: Well, before one disparages the Cold War, it did stay cold. It did end peacefully and on terms favorable to us. As geopolitical and historical eras go, it was not bad. I don’t know how the U.S.-Chinese relationship is going to evolve. It’s clearly deteriorating. The areas of disagreement have been growing rapidly in number and in scale, and areas of cooperation have been shrinking.

Just to take a step back, we’re in the fourth phase of this relationship. It began in an adversarial stage, beginning with the Chinese revolution — we opposed the communists. We ended up fighting one another directly during the Korean War. There was then a two-decade phase of limited cooperation, because we had a common adversary in the Soviet Union, and that essentially was the 70s and the 80s. Then, after the Cold War ended three decades ago, the United States tried to enter into a large-scale economic relationship, and the hope was that that would become the new foundation. To some extent it did, but geopolitics continued; we disagreed on many issues. And more importantly, the economics became a source of friction as much as a foundation. There were lots of accusations about intellectual property theft, and China was blamed for the disappearance of many jobs. I think in many cases the blame or the causality has much more to do with technology and productivity increases, but all the same, the perception is that China was at fault. In any case, we’re at a fourth phase of this relationship, which is that the positive side of economics continues, but there’s much more wariness. There are concerns about competition, about technology transfer, and about intellectual property theft. There are many disagreements about human rights issues, political issues, and rule of law, from Hong Kong to Xinjiang. There are strategic concerns from the South China Sea to Taiwan. China has emerged as the principal geopolitical competitor of the United States.

But the nature of this relationship has not been set, and the question for me is: Can we try to structure this relationship so the competition doesn’t lead to confrontation or get out of hand? And can we somehow also keep open the possibility of selective areas of cooperation, say, North Korea, Afghanistan or Iran? How this evolves will have a tremendous impact on the region and the world. I would simply say it’s going to place a great premium on the statecraft of the two sides. It is going to be very tough to manage a relationship that has these multiple dimensions — where there are elements of potential confrontation, of competition, and hopefully of cooperation — to manage them at the same time, so that negatives don’t spill over and preclude positives or lead to escalation.

I don’t have a way to look into the future. I would say, though, that this relationship has deteriorated badly. I think it has largely deteriorated over the last few years because of China. Chinese policy has changed more than ours, I think. Xi Jinping’s China is a very different kind of China domestically and internationally. In the U.S., there is actually a surprising degree of overlap or commonality between Republicans and Democrats. If you look at the Trump policy towards China and the Biden policy towards China, for all the differences, there are a lot of similarities, some of them fortunate, some of them unfortunate. For example, the fact that neither of them supported the United States getting into regional trade organizations, I would argue, is a major strategic and economic error on our part, what the Brits would call an own-goal. But the general thrust, which is a much more critical policy towards China, has carried over. This administration — actually, both administrations, but especially this one — wants to do that slightly more with allies. I also think this administration is thinking more about the domestic competitive basis of the relationship. I once wrote a book called Foreign Policy Begins at Home, and that’s a little bit of what we’re seeing — that in order to take on China, it’s not just something you do out in Asia; it’s something we need to do here domestically, with infrastructure, with education, with investment, and so forth.

The jury’s out on how this is going to play out. I don’t think anything is inevitable at this point. I disagreed with a senior official recently, who basically said that the year of integration is over, and now it’s 100% competition. You can argue about whether integration was a flawed idea; I didn’t think it was a flawed idea. I think it was often how we implemented it — we didn’t monitor it; we didn’t adjust it adequately as China’s behavior and scale warranted that. Now, competition is important, yes, but it’s not everything. We have to try to limit the competition where we can strategically, and we want to keep open potential pockets of cooperation where it serves our interests.

How should human rights factor into US relations with other great powers? Russia has oppressed and even tried to assassinate opposition leaders, and China continues to violently repress its Uighur minority. Do you think that it’s possible for the U.S. to engage on these human rights issues without triggering a meltdown in diplomatic and economic relationships between these great powers?

Richard Haass: It all depends on what you mean by the word “engage.” The issue is not whether human rights, democracy, rule of law, these issues have a place in American foreign policy — let’s posit that they do. The question is how much of a place, and how do we pursue it. If you think about a ranking of American objectives in the world, where do you place it? Is it at the top of your list, is it at the bottom of your list, is it at the 50-yard line? And then the question is wherever you place it, how do you do it? Do you do it publicly, privately, rhetorically? To what extent do you use sanctions, to what extent do you offer direct support for political movements? There are a lot of questions.

My own view — and I’m more towards the realist camp — is that the principal objective of American foreign policy ought to be to shape the foreign policies of others. I’m critical and wary of making human rights and democracy promotion and the rest too high of a priority for three reasons. One is that we have other objectives — we don’t have the luxury of doing that in many cases. Secondly, our influence is often limited. Thirdly, if we do try to do things directly, it can get extraordinarily costly or even risky. I’m not arguing that it shouldn’t be on the agenda, but as a rule of thumb I would not place human rights and democracy promotion at the top of America’s foreign policy objectives. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because I don’t care about it; again, it’s a question of what is the opportunity cost of doing that, what is the potential likelihood, we will succeed, and what are the risks of doing it. I think when I look at the totality of American foreign policy, it ought to teach some real caution about what it is we can and should try to do.

Ever since China’s Belt and Road Initiative began in 2013, the United States has witnessed a number of Asian and African countries pivot from looking at the United States as the global hegemonic power to looking at China as the foremost world power in many ways, especially diplomatic and economic. How would you assess the current American soft power capabilities, and how can the United States bounce back from four years of relative isolationism under the Trump administration and reenter the soft power arena?

Richard Haass: The best way to enter the soft power arena is by demonstration of an effective society, economy, and political system here at home. Foreign policy by example is an important concept. So, in some ways, the most important thing we can do to generate or accentuate soft power is use the power of our example. Then others will respect us, trust us, and want to emulate us.

Now, there are lots of things we can and should do “in the field.” It could be foreign aid, or could be trade. At the Council on Foreign Relations, we just published a report about how to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Some of suggestions are things we would do at home, through competition policy, immigration policy, more federal funding of basic research, and so forth, and then some are things that we do in the field: more spending on select foreign aid; when we do infrastructure, it ought to be sensitive to climate change, in contrast to China; we should replicate the kind of things we did with PEPFAR; we should be doing more with vaccine diplomacy. There’s all sorts of ways of building up our standing in the world, both by what it is we do here at home and what it is we do abroad.

We also have a few questions about current events. It appears that the current state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a cycle of violence in which neither side has enough incentive to broker a meaningful resolution. What do you think is needed to move beyond this point? Do you envision the Biden administration taking a more active role and seeking conflict resolution?

Richard Haass: I’ve been the U.S. envoy to both Cyprus and Northern Ireland, and I’ve been involved in talks either peace talks or talks designed to avoid conflicts in South Asia and the Middle East. In my experience, the mediator’s role tends to be exaggerated. What really matters is the emergence of local participants representing the various parties that are central to a conflict or dispute who are, one, willing and, two, able — politically able — to compromise. Where you have local leaders who are willing and able to compromise, mediators have a tremendous amount to work with. This was true in South Africa when you had Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, the peaceful ending of Apartheid. It was true in the Middle East when you had people like Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Again, outsiders played a useful role, but most of the heavy lifting has to be done by locals.

The problem in the Israeli-Palestinian context right now is that we have not two but three entities. We have the Israeli government, we have the Palestinian Authority, and we have Hamas. I would simply say Hamas is unwilling to make peace with Israel. I don’t know if the Palestinian Authority is willing, but they’re certainly not politically able to. And the Israeli government, at least the last one, the Netanyahu government, was not willing and in many cases not able to compromise.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that I don’t see the prerequisites here for an American diplomatic initiative. What I would focus on instead if I were advising the administration is trying to keep open possibilities should the day ever arrive when local leadership that might be able and willing to compromise comes into power. You want to avoid crises, if you can, new flare ups and new rounds of fighting. And you’d like to encourage the emergence of stronger, but also more reasonable leadership. This is the pre-negotiations. I think the beginning of wisdom with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict right now is that it’s not right for negotiations. Tony Blinken, the secretary of state, could buy a condominium and live there and spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week, doing nothing but negotiating, and he wouldn’t get anywhere, not because he’s not a capable diplomat, but because the situation is not right. It would be, shall we say, a rather bad use of his time and energy. So, what we ought to think about again is what could we do usefully to try to prevent new crises, to try to keep open the options down the road, and to try to encourage the emergence of better partners? If we succeed at all that, the day may come when Tony Blinken or his successor or somebody else could usefully try to bring together the protagonists for negotiation, but we’re not there.

What is your reaction to some of the recent cyberattacks targeting U.S. firms and infrastructure, such as the Colonial Pipeline hack or the JBS meatpacking hack? How should we respond to this threat, which will probably grow moving forward, and does that response vary whether it’s a non-state actor or a state actor? Is it possible to target non-state actors located in countries like Russia that aren’t willing to cooperate?

Richard Haass: You put your finger on a big and growing issue. There’s not a lot of satisfying answers. One thing we do have some control over is the defenses we build into our systems. We ought not to make it easy for anybody to successfully infiltrate our cyber systems, and it’s all too easy. Whether it’s China getting into the Office of Personnel Management, Russia getting into more agencies than I have fingers on my hands to count, some of these recent ransomware attacks — it’s just too easy. We need to do a much better job and invest in it more and figure out a better way of monitoring our cyber defenses. A lot of the technology is there to do it much better, so the question is, why isn’t it being done?

So, can you deter cyberattacks, and how do you respond to them? It’s hard to deter if it’s a non-state actor. Some of these non-state actors are real non-state actors; some are simply cut-outs a government is hiding behind. But the nature of cyber — unlike, say, nuclear weapons carried by missiles — is that attribution is very tough and they are very hard to trace. This means that deterrence is hard and retaliation is hard. You also have to ask yourself, do we want to get into a game of escalation there, given how vulnerable our systems are and how central they are? This is a massive headache, and it’s probably the domain of international relations that is least regulated. It’s the least structured domain I know of, where the technology has raced ahead of the foreign policy. There’s no regime here; there’s no set of international arrangements that is even in the right zip code in terms of being close to meeting the challenge.

I think it’s actually a really great area for young people to study, in part because there are very few people who understand, on one hand, the international relations and foreign policy dimensions, and on the other, the technology dimensions — that’s very tough. I think it’s important for people to get up to speed on both sides of it, to think domestically about standards, public-private partnerships and so forth, and then we need a more developed set of approaches for what an international arrangement looks like in this realm. And then there are all sorts of questions — it has to be open enough to allow ideas to move, commerce to move, and the rest; on the other hand, there are certain things we don’t want to move. It has to be open yet private; states have to be responsible, but we don’t want state control. It’s unbelievably complicated. One of the reasons it’s as unregulated as it is internationally is that it’s very, very hard to design, much less gain international political support for. We’re seeing all these attacks, whether engineered by states or non-state actors, partly because this is just the domain that’s essentially unregulated. So far at least, those playing offense have had tremendous advantages and have paid a very small price. The question is, can we make it tougher for them to succeed, can we increase the penalties on them so they even think twice before they do it, or if they do it, they don’t benefit from it? That’s where we are now. That’s the challenge.

For more from Dr. Haass, his most recent book, The World: A Brief Introduction is available now.