“The World”: A Conversation with Dr. Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations

In this week’s episode of The Burn Bag Podcast, co-hosts A’ndre Gonawela and Ryan Rosenthal speak with Dr. Richard Haass, a veteran diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). A’ndre and Ryan discuss Dr. Haass’ new book The World: A Brief Introduction, American policy towards Mainland China and Taiwan, COVID-19’s strengthening of European institutions, popular protests in Russia, defining challenges of the 21st century and multilateralism. 

On American isolationism: “I was worried that we essentially were having a larger and larger number of people in this country, also other countries for that matter, who were not interested in or knowledgeable of the world. And from the point of view of the United States, I feared that this would mean that we would increasingly become isolationist. People don’t care about the world, they won’t hold their elected officials to account. We just had a record turnout in November, over 150 million Americans voted, but only a handful of them voted on the basis of what either Donald Trump or Joe Biden would do as commander-in-chief. Again, I thought this encouraged isolationism and gave presidents too much leeway and discretion and I thought all of that was unhealthy.”

On an unambiguous approach to Taiwan: “We have basically tried to maintain stability (in Mainland China and Taiwan) through ambiguity. This has worked remarkably well. Taiwan is a flourishing democracy, a thriving economy, the area has been peaceful for four decades. It would be hard to design a more positive four decades. The problem is you have to be a real optimist to think that the same formula will work for another four decades. The risk is not what we used to think, that Taiwan would get frustrated and opt for independence, but rather increasingly that the Mainland looks to be impatient, and it’s built up its military strength (…) What we were advocating in this piece is not that we change the framework of the policy. Nothing changes about the quote unquote One China policy or anything like that, but rather the means change. Rather than trying to maintain stability through ambiguity, we basically tell the Mainland, ‘Look, there’s no ambiguity here. If you act coercively we are going to respond to it.’” 

On President Biden’s foreign policy: “My guess is what we’ll see is a lot of continuity. We’ll probably see more emphasis on human rights and democracy-related concerns. I don’t think that we’ll see anything like the calls we’ve seen from the previous Secretary of State Mr. Pompeo that were tantamount to regime change, basically challenging the Communist Party and Xi Jinping personally. (…) I think (the US-China relationship) will be defined more by friction. But as President Biden recently articulated, the goal will be to push back where necessary, whether it’s Taiwan or a piece of the Indian border or human rights or economics, but to still sustain areas of trade, to continue to obviously have diplomatic relations, on things like North Korea or Afghanistan or climate change. So the challenge will be: Can the United States and China work out a relationship where we disagree on a number of issues, but the disagreements don’t spill over into confrontation, say in the South China Sea or Taiwan, and at the same time those disagreements don’t preclude limited or selective cooperation, where both countries in principle decide it’s in their interest to do so?”

On COVID-19 strengthening European institutions: “I think COVID, ironically enough, perhaps counterintuitively, has in some ways strengthened Europe. And that is because European institutions, trans-European institutions like the European Central Bank and the European Commission have stepped up, Franco-German cooperation has increased. So, in that sense, the fabric of the EU is stronger. (…) There’s a number of challenges or clouds or overhangs about Europe’s future. There’s always the perennial question of the relationship between member states and Brussels, what’s the balance of authority and power between the two. (…) So I think there’s big questions over Europe. I don’t mean to in any way underestimate that. I’m just saying that compared to one or two years ago, I feel slightly better but that’s not to be confused with sanguine.”

On popular protest and Putin: “When you study the history of popular protest (…) the authorities tend to prevail if two things are present. One is the ruler is really, really strong. And second of all, that he, or conceivably she, but usually he, has the loyalty of the security forces and they are willing to kill their fellow citizens. Where we’ve seen two successful overthrows in the modern era, one is in Iran in ‘79, and the Shah was indecisive, and ultimately the security forces wouldn’t turn on their fellow Iranians to defend the Shah, and the regime fell and we had the Islamic Revolution in ‘79. And then years later you had people’s power in the Philippines. Marcos was again a leader who was shaky, had no resolve, he was ill. (…) And again, the security forces would ultimately not mow down their own people. (…) My concern about Russia is Putin is willing to stand tough. And so far at least I see no sign that security forces are wavering.”

On multilateralism and the UN: “No, … the UN cannot be a meaningful actor in the world. But just to be clear … that doesn’t mean there can’t be, or shouldn’t be, or won’t be multilateral answers — it just won’t be the UN. I think what we need to do is increasingly separate our thinking, or distinguish our thinking about multilateralism from our thinking about the UN, the UN Security Council, or the General Assembly. And I think what we’re going to need is to forge various multilateral mechanisms to deal with whatever set of challenges, whether it’s proliferation or climate or infectious disease, what have you. And what I think we’re going to move away from is either the Security Council or the General Assembly model of nearly 200 countries, all of whom have the right to block things, as they do in the Security Council, or make life difficult in the General Assembly, where you have a quote unquote one country one vote. So I think you’re going to have coalitions of the willing, coalitions of the able or relevant. Sometimes these will be formal, sometimes these will be informal, but I think it’s going to be different groupings of countries to deal with different challenges. I think multilateralism is essential. But I think we’re going to have to be much more practical and much more flexible, much more dynamic in what kind of multilateralism we embrace to meet specific challenges.”

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