The Good Fight
Richard Haass on Where America Went Wrong

Richard Haass on Where America Went Wrong

Yascha Mounk and Richard Haass discuss how and why the hopes of the post-Cold War era were dashed, in America and around the world.

Richard Haass is a veteran American diplomat, statesman, and author. He is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as Special Assistant to President George H. W. Bush and as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department in the administration of President George W. Bush. His most recent book is The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Richard Haass discuss the structural challenges, missed opportunities, and poor choices of the last thirty years; the arc of American foreign policy from Vietnam to Iraq; and how civic-minded Americans can effect positive change at a moment of crisis.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Yascha Mounk: You began arguing a number of years ago that the world is in disarray. How has the world gone from being in some form of array to a stronger form of disarray?

Richard Haass: When I published the book about a half dozen years ago, the skeptics said I was too negative. In retrospect, I think I wasn't negative enough. Disarray-plus is where we are now, and I think the reasons have largely to do with the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, you had a fairly elaborate, sometimes formal, sometimes informal, explicit, implicit set of rules by which the two major powers managed their relations—certain understandings about how to manage competition between their partners or allies, and so on. Plus, it was a world in which you only had—for the most part, not completely—two groupings, limiting the centers of decision-making. You had what was perceived to be not just a nuclear balance, but elements of conventional military balance. For any number of reasons, those four decades were a world of surprising stability. I think nuclear weapons deserve a lot of the “credit,” because previous eras of history would have suggested that, regardless of military balances, sooner or later, great power competition leads to some sort of conflict. Nuclear weapons introduced a significant degree of caution with the end of the Cold War three decades ago. The predictions of optimism, I think, by many were pretty well off the mark. The first challenge of the post-Cold War world happened in the Middle East, as did many of the initial challenges with Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. And in the Bush administration (Bush the father) of which I was a part—I was the Middle East guy at the National Security Council—a lot of what we did was based not just upon local intrinsic interests in the Middle East but this desire to set the precedent that the post-Cold War world would not become a messy place; that the norms that had governed a lot of the Cold War world would still be in place—above all, that you couldn't acquire territory through force. That informed a lot of what we did. 

But we've seen several trends over the last three decades. One is a much greater proliferation of power. I once wrote an article about non-polarity, but you could call it “multipolarity on steroids.” I think that's part of it—all sorts of centers of decision making. You have more capacity and more hands that are more independent than ever before. You moved away from bipolarity, as well, so it’s much more complicated to figure out a balance. Relationships were changing. The United States then got overextended in, I thought, misguided policies of democratic transformation, particularly in Iraq, ultimately in Afghanistan. We took our eye off the ball. Hopes about how relationships would evolve between the United States and Russia and the United States and China—things didn't quite work out that way. For any number of reasons, this has become a much messier world, given the deterioration of relations between major powers and the rise of medium powers like Iran and North Korea with sizable capabilities, and then the emergence of all sorts of powerful global issues like climate change, new technologies like cyber, the breakout of infectious disease on a global scale—all of which exposed the inadequacy of existing institutions. Institutional adaptation has fallen far behind global challenges. This combination of geopolitical revival, distribution of power, institutional failure to keep up, then all the divisions within the United States, which is the subject of some of my more recent writing. This is a fairly worrisome brew of international factors and domestic factors, because one of the reasons the world—certainly during the Cold War, to some extent since—remained relatively stable was because the United States was willing and able to play an outsized role. It’s not clear that that's the case anymore. 

Mounk: The first counterargument would be to ask whether the world was really in as much array as it seems in retrospect. Through the era of the Cold War, we know it sort of ended in American victory; it ended without nuclear war. We know that the two key players were the United States and the Soviet Union. But there was the Cuban Missile Crisis—the world certainly didn't look in array. There was the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, which ended up being a little bit of a semi- or non-story (but at the time, people thought it was going to be a really major story). 

Now, you could ask whether the world is in disarray for structural reasons, and it's going to remain being in disarray, or if we’re in a kind of phase shift from one equilibrium that used to be somewhat stable, and, hopefully, we might reach another stable equilibrium, perhaps of long-term, semi-peaceful competition between China and the United States. We can't quite see it yet, and so it feels like we're in this chaotic world, but that's just because we're going from one equilibrium to another.

Haass: I think there was actually considerable array, in part because you had the whole growth of alliances and also post-World War II institutions that managed the world to some extent economically and so forth. And the Soviet Union essentially sat out. It didn't participate in that. So the Cold War, in many ways, didn't intrude on a significant piece of the international machinery. I remember Comecon; there was a degree of autarky in the communist world. The non-communist world did its thing with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade all the way to the WTO and IMF, and development projects at the bank and elsewhere. So there was a world of considerable array. But you had the messiness of decolonization (actually, that was pretty short-lived), and as messy as the Palestine issue was, or India-Pakistan—again, things settled down. The transition to a world of 180-190 states actually happened pretty quickly. The whole idea of state sovereignty became a very accepted notion—not quite universally, but close to universally accepted. Sure you had messiness, the Vietnams and other things, cases that took place within the larger world of array. You had the Soviets doing certain things in Eastern Europe, or the United States doing what it did in Vietnam, but these weren't challenges to the architecture. These were messy—I don't mean to underestimate the human, economic or military costs—but these were experiences within the architecture. They weren't challenges to world order per se.

Yascha Mounk: But that's not how they were perceived at the time, right? The whole justification for the Vietnam War from the American perspective was Domino Theory—that if we let this one state fall, then it is going to completely change the equilibrium.

Haass: I take your point there. But, again, the world had more array than we realized. We persuaded ourselves of the correctness of a theory that proved to be incorrect: you could pull on the thread and the entire sweater did not unravel. There were some close calls, in Berlin and Cuba in particular—the two closest calls because you had a degree of directness, unlike in Vietnam and the Korean War (in terms of the Soviet Union, indirect, unlike with China). But the two cases of directness were serious. The fact that Berlin and Cuba turned out peacefully had, I think, something to do with conventional weaponry imbalances, nuclear weaponry, and diplomacy. We had some fairly capable hands on the proverbial tiller at the time. I don't think it was inevitable for structural reasons that either of those turned out the way they did. One could imagine different leadership in either country reaching different outcomes. In that sense, we were a bit fortunate. 

In the current era, it could turn out well, but I don't like the trend lines much. I see the North Korean problem sitting there, but getting bigger. Iran, as much as I'd love to think we're on the brink of a regime change leading to a moderate democratic, formally Islamic republic, it doesn't seem to be in the cards. Meanwhile, we could well have a crisis over Iran's nuclear capability at some point, sooner rather than later. Obviously, we're facing a long war situation in Ukraine. Russia is, to use the old language of Henry Kissinger, a “revolutionary power” and wants to overthrow the current order rather than operate within it. China is a more complicated calculation and wants to both operate within the order when it suits his purposes but outside the order when it doesn't. The jury is out there. It's hard to know to what extent Xi Jinping is the new normal and to what extent he's a 10, 15, or 20-year aberration. After Xi Jinping, you could have a Deng Xiaoping-like leader. It’s hard to imagine that we return to the optimism of the initial post-Cold War order. That seems to me to be anomalous.

Mounk: We mentioned the Vietnam War. Of course, the other great moment at which the prevailing wisdom proved to be wrong was the optimism of the post-Cold War period, the period when it felt that we were going from a world in array to a world in even more array and that the United States would be this sunny hegemon. How much of that failed due to structural factors?

Haass: The word I've used about this was “squandering.” It was a squandering of opportunity. Admittedly, it suggests that there were not structural or inevitable factors that lead from array to disarray. It was within our potential or capacity 30-plus years ago to have steered history down a different path. I lean in that direction. Now, would it have been neat? No, for the reasons we've already discussed. You had a proliferation of capacity in more hands, more decentralized decision-making. Was it inevitable that the US-Russian relationship would get to the point it is now, or might we have done some things differently? Was it something about Russian political culture, or might the United States both in what it did to help Russia economically with Yeltsin or Gorbachev, questions of NATO enlargement, what have you, [altered history]? Are there things that we might have done differently with China? I believe that we were right to let China into the WTO—we can debate the terms. We clearly got it wrong by not adjusting those terms subsequently, and thinking that admission would somehow necessarily change China in certain ways—we got that wrong. And even though I'm a frequent critic of Mr. Trump's foreign policy, I think when it came to China, they were more right than wrong in recognizing that we needed a serious adjustment. I think that in terms of global arrangements, we were very slow and still are in many areas. In talking about what kind of a defense and foreign policy capability we needed, we weren't thinking long term enough. And I remember the frustrations I had in government. I was trying to get the Bush 41 administration to articulate just exactly what we meant by a “New World Order.” What ought to have been the precepts? I don't think we did a very good job. The Clinton administration was a kind of holiday from serious foreign policy for eight years. They were more worried about small interventions in Somalia and Haiti than they were about the big things. Now one big thing they did, which is NATO enlargement, we can debate. Indeed, I think historians will debate it for a long time.

The Bush 43 administration overreached badly in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Obama administration, I think, underreached in 20 different places, for the most part. The Trump administration caused real havoc to many American alliances and so forth. I look at American foreign policy over the last 30 years, and I think we got more wrong than right. But it's a really interesting question, and I probably can't do it justice today: what was structural? I think [effective statecraft] would have been more difficult than many understood, just given certain underlying trends and the emergence of certain challenges. But I basically think we took a difficult situation that we probably underestimated the difficulty of and we made it far, far more difficult than it needed to be by all sorts of errors of commission and omission on the foreign policy front. 

Mounk: Let me ask exactly the same question but about America domestically, which is to say, again, in the early 1990s, America looks like a self-confident, optimistic country coming off a decade of economic growth; a country that also feels in some ways socially and culturally cohesive, with gradual progress towards more demographic inclusion slowly over the course of the 1990s and more inclusion of sexual minorities. There is this optimistic decade where it feels like America is in array domestically. Now, it is so in disarray. 

How did America go from array to disarray? Is that a set of bad choices by political leaders and others or were the structural causes of America's unraveling always there from the beginning?

Haass: It's a combination of both the structural and what you might call the “political,” in the sense that there was a range of possible policies, decisions or behaviors, and we often got it wrong, again, in acts of omission or commission. In the last couple of decades, there were things that increased disrespect for and alienation from the government. Iraq contributed to it—a certain cynicism and alienation. Afghanistan as well. Two major international enterprises, shall we say, that went very poorly and with the added problem that the ostensible purpose for it, the WMD, didn't pan out. The 2007-2008 financial crisis had a role—again, the loss of confidence in elites, but also what it did to the housing market and to the American Dream. Decades of stagnation for the middle class had a role. The growing inequality—though I think the problem is less inequality in America, that some have gotten fantastically wealthy, than it is the fact that many others did not benefit in absolute terms. My own view of American history is that people don't mind relative inequality so long as absolute conditions improve satisfactorily. What we had here was the terrible combination of the two: we had relative positions worsening and absolute conditions not getting better for a big chunk of the population.

I think COVID had a big impact, more recently. The combination of cable and social media, this “narrowcasting” in America. You're as familiar as anybody with the literature on sorting; increasingly, we live separate existences in our own little bubbles or echo chambers. There are fewer and fewer common experiences in this country. It's one of the unanticipated consequences of ending the draft and having an all-volunteer force. This is a country based upon certain ideas and if the ideas are no longer shared, where does that leave us? Trump is a driver of this but also a reflection of it. Like so many populists historically, he's a very good room-reader. In this case, the room was America. Trump could walk into this room and was quite brilliant at reading the dissatisfaction and the grievance. And in part because the left, over the same years, moved in many ways away from a policy of simply opposing discrimination and wanting equal opportunity to wanting to affect outcomes. We no longer call it liberal, and that's in some ways more revealing than the left realizes. That's also fed the grievance of other parts of the population that feels that they are not being helped equally. How we fund our politics has had an effect. Political parties, almost like travel agents, used to be mediating mechanisms. Parties used to play a role between voters and candidates. They no longer do. Every candidate is now his or her own party. They can raise money, they can go on social media. Rather than being moderated, you're independent. And extremism pays. 

It's a long list of things. But the accelerating difficulty of getting things done in America has to do with, I think, more structural reasons than anything else. But certain individuals have seen it coming and have taken advantage of it and, in many ways, exacerbated it. If John F. Kennedy were alive, there would maybe be room for a new book of “profiles in courage,” but it wouldn't have as many chapters as I'd like. A lot of people have just acted for their own purposes rather than for the country. The structural changes, in some ways, allowed them to get away with it.

Mounk: An obvious way of thinking through this is to look at where America is similar to other democracies and where it's not. France, Germany, Britain, and Australia all feel less stable, less in array, than they were 20 or 30 years ago. At the same time, there is something about America that does feel particularly dysfunctional, and I say this as a proud citizen of this country. My ears perked up a little bit when you talked about American elites. If I’m in Paris or Berlin, elites are always a little bit out of touch with the rest of the population, always a little bit snobby. We always think we're a little bit better than everybody else. That’s just a structural feature of what it is to have to be in a position of prestige or influence and to live in the capital. 

But there's something about the American elite, the “influential million” who live in the right neighborhoods and have institutional responsibility, who are affluent to more-than-affluent, which feels to me dysfunctional. They're often very nice people and civic-minded in certain ways, but it does feel like they have a lack of connection to the rest of the country and a cultural alienation from it that strikes me as being more extreme than what I experience in Germany or some other democracies.

Haass: I haven't heard that articulated before. I like the idea of the influential million—not as an elitist thing, but simply as an objective statement; that these are people who by virtue of wealth, education or position, have potentially outsized influence or impact on a society. I've noticed that the best and the brightest are, in many cases, choosing careers in financial engineering rather than going into public service. The ability now in this country of 330 million people to increasingly find your place not in American society writ large, but in a particular sub-society of America—we now have created, if you will, enough space for that, and not just geographically but culturally, economically, and socially. It's almost like we're now a country of millions of gated communities, rather than a single community, if I may stretch an image. That's interesting to me as a reading of our society. I hadn't thought about it quite that way. But it reinforces my sense that there's a limit to which you can opt out and still succeed, be safe or prosper. We are all in this together, like it or not. 

Mounk: Now, we've naturally arrived at the topic of your new book by talking about America and its dysfunction, and the lack of civic responsibility that many Americans seem to have. The book is called “The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.” 

Why should we think about our obligations rather than our rights, and why is it that becoming more aware of our obligations is going to help us fix some of the many problems we've been discussing so far?

Haass: There is both an instrumental and a normative reason for Americans to have a sense of obligation to one another and to their country. The normative one is I believe that it's the right thing to do. That's what norms are about. It's the basis of many religions: am I my brother's keeper? You look out for others. We're not on this planet simply to maximize self-satisfaction. We have other purposes on this planet. Even more of it, for better or worse, is instrumental. We will all pay a price if public education isn’t of a good quality. We will pay a price if public health breaks down—indeed, we just did. We will pay a price if the right of public safety is not widely appreciated and respected. We all have a stake in the efficiency of government and in the welfare of this country. The collective enterprise will have an impact on ourselves. 

We want to act unto others as we want them to act unto us. We want our fellow citizens to show respect for norms and show respect for us. But if that's going to happen, odds are we're going to have to reciprocate. When I go through the Ten Obligations, I think there's a collective interest and a self-interest aspect to all of them. I'm trying to get beyond the rights-based conversation. What led me to the book was that I was struck by how much of our political conversation is simply about rights, as though if we could only nail that perfectly, it would be the end of all of our problems. People seem to be unaware that rights can come into conflict, which they do every minute of every day: the right of the mother versus the right of the unborn, your right to bear arms and my right to public safety, what you want your kid to be taught—what if I want my kid to be taught something else? 

How do we deal with clashing rights? So much of our conversation is about rights and the abridgement of rights, real and imagined. And it's not that that's not an issue—it is—it's just that it's not sufficient. What led me to this book was thinking that we needed also to think about obligations, or we would either end up at a minimum in political gridlock and social alienation or, worse yet, an American version of Northern Ireland during The Troubles, in a future of decentralized, politically-inspired violence. It sounds somewhat dystopian, but that is not the work of a fevered imagination. I think we've seen some signs of it, including but not limited to January 6. 

Mounk: What does the Bill of Obligations entail? What are the ten key things we should do? 

Haass: I have my Bill of Obligations on a wallet-sized card. I carry it around and if you were here right now I would hand you a copy. The most basic is to be informed, as that's the basis for all political participation. In the course of writing this book, I read not just the classics, as you would expect, but also every inaugural speech, all the farewell addresses, and a lot of other things that I'd never read.  Ronald Reagan, who said many wonderful things, talked not about the importance of patriotism—he wanted an informed patriotism. He very carefully qualified that. And I think being informed in this day and age has actually become more not less difficult, ironically enough, given all the information, but also misinformation. 

Just as an aside, I think it's really fascinating that New Jersey, the other day, became the first state to pass a public school requirement that every student in New Jersey be exposed to courses in information literacy, so you can discern a fact from an opinion or a fact from a misstatement. Where do you go for these things? How do you know? I think that's great. It's actually an important part of a modern education. Finland does the same thing. This is an important movement. And once you're informed, you want to be involved. It's rather extraordinary: we've seen in recent years how tight our elections are. Still, 40-odd percent of eligible voters don't vote in presidential elections, and 53% of Americans didn't bother to vote in the midterms, as consequential as these midterms were for the future of this country. Voting is obviously not the only form of political participation, but it is the most graphic. I've talked about certain behaviors, about the importance of being open to compromise. Compromise is not a dirty word. It's what made this country possible at the Constitutional Convention. Some people seem to forget that. We've had some examples recently, with limited legislation on gun safety and the Electoral Count Act. It's not impossible. But obviously, we need more of it. Civility—we've got to learn how to disagree, not simply so we avoid conflict. You and I may disagree strenuously on the issue today, but you and I could be partners on the issue tomorrow. We want to keep that possibility open. Rejecting violence—I think religious leaders have to step up to the plate here.

If every issue becomes all or nothing, those who get nothing will begin to feel they have no stake in a system. Why not resort to violence? I worry about that, obviously, given that guns have proliferated in this country. We've got to delegitimize the use of force for political purposes in this country. I write about norms. The most signature norm of American democracy is the peaceful transfer of political power at the presidential level. Needless to say, that norm took a serious buffeting a couple of years ago. I was glad to see in the midterms that most of the losers, not all, conceded with a degree of grace. I talked about promoting the common good, in things like pandemics and the rest, the obligation not just for our own health, but other people’s, to not think narrowly or selfishly. I talk a lot about respecting government service. People forget that there are about 25 million Americans who work in government—the government's not the “other,” the government is us, at the local, state and federal level. Obviously, this includes the military. One of the things I advocate for is to incentivize national service. I want more Americans to see that the things involved in government aren't all bad. It could also be a way to break down some of the barriers and isolation in our society. It could deliver some common experiences. The ninth obligation is to support the teaching of civics. We need to tell our narrative: why democracy matters, why it's valuable, what it takes to make it work. So many people now associate democracy only with bad things, mistakes or dysfunction. We have to remind people that it has delivered and why, however imperfect it is, it's still preferable to the alternatives. 

Last, I argue for putting country first, before party and before person. We had a powerful example of it recently with Liz Cheney. We had a powerful example of it with some of the secretaries of state who stood up to intimidation and stood by the electoral process. And sometimes people who put country first refused to compromise and, in other situations compromising is the way to put country first—there's no one size fits all, but it's a mentality. It's a sense of priorities. And, ultimately, it’s up to the voters. I don't think human nature is going to change just because I argue about it. It's up to voters to get informed and get involved and then reward politicians who put country first and penalize politicians who don't. So I actually think, in many ways, it's on us to protect American democracy. And the question is whether we're up to it. I think we can be. I'm potentially optimistic, but it won't happen automatically. That's why I've made the decision that when I think about my future, even though I'm a “foreign policy guy,” that this is going to be a part of my life going forward.

Mounk: How do we proselytize these values? One obligation that we all have is to live up to these aspirations that you lay out, and we can put our own lives under the checklist and see how we’re doing, but just hoping for people to have a change of heart may not be enough. Is this also a question of public policy, of passing things that you've mentioned, like some kind of public service?

Haass: Good ideas never sell themselves. Good things don't just happen because you and I think they ought to. Some things could take congressional action—national service is one of them. In other cases, as I just suggested, voters may vote out of office some people who don't deserve the authority. We saw a little bit of that in the midterms, with some of the deniers.

Coming back to Reagan, one of my favorite quotes from Reagan is “All great change in America begins at the dinner table." It's the obligation of parents to talk to their children about certain things and to model certain kinds of behavior. Businesses—we've had all this debate in this country about ESG and DEI. Last I checked, American businesses have a massive self-interest in seeing that American democracy survives. How well are American businesses going to do if the rule of law breaks down? How much is American business going to like it if the Justice Department or the EPA start politicizing and penalizing business executives who give to the other political party, or businesses that don't support them? Business has a lot more to do. These things won't happen just because they're swell ideas. It will happen when various constituencies in this country get mobilized, including with ordinary citizens voting, which will reward certain behaviors and penalize others. Too often, American politics is left to the most motivated, who are more extreme in many cases. I think the more centrist, civil, reasonable Americans need to get more politically involved.

Mounk: I only have one last question for you. If 25 or 30 years from now, we look back at this period and reflect that the world ended up getting into more array and America is in much better shape than it was—perhaps people are living up to the bill of obligations, and the country feels more cohesive than it did a few decades ago—what's the story that gets us there? What will have happened in those intervening decades that would make us a little bit more optimistic?

Haass: As my grandmother used to say, “From your mouth to God's ear.” May it happen. In the world, I could see two changes. One would be, in both China and Russia, you will ultimately have new leadership that rejects a lot of the tendencies of the current leadership (these things do go in cycles). I think in areas like climate and health, technological breakthroughs like the mRNA vaccine and Zoom got us through the pandemic—one medically, the other economically and socially. I can imagine technological breakthroughs getting us through climate change—batteries, carbon capture and renewables. It’s harder to see on the domestic side, because that's a problem of human nature. But it could be everything that I'm suggesting—a kind of bottom-up set of changes, a realization that things really are going off the rails and where you see greater involvement in what our schools teach and religious leaders accepting some of the responsibility that comes with their position. Maybe we have some good political leaders and the populism fades a little, or it burns out. Domestically, it's less likely to come from a decisive single stroke than from a number of changes, possibly including more intelligent regulation of social media and technology. It would be more a basket of things. It probably wouldn't be transformational, but it would represent an improvement.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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The Good Fight
The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.