Richard Haass on Global Flashpoints, Russian Meddling

One of the major speakers at the next Festival of the Arts Boca (Feb. 23-March 4, 2018), Richard N. Haass was gracious enough to offer us a phone interview on a busy Thanksgiving Week. Five Q&As from that discussion will be printed in the February issue of Boca magazine, addressing topics such as ISIS, Kim Jong Un, the decline on political party membership, and an imagined Hillary Clinton presidency.

But our wide-ranging conversation also explored topics currently in the news, and it would be a shame to lose them awaiting the lengthy lead time of a print magazine.

Here is the rest of my interview with Haass, the president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations and most recently the author of A World in Disarray, whose presentation of the same name will be at Mizner Park Amphitheater on Feb. 26.

You’ve done some vital peacekeeping work in Northern Ireland and have helped create stability elsewhere around the world, but it doesn’t tend to make it into the A or B block on cable news. Are most of your successes under the radar of most people?

We don’t have power. What we most have is influence. We’re in the business of producing and disseminating ideas. But we’re not the government, [so] we’re not in a position to implement them. We try to be a resource for people in government, whether they be in the executive branch or in Congress, and try to be a resource for governors and mayors. We try to be a resource for journalists, for business leaders, for students and teachers in high schools and colleges. Some days we may make it into the A block, not because of us but because of what’s going on in the world. We’re outsiders who are independent. We’re not partisans, but we’re trying to be a resource to hopefully make people smarter about what is going on, and why and what the implications are, and what might be done.

If we believe our intelligence agencies, why did Russia attempt to swing the election in favor of Donald Trump?

We know they tried to influence the election. We know they tried to sew discord, to raise problems for whoever won, to raise questions of legitimacy. If they did in fact—and this could well be possible—try to help Donald Trump, and that seems to be the case, then presumably they thought from their point of view that he would be preferable to Hillary Clinton. It might be that simple.

Are there global hot spots that we’re not hearing about right now that could threaten or entangle the United States?

I always think a lot of these issues don’t get the attention they should. Mass media tends not to emphasize foreign policy until it’s an enormous crisis involving Americans. I would say Yemen is a good example of a terrible humanitarian crisis that always has the real potential to escalate into a first-level strategic crisis. What Russia’s still doing in Ukraine is not getting a lot of attention; what China is doing in the South China Sea is not. I’d say North Korea has gotten the lion’s share of international focus.

I worry that Americans don’t study these issues in high schools and colleges, and they get very little exposure to them on network and cable television. I worry that Americans are not sufficiently informed about these issues, and that means they’re not in a position to ask the right questions or hold their elected representatives to account. And that to me is an unhealthy situation, because we’re all going to be affected by what the United States does and doesn’t do.

Have you had any influence on current administration?

We’ve had lots of interactions with people. I don’t feel comfortable talking about it. I’ll just say I’ve had a lot of contacts with people in senior levels of the administration, at the cabinet level, and also with senior people in Congress. We don’t have power, so all we can do is speak truth to power. But we get our opportunities to do that.

Some people think your organization has a lot of power. The Council on Foreign Relations has been under attack for decades by conspiracy theorists, first by the John Birchers and now by outlets like Infowars, accusing you of fostering a “one-world government.” What does that mean?

It’s nonsense. What we’re interested in is a strong United States playing a leading role in the world. No one is talking about taking away American sovereignty. No one is talking about anything that would jeopardize the core national interests of the United States. To the contrary—we don’t take collective positions, so I’ll just speak for myself. What I have to say is pretty well known, since I’ve written more than a dozen books by now. I believe the United States should take an active leading role in the world. It’s very much in our national interest to do so. If we don’t do that, I believe we Americans will pay a price here at home. We can’t insulate ourselves from events of the world. We can’t build a giant moat around the United States. We’ll be affected, for better or worse, by what happens around the world, so the United States needs to be active there.

For more with Richard N. Haass, look for the February 2018 edition of Boca.