In Comparative Perspective: Interview with COFR President Emeritus Richard Haass

In Comparative Perspective: Interview with COFR President Emeritus Richard Haass

. 8 min read

Dr. Richard Haass served as president of the Council on Foreign Relations (COFR) for two decades before becoming President Emeritus. He chaired the multiparty negotiations in Northern Ireland in 2013, leading to the pivotal Stormont House Agreement the following year, earning him the 2013 Tipperary International Peace Award. Haass held key roles in the US Department of State, including director of policy planning and principal advisor to Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he served as US coordinator for policy on Afghanistan and envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process. He is the author or editor of fourteen books on foreign policy and US democracy, including his latest bestseller, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens.

In your recent book, The Bill of Obligations, which underscores civic responsibilities alongside rights, how might these principles of civic duties inform discussions surrounding electoral participation and democratic engagement around the world?

First of all, it makes a strong case for involvement: the whole idea that democracy is not a spectator sport. So, I urge people to get involved, [and] before they get involved, I urge that they get informed, and that applies to this country or any country. [Thomas] Jefferson specifically emphasized his idea that democracy requires an informed citizenry. A lot of the other obligations apply not simply to elections, but to the functioning of a democracy, like an openness to compromise or rejection of political violence. That also applies to elections. The last thing you want is for the electoral process to be undermined or threatened by violence.

In 2024, there are 76 elections worldwide. How do you view the implications of these elections for international relations generally, particularly given your recent book?

Many of the elections’ results, shall we say, will not come as a surprise. The Russian election was not a cliffhanger. And not all elections are equally important. I would say the one that is most important and in some ways most difficult to predict is our own. The reason it's most important [is] really for two reasons. One is the power and influence of the United States. And secondly, the differences between the candidates when you look at the presidential race and between the parties when you look at the congressional races. Yes, there are 76 elections around the world, [but] not all elections are equal in terms of their weight. If you look at American history, so often [in] presidential races the similarity between the candidates far outweighs any differences. This time around, that is to not be said: the differences are many in terms of both domestic practice as well as foreign policy.

It's truly what happens here that will be consequential. Other elections around the world, I don't mean to say they don't matter, but in most cases, we know that the Prime Minister of India [Narendra Modi] is going to have a very strong shot. We can safely conclude that Xi in China is going to win the election. We all knew that Mr. Putin was going to win [the Russian election]. The only question was whether he won with 87 percent or 88 percent of the vote. Again, a lot of these elections are pretty baked in the cake. The other place that is interesting—it's where you can talk not about an election, [but] about the possibility of [an] election—[is] Israel. Everyone's focusing so much on the places we know are going to have elections. Israel turns out to be a place [where] we don't know if there's going to be an election this year. But if there were to be one, it could be very consequential.

Beyond the United States and Israel, are there any elections that you are keeping an eye on or closely monitoring, and what draws your attention to them?

I'm interested in Japan, not so much an election but whether there's a real, successful leadership challenge to the Prime Minister this fall. That's a possibility. Again, the Indian and Mexican elections I've alluded to—are important countries, but I think the outcomes are pretty clear. Russia, the outcome was never in doubt. The [Taiwanese] election is already behind us. I thought it was pretty predictable. [In] Britain, you're going to have an election most likely late this year, around October. I think the only question there is the scale of the blowout, how much Labour defeats the Tories by, so I'd have to think about it.

Maybe I'm overlooking something, but for most of the elections, I think we have a pretty good idea of what's going to happen. And again, what matters is not simply who wins but whether the choice between the candidates is narrow or wide.

Kind of along the same [lines] is how an election is carried out. I think it's important, when you're judging elections, not just to look at election day. Not just to look at, essentially, are people able to vote and [if] the counting [is] accurate. But often what matters most is the run-up to the elections. Was there, for example, equal access to media? Were people able to organize, to hold large private or public meetings and so forth? So, I think too often the assessment of the output or the quality of the democracy depends too much [upon] what happens on election day. I would argue [that] it's essential to look at the months before, or even years in some cases, before election day, to get an appreciation of the quality of the political system.

Along the same lines, what is your assessment of the challenges and opportunities that these electoral processes present in terms of advancing democratic norms and global stability? Especially in regions like Eastern Europe or the Middle East?

The frustrating but unavoidable answer is it depends. It depends upon whether the political process is democratic. You can have elections indeed, [but] you do have elections all the time that have nothing to do with democracy. We just had one in Russia. Historically, we've had them in several Arab countries. What happens now in Hungary, shall we say, is not quite democratic. So a lot depends upon the person and then what he or she does with the power they get after they are elected to office or reelected to office. Then, the consequences for international relations are a function of their policy. Now, I'll be honest with you: I tend not to see elections or democracy at the center of international relations. One can have constructive or stable or welcome policies on the part of non-democracies and democracies.

In particular, incomplete democracies can be quite dangerous. You know, Fareed Zakaria wrote a thoughtful book about that, but partial or incomplete democracies and mature democracies are very vulnerable to getting hijacked by populism or nationalism. So you have the veneer of democracy, but you don't have the depth or the reality. And in many cases, we don't have either the ability or the luxury of promoting elections or democracy, given other interests we may have at stake. This entire conversation is placing a great weight on elections and all that, and my point is just simply to say: I don't think that elections can or should be at the heart of what the United States does in the world. They are a consideration. The nature of the system or the regime is a consideration, how they came to power is a consideration. But far more important to me is how they exercise power vis-à-vis interests that matter to us.

In the context of the 2024 elections around the world, how do you think these elections will shape US foreign policy and America's place in the world, if at all?

What I think will affect America's foreign policy, and America's placement as much [if not] more, [is] what happens here. Our own elections will be far more determinant. But the irony of these elections this year is that the most recent polls suggest that only about three or four percent of Americans are going to vote on the basis of foreign policy. Issues like immigration are far, far more pressing and important to most would-be voters. Yet the results of our election will have profound implications for foreign policy and people in countries around the world. There's almost a mismatch between what Americans will have in their minds as they vote and the consequences, which, by the way, [is] something that makes the rest of the world a little bit uneasy.

The rest of the world feels [that] they know they're going to be affected by America’s vote. They feel vulnerable, if you will, to the consequences, but they also feel powerless in any way to affect it, which makes a lot of the world uncomfortable, particularly our friends and allies and partners who have made the strategic choice to depend on us. And the elections now introduce a great degree of unpredictability, which is different again. Until about 10 or 12 years ago, the differences between the candidates tended to be rather modest or narrow. The similarities were far greater, which was reassuring to our friends and allies around the world. No matter who won, there'd be more continuity than change. That can no longer be assumed. So a lot of them are looking at what happens here with a degree of uncertainty, shall we say, that at least until 10 or 12 years ago was rather uncharacteristic, but that's essentially where we are.

I'm hard-pressed to think of an election elsewhere where it's either uncertain what's going to be or [with which] you could have such a flip in policy. Now you could have one at some point, not this year, but [in] a year or two. The next French elections, if the far nationalist right wins, would be a truly consequential election. I think in Europe, the rise of a populist nationalist right could have real consequences. It's not a 2024 issue, but it could be an issue in future years. In Israel, their election could have real consequences, but otherwise, you don't have meaningful elections in the Middle East. The election in India, we know what's going to happen. The choices where you have elections in Asia right now are not profound in terms of the differences. I can't think of any in Latin America. I'd have to think about where there's a major country with significant differences between the cause and the candidates that would have a real effect on us. I come back to where we began. The one election this year that matters far more than any other for the United States happens to be the US election, the presidential and the congressional.

Do you foresee any future in which the predictability or reassurance factor of the United States elections returns, like it was say 10 or 12 years ago?

I don't know if it's a prerequisite, but it's certainly close to that for effective world leadership. You can't have wild swings and be a trusted security partner. You can't have wild swings and pursue a consistent foreign policy, almost by definition. That would mean the strengthening of the center, and that would mean two things. The Republican Party would pull back from being a populist party and would once again become more of a conservative party. More like the party of Eisenhower and Nixon, Reagan and so forth, and even Bush. On the conservative side of the field, maybe it is a football metaphor. Be on the 40-yard line, not closer to the end zone.

As the Republican Party would no longer be a populist radical party—[it] would become much more of a conservative party—the Democratic Party would have to resist the temptation to become what you might call an extreme progressive party. I'm not suggesting it's there now. But there are elements in the party that are there. For American political elections to become less consequential, which is that regardless of who would win, the continuities would outweigh any discontinuities, the biggest change would have to happen in the Republican Party. And the Democratic Party would have to remain a center-left party. And ideally, the Republican Party would become a center-right party. Right now, it is not that.

Black spoke with Haass on April 9, 2024. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.