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Global Perspectives: Richard Haass on Russia, China and Multilateralism

Mark A. Wynne

April 20, 2021

Richard Haass has served as the president of the Council on Foreign Relations since 2003. He is a veteran diplomat, a prominent voice on American foreign policy and an established leader of nonprofit institutions. In 2013, he chaired multiparty negotiations in Northern Ireland that provided the foundation for the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. For his efforts, he received the 2013 Tipperary International Peace Award.

Haass was director of policy planning for the Department of State, where he was a principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell from January 2001 to June 2003. He also served as U.S. coordinator for policy regarding the future of Afghanistan and as U.S. envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process.

Haass was special assistant to President George H.W. Bush and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs for the National Security Council from 1981 to 1993. He was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 1991 for contributions to U.S. policy during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Haass holds a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College and master’s and doctorate degrees from Oxford University, where he was also a Rhodes Scholar. He is the author or editor of 15 books, including most recently The World: A Brief Introduction, published last year.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently hosted Haass as part of the Bank’s Global Perspectives speaker series. This series was launched at the beginning of 2016 with the objective of bringing leaders from the worlds of business, academia and policymaking to the Dallas Fed to share their insights on leadership, and global, national and regional developments.

Haass and Dallas Fed President Robert S. Kaplan discussed the end of the Cold War, Russia, China and contemporary challenges. The following are excerpts from their conversation, edited for clarity, and presented by topic.

On the Peaceful End to the Cold War:

Haass: I think a lot had to do with President [George H.W.] Bush’s willingness to see things as [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev saw them. And you know, Gorbachev made some enormous mistakes, but in a funny sort of way, his mistakes are one of the reasons the Cold War ended when it did, why the Soviet Union unraveled when it did. I think his handling of political reform and economic reform let things get out of control. They got the sequencing wrong. But obviously, things moved further and faster than we ever imagined, and Bush was very careful in not doing things that would put Gorbachev in an impossible position in terms of managing these historical forces.

And if you recall, the president was criticized for his reaction or lack of a reaction when the [Berlin] Wall came down on of all days 11/9/89. He was very sensitive to the fact that Gorbachev was a public politician, and he needed to manage his domestic political currents inside what was then still the Soviet Union. I think he had it right. What’s interesting, if you look at the rise of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and how Russia subsequently has moved to the “right,” I think it proves or reinforces that the president’s instincts were right. That there were powerful forces in that country that could come to the surface and in some ways, we’re paying for the fact that they ultimately did come to the surface.

On Russia as a Strategic Competitor:

Russia is still a force to be reckoned with. The good news is the United States and Russia just extended their principal nuclear arms control agreement for five years and took that issue off the table. But it’s a reminder that Russia still has this enormous nuclear arsenal and, as good as this agreement is, it doesn’t cover certain aspects of technological innovation. Obviously, we just suffered through this enormous, at a minimum, espionage, cyber-espionage event [involving the hacking of data from the U.S. government and civilian digital infrastructure]. It’s a reminder of the capacities Russia has there and the lack of restraint. Russia is still occupying big parts of Ukraine, the Crimea as well as Eastern Ukraine. Mr. Putin has tried to assassinate his principal political rival [Alexei Navalny], and when that failed, he imprisoned him.

I think Mr. Putin gets up every day and sees the United States and what we stand for in the West in some ways as a threat, everything from Western liberalism to the perpetuation of Israel. I think he’s a force to be reckoned with, and I think it argues among other things for taking certain steps in the cyber realm to reduce our vulnerability. It makes the case for the relevance of NATO. There was that whole debate after the end of the Cold War; do you still need NATO? Well no one’s debating that anymore. We obviously need it.

I think there are some legitimate questions about how we push back. I think we were right to finally arm Ukraine. I think there are interesting questions now about how we reduce Western Europe’s vulnerability to Russian sources of gas and so forth.

I would just say one additional thing, though. What I don’t assume is what it’s going to be like after Putin. Mr. Putin has done many things, but he has not developed a real economy. He has not developed a legitimate political system. There’s no process that’s institutionalized. There’s no sense of legitimacy. I think the question of 21st century Russia is very much up in the air, about what its nature will be. I think I put that aside so long as Mr. Putin’s there, and he said he plans to be there at least until 2036. I think we’ve got an implacable foe on most issues. But your guess is as good as mine about what the day after looks like.

On China’s Geopolitical Challenge:

We’re in competition with China. I think [U.S. Secretary of State] Anthony Blinken was right in calling it the principal geopolitical challenge facing the United States. What’s clear is the hopes that we had two decades ago—that integration of China into the global economy would somehow lead to a mellowing of China politically and economically—have not come to pass. This is now an open-ended dynamic challenge and it will place a real premium (not only) on our foreign policy but also on our domestic policies, whether we put ourselves in a position where we can effectively compete.

When we talk about China, there’s a tendency at times to make the Chinese 10 feet tall. But they also have real problems. You’ve got climate issues, environmental issues and also a lot of public health issues that are connected to this. These are years and years in the making. The aging issue is also very interesting. The ratio of people of working age to those who are not is going in the wrong direction for the Chinese.

The working-age population is going down. The one-child policy was a terrible policy on lots of levels, human and economic and others, but it also is a real warning sign to the Chinese that when you have a top-heavy political leadership, you are prone to making mistakes and it can often be extraordinarily difficult to fix them. The same leadership that made the mistake doesn’t want to admit the possibility that it can make mistakes.

The fact that so much power now is consolidated in the hands of [China President] Xi Jinping raises that possibility. He has embarked, shall we say, in certain directions. And my guess is the day will come when people in China question the wisdom of some of the things that are being done.

I don’t think the previous [U.S.] administration was right in saying we want to end the Communist Party’s role there. That’s beyond our ability to do in foreign policy. But what we can do is show that our democratic, capitalist society works. The Chinese love to show things like [the U.S. capitol insurrection on] Jan. 6, and they can say, “See, this is why democracy is dangerous and bad, i.e., we are justified in being repressive.” Likewise, when they see the bad numbers on COVID.

But when we show our successes like that with the vaccine and our ability to produce it, make it available around the world, either directly or through licensing, that’s the kind of thing that gives the Chinese a run for their money. And that to me is an important part of our competition, and it could create pressures on the home front there.

On the Role of Global Institutions and Multilateralism:

I think the gap between global challenges and global arrangements is the other great foreign policy or national security challenge of the moment. In every realm you can think of—global health, in the cyber domain, in proliferation, climate change, you name it—the global challenge has outpaced global willingness and ability to come together to meet the challenge. And as we’ve learned on 9/11, as we learned with climate change, the fires, the floods, the storms, as we’re learning with COVID-19, these oceans that surround this country are not moats. What happens out there comes here; we are affected by these global challenges. Globalization in that case is a reality.

The question of how we respond, that’s the policy debate and that’s a legitimate debate. But we can’t deny globalization; that’s simply a fact of life. In every one of these cases, there’s a gap. I don’t think though the answer in any of these cases is going to be to create something that looks like the United Nations General Assembly—192 countries coming together to solve the problem.

I think there are going to be two big differences. We’re going to have much smaller numbers of countries coming together. It might be five, 10, 15—the critical countries who really matter and who are like-minded. And in some cases, some of the entities in the room may not be countries at all. If you’re going to deal with issues like cyber, you’d better have Google and Facebook and Twitter in the room; or if you’re going to deal with COVID, you’d better have the Gates Foundation, Moderna, Pfizer, J&J [Johnson & Johnson] and some others in the room.

I think it’s going to be a creative multilateralism, a kind of designer or boutique multilateralism with governments and nongovernment. It won’t be everybody, it can’t be consensus. As you know from trade, one of the reasons the WTO [World Trade Organization] is no longer the principal negotiating forum for trade is you can’t get 190 countries to agree to anything. You’ve got where trade now moves forward in terms of negotiations in groupings of two, three, 10. That’s the way you move the needle on multilateralism.

About the Author

Mark A. Wynne

Wynne is vice president and associate director of research in the Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

The views expressed are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas or the Federal Reserve System.

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