Everywhere he has gone as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haass has been asked the same question: What keeps him up at night? He has had no shortage of options over the years — Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, climate change, international terrorism, food insecurity, the global pandemic.
But as he steps down after two decades running America’s most storied private organization focused on international affairs, Mr. Haass has come to a disturbing conclusion. The most serious danger to the security of the world right now? The threat that costs him sleep? The United States itself.
“It’s us,” he said ruefully the other day.
That was never a thought this global strategist would have entertained until recently. But in his mind, the unraveling of the American political system means that for the first time in his life the internal threat has surpassed the external threat. Instead of being the most reliable anchor in a volatile world, Mr. Haass said, the United States has become the most profound source of instability and an uncertain exemplar of democracy.
“Our domestic political situation is not only one that others don’t want to emulate,” he said in an interview ahead of his last day at the Council on Foreign Relations on Friday. “But I also think that it’s introduced a degree of unpredictability and a lack of reliability that’s really poisonous. For America’s ability to function successfully in the world, I mean, it makes it very hard for our friends to depend on us.”
The challenges at home have prompted a man who has spent his entire career as a policymaker and student of world affairs to turn his attention inward. Mr. Haass recently published a book called “The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens,” outlining ways Americans can help heal their own society, like “Be Informed,” “Remain Civil,” “Put Country First” — all admittedly bromides and yet somehow often elusive these days. In addition to consultant work, he wants to spend much of the next chapter of his life promoting the teaching of civics.
“My own trajectory has changed,” he observed during a pair of interviews summing up two decades at the council. “This new book is not something I would have predicted writing five or 10 years ago, but I actually think it’s almost a recasting of American democracy. Now it’s become a national security concern. And that’s different.”
By dint of position as well as temperament, Mr. Haass, 71, is a member in good standing of the establishment that has fallen into disfavor in the era of Donald J. Trump, a voice of the largely bipartisan “realist” consensus that for better or worse defined America’s place in the world for most of the three-quarters of a century since World War II. It is a clubby world, of course, one that invariably leads to charges of elitist groupthink or even conspiracy theories. For his final appearance as president of the council this past week, Mr. Haass interviewed Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken onstage and online, the 27th secretary of state to appear before the council.
“It’s hard to think of anyone who’s done more to make this institution what it is,” Mr. Blinken said, praising his host.
“I want to thank him for that,” Mr. Haass replied with a smile. “But I’m still going to ask him tough questions.”
A veteran of four administrations, one Democrat and three Republican, Mr. Haass has nonetheless transcended the insular world of think tank policy wonks through regular appearances on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” where in measured but unmistakable terms he has lamented the political polarization and excesses of recent years and tried to make sense of it all.
From the set at Rockefeller Plaza in New York, Mr. Haass would head most mornings about 20 blocks north to the council’s Upper East Side headquarters. His relatively modest-sized fourth-floor office looked exactly like what you would imagine that the cluttered office of the president of the Council on Foreign Relations would look like, crammed with literally thousands of books, dozens of globes, stacks of paper, honorary degrees from various universities and photographs with family members, presidents and colleagues from past administrations.
It will be hard to imagine the council without him. The longest-serving president in the century-old organization’s history, he takes pride in preserving its place in the firmament while increasing and diversifying its membership, opening an expanded Washington office, focusing on education and maintaining a bipartisan approach, albeit not one that embraces America First Trumpism. He will be succeeded by Michael Froman, who was the U.S. trade representative under President Barack Obama.
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, Mr. Haass studied at Oberlin College, where he made a documentary on the student response to the Kent State shootings. After graduating in 1973, he became a Rhodes scholar. He worked for Senator Claiborne Pell, Democrat of Rhode Island, on Capitol Hill, where he met a young senator named Joe Biden in 1974.
Mr. Haass went on to serve in the Pentagon under President Jimmy Carter, the State Department under President Ronald Reagan and the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush. Under President George W. Bush, he served as director of policy planning at the State Department but ultimately left in 2003, disenchanted with the Iraq war, which he later called “a poor choice poorly implemented.”
As a young man, Mr. Haass opposed the Vietnam War and thought of himself as liberal but then became inspired by the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the Reagan-Bush vision of American leadership abroad and restrained government at home. For more than 40 years, he was a Republican, although he sometimes voted for Democrats. But by 2020, he renounced the party that had been captured by Mr. Trump and after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and publicly declared himself unaffiliated.
Over the past century, America has experienced other periods of division and discord — Jim Crow, McCarthyism, Vietnam, civil rights, Watergate. The assassinations and riots and war of 1968 often come to mind as a singularly miserable year in the life of the nation. But Mr. Haass sees this moment as even worse. “These were not threats to the system, the fabric,” he said. “That’s why I think this is more significant.”
Mr. Haass, who agreed to meet with Mr. Trump in 2015 to advise him on foreign affairs, just as he would any presidential candidate, admitted that he misjudged the bombastic real estate developer.
“Where I was dead wrong is I assumed the weight of the office would moderate him or normalize him, whatever word you want to use — that he would be more respectful of traditions and inheritances,” Mr. Haass said. “And I was wrong on that. If anything, he became more radical. He doubled down.”
The question is whether America has changed for the long run. “I should have a nickel,” he said, “for every non-American, every foreign leader who said to me: I don’t know what’s the norm and what’s the exception anymore. Is the Biden administration a return to the America I took for granted and Trump will be a historical blip? Or is Biden the exception and Trump and Trumpism are the new America?”
After exploring other countries for most of the past half-century, Mr. Haass is ready to explore his own. Putting his foreign policy hat aside for now, he said he wants to expand the message from his book and help refocus the country on the core values embodied in the Declaration of Independence as the 250th anniversary of the document approaches three years from now.
For all his worries, he insists he is not pessimistic. “When I go around speaking about this topic, people know there’s something wrong with American democracy,” he said. “They know it’s going on off the rails. And we may not necessarily agree on how to fix it. But there’s a real openness to the conversation.”