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International Relations In The COVID-19 Era: Richard Haass On What Comes After A Pandemic

Digital billboards and a US Flag at half-mast at Time Square on April 09, 2020 in New York City. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
Digital billboards and a US Flag at half-mast at Time Square on April 09, 2020 in New York City. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

International relations in the COVID-19 era. Could the pandemic usher in a new spirit of global cooperation … or harden international distrust?


Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as the senior Middle East adviser to President George H. W. Bush, director of the Policy Planning Staff under Secretary of State Colin Powell and as the U.S. envoy to both the Cyprus and Northern Ireland peace talks. Author of the upcoming book “The World: A Brief Introduction.” (@RichardHaass)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

On national security in the age of COVID-19

Richard Haass: “Our notion of what constitutes national security needs to expand. And it needs to expand to include things like pandemics, to deal with climate change, digital security. So we’ve got to take all that into account. But the old agenda hasn’t gone away. We still have to think about what Russia does. Look what Russia’s doing in Ukraine and Georgia. We still have to deal with what Iran is doing in the Middle East. North Korea has been busy building nuclear weapons and medium and potentially long-range missiles.

“So we’re at a moment in history where we have both an old agenda for national security and we’ve got to expand that to take into account this new agenda. The other area where I would take issue with Jack is, yes, we’re spending $700 billion on defense, and that’s a lot. As a percentage of our gross national product, it’s only about half  — as large as that number is — it’s only about half what we averaged during the Cold War. So I think we’ve got to keep it in perspective. And we face a situation where we have all sorts of weak states. We have terrorism. We have proliferation threats. We do have a rising China. We do have an alienated Russia.

“So I actually think the national security agenda that will greet the new president, whether it’s Donald Trump or Joe Biden, is going to be enormous. It’s going to have old fashioned security threats as well as new fashioned security threats, including the consequences of the pandemic. So I actually think it’s not a time to cut the defense budget. What it is, is a time to expand other aspects of national security spending. We ought to be doing much more in development aid. We’re going to have to do a lot more in economic support for countries that are coming out of the pandemic. We should be doing much more to deal with climate change and so on and so forth. So it’s actually an extraordinarily demanding time. Where again, we have the fusion of an old agenda with the emergence of a new agenda.”

On American leadership on the world stage

Richard Haass: “Foreign policy is about what our diplomats say and do, what our military does. But it’s also the example we set at home, the quality of our democracy, the strength of our economy, the response, say, to a pandemic. So they are looking at this United States and a lot of leaders — and I speak to them all the time — are essentially saying, ‘We don’t recognize this America. This is not the America we thought we knew.’ So they’re in a very difficult position where now they have to essentially get on without us, but they don’t really have the capability.

“There’s no one who has the power that we have, the influence that we have. So no one can fill our shoes. So everybody’s on their own and no one does better on his or her own than they do, again, in a collective effort where the United States leads. So they’re not happy about the situation. They’re increasingly reconciled to it. But they very much miss the United States that for decades had helped organize the world to meet a whole range of challenges.”

On what the coronavirus pandemic has taught us about isolationism

Richard Haass: “This is an expensive lesson in why isolationism is not an option in a global world. And the real question is, will we learn that lesson? Will we learn the right lesson? Will we basically say we have got to get more involved in the world to prepare for the next pandemic, to do something about climate change, to do something about structuring the digital world? So it’s positive and not negative? Are we still going to deal, say, with the threat of terrorism or proliferation? The real question for me is: coming out of this, do we have the bandwidth? Do we have the resources? Have we learned the lesson that we can’t isolate ourselves from what goes on in the world and do that safely?”

Are we in a new paradigm of American national security that doesn’t have American primacy on the world stage at its heart?

Richard Haass: “Primacy can be understood as a fact of life or a goal. I don’t think our goal ought to be one of primacy. We can’t control that because primacy is about relative strength. Right now the United States is still the world’s most powerful military, we are the world’s largest single economy. But the fact is, for all of our strength, we can’t tackle the emerging problems in the world on our own. We can’t maintain global health unilaterally. We obviously can’t deal with climate change by ourselves.

“We can’t control proliferation, or terrorism or set the rules for cyberspace on our own. So unilateralism, no matter how strong we are, is simply not a viable foreign policy strategy. We have got to partner with others. And the challenge with a country like China is how do we selectively partner with China given our profound disagreements — the difference between our systems — and the fact that we, for example, have real foreign policy differences, say, over the fate of Taiwan? And that to me is gonna be one of the real foreign policy challenges going forward.”

From The Reading List

Foreign Affairs: “The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It” — “We are going through what by every measure is a great crisis, so it is natural to assume that it will prove to be a turning point in modern history. In the months since the appearance of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, analysts have differed over the type of world the pandemic will leave in its wake. But most argue that the world we are entering will be fundamentally different from what existed before.”

Council on Foreign Relations: “The World After Coronavirus” — “For the next hour we are going to have a conversation, on the record, with three individuals who I will introduce presently. We’re going to discuss the world after the coronavirus; essentially, what implications will this have for international relations, for the world order, for American foreign policy writ large.”

Bloomberg: “Virus Impact Reflects a Post-American World, CFR’s Haass Says” — “Countries, and essentially, states and cities are left to fend for themselves in the coronavirus pandemic, says Richard Haass, president at Council on Foreign Relations.”

Wall Street Journal: “The Coronavirus Pandemic Will Forever Alter the World Order” — “The surreal atmosphere of the Covid-19 pandemic calls to mind how I felt as a young man in the 84th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Now, as in late 1944, there is a sense of inchoate danger, aimed not at any particular person, but striking randomly and with devastation. But there is an important difference between that faraway time and ours. American endurance then was fortified by an ultimate national purpose. “

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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