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President Of The Council On Foreign Relations Discusses His Article: 'How A World Order Ends'


All right. Let's stay with U.S. foreign policy and bring in someone who has spent his career in that arena, both inside the State Department and out. Today Richard Haass is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He was head of planning for the State Department. He has served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and he joins me now. Richard Haass, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


KELLY: So you have just been tweeting about Syria, I noticed, and this surprise announcement that the U.S. is pulling out. Your take was, if I can quote your own words back at you - you wrote U.S. influence along with order in the world will plummet. Why?

HAASS: What we've done is reinforce doubts that were already out there about U.S. reliability. So if we leave the Syrian Kurds in the lurch after saying we would stand by them so the Turks can come in and massacre them, that obviously raises a question for anyone else who's dependent on us. Plus, it looks as though we are walking away from Syria. And there, the Russians and the Iranians and the Syrian government have an agenda which I would say we don't share. Plus, in listening to the secretary of state, what I think we're seeing is a real misunderstanding of the nature of terrorism. They make it sound like we just had a signing ceremony of a surrender document like we had with Japan after World War II on the Battleship Missouri. But that's not how it works with groups like ISIS.

KELLY: But the counterargument to that being - if Mike Pompeo were sitting here with us, he would make the argument we just heard he made there to Steve - that the U.S. led a campaign to defeat ISIS; it's done, and it's time to get U.S. troops out of harm's way.

HAASS: Well, with all due respect to the secretary of state, the campaign is never done when you're fighting terrorists. The whole question of terrorism is another form now of globalization. They move across borders with impunity. So again, the idea that we've somehow accomplished a final success - it's just a misunderstanding of what it is we're up against.

KELLY: Setting aside for a moment the state of ISIS, what does this tell you about the state of U.S. foreign policy? Do you see this as fitting a pattern of the U.S. retreating from its traditional leadership role in the Middle East and, more broadly, on the world stage?

HAASS: It gives me no pleasure to say that I do. You see it whether it's moving away from allies, moving away from signed agreements, be it on climate change or the Iran nuclear agreement or the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership. We're in such a rush to get home, and I think that really gets it wrong in two ways. One is, it exaggerates the costs of what these commitments are costing us. And second of all, it seems to miss the larger point that if things go badly, say, in Syria, we will not be immune from them. You know, the Atlantic Ocean is not a moat. So they will find ways to hurt us directly, or they'll find ways to hurt our interests around the world.

KELLY: Do you see this retreat as something that began with the Trump administration or predated it?

HAASS: Elements of it predated it. You saw it in the Obama administration. In some ways, there's some ironic overlaps between the two in ways that would probably make people in either administration break out in hives.

KELLY: Right. President Obama wasn't persuaded that the U.S. could solve all of Syria's problems either.

HAASS: No, he - and his failure to act after he set a red line about the Syrians using chemical weapons was a major setback. And if you recall, he set other deadlines. He took the United States out of Iraq militarily, and he said he would take the United States out of Afghanistan. And he set it to a calendar rather than to conditions on the ground.

KELLY: You just wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs, and the headline was "How A World Order Ends." And I want you to set this Syrian news in that context without overly dramatizing it, but you just said you see this as emblematic of a pattern. The world order you're referring to is - what? - the postwar, American-dominated foreign policy that prevailed after World War II.

HAASS: Exactly. The world order that we've lived in and, I would say, largely benefited from for now three-quarters of a century was what was established after World War II. And that included a set of alliances, a set of regional and global institutions. The United States was the leading architect. I think we're at a point where historians will look back on this and say the post-World War II order is unraveling in part because of the rise of certain new powers, be they a China - Russia has now become a real outlier and is really doing everything it can to undermine the order but also a loss of will on the part of the United States. And Syria is one of the many examples of that.

KELLY: Well, I can't end with you there.


KELLY: Give us hope that there is an alternative or that there is some constructive path forward.

HAASS: Absolutely, and there's very little about history that's inevitable. The historical precedent I compare us to is the middle of the 19th century. It was still 50 years or more before the crisis that became World War I. So we are not yet on the cusp of anything comparable to that. The bad news is that if we don't begin to get it right in 10 and 20 and 30 years, we could face enormous costly challenges. So history is up for grabs. And the reason I wrote this article was, in some ways, to say, look, the United States has to understand its future will depend in fundamental ways on what happens in the world, and good things will not tend to happen in the world unless the United States is a part of it.

KELLY: Thank you, Richard.

HAASS: Thank you.

KELLY: Richard Haass - he is president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations and author, among other things, of the essay "How A World Order Ends."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.