Richard Haass

Preparing for the Clinton Doctrine

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The next U.S president will face many foreign policy challenges, which are more likely to focus more on Asia and the Middle East than on Europe.

  • Facts


    • Richard Haass has headed the Council on Foreign Relations for 14 years.
    • The 65-year-old New Yorker was a close advisor to former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
    • From 1989 to 1993, he served as Special Assistant to former U.S. President George H. W. Bush.
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Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Source: Bloomberg

Not far from New York’s Central Park, the desk of Richard Haass reflects the state of the world quite well: analyses and reports on crises spanning the globe tower over each other. And then there is the upcoming book of former security adviser to U.S. President George H.W. Bush, to be released in January, which is fittingly entitled “A World in Disarray.”

Handelsblatt sat down with Mr. Haass to discuss his view of the foreign policy challenges that the next U.S. president will face.

Mr. Haass, the polls are currently favoring Hillary Clinton as the next president. How would foreign policy under a Clinton administration look?

Judging by Clinton’s comments on the campaign trail and what she argued for as secretary of state, she would likely be comfortable with greater American leadership and assertiveness in the world, including the use of force.

What regions would we see this impact?

Possibly in the Middle East, and she would also place greater emphasis on Asia. President Obama has been aggressive in his use of tactical strikes against terrorists, which I believe Clinton would continue. She will probably take a slightly tougher line on negotiations with Russia over Ukraine.

How important is Europe at all for the next president, considering Brexit and the situation in Ukraine?

You need to address this in two ways: how important is Europe as a region of the world, and how important is Europe as a partner of the U.S. globally? As a region of the world, Europe is important, it’s still a quarter of the world economy and a place where the U.S. has traditional alliances and commitments. Maintaining the stability of Europe matters, obviously. But it’s really up to the Europeans, not the U.S., how to deal with Brexit, the structural flaws of the E.U., and future Greek problems. We can help Europe deal with the refugee problem most by doing more in Syria.

Will Europe remain the United States’ most important partner?

No, reality is that the era of American foreign policy in which Europe was the principle partner of the U.S., is over. I don’t believe that the Atlantic relationship will be nearly as significant in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century.

Who is going to replace Europe in this regard?

America will be much more selective. In Asia it might be South Korea or Japan, or Australia. Europe has neither the mindset nor the capacity to be a global partner of the U.S. to a significant degree. While France and Britain may have been the main countries willing to work with the U.S., both are now preoccupied with internal challenges.

Both candidates emphasized burden-sharing as very important, do you agree?

I think the whole burden-sharing argument is overblown. The U.S. supports its allies in Europe not as an act of charity, but as a favor to ourselves: a stable Europe is in America’s interest. Stability in Europe more than pays for itself.

Are you satisfied then with the status of European defense efforts?

The focus should not so much be on how much Europeans spend on defense, but on the way that they are spending this money. Europe as a collective is not approaching this, rather individual countries in Europe are doing this spending. There is virtually no specialization, and no division of labor. There is tremendous overlap and replication. So the problem with Europe when it comes to defense, is that there is no Europe when it comes to defense.

How do you assess the foreign policy stances of Donald Trump?

There were two stances that made me raise questions: separating himself from the consensus position of the U.S. intelligence community that the Russians were behind the recent hackings, and his position on Mosul. He seemed to be unwilling to support the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State for fear that Iranians would be the principal beneficiaries.

Is there some truth to the notion Iran would be the biggest winner if Mosul is liberated? Is there a risk that Iran is actually taking over Iraq?

Iran isn’t taking over, but it is arguably one of the two principal external influences in Iraq, along with the U.S. It has tremendous influence particularly in the south as well as in Baghdad, and it is a fact to say that it has been the principal strategic beneficiary of the last 15 years. It no longer has to worry about Iraq off-setting it.

The Atlantic relationship won't be nearly as significant in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century.

Would the liberation of Mosul symbolize an end fight for ISIS?

It is the beginning of the end of ISIS’ physical presence as a pseudo-state inside Iraq. But what we don’t know is to what extent ISIS will stay and fight vs. do a strategic retreat where many of its forces go into Syria. The liberation of Mosul potentially moves ISIS more towards becoming a traditional terrorist organization, rather than a quasi state.

Is this a good or a bad thing?

It’s both. It’s a good thing in the sense that it breaks the momentum of ISIS — it makes the caliphate far more distant. But there is nothing good about terrorism. Odds are we will see signs of greater terrorism, because that is how ISIS chooses to demonstrate its relevance.

Both U.S. presidential candidates have discussed Aleppo in the official debates. Hillary Clinton was asked about no fly zones. What do you think is possible in the region without putting any boots on the ground, as she refused to do?

Well we do have some boots on the ground. We’re not talking about large insertions of American military forces, but we have about 5,000 Americans in Iraq and probably several hundred in Syria.

Is there something that the next U.S. president can do for Aleppo?

At this point I don’t believe there is much that outsiders can do for Aleppo, it is in some ways the tragic consequence of years of inaction and waiting, which among other things, gave the Russians an opening to enter. We can try to provide some humanitarian relief, though this really requires the willingness of the Russians and the Syrians to tolerate us.

Donald Trump asserted in the last debate that President Obama made many mistakes and allowed for a wide vacuum of power in the Middle East — how do you assess Obama’s legacy?

His biggest failure was the Middle East. He reduced America’s military footprint, but hasn’t brought anything that resembles either peace or stability to the region.

What were his greatest mistakes there?

Policies of retrenchment or inaction. There was the American withdrawal in Iraq, the calendar-based plans for getting out of Afghanistan, and most acutely the situation in Syria. The administration also got Libya wrong: first by intervening and then by not following up, so it was the worst of both worlds. Obama didn’t inherit an easy situation, but Iraq was at least moving in the right direction when he took office. I believe that hasty exit was ill-advised.

How do you explain the at times confusing strategy of Russia in Syria? Is Putin trying to make use of the time before a potentially hardline President Hillary Clinton is elected?

Russian policy is not confusing, it is quite consistent. The Russians have shored up, and propped up the Syrian government. They have made significant investment in equipment, so the ceasefires appear to be either tactical or even simply to give the appearance of reasonableness. But the strategic thrust of Russian policy is clear: to shore up this government and for the time being, to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.

Is there no chance for a comprehensive peace solution in the Middle East?

No, the whole hope for a “Treaty of Westphalia” for the region has zero chance.

Why is this?

You aren’t going to have a formal peace treaty, because there isn’t going to be a map with agreed upon or recognized borders for that region. The reality will be continuing conflicts, where in many cases governments are not in control of big portions of their own territory. For these foreseeable “countries,” there will be enclaves controlled by other groups, and I believe this is the future for Syria, and to some extent Iraq, Libya and Yemen — and it could spread to other countries. It would be extremely costly and difficult to recreate a Syria, and I don’t believe it’s in the U.S. national interest to attempt to do that. I think we have to learn to live with a Middle East that isn’t necessarily defined by traditional nation states.

Hillary Clinton
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is leading the polls and likely to be the next U.S. president. Source: AP

So, we have to trust that these conflicts will simply burn out?

They may burn out over time, or you simply have to live with such a situation, and you intervene against terrorists or to support this or that faction.

You’ve mentioned Russia’s role in the cyber attacks, as well as in the situation in Syria and Ukraine. Donald Trump has been known to take a warmer tone with Russia, whereas Hillary Clinton might take a tougher stance in potential dealings. What is the right course of action?

We need to be tough with Russia. I would suggest military help to Ukraine, conceivably more sanctions, and a more assertive posture in Syria for the U.S. At the same time, I would keep the channels of communication open.

What about the approach to Mr. Putin himself?

I would advise the new American president to send a senior envoy to meet with him, and make the case that we seek neither to isolate nor to humiliate Russia. At the same time, it need be made clear that in places like Europe and the Middle East, we are going to defend our principles. It is therefore up to Russia to determine the personality of our relationship. We will push back and there have to be consequences for when Russia crosses the line.

Is this a repeat of the old Cold War notion of “containment”?

No, containment isn’t applicable, because Russia does not represent a global or ideological challenge. Russia is a relatively poor country with shrinking demography, characterized solely by authoritarianism and personal enrichment. It doesn’t appeal to anyone as an ideology. But we need to push back, and we need to remilitarize NATO. The current U.S. administration has reintroduced some forces into the Baltics, but I would increase this. We need to recreate a serious conventional defense in Europe.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has played a large role in dealing with Russia on the Ukraine crisis. Has she pushed back enough?

It’s not up to Germany to push back alone — that’s why we have NATO. The strengthening of NATO should be a top priority for the next U.S. president.

Do you support the idea that the West should partially roll back sanctions in hopes of incentivizing Moscow towards politically good behavior, as was suggested by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier?

No, you don’t give rewards when there is still much bad behavior going on. So long as Russia continues on its path in Crimea, Syria and eastern Ukraine, there is no basis for reward.

The Middle East and Ukraine crisis reveal a world in disorder. Competing powers like China and Russia contend with the old notion of “Pax Americana.” What is the role of the U.S. and next president in bringing our world to order again?

This question is central to our future. The current international order is increasingly inadequate and unaccepted, but the U.S. cannot impose a new order. We have to begin to define what World Order 2.0 looks like, and then to persuade others that it is in their self interest to support it. This will not be the work of one president alone, but rather of the next decades.

What will the pillars of World Order 2.0 be?

Elements of the existing order, like the illegality of breaching national sovereignty through force, such as Russia did with Crimea, must remain unacceptable. But new elements must be developed to cope with today’s challenges of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, not to mention globalization. We need to start thinking about this, because order 1.0 isn’t working so well.



This interview was conducted by Torsten Riecke in New York. To contact him: 


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