Preamble: Richard Haass
May 10, 2023
In this urgent moment for the nation, we can strengthen democracy—together. In Preamble, Citizens & Scholars president Raj Vinnakota sits down for 15-minute conversations with diverse thought leaders—across traditional divides—on the new ideas shaping a more perfect Union.
Here, Raj sits down with Richard Haass, a veteran diplomat, a prominent voice on American foreign policy, and president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Below is an edited excerpt from the conversation.
Raj Vinnakota: Congratulations on your new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, which is now a New York Times bestseller. How does a self-described foreign policy guy end up writing a book about democracy in America?
Richard Haass: Well, it wasn’t by design. I gave a zillion foreign policy talks, and invariably, when the Q&A part would start, someone would say, “What keeps you up at night?” And they’d always say, “Is it China, Russia, or climate change?”
And I’d say, “Sure, those things keep me up, those are big deals. But what really keeps me up is us, and whether we’re going to have the political wherewithal to deal with these challenges.”
That’s what brought me to this book. I came to the conclusion that as tough as the foreign policy inbox is, the last 75 years suggest America can deal with it pretty effectively if we have a degree of unity of purpose, if we have a degree of staying power, if we have considerable focus. My concern was—and increasingly is—that those are exactly the traits we don’t have.
Raj: One of the major arguments in your book is that we need to place obligations on equal footing with rights, yet that’s difficult to do in this country. Why is it so difficult?
Richard: Rights are essential but not sufficient. If we understand citizenship fully, a society can’t do well just on rights, even if Lincoln’s unfinished work were somehow to be finished. But rights alone can very easily lead to gridlock—or worse—can lead to conflict. I do think we have obligations to one another. There is an element of community, and it’s both the right thing to do and a necessary thing to do. But my own view of things is the balance has somehow gotten a bit off.
We’ve got to think about rights and protect them, but also, we’ve got to value community and obligations in two ways—what you and I owe one another. It’s our collective responsibility to one another—what we owe this country and what we owe this government. My view is that we’ll only succeed if we did a bit of rebalancing. We need to up our game on obligations and introduce them as a vital dimension of citizenship.
Raj: One of your obligations is to stay open to compromise. What advice would you give to those of us who are trying to stay open to compromise on some of these very absolutist issues?
Richard: My view on compromise, just to be clear, is that it’s not always the best policy. There might be moments of such high principle that you say, “I can’t” or “I shouldn’t.” But in every case, whether you ultimately accept a compromise or reject it, my recommendation to everybody is to stay open to it.
Really think hard about whether you’re truly better off if you refuse to compromise. It’s not only what you give up by not compromising, but also what it could lead to. The dynamics of refusal to compromise can potentially be costly.
Raj: What’s been the most unexpected or surprising response to your book?
Richard: I feel the situation is ripe, that a lot of Americans get it. They know that there’s something amiss, they know this train of ours is slightly off the rails, and they feel some urgency to do something about it.
Particularly people who are a little bit older, because they’re worried about the future for their kids and grandchildren. People who are a bit older, they look back and they remember an America that was slightly different, and they feel slightly better about the past than they do about the future, and so they’re genuinely concerned.
Raj: Are you optimistic about the future of democracy in our country and elsewhere?
Richard: I’m optimistic, but I’m not sanguine, and I think it’s an important difference. I wouldn’t have bothered to write this book if I weren’t optimistic. It’s not hopeless. For better and for worse in life, nothing’s inevitable. That’s my whole takeaway from my experience in and out of government, that virtually nothing’s inevitable.
With American democracy, we’re not doomed to fail, but we’re also not doomed to succeed. I think the jury’s out. In some ways, the jury’s always out when it comes to democracy. I want people to understand that democracy is worth preserving and what it takes to preserve it. The good news is the benefits are far greater than the cost. I’m optimistic that if we can start teaching civics in our schools, if we can get public service to become more common, if we can get some of our religious leaders to advocate for civility, an openness to compromise, to delegitimize violence, and a long list of things in The Bill of Obligations.
I’m optimistic, but I’m not saying it will just happen. Good things never just happen. Good things happen because good people put their shoulder into an individual or collective wheel.
Dr. Richard Haass is a veteran diplomat, a prominent voice on American foreign policy, and a proven leader and manager. He is in his twentieth year as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution dedicated to being a resource to help people better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.
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