The Austrian

The Foreign-Policy World Is in Disarray

A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order
by Richard Haass
Penguin Press, 2017

Richard Haass is a foreign policy professional of great knowledge and experience. He has served as director of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department; and for the past 14 years, he has been president of the Council on Foreign Relations. No one who reads this book can doubt the author’s thorough knowledge of foreign affairs, but unfortunately, he lacks a clear framework for analysis. As a result, he offers confused and contradictory advice. He cannot make up his mind and winds up dithering, overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of foreign policy. Given a choice between A and not-A, Haass all-too often wants to choose both.

Haass is well aware that aggressive actions often make matters worse. As I write, concern over North Korea’s nuclear missiles dominates the news, and calls abound for a preemptive strike against that country. Haass notes that the problem is one of long standing and points out the dangers of preemption that arose on an earlier occasion: there “was the strong possibility that such an attack could lead to a war on the peninsula, something very much opposed by the two U.S. allies that would bear the brunt of any North Korean military retaliation, namely, South Korea and Japan. Such a war would have required a costly U.S. military response given U.S. alliance commitments and North Korean military capabilities.”

Applying this needed note of caution to the present crisis, Haass‌ makes a conclusive case against a preventive strike: “First, such an attack would necessarily be based upon incomplete and possibly inaccurate information; the case of Iraqi ‘WMD’s’ is a warning here. Second, it is impossible to assume that any preventive attack would in fact accomplish what it set out to do, as the systems are increasingly well hidden and protected. Third, a preventive attack would be an act of war, likely to trigger a retaliatory response.”

Is it irrational for North Korea to refuse to halt its nuclear program? Though he does not apply the point to the Korean crisis, Haass offers a suggestive parallel: “The ouster of Gadaffi also sent the unfortunate message that giving up nuclear weapons could be dangerous to your political health. In a matter of months the Libyan leader went from the poster child of responsibility in the proliferation realm to war criminal.”

So far, so good. Haass is fully aware of the risks of intervention. Nevertheless, he regrets that President Clinton in the 1990s chose to negotiate rather than to strike. “A moment for a preventive military strike that could have destroyed much of North Korea’s existing nuclear capacity was allowed to pass.” What about the costs of intervention, ably presented by Haass on the previous page? Why would the gains from intervention have then outweighed them? Haass leaves us in the dark.

The same pattern appears elsewhere. Speaking of the 2003 Iraq War, Haass says, “The motive that most captured the imagination of the upper reaches of the George W. Bush administration, though, was the belief that a post-Saddam Iraq would become democratic, setting an example and a precedent that the other Arab states and Iran would have great difficulty resisting. The road to a transformed Middle East, it was widely believed, ran through Baghdad.”

After informing us that he did not share this view, Haass remarks: “Contrary to what was hoped for, democracy was dealt a major setback throughout the region as the ideal of democracy had come to be associated in the eyes of many in the Arab world with chaos. ... Iran, long since recovered from its decade-long war with Iraq and no longer tied down, much less balanced by a strong hostile Arab regime, was in many ways the principal strategic beneficiary of the war, as it was freed up to promote the interests of the Iranian state and Shia populations. The 2003 Iraq War violated any number of strategic tenets, beginning with the Hippocratic oath: First do no harm.”

Do we not have here an excellent argument for the traditional American policy of nonintervention, so ably espoused by Ron Paul? The consequences of intervention virtually always fail to attain their goals; and by staying out of foreign quarrels, we at least avoid worsening the situation by ill-advised action.

Unfortunately, Haass does not rest content with such wisdom. He enthusiastically supports the 1990 Gulf War against Iraq, even though that eventually led to the disaster after 2003 he rightly condemns. More generally, he tells us, “The lesson to be derived is not that acting is always right — in the case of the 2003 Iraq War, to name just one example, it surely was not — but rather that not acting can be every bit as consequential as acting, and, as a result, needs to be examined with equal rigor.”

It is not clear how Haass could be in a position to know that his conclusion is true. If, as he says, “every action that is examined always entails drawbacks ... [and] the hope that imperfect options become less imperfect with the passage of time is almost always illusory,” why is he so confident that there is sometimes a case for costly intervention abroad?

The same pattern of selecting both of two conflicting alternatives is present at a more general level. Haass contrasts a Wilsonian approach to international affairs, of which he is rightly skeptical, with a realistic approach respectful of national sovereignty. The Wilsonian view, “often makes shaping the internal conditions or nature of other societies the principal objective of what this country should do in the world. The purpose can be to promote human rights or democracy or to prevent human suffering.”

Haass subjects to devastating criticism the notion that the United States ought to spread democracy throughout the world. “One problem, though, is that bringing democracy about elsewhere is easier said than done. ... Closely related to this argument is that outsiders are normally limited in what they can do to affect democratic prospects. ... As we have seen all too often of late in the Middle East, the alternative to a flawed political system can be an even more flawed political system ... incomplete or what Fareed Zakaria terms ‘illiberal’ democracies can be dangerous both to those living in the country and to others.”

Given this assault on Wilsonianism one would expect Haass to favor a healthy respect for national sovereignty: we ought to avoid interfering in other nations’ affairs. But as always, when the specter of nonintervention looms, Haass flees in panic. The “realistic” policy he supports cannot readily be distinguished from the Wilsonianism he rejects. Instead of traditional respect for national sovereignty, Haass writes, “I am suggesting something fundamentally different, the need to develop and gain support for a definition of legitimacy not just the rights but also the obligations of sovereign states vis-à-vis other governments and countries. The world is too small and too connected for borders to provide cover for activities that by definition can affect adversely those who live outside those borders. I call this concept ‘sovereign obligation.’”

Haass acknowledges that his approach is not fully in the realistic tradition but merely overlaps it; and it soon transpires that sovereign obligation allows almost unlimited intervention. We learn, e.g., that where “climate change” is concerned, “in extremis, penalties, including sanctions, might need to be introduced against governments acting irresponsibly.” Also, the United States must formulate its economic policies in consultation with other nations, taking their needs into account.  Human rights and regulation of cyberspace might also require limits to sovereignty. And all of this is supposed to be the alternative to Wilsonianism!

Why does this experienced professional, so well aware of the problems of interventionism, prove unable to tear himself away from it? A hint at the answer lies in the title of his book. For Haass, the world is in “disarray.” During the Cold War, an international order prevailed, albeit one based on mutual nuclear deterrence between the United Sates and the Soviets; but now the world is chaotic. The United States should not strictly limit its objectives to defense against direct attack. Rather, our responsibility is to create a new inter-national system. It is hardly a surprise that the head of the Council on Foreign Relations, an organization founded in 1921 to propagandize against “isolationism,“ should adopt this view. Those of us who do not want to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” will shun “sovereign obligation” and instead support nonintervention.


Gordon, David, Review of “A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order,” by Richard Haass, The Austrian 3, no. 5 (2017): 12–14.

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