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This is a China that seems to care less about what the world thinks of it: Richard Haass

At ThePrint's digital Off the Cuff, Richard Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations, discusses India and China, the upcoming US elections, politics post Donald Trump and more. Read the full conversation here.

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New Delhi: China today seems to care less for what the world thinks of it and is more aggressive in its stance, said Richard N. Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations.

Haass, who recently published his new book ‘The World: A Brief Introduction – spoke to ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta at the digital Off The Cuff Tuesday.

He also said India should come out of the two-front challenge emanating from China and Pakistan and avoid creating internal problems.

“I actually think this ought to be a moment of real strategic rethinking for India and ultimately real strategic realignment,” he added.

Read full conversation here:

(Audio begins 01:46 minutes into the conversation)

RH: That’s essentially the state of the world right now, not good. There are lots of reasons explaining it. The arrival of a whole new series of global issues for which the whole world has come together to deal with. We have the resumption of great power rivalry between the US and China and the US and Russia. We have proliferation problems with North Korea and Iran. Closer to the US we have the problem of Venezuela, one out of every 100 people in the world are internally displaced. I could go on, it’s a very long list. All of this at a time when the US has essentially decided it no longer wants to play its traditional role in the world. So you add the familiar challenges, the new challenges like Covid-19 and on top of that the US acting as a reluctant sheriff, now increasingly a retired sheriff, doesn’t make for a good world.

SG: US is looking like an angry retired sheriff.

RH: We have got our hands full at home. We have a divided society, and we see that regularly in the polls. We’re seeing the country increasingly moving to both peripheries. I think there are serious questions about the US being able to govern itself. The pandemic will ultimately go but we face structural challenges.

SG: How did we get here, when did it start? Did Obama sow the seeds for this?

RH: It’s been three decades since the end of the Cold War, after which there was a natural tendency for the US to relax. We had the financial crisis in 2007-08, which had implications. You had what historians judged to be American overreach in Afghanistan and Iraq. Income and inequality grew, middle class wages were not adjusted to inflation. There was disaffection with foreign policy across the political divide and concerns about the state of the nation ⁠— our society and economy. This was on the train before Trump became president in elements of Obama’s administration ⁠— when he didn’t react to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, but Trump has doubled-down on this.

SG: When Trump came to power and said I will pull America out of everything, his idea of making America great again nobly, it was to make America great again as an island.

RH: There is truth to your analysis. The idea that America can be great again as an island nation is fundamentally flawed with the idea that we live in a global world. We learnt it the hard way, that what begins in Afghanistan or Wuhan does not stay there. We see the effects of climate change. So the idea of America-first is dead-wrong. I always remind people that the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are easily crossed. The idea that you can have America first and alone is wrong. When you take a step back and look at the last 75 years, since World War II, that’s the exception. American leadership in the post-WWII era is an exception in our history. What’s much more familiar is the US retreating from the world.

SG: Taking from what you said, am I right to say what happens in Galwan and the South China Sea does not stay there?

RH: There are three great debates about China and you’re raising one of them ⁠— what is the nature of China’s ambition? The two other debates are about China’s internal weaknesses and the other one about how to deal with this China and how confrontational it should one be. But clearly, China has become much more assertive. We see it in the South China Sea, its rhetoric with Taiwan, what happened with Taiwan, the crackdown in Hong Kong. This is a China that seems to care less and is more willing to be assertive. We are seeing attempts to substitute nationalism with economic growth as a source of legitimacy for the communist party. It could also be that China sees an opportunity, but there is a pattern here. This is no longer a China that’s biding its time, it is certainly more assertive.

SG: Lee Kuan Yew had once said to us, Deng Xiaoping said China will rise, Hu Jintao said nobody can stop the rise of China, Xi Jinping is saying China has risen so deal with us.

RH: One of the debates is how to deal with it. It’s possible that the extent of their ambitions will depend on our response. Ambitions have known to grow if there is no resistance. We have to decide for ourselves what we are prepared to tolerate. The goal in foreign policy should not be to stop China’s rise, China will decide that. To us it is about how we encourage and discourage certain kinds of behaviour. We need real strategic conversions and understanding and what we are willing to do about it individually or collectively.

SG: What happens when assertion becomes roguish behaviour? How do you control that?

RH: It’s a natural foreign policy problem. Let me put myself in India’s shoes, if I may. Indian faces this powerful neighbour called China, its economy and military is far stronger. India has certain options, one would be to appease China. A second option for India is to simplify its strategic challenges, in order to focus on China. Here it would mean calming your relationship with Pakistan, if possible. A third approach would be to become stronger and more competitive. A fourth option would be to associate with other stronger countries that bring more power to the table, including and not limited to the United States. India has a set of strategic choices, I prefer the one where India aligns itself with others.

SG: Maybe a combination of what you’re saying ⁠— India must also get out of this triangulation. Why must India be fated to have a two-front opposition? And peace can only be made between two countries when the stronger country wants it.

RH: If it’s India against China alone, there are structural disadvantages. India needs to rethink its strategic orientation. I have been working in India for three-four decades now. India has always had a degree of keeping all its options open, it has been resistant to definitive alignment. The question is ⁠— does that type of strategic ambiguity still serve India’s purpose if it turns out China has entered a more assertive phase. This might be a moment for strategic decisiveness for India.

there are serious questions about the US being able to govern itself. The pandemic will ultimately go but we face structural challenges ⁠— Richard Haass

SG: What is it that you’re telling us about the state of the world in your book?

RH: This is a very different kind of book for me, primarily because the intended audience is not people like yourself. You’re someone who does this for a living, that still leaves about 1.3 billion people in India who don’t do this for a living and leaves 25 million people in my country who don’t do what I do. The role of this book is to increase understanding about the world, and it’s important because we’re living in a moment in history where no country is an island. What I want people to do is get a better appreciation of the world we live in to understand that denying the realities is futile. We need to wake up to these challenges and address them, and not do so individually. My argument is not just that globalisation is a reality but we cannot respond to it unilaterally. When people exercise their democratic rights, I want them to do so in an informed way. So when they look at how to vote, I want them to be aware of the big, strategic foreign policy concerns. I have written a primer to help individuals get more informed whether as a voting citizen, businessman, investor. I want people to become better informed.

SG: One ploy that Trump used in his election campaign was the ignorance that Americans have, do you wish you had written his book before Trump was elected?

RH: Fair enough. My last book was about a world in disarray. When your elected president in the US, you can choose your VP, your cabinet, your speech. The only thing you can’t choose is your inbox. You cannot choose the world that will greet you when you enter the oval office. My last book talked about the deteriorating world that was going to meet the 45th US president. I’m actually glad I wrote that. The few books I wrote were about how the US lost its way in the world. If you see where we were after the Cold War ended, what we did with the tremendous advantages we enjoyed 30 years ago, I think we squandered our inheritance. We really don’t have much to show for it. One of the reasons this was the case was because Americans were not paying attention to the rest of the world. In some ways it took this era of US squandering its opportunity, instead of writing a book for the experts I’ll write one for the “normal” people. We don’t really teach these issues in school or cover them on television. I think this is true for India as well.

SG: Under President Trump, we are seeing an increasingly new America, an America that strongly believes in imposing sanctions and becoming more protectionist. Can this be reversed and did you anticipate this when Trump was campaigning?

RH: I met with Trump when he was campaigning. I spent an hour with him while he was debating with Hillary Clinton. He mentioned me in one of his debates, but I didn’t make an argument for protectionism, some of this was predictable. He entered office believing firmly that trade has been bad for the US and that the cost of American leadership has been greater than the benefits. But that is how he entered office. The general trajectory of Trump’s foreign policy was there in his inauguration speech. Reversing this will be difficult, but I don’t think you will see anything like the use of unilateral tariffs and sanctions. I don’t think you will see the same weaponisation. I do think you will have a more multilateral approach, the US can get back on the Paris Climate process. We have been well served by many aspects of America’s foreign policy. The next president will inherit a very difficult inbox. The US will still be dealing with the ravages of coronavirus, tens of millions of people will be out of work, we will be divided on matters of race. A lot of issues will be domestic ones for the next president.

SG: You’re not a man of the left. How big a disappointment is Trump for the non-nutty right?

RH: He is the first president of the modern era. He is the first president going from Truman to Obama. He is an outlier. There are three schools of Republican foreign policy, in a very simplified form — one is represented by Bush, the father, that of traditional republican realism. To influence the foreign policy of others. Reagan represented a slightly different tendency, he had more focus on the internal conditions of other countries. Trump represents a third school — a much more isolationist, protectionist. He is the first Republican president with those values to enter office in the modern era. The big question come November is whether he wins or loses, what is the future of Republican foreign policy, does it continue with elements of Trumpism, or does it return to something that looks familiar — a combination of Bush 43 and Reagan.

This is no longer a China that’s biding its time, it is certainly more
assertive ⁠— Richard Haass

SG: Ideologically, Trump could be much closer to John Bolton?

RH: The only area he could be much closer to Bolton is unilateralism. Bolton was actually a maximalist. He wanted to transform the world, his foreign policy would be extraordinarily costly. It would be wildly ambitious. That’s just the opposite of Trump, he wants a foreign policy that costs very little. They had nothing in common when it came to actual policy. That’s why it was surprising when he hired him to be his national security advisor. I know how different they were on 90 per cent of foreign policy issues, they had a fundamentally different approach to foreign policy issues.

SG: Trump has promoted isolationism whether he wins or loses. If he loses, how much of this virus sustains?

RH: Good question, one I asked a lot myself. At a minimum, Mr. Trump will get 45 per cent of the vote. There’s a large body of Americans who are inclined this way. Plus, isolationism is one of the strong tendencies in American history. Plus, as I said, whoever becomes president ⁠— even if it’s Joe Biden ⁠— he’s going to inherit a country still feeling the ravages of disease, unemployment, racism. Plus in his own party, there are powerful isolationist tendencies.

Think about how many Democratic debates there have been. There have been, say 10 or 12 Democratic debates over the last year and foreign policy came up 10 per cent of the time ⁠— and that was a lot. The energy in the Democratic party is not about foreign policy. The bias in the Democratic party among the activists is to reduce America’s role in the world. In a funny sort of way, it’s America first. It’s just a very different agenda. Rather than cutting certain taxes, it may be to increase certain taxes. It’s to increase access to healthcare. It’s a different relationship between the government, the society and the economy. But there is something in common on a de-emphasis of America’s leadership in the world.

So Vice President Biden will have to deal with these pressures and again, I think it will limit what he’s prepared to do in the way of using military force. But he will enjoy ⁠— as any President does ⁠— a lot of discretion and a lot of latitude when it comes to diplomacy. So if he wanted to re-enter certain agreements ⁠— for example, there is nothing stopping him from improving alliances. And I would think one of the first things he would do, or I would recommend if he ever were to ask, would be go improve America’s alliances and repair them. Alliances are one of the great advantages we have when it comes to dealing with the world. We don’t have to do things alone. We have all these partners in Europe and Asia-pacific. Let’s reinvigorate these partnerships.

SG: YP Rajesh, our managing editor, wants to know if coronavirus has killed globalisation or is it only in critical care and can recover? If so, what will it take to rescue it?

RH: Globalisation can’t be killed. Globalisation is a reality. Climate change continues. Proliferation continues. Information continues to flow. Disease continues to spread. So globalisation continues. Now, countries may choose to push back against certain forms of globalisation. I think pushing back against immigration will continue, we’ll see certain pushing back against tourism ⁠— but we won’t have to push back, people just won’t want to do it. So I think selectively Covid will slow globalisation. You may also see a lot of countries try to become more economically self-sufficient. There might be a movement towards great domestic production or stockpiling of critical items. So, I think there may be a selective pushing back of globalisation but for the most part, the reality of globalisation will continue. And the real choice for policy will be how do you respond to it? But to simply be anti-globalisation ⁠— that’s like King Canute fighting the tide.

China’s assertiveness is a moment for strategic decisiveness for India ⁠— Richard HaAss

SG: If you look at the state of the world – you see Trump, Abe, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Erdoğan, then Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro [inaudible] and when you get bored in the middle, there is Duterte. Netanyahu, I forgot. So this is the world run by alpha males of the nationalist right. Does it make the world a better place or a worse place? And if so, where do you see them headed?

RH: You’re right, you’ve got a lot of populist, nationalist figures. And what’s interesting is that some come out of democracies like Bolsonaro or Trump, and some come out authoritarian systems. And that says something about the age. I think it shows that a lot of people for whatever reasons are uncomfortable with globalisation, there’s economic inequality, there’s tremendous fear perhaps about culture being overwhelmed – but one way or another, governments aren’t delivering to their people, and so there’s an attraction for this populist, nationalist strongmen.

Do I think this has been good for the world? No. I think the trends have been bad. What’s going to happen though, is those strongmen who perform badly in face of Covid-19 will ultimately lose power. Someone like Bolsonaro is a disaster for Brazil and the world. And then Democrats who do well, we see in New Zealand, Australia, South Korea and Japan, Taiwan and Germany where leaders who do well are rewarded. So I don’t think the strongmen are safe, shall we say. And history goes in cycles, and after this there will be economic recovery. And I think if you have smart policies more and more individuals in these countries won’t actually want to see radical change but stability of calming down.

So, I think there is an opportunity here. I think the American election will be interesting just for this reason because Trump and Biden represent two very different political styles of leadership.

SG: How do we look at American politics now when Colin Powell says he’ll vote for Biden?

RH: Well, I think it says that hardy labels means less and less. A plurality of Americans now define themselves as neither Republicans nor Democrats. Trump’s definition of Republicanism is about as far from mine as you can get. The idea that George Bush and Donald Trump would call themselves Republicans makes the world almost meaningless. The Democratic party, you’ve got enormous differences as well between the so called Progressives of the Far Left and the more traditional Centrists. Parties have lost a lot of power in American politics and spectrums have become wider. You have independent sources of money, you’ve got access to media that’s increasingly decentralised.

American politics is changing in fundamental ways and the problem for democracy is that it’s having trouble keeping up and it’s really having trouble governing. What makes you electable does not necessarily set the stage for you being able to govern. Governance is about forming coalitions, compromising, building majorities and that works against if you want to run for office because people purity and they want a degree of ideological definition. So I think we have some structural tensions between electoral politics and governing politics, and we haven’t figured that one out.

SG: So Democratic progressives ⁠— do you think they’ll be strength or liability for Biden?

RH: He’s going to navigate that through the campaign because progressives feel more fervour. And you need the people who supported Senator Sanders and Senator Warren. One of the ways Vice President Biden could lose this election would be if a lot of the progressives are not motivated to vote. It clearly sunk Hilary Clinton’s candidacy. So Biden needs to make them feel like they have a stake in his winning ⁠— that’s the electoral challenge. Then if he wins, he then has a governing challenge and he has to deal with Congress. My guess is there’s always a tension in American politics between centrists and people more towards their edge. That’s what compromise is about. If Biden becomes president, he’s going to be pressured by members of Congress and outsiders to take more progressive positions. And he’s going to be constantly dealing with that tension of satisfying progressives and building coalitions that have majorities. And his ability to manage that tension will go a long way in defining the success of his presidency.

SG: My young colleague Srijan Shukla, he says your new book looks at the history of the international system after the 30 years of war in the early 17th century. What does that history teach us?

RH: I began my book there because that’s the point in history where you really have a rise of a world that’s recognisable, where individual countries came into existence, where sovereignty became the organising principle where the rules were set that essentially you can’t change borders by force. And if you want peace you can’t interfere in the internal workings of another country. Now, obviously in the last few hundred years, we’ve seen that principle violated but to the extent there’s been a principle or rules that have led to international order. So, I trace the modern era back to the middle of the 17th century.

What’s so interesting about this era is that those rules are necessary, otherwise we have Russia doing what it did to Ukraine or Saddam Hussain doing what he did to Kuwait or China doing what is doing now. So, sovereignty is important but it’s no longer enough. Think about it. If Brazil wants to destroy the rainforest, okay that’s within its territory, but we all pay the price in terms of climate. Or China ⁠— it didn’t respond responsibly when a virus broke out in Wuhan and we’re all paying an enormous human and economic price. North Korea’s developing long range missiles, that puts us at risk. Terrorists can operate out of anywhere and we’re all at risk. So, India’s had to deal with terrorism out of Pakistan time and time again.

So, to me it’s a very tough question. How do we preserve what’s best about sovereignty – because we don’t want to have invasions or interference ⁠— but also limit sovereignty so bad things that can affect us all don’t go on underneath its protection? That to me, is the way to frame the intellectual challenge of the 21st century when it comes to foreign policy, diplomacy and statecraft. And we’re not even close to working through that. And that to me is a real challenge for the world.

SG: Francis Fukuyama said to me, I think three years back, a new threat to global stability to security is no longer Islamic terror, it is the unrestrained rise of China. Where are you on that argument?

RH: I think that exaggerates ⁠— I disagree with it. I am concerned about the rise of China but three things ⁠— China still has internal challenges like demography, its environment, its political system, its economy. I think people exaggerate China’s strengths. I’m not sure yet about the limit of Chinese ambitions. I do not necessarily think they have global ambitions. I don’t mean to underestimate the challenge they pose but I think the jury’s out on that. And lastly, the biggest challenge in the world in the 21st century is not China ⁠— that is a challenge. I think the biggest challenge is global issues. It’s pandemics, climate change, proliferation, terrorism. So we can successfully push back against China. We know how to do that. Strong India, strong Japan, strong South Korea, strong Vietnam, strong United States ⁠— we know how to push back against China. We don’t know how to push back against pandemics, climate change, proliferation and all the rest. I’m worried that foreign strategy that obsesses on China will miss the larger picture.

SG: We’ve come this far without talking about one great power which should no longer be a great power but refuses to fade away and that’s Russia. And it punches way above its weight at least economically. Where do you put Russia in this world?

RH: Russia is an anomalous case. On one level, it’s still a superpower when it comes to nuclear weapons. It has considerable energy. It has resources and conventional military power. Russia also has a willingness to act. The United States has, what I like to call, objective power that Russia. But Russia has a readiness to use what power it has. You know people always say Putin inherited a bad hand of cards but he played it well. He’s played it well in terms of foreign policy but not domestically. Russia is not a great or even medium power economically. It’s one dimensional on energy. I think when Putin leaves office I think Russia faces a crisis in terms of political stability and economic future. Putin has a foreign policy legacy but he has no domestic legacy other than a kleptocracy, corruption and consolidation of power and wealth in the hands of a few. So I think the challenge is how do we deal with Putin’s pressures right now. And I would favour extending the US-Russian nuclear arms control agreement. I would push back hard against Russia if they interfere in our election again. But in the long run, I don’t Russian strength is a threat because I don’t think the foundations of a modern country are there.

world’s biggest problem in the 21st century is not China; it’s global issues like pandemics, climate change, proliferation, terrorism — Richard Haass

SG: Now you look at the state of the world. You’ve been a frequent traveller to India ⁠— you know the region well. You were also in the middle of things when the big crisis between 2001-2002 happened ⁠— attack on the Parliament and near war situation. If you were an Indian strategist or if Indian strategists asked you for advice on whether India should accept this two-front situation forever or it should break out of it, give us a 2-minute tutorial.

RH: I would say I don’t want to have a two-front strategic challenge ⁠— China and Pakistan. Of the two, China is a much more dangerous and threatening challenge. So, if I were India, I would try to resolve or at least manage its relationship with Pakistan so it could focus more on dealing with China. If anything, I would be generous to a fault to Pakistan, not as a favour to Pakistan but as a favour to India. And I’d do two other things. One, I’d make sure I do not create a problem of internal stability in India. So I would be much wiser in my approach to Indian Muslims. I think India cannot afford creating instability at home. And then I would rethink strategic non-alignment. And if I were India, I would move closer to the United States and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region. I think India has been strategically on its own for too long and that was possible in the world of the Cold War but it makes decreasing sense in this world. So I would rethink its relations with Pakistan, its internal policy and its relation with the United States and other powerful outsiders. I actually think this ought to be a moment of real strategic rethinking for India and ultimately real strategic realignment.

SG: Look one year ahead to June of 2021. What is the state of the world? What will the world look like?

RH: First of all, it will mainly be familiar. Things don’t move that fast for the most part unless there’s some crisis but I think we’ll still be dealing with the pandemic, we’ll still be dealing with China’s rise. The biggest variable might be my own county. I think it will be a very different United States of Donald Trump is reelected and if Joe Biden is elected. Even though I said what I said before that if Biden becomes president he’ll still be constrained ⁠— that’s true. But the relationship between the United State and the rest of the world would shift considerably. And I think our alliances would be revived. So, I think for the moment, the biggest single variable for the next 12 months in history may be decided this November by the American voter.

SG: Will Trump II be worse than Trump I?

RH: By and large, when politicians get re-elected, they tend to see that as affirmation of what they’re doing. They’re meant to say it as a mandate. So I think Trump II would be Trump I+. I think you’ll see continued unilateralism, continued criticism or distancing of alliances of multilateral agreements, protectionism, use of sanctions, use of tariffs. Essentially, you’ll see what you saw in this term on steroids. I’ll just be neutral for a second ⁠— I think it would be a truly consequential president if we were to have four more years of that kind of foreign policy from the United States.

SG: Richard, on that very reassuring note, we can bring this to a conclusion. Thank you very much. I asked for a 2-minute tutorial but this has been an hour-long tutorial – a real master class. Thank you and all the very best.

RH: Thank you for having me and stay healthy and safe.

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