Diplomat Richard Haass’s Shallow Centrism Has No Answers to the Problems America Faces

In The Bill of Obligations, Council on Foreign Relations president and MSNBC stalwart Richard Haass offers solutions to America’s democratic crisis. The book, littered with vacuous bromides, is proof that liberals are all out of ideas.

Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations, listens during a Bloomberg Television interview in New York on September 20, 2017. (Christopher Goodney / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Richard Haass has had his “we’ve met the enemy” moment. In October, the former diplomat and longtime Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) president announced that he would soon be giving up one of the Western world’s most coveted think tank sinecures (and a $1.7 million salary). “I’ve come to think that the biggest national security threat facing the United States is not Russia or China or climate change, but ourselves,” he told the New York Times after announcing his planned departure.

Under Haass’s recently named successor, former banking executive and Obama trade representative Michael Froman, the infamously secretive organization will reportedly “continue a shift begun under Mr. Haass toward informing a broader part of the American electorate.” Haass’s new bestseller, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, is a product of this domestic turn. The book — an appeal to “centrist, civil, reasonable Americans,” as Haass put it in an interview with fellow centrist Yascha Mounk — wagers that if only the right political habits were “adopted by a preponderance of citizens,” it “would go a long way toward fixing American democracy.” Conveniently, these habits turn out to be exactly the ones that flatter Haass’s moribund political sensibilities.

Centrism on the Couch

For fans of Haass, the book doesn’t cover particularly new terrain. In Foreign Policy Begins at Home (2013), Haass argued “for less foreign policy of the sort the United States has been conducting and greater emphasis on domestic investment and policy reform.” These are welcome, albeit vague, suggestions, especially coming from a self-described “card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment for nearly four decades.”

Between think tank stints, he worked for Reagan and both Bushes — Haass felt that this claim “border[ed] on heresy.” But there was nothing heretical about Haass’s goal. The point of “putting America’s house in order” was, he argued, to allow the world’s largest economy to better “exert influence overseas.” As Haass put it in his 2017 book, A World in Disarray, the aim was a politics of “guns and butter rather than guns versus butter.”

Haass’s previous books could often read like a string of CFR issue primers, with Haass jet-setting from region to region and addressing extraordinarily complicated issues in simple, bloodless prose. While some of his previous books proposed a domestic policy agenda — slashing corporate taxes, means-testing and otherwise cutting welfare, curbing the already-diminished power of public sector unions, and promoting neoliberal trade deals, with a dash of infrastructure and education spending — Bill of Obligations more or less eschews policy concerns altogether.

“A commitment to the obligations on which democracy rests must, in times of division, take priority over other immediate policy concerns, whether it’s lower taxes, an expanded safety net, abortion, guns, support for Israel, or just about anything else,” Haass writes. Before exploring these obligations, Haass offers a litany of policy proposals from what he calls, strangely, “a cottage industry [that] has grown up around what to do to fix things” in our ailing democratic republic.

These suggestions range from ending gerrymandering and guaranteeing a universal basic income to introducing voter ID requirements and more stringently means-testing benefits. But while “we might be better off if some or even many of these changes came to pass,” he writes, “few are likely to.” So instead of the stuff of democratic politics — building coalitions, matching means to ends, negotiating the distribution of power in society — we get an amorphous set of calls for moral introspection.

Deeply Compromised

The list of habits that comprise The Bill of Obligations will be familiar to any regular CNN and MSNBC viewer. Both networks frequently feature Haass as a talking head. Over ten brief yet plodding chapters, he encourages us to “Be Informed,” “Get Involved,” “Stay Open to Compromise,” “Remain Civil,” “Reject Violence,” “Value Norms,” “Promote the Common Good,” “Respect Government Service,” “Support the Teaching of Civics,” and “Put Country First”.

As you might expect from the book’s subtitle, which calls to mind The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the tone is largely one of airport-lounge self-help. To match the gravitas of his subject, Haass lards the book with epigraph-worthy quotes culled from presidents and poets. A sampling: “A Republic, if you can keep it” (Jefferson); “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” (Yeats); “Last best hope of earth” (Lincoln)”; “No man is an island” (Donne). Where Haass can’t find a pithy quote, he tends to resort to the kinds of clichéd pronouncements that have long made him a regular on the McKinsey-Goldman-Davos-Aspen speaking carousel. “If, however, compromise was once as American as apple pie, it is no longer,” he writes at one point. At another: “There is a good deal of talk about the budget deficit. It may be that our civics deficit is of even greater consequence.” And perhaps the most egregious: “Today, American society is less a melting or mixing pot than a loose collection of separate pots.”

Who in American politics does Haass think embodies these habits? It was only after January 6 that Haass announced that he’d ended his four-decade-long membership in the Republican Party, and Haass’s former bosses find their images dutifully buffed in his new book. Reagan is an avatar of “informed patriotism,” while George W. Bush is a president who understood the importance of possessing an “abundance of character, what in earlier times was known as virtue.” Haass portrays the latter’s 2000 election victory not as a catastrophe for democracy — one major step on the Right’s long march against majority rule, the “Brooks Brothers Riot,” or a precursor to January 6 — but as evidence for the importance of voting (it was really close!).

Though Donald Trump’s name rarely appears in the text, various anti-Trump mandarins receive Haass’s adulation. There’s former Trump defense-secretary-turned-apostate Jim Mattis, praising Rosa Parks’s courage. There’s longtime conservative judge Michael Luttig, offering the January 6 committee the profound insight that “we Americans no longer agree on what is right or wrong.” And, of course, there’s former Wyoming representative Liz Cheney sacrificing her political career, which, in Haass’s estimation, ought to earn her a spot in an updated edition of JFK’s Profiles in Courage.

Who Haass decides is worthy of criticism reveals even more about his political priorities. For an example of the apparent decline of civility in American politics, Haass turns to Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address, where not only did the president refuse to shake Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hand, but (gasp!) Pelosi responded in kind by ripping his speech in half. “That two of the most powerful figures in the country had descended to such a level reveals much,” Haass clucks. Does it? Haass is similarly irritated by recent instances of protestors confronting Kyrsten Sinema and Brett Kavanaugh: “Such behavior hardly wins converts to the cause.” Instead, the vaunted Antonin Scalia–RBG friendship provides a “model we would all do well to emulate.” (If Haass is willing to send me parasailing in the South of France or elephant-riding in India, I’m game).

There’s no Beltway cliche more tiresome than vacuous celebrations of the value of compromise, and Haass’s chapter on the subject is an especially somnambulant entry. Haass offers little guidance on how to judge between acceptable compromise and capitulation. Instead, he proffers the bromide that “a basic rule of thumb is to hold fast on matters of fundamental principle.” But what exactly counts for Haass as a “fundamental principle”? He doesn’t say.

Haass’s voluminous writing on foreign policy offers some clues about what he’s willing to tolerate. On Israel-Palestine: “Neither side has the will and the ability to compromise for peace.” On the 2011 Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain, which was brutally suppressed by the Saudi-aligned monarchy with the tacit support of the United States: “The monarchy put forward certain concessions, but as often happens in such circumstances, compromise was judged by many of the protesters to be too little, too late and only added fuel to the proverbial fire.” And on his support for the catastrophic US invasion of Iraq: at the time, he felt there “were pretty good arguments on both sides,” and has since said he was “60/40 against going to war,” but that his “disagreement was not fundamental” (he maintains that if he’d known at the time that Saddam Hussein did not possess WMDs, the number would be 90/10). Surveying his body of work, it’s hard to see any underlying principled commitment, save for an uncompromising belief in the necessity of armed US supremacy, and the inviolable conviction that what’s good for the United States is good for the world.

Bad Arguments on Both Sides

The myopia of The Bill of Obligations is perhaps most evident in its chapter on civic education, a major emphasis of the book and of Haass’s recent public writing. In his portrait, the divisions that wrack the country are primarily pedagogical: we’re “failing to teach one another what it means to be American.” One would hope that, given Haass’s call to “be informed,” he might explore how the Right’s assault on the teaching of history and efforts to dismantle public education are an attempt to undermine the necessary conditions for informed democratic citizenship.

Instead, Haass approaches these issues with all the subtle precision of an American airstrike. “The ‘battle’ between the 1619 and 1776 projects, two widely divergent narratives about the arc of American history, or subsequently over ‘critical race theory,’ highlights just how controversial and divisive history can be because of how it frames the past,” he writes. Following this howling syntactic high-wire act, Haass breezes into his solution: “My instinct here is to suggest that the major debates, events, and developments be studied, that any single framing be avoided, and where there is disagreement, that the various perspectives be presented.”

Does Haass realize that his language here — avoiding “single” framings, studying “various perspectives” — is exactly the kind of Orwellian doublespeak that conservatives have wielded of late to crush the study and teaching of the history of racism and dismiss scientifically grounded views on climate change, or is his ignorance simply the product of spending too much time in the gilded halls of his employer’s century-old Park Avenue mansion? Who knows.

What I do know is that Haass himself could use a history lesson. It’s probably inevitable in a book of this sort that poor Martin Luther King Jr will find himself trotted out as an exemplar of civility and nonviolence, whose “goal” — largely successful, in Haass’s estimation — was “not revolution but reform.” Nowhere to be found is King’s charge that the United States was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” his opposition to the “triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” or his call for the nation to undergo “a radical revolution of values.”

In a postscript titled “Where to Go for More,” which includes plugs for The West Wing, Hamilton, and the Economist’s daily podcast, Haass places King alongside Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Susan B. Anthony as “pivotal figures in the fight for political equality” whose writing he recommends. It is almost too easy to retort that Haass’s book, in both its tone and content, marks him as a consummate example of King’s white moderate, “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” or of Douglass’s men “who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation,” who “want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.”

Self-Soothing Centrism

Above all, Haass’s declensionist narrative of American politics requires a carefully cultivated amnesia. During a February appearance on Morning Joe, Haass offered George W. Bush’s visit to a mosque just after 9/11, where he called Islam a “religion of peace,” as an example of “character in action.” This story — a Never Trump greatest hit since around 2016 — conveniently glosses over the character of Bush’s actions as president. How could erecting a massive security and surveillance archipelago directed primarily (and largely indiscriminately) at Muslims not have generated a climate of Islamophobic suspicion and bigotry, one that played no small part in the Trump’s rise?

Or take Liz Cheney, Haass’s other oft-invoked example of character in action. You wouldn’t know from Haass’s lambent portrait that shortly after Obama’s 2008 election, Cheney cofounded a political action committee called “Keep America Safe,” which attacked Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers working on behalf of accused terrorists, calling them the “Al Qaeda Seven” and labeling the DOJ the “Department of Jihad.” Years before Trump — who as president often preceded his infamous MAGA-punchline by vowing to “make America safe again” — had glommed on to birtherism, Cheney was on cable news slyly defending it.

But Haass isn’t interested in this kind of introspection. He’s self-aware enough to acknowledge that he has “long been associated” with Trumpism’s eternal bugbear, “the establishment — people and institutions that have often been vilified and blamed for the failures of democracy.” He’ll even admit that “some of these criticisms are well-founded” (which ones, he doesn’t say). But that’s about as far as he’ll go. Early in the book, he quotes “arguably the figure of greatest historic consequence in the previous century,” Winston Churchill, whose dour countenance, reports a 2013 Financial Times profile, stares out from an oil painting in Haass’s Upper East Side living room. “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else,” Churchill is alleged to have said. “But is that true? Have things changed?” Haass asks, his prose dripping with bathos. “And will what got us through the dark times in the past still work for us now?”

The democratic crisis Haass weakly diagnoses didn’t come out of nowhere. As the historian Daniel Bessner wrote in Harper’s last year, decades of US global military hegemony, presided over by foreign policy elites like Haass, have bestowed us with “a militarized political culture, racism and xenophobia, police forces armed to the teeth with military-grade weaponry, a bloated defense budget, and endless wars.”

Haass, who moonlighted during the early 2000s as US envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process, is fond of citing The Troubles as “a model for what we should fear.” But it’s revealing that he doesn’t seem to see anything in contemporary American society that already resembles The Troubles: in its persistent racial disparities in housing and employment, in the hunger strikes that have recently spread throughout American prisons, or in the rubber bullets (a British invention first used on Irish nationalists) that have become a weapon of choice for US police forces looking to suppress Black Lives Matter protestors. “The purpose of this book is not to defend the past,” Haass writes. Fair enough. But his unwillingness to seriously examine it at all marks this trite, moralizing book as yet another entry in the canon of post-2016 centrist self-soothing, that most unrepentant and renewable political genre.