The Sunday Magazine

Richard Haass on how Donald Trump has disrupted U.S. foreign policy

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, explains the implications of U.S. President Donald Trump's foreign policy approach for the international order — and for allies like Canada.
U.S. President Donald Trump 'does not particularly embrace alliances or relationships,' Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tell us. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

The election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in 2016 didn't just change the United States and its political culture. It changed the world.

Long-standing alliances have fractured or eroded. Nuclear pacts have been scrapped. Multilateral institutions have been scorned and hobbled. Authoritarian leaders have embraced and toasted.

While the world was once accustomed to the U.S. imposing order, for better or for worse, on international affairs, the Trump administration has signalled that the rest of the world would be wise not to depend on it.

Donald Trump's approach to foreign policy has alarmed a number of foreign affairs analysts, among them Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Before that, he was one of the most distinguished diplomats in the United States. He has served as director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department and was an adviser to former Secretary of State Colin Powell. His latest book is A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order.

Here is part of his conversation with The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright.

Aside from the president's "America First" doctrine, is there any coherent direction to American foreign policy at the moment?

What this president wants is to change our relationships, to restructure relationships in ways that he thinks are good in a narrow sense for the United States — above all for the U.S. economy.

He doesn't seem to have much affection for international treaties or obligations. The Republican Party under Eisenhower and Nixon and Reagan soon was a party of international alliances. Mr. Trump seems to have nothing but contempt for them.

He is not a multilateralist. He is not an institutionalist. He does not particularly embrace alliances or relationships. He sees that as limiting his options. He likes a situation where he gets out of bed in the morning and after he tweets, he has complete freedom of action. He doesn't want to be hemmed in by obligations or relationships, and he believes that on balance that will serve the country's interests well. I profoundly disagree, but he's the president and I'm not.

In the Middle East, President Trump has joined [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu in apparently walking away from a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian question. What is the point to what his son-in-law and Middle East envoy Jared Kushner is doing?

We have, with this Israeli government, walked away from the two-state solution. [I think] that one day this administration, which tends to see itself as the most pro-Israel ever, will be seen as anything but — because the end of a two-state solution will mean that Israel will have to choose between being a Jewish state and a democratic state, and that, to me, would be a truly unfortunate choice.

I do not think anything Jared Kushner tables will change any of these dynamics. This administration has systematically shut down its relationship with Palestinians by cutting off aid, by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. I don't see anything being put forward that will matter, and quite honestly, I think the idea that economic inducements will get the Palestinians to look past their political interests is a real misreading of what motivates people.

On North Korea, there were high hopes for the Trump summit with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi. The talks have collapsed without a resolution about denuclearization. Does he know what he's trying to do in Korea?

I believe he has a goal, which is North Korea's denuclearization. I think he's wrong in believing it's attainable. The Chinese and others will not pressure North Korea sufficiently to do that. North Korea itself is quite resilient and this idea of inducements, that we promised North Korea this future where it gets turned into some big resort and tourist destination — no one seems to have pointed out to the president that Kim Jong-un has no desire for that, because that would mean he'd lose control over his society and over his country.

I believe that if the United States would set as a first stage goal with North Korea some kind of limits on its nuclear arsenal and on its missile force, in exchange for which North Korea would get a degree of sanctions relief — I think something like that is potentially negotiable, but that would require that both sides move.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi on Feb. 27. Haass says Trump's goal with North Korea is securing denuclearization. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

On Iran, he shredded the nuclear pact that Barack Obama signed along with other European nations. All the reports have said that Iran has lived up to the various elements of that treaty. Why did he do it? Is there any hope for a peaceful resolution to this or is he just spoiling for a fight?

I don't think he wants a war. A big part of his foreign policy is to get the United States out of these endless, expensive, foreign wars. So I don't believe he's he's looking for one.

I think he's to some extent fair in his critique of the Iran agreement. I thought the limits, the provisions were set to expire way too soon. It didn't include Iranian missiles. It simply dealt with their nuclear inventory. That's not an argument for getting out of it. It would have been an argument for working with the Europeans and others to amend it. That's what I think we should be doing now.

If I had my way, Donald Trump would adopt a position where he'd say we will re-enter an agreement — not this one — but we would re-enter an agreement with Iran that extended the provisions limiting its nuclear capabilities and included our missile capabilities, and in return for that Iran would get a degree of sanctions relief. I think if we were to do that, there's actually a chance the Iranians would buy it.

President Trump may not want war, but I have some questions about the national security adviser, John Bolton, who has always pushed for regime change in Iran. Does he want a war?

I would simply say that regime change is not on offer. It's not a serious possibility. What we ought to do is focus on policy change, and I think, again, a degree of policy change ought to be in the realm of the possible.

Canada has long thought of the United States as its closest, most dependable ally. Then we get the president saying that we're a security risk. So he slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum. Canada hasn't gotten much support on the Meng Wanzhou detention. Does the United States care about Canada anymore?

I sure hope so, given that our ability to be a great power in the world in part is based upon the luxury we have of good secure relations with both Canada and Mexico. It's important for great power to be seen as consistent and real and reliable, and we are doing our best to undermine our reputation for consistency and reliability.

You write in one of your columns that "the presumption of continuity is critical."

It's critical for friends, because they've made the strategic decision to put their security eggs in our basket. It's important for foes, because they need to know that if they cross certain lines, we will respond. It's important for businesses. They've got to make all sorts of investment decisions, and they've got to have a pretty good sense of what the context will be.

Being a great power means to be predictable, and if you're erratic, if you're unpredictable, others will basically say either they've got to take matters into their own hands or they've got to defer to other more powerful, more consistent countries. Businesses will decide to invest elsewhere or do other things. This churning of American foreign policy works against our interests.

You've written that the United States has abdicated global leadership and that, in fact, it voluntarily walked away from the burdens and responsibilities of that kind of thing. In the past though, the United States has abused its power in many ways ⁠— starting wars and getting involved with throwing, overthrowing governments and so on. Is it a bad thing that the United States may not be the world's cop?

In short, it is a bad thing. Even if at times we made mistakes in foreign policy and we surely did, whether Vietnam, the Iraq war more recently, at times in Latin America, I would argue that history will judge the last 75 or 80 years of American foreign policy as extraordinarily beneficial not just to the United States, but to the world. The fact that there's been unprecedented stability and prosperity and more democracies than ever before is more than a coincidence. I would say in many ways it's closely correlated with American leadership in the world.

For all those who are critical of the U.S. and disagree with what I've just said, be careful what you wish for. A world with much less America — you see part of that now in the Middle East. And when the Obama administration, followed by the Trump administration, dialed back American involvement in the Middle East, it's not filled by a bunch of boy scouts. We see what's happened in Syria. We see what Russia has done, what Iran has done, what's happening in Yemen, what's happening in Libya now. And a world in which the United States did less would not be self-organizing — I would argue it would be a world that's much less stable, much less prosperous and much less free.

People talk about the new world order changing the old world order. Is there a world order at the moment? And is there a leader of it?

There's not a new world order. What there is is a tattered version of the old world order. It served us for these three-quarters of a century. The United States is largely abdicating. There's no one willing and able to fill our shoes. Your foreign minister has talked at times about Canada working with other medium-sized countries to fill some of that space. Up to a point, that's possible. But I wouldn't exaggerate how much could be done that way. I think the alternative to a U.S.-led world is a nobody-led world.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.