Council on Foreign Relations President: D.C. Dysfunction Creating U.S. Foreign Policy Issues

Middle East a focal point of Elliott School discussion.

Richard Haass
Richard Haass' discussion Thursday at the Elliott School on U.S. foreign policy often circled back to the Middle East. (Oxana Minchenko/ For GW Today)
March 23, 2015

By Kevin Dunleavy

Speaking blocks from the White House Thursday, Richard Haass, president of the nonpartisan think tank Council on Foreign Relations, said that dysfunction in Washington is undermining the nation’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

“There’s concerns about U.S. credibility and reliability,” Dr. Haass said. “Some of them reflect what’s gone on here domestically—everything from near default on debt to government shutdowns, to sequesters. Basically, Washington political dysfunction has a real toll on American foreign policy.”

In a fast-paced discussion at the Elliott School of International Affairs, part of the Leadership in International Affairs: Lessons Learned series, Dr. Haass painted an at-times grim picture of the direction of American influence.

“There’s a trend toward actors and countries, whatever their agendas, increasingly acting with less consideration for how the United States might prefer or react,” Dr. Haass said. “That is a much less stable, much less orderly world.”

In the discussion, moderated by Elliott School Dean Michael E. Brown, Dr. Haass touched on a variety of international concerns, including the rift between the White House and Israel, as well as troubles in Libya, Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.

Talk often circled back to the world’s ultimate pressure point.

“I only have two rules about the Middle East,” Dr. Haass said with a wry smile. “And one of them is that things have to get worse before they get even worse.”

Dysfunction in Washington, Mr. Haass told the audience at the Leadership in International Affairs event, has taken a toll on American foreign policy. (Oxana Minchenko/For GW Today)

Dr. Haass speaks from experience. In addition to chairing multi-party negotiations in Northern Ireland (2013), he served as the principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell (2001-03) and as the senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council (1989-93).

Considering his resume, many in the audience—made up largely of students—took particular note of Dr. Haass’ ideas on leadership.

“The biggest mistake of smart people is that they think [their ideas] will get them over the goal line,” Dr. Haass said. “Smart people can’t think of implementation as slug work.”

To illustrate his point, Dr. Haass cited the familiar quote of filmmaker Woody Allen that “80 percent of life is showing up,” modifying it to his world.

“I would say at least 80 percent of life is implementation,” Dr. Haass said.

This was a major takeaway for Aftan Snyder, a graduate student at the Elliott School.

“I have lots of ideas, but sometimes, putting it into action, not so much,” she said. “The fact that he is such a professional, and he was saying that, it really highlighted its importance.”

Other students were impressed with Dr. Haass’ thoughts on why America’s influence is in decline.

“You’ve got one structural trend in the world, what I call non-polarity—essentially the diffusion of power into more hands and decision makers than ever before, state and non-state,” Mr. Haass said. “Against the backdrop of the diffusion of power, what we’ve done is encouraged the decentralization of decision making. More places have woken up and said, ‘Wow’—and if we want to use a financial metaphor—‘we want to slightly diversify our national strategy portfolio. We don’t want to put so many of our strategic eggs in the American basket.’”

In separate interviews, Elliott School freshmen Eric Teller and Morgan Dawicki mentioned that they were struck by this idea.  

“The idea of power diffusion and non-polarity—which is a term I had not heard before—was really interesting,” Teller said. “He’s putting a name to something that I was recognizing in the world.”


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