On 16 May 2017, IISS–Americas hosted the Second Annual Robert F Ellsworth Memorial Lecture, featuring an address by Dr Richard N Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations. The lecture series commemorates the legacy of the late United States diplomat Ambassador Ellsworth, who served as Chairman of the IISS Council from 1990 to 1996 and helped establish the Washington office of the IISS in 2001. Organised in collaboration with The Reverend Eleanor L Ellsworth, who provided welcoming remarks, the Lecture brought together IISS members and friends to discuss the current state of international affairs. Executive Director of IISS–Americas Mark Fitzpatrick introduced Dr Haass and moderated the Q&A portion of the evening, which was held at the historic DACOR Bacon House. Special guests included Senators Bob and Elizabeth Dole.
Dr Haass began his address by recalling his connections to both Ambassador Ellsworth and Senator Bob Dole. He met Ellsworth in the 1970s, and they became close in the 1980s. Ambassador Ellsworth introduced Dr Haass to Senator Dole to advise on foreign and defence policy during Dole’s first presidential campaign in 1988. Dr Haass noted that Ambassador Ellsworth was always more impressed by ideas and people than by titles. He then recalled his experience beginning his career at the IISS, where he participated in authoring and editing The Strategic Survey, a volume in the Adelphi series, and The Military Balance.
In discussing current US foreign policy, Dr Haass characterised today’s world as one in disarray in contrast to the Cold War world. He attributed this contrast to the different decision-making processes between now and then. He believes implicit rules existed between the two great powers during the Cold War on how to challenge one another, while today’s world of diffused power causes more uncertainty. On top of the structural change, he also noted the impacts of globalisation, which has expanded rapidly in both velocity and volume in the past decades. Owing to globalisation, no state can stay local or stationary for long – they inevitably move forward. Citing the wars in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, Dr Haass also believes that the US should take some responsibility for the disorder, considering what the US has done and not done in the said wars.
Dr Haass then noted that President Trump has added a degree of unpredictability to US foreign policy that did not exist before. While recognising the occasional utility of some unpredictability in dealing with foes, he believes it is never a useful tactic in dealing with allies who have made a strategic choice to place their trust in American hands. If allies cannot depend on the US, the result could be nuclear proliferation and less US influence. He argued that Trump’s fundamental assessment of US foreign policy is wrong, for he has underestimated the benefits the US has gained from stability in the past 70 years and has exaggerated the cost of maintaining such stability. Dr Haass mentioned that the current US defence budget, which only amounts to half of its average percentage of the GDP during the Cold War, can be easily afforded. He added that military expenditures should not be the scapegoat for domestic problems, such as financial crises and political dysfunction. He also commented that Trump’s ‘America first’ policy ignores the reality of globalization, which is that nothing stays local for long – problems abroad will become domestic troubles eventually.
Dr Haass stressed that the US should preserve the current world order instead of disrupting it. The principle of US foreign policy ought to be retaining US influence in the world. However, he noted that such a policy need not be amoral. For instance, the US should avoid two extremes in formulating its policy towards the Middle East. While challenges, such as terrorism, refugees, and Iran’s nuclear capabilities, are too tangible to neglect, any attempt to transform the Middle East would be unrealistic. He suggested the US find a middle path.
Dr Haass further elaborated on US regional foreign policies. For Europe, he argued that NATO should be strengthened; the US should endeavour to narrow the gap between NATO’s commitment and capability. He believes that the US should continue to support the European Union, commending NATO and the European project as two great pieces of post–Second World War statecraft. He believes French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will promote EU reform.
As for Russia, referring to President Nixon’s non-isolating policy towards China, Dr Haass proposed a more active diplomacy. He believes it is not inconceivable for the two countries to make progress on subjects such as Syria.
Turning to Asia, Dr Haass argued that the US should not give up on diplomacy when dealing with North Korea. He approved of the current administration’s engagement with China on this matter, emphasising the priority of retaining decent relations with Beijing. He characterised bilateral relations with India as a rare area of bipartisanship in the US, but conceded that Pakistan might fit in the ‘too hard’ box.
Dr Haass also touched on Africa and Latin America, explaining that while issues of geopolitics do not stand out, internal conflicts pose significant challenges to US foreign policy makers.
Finally, Dr Haass discussed global challenges such as climate change, trade, and cyber security, which he characterised as the central tasks for US foreign policy. He stressed that in handling them, the US should seek not only international collaboration but also self-change in order to overcome the political polarisation and dysfunction at home. He mentioned employment as a popular topic in recent political discussion, saying instead of keeping out immigrants, the US should look towards technological innovation for the creation of opportunities and economic development. Therefore, he looks forward to corporate tax reform and infrastructure modernisation, which would stimulate technological innovation.
At the end of his remarks, Haass again emphasised the importance of US participation in global affairs. He argued that the world is not self-organised, and the US cannot isolate itself from the world.
During the question-and-answer session, the discussion focused on emerging new challenges. Attendees expressed concerns regarding disinformation and unconstructive criticism on the internet, and social media’s transformational impact on governance. The audience also discussed means to integrate non-state actors into international collaboration. Finally, questions were raised concerning US–Turkey relations and public and private consultation in the formulation of US foreign policy.
Rapporteur: Yumu Chen
View photos from the event in our Flickr album below
Dr Richard N Haass is in his fourteenth year as president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the preeminent independent, nonpartisan organisation in the United States devoted to issues of foreign policy and international relations. He has served as the senior Middle East adviser to President George H.W. Bush and as a principal adviser to Secretary of State Colin Powell. A recipient of the State Department's Distinguished Honor Award, the Presidential Citizens Medal, and the Tipperary International Peace Award, Dr Haass is also the author or editor of thirteen books on US foreign policy. His latest book is A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, published in 2017 by Penguin Press.
The late Ambassador Robert F Ellsworth was a former Chairman of the IISS Council from 1990–1996 and an honorary Vice President of the Institute. In 2001, he helped the IISS establish its office in Washington. He served in the United States Navy during World War Two and then again during the Korean War. After three terms as a Congressman from the state of Kansas, he became a top aide to President Richard Nixon. Described by Nixon as ‘exceptionally able’, Ambassador Ellsworth served as a White House special assistant tasked with troubleshooting foreign and domestic problems before being appointed by Nixon as ambassador to NATO. Following his appointment to NATO, he was a Partner at the investment bank Lazard Frères in New York. Ambassador Ellsworth also held the posts of Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs and Deputy Secretary of Defense. He was a founding board member and long-time Vice Chairman of the Center for the National Interest.