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U.S. domestic instability might make the world a more dangerous place, diplomat says


Richard Haass has served in the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department. He advised then-Secretary of State Colin Powell on the Iraq war. Later, Haass was a U.S. coordinator for Afghanistan. Now he's confirming that back in May, he was part of a group that met independently with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to talk about Ukraine.

RICHARD HAASS: Everybody understands that individuals such as myself do not speak for the government. Everybody understands these are conversations, not negotiations. I also, you know, did my best to keep our own government informed. I don't think it was dangerous. I think there's a long tradition of helpful conversation, interaction, engagement by third parties.

MARTÍNEZ: Haass just stepped down after 20 years leading the Council on Foreign Relations. I asked him what it will take to end Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

HAASS: Wars only end when both sides decide that they are better off with a cease-fire or an armistice or a peace than they are continuing the war. It only takes one country to start a war. In this case, it was Russia. But it will take both sides to end it. And Russia will have to decide it can live, as will Ukraine, with whatever the situation is on the battlefield, because ultimately the negotiating table will reflect the battlefield.

And right now, the reason the war is continuing is each side believes it is better off with the passage of time. Ukraine believes it will regain more territory. Russia believes that Western support for Ukraine will fade. So if you remember, at the beginning, their goal was to essentially eradicate Ukraine as a sovereign, independent country. So both sides have to come to the conclusion that more fighting will not serve their interests and, however distasteful, that compromise at the negotiating table would leave them better off than continued fighting.

MARTÍNEZ: President Biden is at the NATO summit in Lithuania. And he says it would be premature to bring Ukraine into the alliance. Do you think that NATO should admit Ukraine right away?

HAASS: I do not. It would be premature. It would get NATO, all 31 countries - or 32 if you include Sweden - involved in a war with Russia, which would be unbelievably dangerous, could escalate to nuclear weapons. It's also not clear what NATO would be committing itself to.

MARTÍNEZ: If you were reinventing NATO, would it still be a defense alliance?

HAASS: Well, NATO is a defensive alliance, and that is at its core. On the other hand, NATO also has the ability to act, quote-unquote, "out of area" - so not simply defensively in Europe, but can take - undertake other missions, as it has over the last few decades. And I also think that Europeans and Americans need to think about other related issues - what Europe is prepared to do in the context, say, of a U.S.-Chinese conflict in the Indo-Pacific, what they're prepared to do to increase their manufacturing capability of defense articles. So there's many areas in which the NATO members need to do more.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to China and the United States' relationship with China, very frayed right now. What are the odds that Taiwan possibly becomes the next Ukraine?

HAASS: It's nothing we can control. China clearly has aspirations. And that's essentially up to the leadership of China, whether they are going to take the risks and potentially pay the costs of coercion or aggression against Taiwan. We've avoided that now for close to half a century. And the question is whether we - whether diplomacy can continue to finesse this.

But, you know, I don't have a crystal ball, and that's why the United States, Taiwan, Japan and others are right to prepare for possible armed contingencies. Again, we can't shape Chinese dreams. What we can do is shape their decisions. And we ought to persuade them that however imperfect from their point of view, the status quo or something close to the status quo is far preferable to an alternative in which they would use military force.

MARTÍNEZ: Dr. Haass, if it's OK, I'd love to get a lightning round of questions with you, just your first thoughts on a list of questions that I would bring up just to know where your head is at right now, considering the 20 years you've just wrapped up as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. Is that OK?

HAASS: Yes, sir.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Can you look 20 years into the future and tell me, who are the superpowers of the world in 20 years?

HAASS: Well, at the moment, you'd have to say the two most likely great powers of the future would be the United States and China. But we may also be entering an era where the ability of any country, no matter how great, to dominate is diminished.

MARTÍNEZ: What does international trade look like in 20 years?

HAASS: I think there'll be a lot of international trade in 20 years, you just won't have global trade agreements. You'll have a lot of bilateral and regional agreements. But I think the era of negotiating these grand international arrangements is over.

MARTÍNEZ: Will world leaders mitigate climate change?

HAASS: If there is major progress realized against climate change, I think it's much more likely to come because of technology - say, breakthroughs on something like batteries, or breakthroughs in other green technologies or the ability to capture carbon. I simply do not believe collective diplomatic action will accomplish much, if anything.

MARTÍNEZ: Who or what is the biggest threat to peace?

HAASS: Well, what worries me right now as much of anything is our - the domestic disarray within the United States. The world has been, by historical standards, remarkably stable for 75 years, in large part because the United States played an outsized role during World War II, after World War II and after the end of the Cold War. And the question is, given our domestic polarization, our divisions, whether we will have the domestic unity, the domestic bandwidth to continue to play that role. I'm not so sure. The only thing I am sure is, without the United States playing an outsized role in the world, the world would become a far more dangerous place.

MARTÍNEZ: Richard Haass was a longtime diplomat and White House adviser. He's now president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Dr. Haass, thank you very much.

HAASS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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