Haass: Climate Change and China Main Challenges for US Foreign Policy in 21st Century

IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations Warren Hoge and President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass

Virtual Event Video: 

Climate change is “the defining issue of this century” and relations with China the likely top foreign policy item in the inbox of the next American president in January, Richard Haass told an IPI Distinguished Author Series event in a wide-ranging discussion of geopolitics on June 3rd.

Dr. Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, former high ranking Washington policy maker, and frequent media commentator, was talking about his new book The World: A Brief Introduction, a primer on what experts and non-experts alike should know about international relations and how they affect our lives in an interconnected world.

He recounted how the book had its origins in a chance encounter he had with a brainy Stanford computer science graduate on a fishing trip. “I told him, I can’t have much of a conversation on computer science, but I’m curious, ‘How many history courses have you taken?’ He said, ‘None’. ‘What about econ?’ He said,  ‘Nah.’ ‘What about poli sci?’ Same answer. This bright young man was going to graduate fully prepared for computer science but unprepared for the world he would be entering.”

Dr. Haass said he asked around and found this outcome of modern American undergraduate education to be disturbingly common. “So I decided to write a book for people of any age to narrow the gap: what I thought people needed to know about the world, to vote, judge policy debates, make an investment, business, travel decisions, to give people a foundation, make sense of information and decisions coming at them that deal with this world. That is not something we can shut out of our lives even if we want to.”

In his remarks on China, Dr. Haass said that the Sino- American relationship “will go a long way towards determining the character of the 21st century.” He said the two countries had entered a Cold War-like atmosphere but that containment, the American response to the Cold War with the Soviet Union, was no longer an option. “China is way too integrated in the world economy, it’s already there, you can’t contain it. The real question will be, ‘Can we compete with it?’”

The goal of American diplomacy, he said, should be to reach a strategic understanding with China, one that was achieved multilaterally, engaging United States allies. ”The way to get there won’t take you just to Beijing. The most important thing to do might be stops in Europe, Tokyo, Seoul, and in Australia—to approach China not unilaterally but with our allies and partners with us.”

The objective should be a relationship “that at least allows selective cooperation, even in the context of widespread competition. And that seems to me to be a challenge for diplomacy: can we structure it so that we have inevitable competition, but so that it doesn’t spill over and preclude cooperation on a regional and global challenge where we have some overlapping interests?”

He said that US policy makers also had to be alert to China’s own preoccupation with its vast population of 1.3 billion people and its existential concerns with maintaining control. “They are worried about the centrifugal forces in their country, and they are worried about the slowing economy because they’ve lost the lubricant to help keep things calm,” he said. “ I think China faces real challenges—we’re not going to have much impact on whether China succeeds or not—but the goal of our foreign policy is not in any way to hurt China, it’s not to stop the ties, it’s to help direct the ties. I don’t want to see China fail, but I want it to use its powers in a responsible way. That to me is the challenge of American foreign policy.”

Meeting that challenge will require “some serious statecraft, diplomatic deftness on the part of both sides that has been conspicuously missing from both,” he said. But falling into a Cold War standoff would leave the US “much worse off in dealing with problems ranging from North Korea to climate change to future pandemics. So if we do end up in a Cold War with China, I think it’s a major loss for both countries, and for the world, but it’s a possibility. But the good news is that it’s not an inevitability.”

On climate change, Dr. Haass said, “I don’t think the sort of approach we’ve had is likely to work. I don’t think it’s going to be solved in international conferences with 190 countries to come up with a single scheme to limit it. And over the years, you’ve had things like capping trade, global carbon taxes, now you have Paris, which doesn’t impose anything on anybody. It lets each country decide what its national contribution/trajectory is going to be.” He said the other problem with the Paris agreement is that “when you add it all up, even if everybody did what they said they were going to do, it wouldn’t be close to what the world needs, and on top of that, everybody’s not going to do what they committed to doing. “

He said that the US and its allies ought to focus instead on “climate adaptation”, building up resilience and leveraging change by tying assistance and subsidies to countries’ willingness to curb action harming the environment. He described it as a “climate tax, essentially telling the Chinas and Indias of the world, ‘You want to export to us, great, but if we see that you are fueling/producing your exports using, say, coal, we’re going to slap a tax on it, basically a climate tariff.’ That’s something the US can or should do alone, but if we joined the Trans-Pacific Partnership and got other countries to affiliate, we’d have 60 percent of the world’s economy, and that’s an awful lot of leverage.”

He said that climate adaptation and building resilience is “a big issue. We have to assume that no matter what we do, climate change has happened, is happening, and will happen. So we’ve got to structure some of our societies on where people live, where insurance is provided.”

Offering an example of the aggressive kind of international action the US should take, he said, “I’d go to Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, and I would basically say, ‘It turns out that most of the Amazon rainforest is on your territory, but the Amazon rainforest is not yours to destroy. It is an important resource for all of mankind. As a result, we will help you if you want to preserve it, but if you persist in destroying it, we will penalize you badly, and I would hope there would be trade consequences or consumer boycotts of Brazilian goods. Brazil may have the sovereign right to do it, but it’s irresponsible in terms of its impact on the world.”

Asked about coping with the threat of cyber attacks, he said, “I’m worried that the technology is changing so fast and is already in so many hands, and there is no consensus. What I would begin with is the reason I think alliances and partnerships are so important. We may not be able to get a global arrangement, but at a minimum, we want a consensus among the like-minded, and what we can do is come up with a common set of regulations, some rules of the road.” Ultimately, he said, it will come down to resilience. “The idea of invulnerability is nonsense, invulnerability is unachievable. You’re always going to have degrees of it, you obviously want to reduce your vulnerability. But you have to assume that you can’t prevent all attacks, and you have to presume you can’t stop all attacks when they are underway. Every once in a while, attacks are going to succeed, and that’s where resilience becomes such an important feature of a modern society.”

On Europe, he commended the new $750 billion German and French proposal for post-Covid-19 recovery. “It suggests the richest, most powerful countries in Europe are prepared to do things for the others, and that’s a welcome first sign of the revival of collectivism.”

Addressing the subject of multilateralism, he recommended broadening participation to go beyond nation states, regional groupings, and the United Nations. “If you were having a meeting on the pandemic, you’d be crazy not to include foundations, pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, all sorts of NGOs and regional groups and groups like Doctors Without Borders, or the International Rescue Committee. We have to be flexible, and you’ve just got to be practical, and the first question you’ve always got to ask yourself is ‘who’s relevant and who might be willing to make changes here?’ You could call it ‘designer multilateralism,’ and we ought not to get hung up on G-this or General Assembly-that because for different issues, we want different parties in the room.”

On COVID-19. Dr. Haass said it showed that nothing stays local for long in a globalized world. And contrary to some who believe the virus has stilled globalization, he said that instead it “accelerates” it. “A lot of trends we were already seeing in the world are now accentuated, more intense, picking up pace. Globalism is a reality; how we respond to it is the choice. That’s where policy comes in. This is what it’s like to live in a world with globalization. We can talk about sovereignty, but no amount of American sovereignty keeps out greenhouse gases, and sovereignty didn’t save us from 9/11. We’ve got to reject isolationism and have a serious conversation about how we deal with the various ramifications of a 21st century world.”

He was asked what his response was to people who didn’t share his view of the value of American leadership in the world. “I can’t say we always get it right,” he said, “but when I look at the last 70 to 75 years, our alliance structure, the international institutions, this has been the most extraordinary era in history. There have been no great power conflicts, living standards have gone up dramatically, the duration of life is up, there’s much more democracy in the world than there was. There is no other era in history that compares. What worries me now is that it may be coming to an end, and I don’t see anything better in its place. I don’t see any consensus on the means to bring it about. I don’t see an alternative to a successful world that the US does not play a role in.”

In answer to a question about how to turn the current protests on racism and police violence into progress, Dr. Haass said, “Channel the frustration. Protest gets you up, but then you have to translate that action into politically meaningful change, and I can’t think of any better way than a lot of opportunities this fall, and not just at the presidential level, by the way, but at the local level. And the oversight of police forces, that’s a local issue.”

Asked what advice he would give to young people thinking of a US diplomatic career, he said “I couldn’t say right now in this country that this is a good choice of a career. I’d want to see new leadership at the State Department, I’d want to see diplomats/diplomacy respected and applauded and not denigrated. I’d want to see more resources, more creative openings for lateral entry. Make it better, and the best and the brightest will gravitate towards it.“ He concluded, “Government at its best is a great, great calling. What’s so sad is to see what’s become of it.”

Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, moderated the discussion.