Dr. Haass, author of the New York Times best seller The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens, discusses how to reenvision citizenship if American democracy is to thrive or even survive. His guide is particularly relevant for college students who are learning how to navigate and participate fully in life on campus and in civic society.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to today’s Educators Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/Academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We’re delighted to have CFR President Richard Haass with us to discuss the themes in his new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. Dr. Haass needs no introduction, but of course I will say a few words. He is in his twentieth year as president of CFR. He has served as special assistant and senior Middle East advisor to President George H.W. Bush, served in the U.S. State Department as a director of policy planning under Secretary of State Colin Powell, and held various positions in the Defense and State Departments during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author or editor of fourteen books on U.S. foreign policy, one book on management and, of course, this one on American democracy.
So, Richard, thank you very much for being with us today to discuss this book. I thought we could begin with you giving us an overview of your book, why you wrote it and, more specifically, why the focus on obligations rather than on rights.
HAASS: Well, thank you, Irina. Thank you all for giving us some of your time.
So really two separate questions—why the book and why the focus on obligations. Why the book is, look, I’m a foreign policy guy, for better and for worse. But increasingly, when I thought about all the challenges this country faced in the world, they all presume that we would have a functioning democracy that others in the world might want to emulate, others in the world would feel comfortable depending on, relying on. Our foes in the world might be deterred by. That we would generate the resources we needed and the political unity we needed to act in the world. Increasingly all that came under—has come under question.
So I don’t see how you can talk about American national security and just talk about the sort of stuff that the Pentagon or State Department do, but increasingly our ability to have a working democracy, to have a society that has the bandwidth and the unity to carry out our foreign policy. That’s in question. And that’s one of the lessons of the last few years. We assume these things are just fine at our peril. So, you know, that’s what led me to write this book. And I actually have come to see the state of American democracy as, in many ways, the biggest threat to our national security. More than China, or Russia, or climate change, or anything else, because this is the foundation of our ability to contend with all these external threats.
Moving to the question of “why obligations,” look, no one should get me wrong here. Rights are central to this American experiment, as I expect all of you know. You know, the Bill of Rights was politically essential in order to get several states that were holding out to ratify the new Constitution. A lot of people understood that the Articles of Confederation were woefully inadequate, but it was something very different to say they were prepared to sign on for a much stronger federal government and a much stronger executive. And the condition that several states set then was, hey, we need this Bill of Rights which protects states and individuals from the reach of the federal government.
Over the last nearly two and a half centuries, we’ve lived with the reality that there’s often a gap between our political realities and the Bill of Rights, you know, what Lincoln called the “unfinished work” of this country remains unfinished. I fully appreciate that. But just try a thought experiment: Just imagine that somehow we managed to close the gap between our reality and the Declaration of Independence, and suddenly rights were 100 percent what they ought to be. Then the question you have to ask yourself, if we were to reach that point, would American foreign policy be on safe, firm ground? And the answer is no.
Because what would happen is someone would say, hey, the mother has an absolute right to choose. And someone else would say, no, the unborn, they have absolute rights. Or someone would say, I have all sorts of rights under the Second Amendment to bear arms and someone else would say, oh, hold on a minute, I’ve got rights to public safety, to physical safety, and so on and so forth. You know, it wasn’t by accident that Justice Steve Breyer said that the toughest cases before the court are right versus wrong, but rights versus rights.
So what do we do? How do we avoid the clash of rights which, at a minimum, would mean gridlock, and worse yet, in all sorts of situations, one could imagine things descending into violence. If people felt that adamantly about their rights, and if their rights were not adequately recognized, from their point of view, what’s holding them back from political violence? And that’s what led me to this book. And that’s what led me to obligations.
Obligation is the other side of the citizenship coin. Rights are essential. To use the political science idea, they are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. We need obligations. We need to complement rights, supplement rights with—we need obligations to one another—you to me, me to you, Irina, me to everybody on this Zoom—and vice versa. And then, second of all, we all need to think about our obligations to the country. What do we—in the spirit of John F. Kennedy—what do we owe this country? Only if we balance or complement rights with obligations do I think this experiment of American democracy has a good chance of surviving another two and a half centuries.
FASKIANOS: So when you were writing this book, Richard—clearly we all need to read it—but what was your target audience?
HAASS: It’s a good question. Let me give you a couple of answers. One is, and it’s something you and I know from our work here, I’m always interested in finding multipliers in American society. So in this case, it’s a lot of the kinds of people on this call, educators, because they all have students. So whether they’re administrators, classroom teachers, you know, university, four-year schools, two-year schools, colleges, at the high school level, what have you. So educators are my principal—if not THE principal audience, as the principal multiplier.
Obviously, students as well because, you know, particularly if you think about it, college students by—well, we can talk about this more—but they’re a perfect audience for this. I’m also, though, interested in other multipliers in this society. One is journalists. They have tremendous reach. They have obligations. Religious authorities, the people who give the sermons. You know, tens if not even more than a hundred million Americans hear sermons every week. Well, why can’t religious authorities do things like discourage political violence, say nothing justifies violence, or civility is always called for, or compromise ought to always be considered. Or, how about this, you are your brother’s and sister’s keeper. You have an obligation to look out for the common good. Who better than a religious authority to do that?
I think parents have certain special opportunities, if you will, to carry out these obligations, to model certain behavior. So I’m interested in all of them. And what I found is a lot of—you know, and the good news is I think it’s resonating. Particularly a lot of older people know there’s something amiss in this country. And what they want to make sure is that younger people get a chance to take this in.
FASKIANOS: Right. So in your book, you have laid out ten principles. And under the ten principles—
HAASS: We call them obligations, Irina.
FASKIANOS: Ten obligations, yes. So what are the key insights that you would want, or the obligations that you would want educators and students to take away from reading this book, and that you would want educators to promote or to share with their students?
HAASS: Well, first of all, all ten I think are valuable. You know, if we were in a religious context and you say which of the commandments would you jettison, you know, we all might have our favorite for jettisoning, but—Mel Brooks had his ideas in one of his movies. But I think all ten are necessary, in this case. I’d begin with being informed, which I think is particularly relevant to this kind of a group. You know, Jefferson’s notion of the informed citizen is basic to a democracy. And then I think it immediately then calls for a conversation on exactly what is it we mean by being informed in terms of the basics. What do we mean in terms of current issues that come and go? How then do you get informed? How do you avoid being misinformed? I think it’s a really rich conversation.
Again, with students, we want to urge them, once they are informed, to get involved. To use an old quote of Ronald Reagan’s, we don’t just want patriotism we want informed patriotism. So we want people to be involved, but we want them to be involved once they are informed. You know, we can go through all of them, just things like behaviors, civility, compromise, observation of norms. Those are all important. Just kind of attitudes and behaviors become important. Then there’s more specific things. I’d love for younger people to get involved in public service. Several states have instituted, like California, a large public service program. I think it’s great.
I think too many of us in this country are now leading very separate lives defined by geography, educational attainment, wealth, race, religion, gender, what have you. I love things that produce a bit of common experience, I think would be good. I’m obviously big, and we’ll probably get to this, about teaching civics. I think it’s simply wrong that anybody should leave a campus without having been exposed to civics. We wouldn’t let them leave the campus if they couldn’t read or write. Why would we want them to leave a campus if they didn’t have—if they weren’t, essentially, literate about citizenship, given how important that is. So, you know, I thought hard about the obligations. And I just think that this is what is required if American democracy is going to prosper.
FASKIANOS: We’ve talked a lot about how this book is a perfect fit for the first-year experience and for incoming students to college campuses. And I thought you could talk a little bit about the connection of this book, and why it would be such a perfect fit.
HAASS: Couple of things. One is, the average freshman is pretty close to eighteen. So what a perfect time to be doing this, because they’re going to have the right to vote. And we want them to vote. And we want them to be informed voters. So that’s one thing. But this is—the timing is perfect for people stepping onto campus. Second of all, in addition to voting, campuses, like any other, if you will, environment are political environments. And so over the course of their two, three, four, however many years on campus, students are going to be in all sorts of formal and informal, structured and unstructured, settings in which politics are going to come up. So I believe they need some help in navigating what they’re going to experience on a—in classrooms, over drinks, over coffee, study groups, what have you. I think it’s really essential there.
I also like the idea of first-year experiences—and first principles—I love the idea that people read something and have it in common and they can talk about it. So whether you’re a flute major, or a physics major, or a computer sciences major, I love the fact that everybody’s reading something. And this is something with real, I think, practical payoffs, again, for the years on campus, and for life afterwards. So I actually think it’s a good thing. And, just to be clear, the book doesn’t tell them about what’s the, quote/unquote, “right” or “wrong” policy on any issue. It’s simply about how one approaches political life, whether it’s on campus or beyond. And I just think it’s—for eighteen-year-olds about to embark on a college experience and on a life experience, I think the timing’s pretty good.
FASKIANOS: So we have a written question from Jim Zaffiro, who is a professor of political science at Central College.
And he asks along the same lines—
HAASS: Central College in Iowa?
HAASS: I got a—I was lucky enough to get an honorary degree from Central College in Iowa. It’s a wonderful, wonderful place.
FASKIANOS: So he would like to know, how would you present the nature and significance of this as a common reading for eighteen-year-olds? Like, how would pitch it to an incoming freshman about why they should read it? So from the student’s perspective?
HAASS: It’s a good question. Like it or not, government is essential to our lives. And indeed, both whether you like it or not, that makes the case for learning about it. It’s going to affect you. But, more important, government is not some impersonal force. Government is affected by citizens. So I want students to understand that government is what we make of it. And it’s who we vote for. It’s who we reward or penalize politically. It’s who they work for. I’d love them to get involved themselves. Not just in campaigns, one day some of them may choose that as a career—I did for a long time—in public service.
And it could be—in my case it was working on the policy side. It could be the military. It could be intelligence. I’ve got a daughter who works for the Department of Sanitation here in the City of New York. There’s all sorts of ways to have a public service kind of career. But even if you don’t, we still, as citizens, have the right—and I would say, the obligation—to vote. And if they don’t, well, that’s just another way of saying you’re going to let this other person decide what your future is. Why would anybody want to abdicate the chance to influence their own future and lets the person sitting in the seat next to them make choices that would affect them?
So I would want students—I would want to remind them that government is responsive. That we’ve made enormous changes. I think a lot of young people have a really negative view of government. They see what’s happened in recent years—whether it’s the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, or economic crises, or pandemics, or climate. And a lot of them are very down on government. And I get it. I get it. But government also, over the decades, has delivered in important ways. And even when it’s failed, the failure wasn’t inevitable.
So I want to give students a sense of possibility. And that government is really important. And the good news, in a non-authoritarian, democratic system, is governments are potentially responsive, and that there are real opportunities to make an impact that will affect their future and the futures of others they care about. And, you know, as I’ve learned in life, for better and for worse, not acting—you know, if you will, omissions—are just as important as acting in commission. And so I want students to understand that it’s consequential not to get involved. And it’s probably consequential and bad in ways that are most – more likely than not, not to be good for them.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. So I’m just going to—people are already writing questions in the Q&A box. Love to see that. So if you do that, please also include your affiliation or I will try to pull out your affiliation. You can always also raise your hand on the screen to ask a question. And on an iPad and tablet, you can click the “more” button. For those of you who have written your question, if you want to ask it yourself please do raise your hand because we love to hear your voices.
The first person, Miriam Kerzner, wants to know what you mean by “civics.” And I think that’s a good jumping off point for you to talk about civics and why it needs to be—how you think about it.
HAASS: No, it’s a great—yeah, in a funny sort of way, everyone—well, not everyone—but almost everyone is in favor of civics until you drill down a little bit. (Laughs.) And then they go, oh, I didn’t mean that. So it’s not enough to be in favor of it in principle, but you’ve also got to be in favor of it in practice. So it seems to me, and it’s complicated, I get it. It ain’t going to be easy. I get it. But I think there’s certain things about our history, about certain documents people should be exposed to, certain, you know, dates and events that people should be exposed to, certain understandings about how government works at the national, the state, and then the local level people should be exposed to. Certain behaviors and attitudes that are consistent with a democracy that people should be exposed to.
I think civics has got to do all of that. And I also think modern civics has to also take into account or include what is increasingly known as information literacy, to teach students to be critical consumers of this flood of information that’s coming at them. And it’s ironic. It’s almost strange that in an age in which we’re deluged with information, it’s also harder than ever to be informed. But there you have it. So I think modern civics has to teach elements of history, teach some of the elements or basics of the American political system. Probably teach some basic elements of American society, the economy, and so forth, foreign policy. Talk about attitudes, behaviors, almost the culture of democracy, get into things about rights and obligations, talk about information literacy.
And it’s demanding. It’s going to be very hard to—it’s going to be impossible to satisfy not just everybody, probably anybody. This has now become a politicized terrain, probably a minefield’s a better metaphor. Again, I’m not naïve about that. But I don’t think we can throw up our hands and say it’s too hard. It’s probably impossible to get anything done at the national level just now, but not at the state level. I’ve already talked to several governors who are willing to take a try. I see certain schools are willing to take a try. I mean, Stanford’s going to introduce a civics module for all of its freshmen starting next winter term. Other schools have some things like it. The service academies have been doing work in this area for quite a while. I don’t mean to leave anybody out, but I know that schools like Purdue and Virginia, some others, have elements of this. Johns Hopkins is debating it.
And so I just think it’s also that universities have far more flexibility because, you know, I think it’s tougher for public high schools, given the roles of state legislatures and politics. It’s probably somewhat tough also, obviously, for public universities, given the way they’re funded and the oversight. I think private colleges and universities have enormous discretion. There’s nothing stopping them. They could do it tomorrow. There are resource issues. I get it. And not everybody has the, shall we say, resource advantages of a Stanford. So I think, you know, for a lot of schools, they’re going to have to look at what’s not just desirable, but you’ve always got to ask what’s doable, what’s feasible. I get it.
But I think every—I think this is a conversation faculties, administrators, boards, students, and others need to have. Which is, one, whether civics? I would say the answer to that is yes. And then, OK, then let’s have a follow-on conversation. What should go into it? And we can talk more about it, but I think particularly when it comes to history, which is probably the most controversial area, my own advice is to simply say there’s got to be certain things about history which are not terribly controversial. There are certain documents that are essential, certain Supreme Court decisions, certain speeches, certain commentaries. Certain things happen. There’s the factual spine of American history. Then there’s interpretations of what caused certain things, what are the consequences of certain things.
OK. Well, there, I think the lesson is not to teach a single history, not to impose a vision of history, but to expose students to a range of responsible historical analyses and interpretations. And then maybe in the classroom provide mechanisms for debating them in a civics course. And, indeed, I could imagine lots of other ideas—and there’s teaching notes we just produced. One could imagine all sorts of model or mock legislatures where people—students would introduce certain legislation. One of the ideas I proposed was a model constitutional convention, and students would have a chance to propose amendments to the current Constitution and debate it out.
So I think things like that. I think there’s all sorts of participatory things that one could introduce or incorporate into a civics curriculum without imposing a single vision or interpretation of history, which would obviously be unacceptable to, you know, significant constituencies.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. And Miriam’s at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Washington.
So I’m going to go next to Larry Mead, who has raised his hand. And if you could identify yourself and accept the unmute prompt, that would be fantastic.
HAASS: Or not.
FASKIANOS: Larry, you still need to unmute, or not. All right, I will go next to Laura Tedesco, and we’ll come back to Larry. Or, we’ll try. Laura. There you go, Laura first, OK. Laura, you just muted yourself again.
Q: OK, now?
FASKIANOS: You’ve got it.
Q: OK. Thank you very much. My name is Laura Tedesco. I’m working from Madrid, Spain, working at St. Louis University, in the campus that they have here in Madrid.
And my question is basically how we are going to—I agree with you about, you know, the education of citizenship here. But how are we going to really make people understand—not only students in universities, but everybody else, you know—about the right and the need to act as citizens? For instance, in a country like the United States, where your vote is not obligatory, yeah? You know, how can we make people understand that, you know, democracy should not be taken for granted, and we should all work to improve democracy from the different positions we are? Thank you.
HAASS: No, it’s a great question. How do we incentivize people not to take democracy for granted? One is to teach them in a civics curriculum a little bit about what are the structural strengths and advantages for democracy in terms of everything from the freedoms and rights they tend to provide and protect, to democracy’s ability to adapt and innovate. We also got a pretty good historical record. I mean, yes, this democracy and other democracies have made serious mistakes, and they’re imperfect to say the least, but there’s a lot that they have accomplished and a lot that they have provided and delivered. So I think we need to remind people about the record of democracies to—and to also—I’d be more than comfortable pointing out some of the shortcomings of the alternatives, because obviously the alternatives do have, shall we say, more than their share of flaws.
And I—again, to encourage, you know, informed participation—I think you have to make the case that democracies are responsive, that individuals and groups can make a difference. There’s almost nothing that’s inevitable. And history is, in many ways, what we make it. And that’s what I want students to come away with, the sense of possibility and empowerment. I mean, what I came to conclude in writing this is if we wait for democracies to be delivered, if you will, or saved by someone at the top, it’s going to be a long wait. And what we really need to think about is empowerment, whether it’s young people or, again, these critical constituencies in American society from business to religious leaders, to teachers, to journalists, officials, and so forth. You know, we all have a chance to make a difference.
And I want students to get excited about both why democracies are worth saving and the difference that individuals can make. And I think if we do that, we can generate some greater political involvement. And what the last two elections show is even minute amounts—you know, 1 percent here or there—of greater political involvement can have enormous impact. And that’s what I want, again, students to come away with. The, yeah, well my vote won’t matter. Well, probably not, if you’re talking about one vote. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of people getting involved in order to tip the scales. And so I want students to get a sense of empowerment.
FASKIANOS: So you can build on—that starts to answer Robert McCoy’s question, who is at the University of Montana, in the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center in Missoula, Montana.
He says: Read the book. Think it ought to be mandatory reading for all, not just students. However, your opening chapters paint such a dire picture that I fail to see how today’s issues can be rectified. Can you speak to that?
HAASS: Hmm. I’ll have to go back and reread the opening chapters. I thought the first chapter was kind of about the— is really neutral. It’s kind of the march of American history—American political history. It’s kind of how we got to where we are. You know, the second chapter is on backsliding. And the reason it’s that way is if things weren’t in a bad way, I wouldn’t have needed to write the book and I could have focused on my golf game and lowering my handicap. But because democratic backsliding in this country—and, by the way, in others—is a reality, I felt compelled to write this book. So I didn’t have confidence that it would just sort itself out by itself.
I actually think very few things just sort themselves out by themselves, whether we’re talking about domestic political systems or international systems. I think it takes agency. And but again, small numbers could have really large impact. I mean, we just had a midterm here where roughly, I don’t know, 45 percent of the eligible voters voted. And which was, you know, slightly higher than traditional midterms. Still disappointing. But some of the outcomes were pretty impressive. And in terms of stabilizing American democracy. Very easily, though, there could have been other outcomes. And think of the consequences there. So the whole argument for making—you know, for obligations is that nothing’s baked into the cake, for better and for worse. So we shouldn’t assume that everything’s just going to turn out just fine. And we shouldn’t assume that it won’t.
And I think, again, small numbers could have real impact. And, again, it’s an empowerment argument. And I think there’s a lot—there’s a lot of distributed authority—obligation, or authority, or potential for various groups within the society, various constituencies, as well as with individuals writ large. And I think possibly reminding people about how government over the years has adapted, I think people need to, in some ways, rediscover a bit of respect and admiration for government. And I look at some of the changes we’ve had over the course of, say, the last—take my last seventy-five years, or even, you know, from on domestic things. Civil rights, you know, extension of the vote to eighteen-year-olds, what we’ve recently done on gay marriage, and so forth.
The degree of adaptability and change, government turns out to be quite flexible in this society. So I want students to get jazzed about the potential here, about the possibility, but to remind them it just doesn’t happen by itself. And people have to get involved. And politics is not dirty. It’s a calling. And so I want the best and brightest to do this. You know, I’ve had a career that’s been in and out of government, and I wouldn’t trade it for just about anything. And it’s really satisfying. I talk to them about careers and other things also. So I mean, not just people that are going to become doctors, and lawyers, and plumbers, and electricians, and whatever. And I want them to be involved, informed citizens. But I would love a chunk of the best and brightest to go into government and choose that as a calling.
So again, one of the reasons I love the idea of a public service experience, say, for a year or two years after high school, before college, or during college, or after college, not only do would I think a lot of people come into contact with one another who ordinarily wouldn’t meet where people grow up, but I think they would see what government could do. They would see that public service can actually accomplish some things that are good for the public. So I think students need to realize that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next back to Larry Mead. And let’s see if we can get your technology—there we go.
Q: Can you hear me now? OK. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Yes, we can. And identify yourself, please.
Q: What I wrote was, I thought I was the only political scientist to write about obligation. I wrote a book about that back in the 1960s. It was about domestic policy, mainly. I think your book is—I think the second book to really focus on obligation. And my question is this: In fact, our system presumes a very high level of civic obligation. We are, in fact, one of the most civic countries in the world, one of the best governed in the world. And that all depends on that civic culture. So why then do we talk only about rights?
HAASS: Great question. First of all, what’s your book? My research was inadequate. Tell me about your book.
Q: (Laughs.) OK. It was called Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship. It’s about welfare, poverty, and reform of welfare. It makes a case for work requirements. And later on, I became the theorist of welfare reform. But the general argument is that freedom depends on obligation. And actually, freedom is a form of obligation. But people aren’t thoughtful about that. They somehow think that freedom is simply liberation from all sets of outside expectations. No. Our heaviest obligations are the obligations we set for ourselves in our own lives. We work very hard to achieve those things. So freedom isn’t free, and yet we don’t talk about it.
HAASS: I agree. And good for you. Thank you. I will now make up for my impoverished scholarship and researching skills.
Q: Well, I’m going to read your book, and I will write you a reaction, I promise you.
HAASS: Thank you. Be kind. Look, there’s a lot of—in the course of writing this, I read some religious and political philosophers. And that was their argument, that freedom without obligation is dangerous. It actually leads you to anarchy. And but obligation and the rest without freedom denies you basic rights. And you’ve got to—you got to get both. Find it infused in religious and philosophical literature. I found it in some educational literature after World War II. So I’ve asked myself, to your question, how did we kind of lose the balance? Because if you go to early American history, there was such an emphasis on rights, and my hunch is people were much more conscious of rights because the entire context was not reimposing tyranny after getting out from under the yoke of Britain.
I also think our culture was different. That a lot of obligations, or the notion of obligations, was assumed. It was implicit. It wasn’t missing. It was there. And when you go back—when I went back and read de Tocqueville, and Bryce, and others, you re-read a lot of this—even the Federalist Papers, they didn’t spend a lot of time hammering away on obligations. I think they saw it all around them. I think what’s happened, and it’s probably beyond my paygrade, or at least beyond my intellectual understanding—because I’m not an anthropologist or a sociologist—was somehow this notion of the balance between rights and obligations in American society, to use a technical phrase, has gotten out of whack. We’ve become much more rights focused, almost rights obsessed. What are we owed? Whether they’re political rights or economic rights. And we’ve lost a sense of what do we owe in turn.
And, you know, how that happened is an interesting conversation. And it’s something I’ve been meditating about and thinking about. But however it happened, it happened. And that’s why I think we need something of a corrective. And I’m no longer confident it’ll just happen. The ship won’t right itself. And I think that we have to now be conscious about advocating for obligations, because they have the coin of citizenship has lost its balance there. And it’s gone way too much in one direction. So what I’m trying to do is by talking so much about obligations, decades after you did—is in some ways resurrect the idea and strengthen a recognition that we’ve somewhat lost our way.
And, by the way, I think people know that. I got to tell you, I’ve been on the road a lot the last six weeks, talking about this book to all sorts of citizen groups. I did one last night about fifty miles from here. And people know it. I got to tell you, particularly people who are middle-aged and older, they look out their window, they get up and they look out at this society, and they go: This isn’t the American I remember. There is something amiss. There is something wrong. I’m not saying the old America was perfect. It was obviously flawed in some significant ways.
But there is something wrong about our culture. I think if de Tocqueville were to come back, he would not be happy, in some ways. He would see things that were missing a little bit from the relationship between individuals and society, and particularly the obligation I have, say, about the common good. I think there’s a degree now of selfishness and individualism. And I think it’s gotten out of hand in American society. We saw a lot of that during the pandemic. And that, to me, was yet another message that we’ve got some work here to do.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Louis Caldera, who is a professor of law at American University.
Can you talk about our democracy as an example to the world that is foundational to achieving our foreign policy and national security goals? Do you agree? Do we undermine our leadership in the world if our own democracy is undermined by things like gerrymandering, vote suppressing laws, unchecked special interest money, and so on?
HAASS: In a word, yes, we do. We certainly undermine the appeal of democracy. It’s very hard to talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk. And January 6 was probably the low point. But again, when people look at American democracy or look not just at democracy but American society, I think our ability—and, how do I put this—we’re not quite the shining city on the hill we should be or could be. So, we can have—we can arm every diplomat with talking points about preaching democratic reform, but it’s not going to have any traction if it’s done against the backdrop of what we now have in this country. So I think that’s just a fact of life. So you’re spot on.
And I also think the divisions in our society and the lurches, increasingly, in our politics have made us much less influential in the world, because we’re no longer seen as predictable or reliable. And allies, by definition, what have they done? They have essentially made a security choice to put a big chunk of their security in our hands. If our hands are no longer seen as reliable, predictable, or safe, they’re either going to put security in their own hands—and that’s a world of much more proliferation or something like that—or they’re going to defer to some powerful neighbors. That is not a pretty world.
I also worry that our—my own guess, I can’t prove it—but Vladimir Putin was somewhat encouraged to do what did in Ukraine because he didn’t think the United States had the will to come together to resist. And so I take these things seriously. So, yeah. So I think, again, this is directly—what’s going on here, you know, to use the old line about Las Vegas, it doesn’t stay here. This isn’t Las Vegas. And it’s—if anybody’s on this from Nevada, I apologize. But it does have real foreign policy consequences. So I think you’re spot on.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Collette Mazzucelli, who has raised her hand.
Q: Hello. Good afternoon, Dr. Haass.
And I just wanted to ask you if you think that there’s a need for a new model of citizenship because of the evolution of the internet, the next phase that’s coming, the prevalence and, you know, omnipresent nature of misinformation, disinformation in our society, and also across the world. Thank you.
HAASS: It’s a really thoughtful question. It was about, what, two weeks ago the Supreme Court had two days of oral hearings—or arguments on Section 230 of the 1996 law, the Communications Decency Act. I think we’re struggling with the internet, because these companies, or the pipes that they operate, are carrying millions and millions of messages from millions and millions of people. So the question is, can we—and if so, how, and the rest—can we in any way regulate the content? So I think there’s real issues. And social media is, in many cases, inflaming divisions within a society.
It is encouraging some bad behaviors in many cases. But it’s not quite clear to me what the remedies are, what’s practical, and what’s desirable. Some things are simply impractical given the number of users, the volume of messaging. And some things may not be desirable because where do you draw the line on First Amendment rights, free speech, and so forth. And who does the drawing? Who’s in charge of line drawing? And do we want to necessarily delegate the ability to draw certain lines to some individuals who may be working for Twitter, or Facebook, or Instagram, or what have you?
So I think these are really tough issues. My guess is the Supreme Court will probably punt to Congress. Congress will not pick up the ball, would be my guess. There might be some movement. If you look at one of the cases heard before the court now, I think they’ll issue their decision in, say, June or so. Where it’s one thing for the companies to say they’re neutral, they can’t be expected to regulate content. OK. I think it’s different, though, when they highlight, or accelerate, or intensify certain content through algorithms or what have you. So I think there might be some pushback there, that they can’t necessarily police or regulate all the content. But they can be held accountable for not—or, regulator-required, not to highlight certain content. I think it might get at their business model, but I can live with that, to say the least.
And then the other half of the coin is how do we make ourselves more critical consumers? And that gets at the whole information literacy movement that we’re seeing in New Jersey at the high school level, and other places. But I would think, again, on university campuses, the idea—if I had my way, there would be a mandatory civics course. And, again, one dimension of it would be information literacy. So even if we’ll never succeed in totally regulating what goes on social media, in whatever form. But I do think we can improve our ability to be critical consumers of it. And I think that is out there.
But, look, when I look at democratic backsliding around the world, not just in the United States. We’re seeing it in Mexico, we’re seeing it in India, we’re seeing it in Israel. We’re seeing it in lots of places. The proliferation of media, social media, you know, my word for it is narrowcasting. We now live in an era of narrowcasting. And people are no longer exposed to common things, and they increasingly go into various social and regular media outlets, which tend to either confirm certain views or prejudices, what have you. I think it’s a real challenge for democracy.
FASKIANOS: So we have a written question from Victoria Powers, who’s at Capital University in Ohio.
I agree with you that teaching civics is critical, and I understand that it’s complex in the current environment for some high schools to teach civics. Although I hate to give up requiring civics in K-12 schools. Do you have ideas about what we could do to help provide an education in civics for all those young people who will not be headed to two- or four-year college or universities or community colleges, obviously. And, sorry, she is an adjunct at the Capital University Law School in Ohio.
HAASS: Well, I think the takeaway I take from that question, and it’s a good one, is what we do on two- and four-year college and university campuses is part of the answer, it’s not the totality of it. And we’ve got to get to citizens younger. So that gets at what you do at high school, junior high school, even middle school. I mean, iCivics has been active in middle schools for a long time. And it also raises questions of what we do away from school. And that’s where, again, I think that those who give the sermons have a certain responsibility, media has a larger responsibility than it is often willing to carry out. Businesses, corporations have a responsibility. I think there’s got to be distributed obligations here.
And I believe each one of these segments of society has obligations and should be pressured by citizens to carry it out. But I do think, yes, we ought to be pushing civics down younger, but we also—we need—as important as classrooms are, we’ve also got to do things beyond—outside the classroom. But the basic point is right, particularly since the only thing most Americans have to do is attend school through the age of sixteen. So we can’t afford to miss that opportunity.
Irina, you’re on mute.
FASKIANOS: Right. How long have I been doing this? OK. (Laughs.)
HAASS: For about half an hour, but we’ve been waiting for you. (Laughter.)
FASKIANOS: I’m going to go next to Jody McBrien, who is a professor of social sciences at the University of South Florida.
I understand why young people feel powerless, especially when you consider gerrymandering voting and using misinformation. You mentioned state level, she lives in Florida, enough said. How do you suggest getting students engaged in spite of these issues that understandably cause a feeling of helplessness.
HAASS: Well, again, you know, the people who are in power passing certain laws now, or redrawing lines, they weren’t always in those positions. They got there. So my view is if one disagrees with them, then one has to get them out of there and put other people in there. And that’s what political involvement is all about. There’s nothing inevitable. There’s nothing permanent. These things go in cycles and so forth. So I would tell students, yeah, channel your frustration. Channel your anger. But channel it in ways that will change the political realities.
Don’t just protest. Don’t just get—certainly don’t give up. I mean, I think the worst thing is to walk away from it and saying it’s hopeless. That becomes self-fulfilling, because then, again, you leave your political future in the hands of others who are unlikely to have your best interests at heart. So I think the best thing is to sit down with students and talk about how politics have changed American time, and time, and time again. And they ought to essentially think about collective action. And that’s the history of American political life.
FASKIANOS: I will take the next written question from Ali Abootalebi, who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire.
Would you comment on implications of your civic education argument for U.S. foreign policy? The American public is fundamentally divorced from U.S. foreign relations, leaving the foreign policy establishment free from certain obligations and in pursuit of narrowed interests.
HAASS: Well, the latter we can have a debate about, to what extent does American foreign policy always served American interests. And I would say, at times it has and at times it hasn’t. I’m often a critic of what we do in the name of the national interest, which at times to me seems to be anything but. But that’s almost a case-by-case type thing.
But, look, I would say that one part of being an informed citizen is understanding the world and understanding foreign policy. It’s one of the reasons about a decade ago here, at the Council on Foreign Relations, we made it a real priority to promote literacy in matters of the world and matters of foreign policy. And we’ve got an entire curriculum. We’ve got simulation resources. We’ve got resources aimed at younger students. We do now all sorts of public fora on our website, CFR.org. The most trafficked items tend to be the explainers of these complicated issues to give people a basic understanding of these issues. I think it’s part of being an informed citizen.
So my own view is we want to have what we call global literacy, in addition to having what I would call civics literacy. I think they are both—since we live in a global world, where everything we do or don’t do affects the world and vice versa, everything that goes on the world affects us, for better and for worse, we want citizens to be aware of that loop, and to think about the consequences of certain policies or actions for that. So I think that as an extension of informed civic involvement. It’s just the content, in some cases, has to involve things international, and not just things domestic.
FASKIANOS: All right. I’m going to take the next question from David Cheney. And I’m trying to pull up affiliation.
While I am: How can young people stay accurately informed, given their reliance on social media? And how would you have them balance right-wing with left-wing media sources to arrive at a closer approximation of the truth? And he is at NYU.
HAASS: I’ve heard of NYU. Look, a couple things. Yeah, I know what is not in my answer. TikTok is not the answer. Let me say that. A couple of things. One is, and in the book I have a whole section on where to go for more. And I also think—you know, because there are certain quality publications. Certain newspapers just tend to be good, or better than others. They’re not perfect, but they’re better. Certain magazines, certain television and radio shows, certain websites. So there are quality places to steer people to. I think as a rule of thumb we ought to encourage multi-sourcing, not to put all your—not to depend on a single source. It’s almost like a journalist. A journalist would never write a story based on a single source. They have to double-source it. And I almost feel as citizens we ought to double-source our information, and not just depend on one.
I used to have a rule when I went to the gym in my pre-COVID life, when I went on the elliptical, I would divide my time among Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. And I’ll admit, I did cheat and ESPN would get a chunk of it as well. But the whole idea was the be exposed. It was just—it was interesting just to see the different “realities,” quote/unquote, that were put forward. But I think it’s important to—if you read a national newspaper, then read a local newspaper, maybe. Or if you do something of the left, do something of the right. Or if you read this book, as a professor or teacher, you’d encourage someone to read something else to—so you’re not, again, single sourcing.
And I think that’s the—if I had a single rule of thumb, it would probably be that, to protect yourself from the structural biases. Because all authors or publications have a bias either in what they cover or how they cover it. I take that for granted. So the only way—the best way to protect yourself from it is a degree of multiple exposure.
FASKIANOS: OK. I think we have time for one more. Dana Radcliffe at Syracuse University.
President Obama in his farewell address referred to the citizen as “the most important office in a democracy.” The philosopher Joseph Tussman in 1960 offered an insightful characterization of “the office of the citizen.” Might the suggestion that citizen is a public office help advance the thesis that citizenship entails obligations as well as rights?
HAASS: An interesting construct. I like it. It kind of adds a bit of heft, because we tend to sort of just talk about citizenship, almost dismiss it at times. Well, he’s just an ordinary person. But I like the idea of an office, that it’s—that you’re—because that suggests a degree of empowerment and a degree, again, of obligation. So I like the idea. I think it kind of—kind of it gets people to take the potential to make a difference a little bit more seriously. And I really like it. So that’s a useful construct. So thank you for that.
FASKIANOS: OK. We have a few more minutes. Richard, is there anything you want to leave the group with that we haven’t covered?
HAASS: I know I’m always supposed to say yes at this point, but no. It’s been a really wide-ranging conversation. No, and I think what I’m hoping is that people on a call such as this will think about how to promote—you know, particularly on campuses and schools—the teaching of civics. Both to create a mandate for it, and then we can debate the content. But the idea that—you know, one of the arguments often used that I encounter—I’m not in a position to judge its accuracy—is that too many of the constituencies on campus oppose this, particularly it’s often said to me, you know, faculty, or whatever.
And I think the faculty could make an important difference by basically saying: Actually, no. We don’t oppose this. We think this is a swell idea. And we’re prepared to work with administrators, students, and the rest, to make it happen. And I think that would be fantastic. So, again, you’re the multipliers. And I think you’re in a special position to do this. So, again, I think freshman year experience is a good place to get the kids going, the students going with this. But I do think, whether it’s a course or a module at some point, it needs—but we need advocates for it.
So I hope some of you on this call will be advocates, because I just think we’re missing not just an opportunity but, if you’ll pardon the expression, we’re missing an obligation to see that—to make sure that our students are prepared to do their bit, to do their share, for upholding democracy in this country. And so I just think universities and colleges have, again, a special opportunity and obligation both. And you’re all so instrumental to do that. So Godspeed in that effort.
FASKIANOS: Well, with that, thank you very much, Richard. Thank you for writing, authoring, this book, The Bill of Obligations. Richard has also written teaching notes to go with the book that we will be posting on the website alter this week. If you’re interested in an exam copy, either digital or print, we can—we can honor that request. And if you want to try to make—put his book on the common reading list or incorporate it into your first-year experience, we can also think about having Richard address the incoming class virtually or perhaps in person.
We appreciate all that you have done, Richard. He has really transformed CFR into an educational institution. You should check out Model Diplomacy and World 101. You can follow Richard on Twitter at @richardhaass, subscribe to his Substack newsletter which he just launched, called Home and Away, by going to richardhaass.substack.com. We’ll include those links in our follow-up note with the link to this video and transcript. We will include the teaching notes as well. And I also encourage you to follow @CFR_Academic, visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues. Again, thank you all for being with us today, for the work that you do on your college campuses. And, Richard Haass, again, thank you for being with us.
HAASS: Thank you, Irina. Thank you, all. I appreciate it.