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The grand global political lesson of the moment: we have no idea what's possible

How the refugee crisis, Trump, and Brexit signal a world in flux.

The UK Reacts To Trump's Muslim Travel Ban Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images

“What we thought was a given is no longer a given, and that's alarming.”

In this interview, I talk to Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of A World in Disarray: America’s Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order. I ask him about the geopolitical implications of Trump’s immigration ban. We also zoom back and talk about the destabilizing effects of the global refugee crisis. Is Europe cracking at the seams? Are we witnessing the end of the post–World War II liberal democratic order? If so, what comes next? Haass tackles these questions head on in his new book.

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

Before diving into the big-picture questions on which your book focuses, I have to ask you about Trump’s immigration ban. Does this make us any safer than we were a week or two ago?

Richard Haass

The short answer is that it makes us on balance less safe. It pretends to "fix" a problem that barely exists, and against which we've made a lot of progress, which is the threat of terrorists coming into the country. And in the process, it exacerbates the possibility that people already here will become alienated and radicalized. It also makes it less likely that individuals will work with us around the world, and it probably will contribute to ISIS's recruiting efforts.

Sean Illing

I’ve often felt that the “narrative” narrative is overused. Too many of our responses to terrorism are seen as causing terrorism or feeding into the ISIS or al-Qaeda narrative. But Trump’s immigration ban seems like the worst setback on this front since Abu Ghraib. The articles in Dabiq, ISIS’s propaganda magazine, write themselves after this, no?

Richard Haass

It certainly sets things up in a way that essentially makes Muslims guilty until proven innocent, or in some cases it doesn't even give them an opportunity to prove their innocence because the ban is indefinite. The fact that refugees are being singled out only adds to the tragedy of it.

Sean Illing

Trump’s immigration ban is taking place against the backdrop of a global refugee crisis, and of course you just wrote a book titled A World in Disarray. How concerned are you about the stability of the international political order?

Richard Haass

Well, it's deteriorated in recent years, most obviously in the Middle East and Europe. What worries me is that you can see the potential for deterioration in Asia and at the broader global level as well. There are, for example, serious cyberthreats that could cause things to quickly unravel. There are also problems dealing with global trade. Simply put, I see a lot of arrows pointed in the wrong direction, and a lot of these issues are because of what we're doing or, in some cases, not doing.

Sean Illing

Is that to say you still see time for course correction?

Richard Haass

Very little of this is inevitable, and that's what makes it more frustrating. A lot of this is the consequence of policies or statements or things we're doing or saying.

Sean Illing

The subtitle of your book implies that an old order is dying and a new historical era is beginning. What was the old order, and what is it being replaced by?

Richard Haass

The old order is what we'd typically call the international order, a lot of which was built after World War II. For the first 40 years after World War II, you had the discipline and clarity of the Cold War. For the next 20 or so years, you had clear American primacy and limited progress in coping with the challenges of globalization.

What we're seeing now is a revival of great power tensions. We're seeing the demise of traditional support for free trade. We've obviously lost the discipline that came with the Cold War. We saw the American entry and, in some ways, departure from the Middle East, both of which have contributed to making that the most chaotic part of the world. We've seen Russia's behavior in Europe and the refugee crisis in Syria, which has spurred populist and nationalist movements across the European continent.

The result is a world in which America’s prestige and influence is greatly diminished.

Sean Illing

Why is a less unipolar world or a world in which America is less powerful so worrisome for you?

Richard Haass

A couple of reasons. One is that it's not as though we're going to be replaced by anybody else. The alternative to a US-led world is not a world led by someone else. It's a leaderless world, a world in which there are more conflicts and less concerted actions. The basic point is that we can't escape the consequences of such a world, and we’ll pay a heavy price for living in it.

Sean Illing

Europe appears to be cracking at the seams. Terrorism, the refugee crisis, economic anxiety, the destabilizing effects of globalization and free trade — all of this is contributing to a kind of unraveling across the continent. Can the social and political structures in countries like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom absorb these shocks for much longer?

Richard Haass

It's a good question. I worry that one of the great accomplishments of the post–World War II world, which is the European order, is in jeopardy. And there's two big dimensions to this: the economic dimension and the security dimension. I think Brexit has put the economic order at some risk. Donald Trump’s statements about NATO combined with Russian aggression has put the security order at risk. So in just a couple of years, the part of the world that was the most stable is suddenly once again in doubt, and that's a real setback.

Sean Illing

The inability of Europe to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis has been a boon to neo-fascists and isolationists across the continent. Can the center hold in these countries moving forward?

Richard Haass

The honest answer is that we don't know. I still think it can, but it's a lot more questionable than it was. We'll see what happens in France and Germany. The fact that we're having this conversation at all, however, would have been inconceivable five years ago.

Sean Illing

Are we witnessing the end of European integration as we’ve come to know it since the end of World War II?

Richard Haass

I'd say we're definitely at a high-water mark. What I don't know is if, ultimately, we'll end up with multiple Europes, a fairly integrated small circle of Europe and a less integrated outer circle or two — that's certainly one possibility. I'd be surprised if we saw the total disintegration of Europe, because there's a degree of institutional backing for it, and major countries like Germany still benefit from it.

The one thing that could change this would be if someone like Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front Party, were to be elected president of France. Then you would probably see disintegration of Europe as we know it.

Sean Illing

How do you see the trajectory of the Middle East over the next five or 10 years? As you point out in the book, it appears the order established after World War II has already eroded entirely.

Richard Haass

I've argued the Middle East is in the midst of a modern Thirty Years' War — multiple political and religious struggles, civil wars, wars against non-state actors, proxy wars, regional wars, etc. I think this continues for a long time. I don't see it burning itself out or sorting itself anytime soon. This is the new normal, unfortunately.

Sean Illing

Do we have any idea what the region looks like on the other end of that 30 years?

Richard Haass

I don't think it will look like the old Middle East, but I also don't think you're going to see a new map of the Middle East drawn up and approved. I think you're going to have a part of the world in which there several broken countries and a kind of fragmented or informal order.

Sean Illing

Stepping back a bit, the principal political lesson of 2016 seems to be that the range of possible outcomes is far broader than most of us imagined. What we see now, as you diagnose in the book, is a trend of declining order. Do you see that reversing anytime soon?

Richard Haass

I think that's exactly right. The analogy I use is that international relations has for a long time been played within the 40-yard lines. What we're suddenly seeing is that history is moving toward the end zones, both in American and across the world.

What we thought was a given is no longer a given, and that's alarming.

Sean Illing

We’ve at least avoided a great power conflict since the end of World War II. Given the rise of China and the escalating tensions between Russia and the United States, how worried are you that this streak will end?

Richard Haass

I think it's gone from something that was largely unthinkable to something that's at least thinkable, and one can imagine a crisis with Russia over Ukraine or over the Baltic states. One can imagine a crisis with China over Taiwan or the South China Sea.

I'm not saying either of these scenarios is probable or likely, but they've gone from unthinkable to possible.

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