An ultimate establishment figure, Mr. Haass sought over two decades to update his organization’s elite image.
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Richard N. Haass is preparing to step down from the Council on Foreign Relations.
WASHINGTON — When Richard N. Haass took over as president of the Council on Foreign Relations almost 20 years ago, becoming the de facto dean of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, the world was a very different place.
The United States had just toppled the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and its power seemed unmatched. China remained a modest regional player, and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was offering himself as a U.S. ally. American democracy seemed relatively healthy, with bipartisanship strong enough to give President George W. Bush an approval rating in the 60s.
It is a grimmer picture today, as Mr. Haass prepares to step down from the Council on Foreign Relations, whose board he notified on Wednesday of his plans to depart in June. Based in New York, the 101-year-old nonpartisan organization sets out to inform and influence U.S. foreign policy, and it also publishes the journal Foreign Affairs. Its membership includes dozens of former and likely future government officials.
“It’s impossible for me, or anyone, to argue that we’ve used these decades well,” Mr. Haass said of the United States in an interview. “We face a world where we’ve got a revival of classic geopolitics on steroids. My own view is, if you’re not worried, you’re not paying attention.”
Most concerning to Mr. Haass, a former White House, Pentagon and State Department official, is the state of America’s domestic politics, which he said threatens to undermine the country’s strength abroad. “I’ve come to think that the biggest national security threat facing the United States is not Russia or China or climate change, but ourselves,” said Mr. Haass, 71, who is writing a book on the subject and hopes to remain a familiar voice in public debates about American foreign policy.
The Council on Foreign Relations can carry an image of elite machinations far removed from the general public. Its members-only meetings, sometimes with world leaders, have animated conspiracy theorists on the political fringes who see it as a sinister institution exerting quiet control over the world.
The reality is more humdrum — which is not to say that the council lacks influence, as evidenced by the (wholly public and livestreamed) conversation Mr. Haass hosted at the council’s Washington offices in December with President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who himself was once an intern for Mr. Haass’s predecessor at the council, Leslie Gelb.
Mr. Haass conceded that the council could be seen as “somehow closed or elite,” something he said he worked hard to change. During his tenure, he put more effort into what he called “developing talent” in the foreign policy field, including by hiring 125 paid interns per year and making the council’s 5,000 members younger — and more diverse — on average.
There is still work to do: Mr. Haass said that only about one-third of those members are women, though the organization was all male until 50 years ago. About 20 percent are people of color, he said.
Mr. Haass also tried to expand the council’s reach beyond Washington and New York, creating an educational arm that provides resources about global affairs to high school and college classrooms, and even local religious leaders.
Mr. Haass also stressed his pride in what he called the genuine nonpartisanship of the council, though critics might say it fills a relatively narrow political bandwidth. Allies of former President Donald J. Trump might see the council as an arm of the so-called “deep state,” while many progressives scoff at what they see as an embodiment of the wrongheaded foreign policy “Blob.”
A Rhodes scholar who never entirely lost his Brooklyn accent, Mr. Haass was appointed to his position after serving in four presidential administrations, three of them Republican. His last post was as the State Department’s director of policy planning in the George W. Bush administration. Churning out books, opinion essays and television and newspaper commentary at the council, Mr. Haass was known for evenhanded commentary, although he became a sharp critic of a Trump presidency after briefing Mr. Trump, then a candidate, in the summer of 2015. (A spokeswoman for Mr. Haass noted at the time that he had offered to hold briefings for all candidates of both parties.)
As for Mr. Biden’s foreign policy today, Mr. Haass offers a mixed if sympathetic review. He said the president had done “a relatively good job” of responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and made important strides toward rebuilding frayed U.S. alliances.
He opposed Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and said Mr. Biden lacks a trade policy. He has also been among the most prominent figures urging the Biden administration to end its official policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan and vow more explicitly to defend the island from a Chinese invasion.
But, he added, the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol and economic turmoil have complicated Mr. Biden’s job.
“It’s very hard to conduct a successful foreign policy against the backdrop of a domestic crisis,” he said.