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In new book, Haass explores the obligations we have to one another and the country


Richard Haass is a veteran U.S. diplomat and now the head of the Council on Foreign Relations. He sometimes talks with audiences about a changing world.

RICHARD HAASS: Whenever I was out speaking, the question would come up - what keeps you up at night? What worries you most? Is it China or Russia or North Korea, what have you? And increasingly, my answer was, no. It's none of those places. Though, they all worry me. What really keeps me up at night is the United States.

INSKEEP: So his latest book explores problems at home. It's called "The Bill Of Obligations." The title plays on the Bill of Rights, the Constitution's first 10 amendments. Richard Haass offers 10 obligations that he says go along with those rights.

HAASS: If everybody just focuses on his or her rights, then there's no room for compromise because rights very quickly become absolute. Your right to hold guns as opposed to someone else's right to safety. Your right not to get vaccinated or wear a mask, someone else's right for public health. A woman's right to choose. The rights of the unborn. And I also thought we were losing the idea that we had some obligations both to one another as citizens and to our country.

INSKEEP: I've heard the idea that rights come along with responsibilities. But you choose this, perhaps, slightly different word, obligations. What's on your mind?

HAASS: I thought hard about it. It's not requirements. The idea of obligations are things we should do rather than have to do. These are not matters of legality. But this is in the realm of should or ought. And it's the things that we need to do in order to make the political system work, for the society to remain peaceful, to get things done.

INSKEEP: You list a number of them here. Remain civil. Reject violence. Get involved. Stay open to compromise. But I want to ask about one in particular, be informed. How well-informed do you think the public is on the issues that you're expert in?

HAASS: I made it the first obligation because, I think, in some ways, it's foundational to all others. And one of the great ironies or contradictions of this moment is we're swimming in information. On the other hand, we're also swimming in misinformation. Many of us have lost the ability to distinguish between facts and misstatements, or to discern between what's a fact, what's a recommendation, what's a prediction, what's analysis. We don't really teach that in our schools. We may or may not teach critical thinking. But I want people to be critical consumers of information.

INSKEEP: Do you find people - on complicated foreign policy issues, especially - giving you some information and you think, well, what you say is true? It's not strictly misinformation. But it's not very relevant. Or it's not the most important thing.

HAASS: Oh, absolutely. And you raise a really good point. Misinformation is not just things that are flat-out wrong. It can be things that are also incomplete. It's a little bit like touching the skin of the elephant. And you could be accurate in the spot you touch. But you might be missing 99% of the reality of the elephant. But on virtually every issue, I'm even more impressed or depressed by the degree of misinformation out there. You know, we can disagree, for example, on what to do about climate change. But we shouldn't be disagreeing about the fact that the Earth's temperature has gone up just over 2 degrees Fahrenheit. That's simply a fact. Again, how worried you are about it, what to do about it, that's where democracy should kick in.

INSKEEP: I wonder if there's a special problem with some of these complicated challenges, because people do tend to vote on their interests and often have a very good idea of what their interests are in a particular situation, like, I don't know, their tax rate or whatever. But is there a special challenge in trying to explain what you think people's interests are in climate change or the war in Ukraine or U.S.-China policy or trade policy generally?

HAASS: Look, the more technical things get, it obviously gets more difficult. But I'm actually impressed how often people don't vote on their interests. And I don't mean this to be insulting. But one would have to have a pretty firm grasp of the issues. I mean, take the debate we're going to be having over the next six months on the debt ceiling. How is the average person to know what is their interest there? You hear all sorts of arguments. People don't make it clear that what the debt ceiling is is simply ratifying spending and debt levels that have already been incurred. So I think one of the things people in your business have an obligation to do is provide explainers on the issues. And obviously, schools have a similar obligation.

INSKEEP: Sure. We talk often about slowing the news down to try to figure out what really matters. I wonder if the misinformation sometimes goes the other direction. Is it possible sometimes that people in elite positions of power are just not very well-informed about how their policies affect ordinary people?

HAASS: I think sometimes they're not very well-informed. Simply because you enjoy a position of power doesn't mean you know a lot. I think, in some cases, people know better, but they don't act better. One of the things I do in this book is make the last of the 10 obligations, put the country first. At some point, we need character - what the founders of this country called virtue - in our political leaders. I'm not sitting here naive. I don't expect a lot of these people who we see in public life to simply become virtuous and put the country before their own political ambitions. But that's then up to us voters.

You know, politicians, in my experience, Steve, they may not be responsible, but they are responsive. So we as voters, we as citizens have to reward good behaviors. And we have to penalize behaviors where elected officials are acting badly. It's one of the reasons I would love to see civics - at least what you and I used to call civics - or social studies or citizenship and democracy taught in schools. I think it's actually a scandal that you can graduate from almost any four-year college and university in this country and even though the courses are offered, they're not required. I think we've got to tell our story better. And then I believe people will be more prepared to get involved and to understand that this democracy is something worth preserving.

INSKEEP: Do you think that you can trust states that oversee public schools in 2023 to even agree on what civics to teach and what to leave out?

HAASS: (Laughter) It's funny. There's a bill that was introduced in Congress to have a national civics curriculum. And in it - one of the sentences in it, this does not mean in any way we're going to state what a national civics curriculum should be. So then you end up with the crazy idea - I mean, it is kind of borderline crazy that young people in Arkansas would be learning a different national story than young people in Idaho or California. That, shall we say, defeats the purpose. But I do think - yes, I do think there's a chance not that you necessarily give people the bottom lines on policies - indeed, avoid policy conclusions. But we do have certain facts about our history. We do have certain basic documents, the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence. My goal is not to drive Americans towards any particular policy. I'm much more interested in getting them to understand why democracy is of value. And what does it take for a democracy to work as intended?

INSKEEP: The many books by Richard Haass include "The Bill Of Obligations: The Ten Habits Of Good Citizens." Always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

HAASS: Thanks for having me back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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