Reviews for The Bill Of Obligations

by Richard Haass

Publishers Weekly
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American democracy is gravely threatened by political polarization, according to this disappointing treatise by Council on Foreign Relations president Haass (The World). At the root of the problem is a political culture that “concerns itself only with protecting and advancing individual rights”; his solution is the fostering of a “culture of obligation” focused on what citizens owe each other and their government. After sketching the role that “inequality of opportunity” and other factors have played in increasing political partisanship, Haass outlines 10 countermeasures, calling on citizens and lawmakers to “Be Informed,” “Value Norms,” “Remain Civil,” and “Stay Open to Compromise.” The entries include positive and negative examples (good: Al Gore accepting the 2000 election results; bad: Nancy Pelosi tearing up Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech), brief history lessons, and earnest discourses on the value of democracy. At times, Haass’s statements are so banal as to be nearly pointless (“There are... significant problems with resorting to physical violence in pursuit of political goals”). More frustratingly, he refuses to fully acknowledge the asymmetrical nature of the problem he’s rightly concerned about, suggesting at one point that it’s “debatable” whether Republicans would have supported Obamacare had Democrats been more willing to compromise, but making no mention of the Tea Party. This is more of a deflection than a reckoning. (Jan.)

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

The president of the Council on Foreign Relations delivers a useful program of civic improvement for a divisive time. It’s an idea as old as Rousseau: With rights come responsibilities toward the social contract. To this, Haass adds the admonition that “American democracy will work and reform will prove possible only if obligations join rights at center stage.” Those rights are constitutionally enumerated even if “the struggle over rights…continues to this day.” The obligations are less well enshrined, though the 10 Haass offers are unobjectionable. The first, echoing the right of freedom of speech and thought, asks that citizens be informed about how the government works and be prepared to participate in civic duties. On that second point, the fundamental obligation is to vote (and to insist on it when that right is impeded). “Voting is the most basic act of citizenship,” writes the author. “It creates a bond between the individual and government and between the individual and country.” Given a largely uninformed citizenry, that bond would seem tenuous, and it’s also conditioned by a lack of civility, which asks of each citizen a reasoned willingness to set aside ideology in order to deal with matters of shared concern or interest “on their merits, not on motives you may ascribe to those making the arguments.” Civility bespeaks a willingness to accept another obligation, which is to reject and repudiate violence of the kind we saw on Jan. 6, 2021. Civility also feeds into the obligation to respect norms and the lessons of civics, such as the idea that the common good often overrules one’s selfish demands—e.g., being allowed to smoke in a crowded restaurant or walk around unvaccinated and unmasked in a pandemic. Sadly, of course, those who most need to read this agreeably thoughtful book likely won’t, but that’s the way of the world. Readers of every political stripe would benefit from hearing out these well-reasoned arguments. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal
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Given the state of U.S. politics, it would seem a fool's errand to advocate for the virtues of democratic engagement: mutual respect, willingness to compromise, civility. But this is what Haass (The World: A Brief Introduction) does. He describes 10 obligations essential for surviving the current political crisis. They include being informed, rejecting violence, promoting the common good, respecting government service, valuing norms, and placing the country and U.S. democracy above party and person. Together, they are meant to balance the country's commitment to such rights as freedom of speech and the right to privacy, which are increasingly divisive and, consequently, detrimental to democracy. Some of the obligations. such as learning the country's history, can be encouraged by legislation, but most require that citizens behave responsibly. The book is more of an appeal for people to embrace their better selves; it's less a deeply and carefully argued reflection of how balancing rights with obligations can strengthen the country. VERDICT A primer for a citizenship that preserves democratic institutions.—Robert Beauregard

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

The U.S. of 2022 is at a crossroads, and diplomat and prolific author Haass (The World: A Brief Introduction, 2020) sees divisions from within as the biggest threat to national security. While the Bill of Rights helped mold the country's concept of democracy, conflicts over individual rights have split the population. Haass posits that U.S. citizens can rein in this wayward trajectory by adhering to ten commitments, ranging from staying informed on current events to voting, valuing norms, and putting the country first. As Haass sees it, adhering to these obligations could overhaul the meaning of citizenship in the U.S., and he emphatically elucidates his vision for the country and the greatness his suggestions could help achieve. Readers may not agree with all of Haass' points (for instance, on mask-wearing), but the reasoned arguments he presents make his eloquent book well worth the read.