At home: Richard Haass in New York

A large oil painting of Winston Churchill’s distinctive bulldog face – presented in eight different windows and in the bold lines of a news magazine cover – catches the eye as soon as you enter the elegantly understated living room of Richard Haass’s Manhattan apartment.

Its presence seems entirely fitting in the home of one of the most prominent members of the US foreign policy establishment. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the influential New York think-tank, commissioned the canvas some eight years ago from artist Norma Miller, an American friend living in London, whose work includes cover portraits for Time magazine.

Why Churchill? “One, he’s got this extraordinary face and features,” says Haass, gesturing to the portrait from a sofa. “Second, I think he was the single most significant individual of the 20th century. More than anyone else, I would argue, he changed the direction of 20th-century history.”

As quickly becomes clear, an interesting and eclectic collection of art is Haass’s primary contribution to the look and feel of the Upper East Side apartment he shares with his wife, Susan Mercandetti, vice-president of business development and partnerships for ABC News.

“She’s the one who figured out the look of the place, the furnishings,” he says, and adds jokingly: “I’ve had more to do with the golf clubs stacked in the corner of one room and some of the artwork.”

Mercandetti is the daughter of Italian immigrants and there is a distinct touch of continental European flair to the decor, notably in the living room with its muted creams, beiges and yellows, accented by an occasional splash of more vibrant colour, such as a red throw or leopard-spot cushion. The apartment is a stone’s throw from Central Park in a building with a fine art deco façade, lobby and elevator.

This is a busy summer for Haass. He has just published his 13th book and in July he will celebrate 10 years as head of the CFR, a job he took on after two years as director of policy planning at the state department under Colin Powell – a period that included the 9/11 attacks and the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

His career also included four years in the George HW Bush administration as senior director for near east and south Asian affairs at the National Security Council during a period covering the first Gulf war and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A baby grand piano

Unusually for Haass, his new book focuses on domestic political issues. Titled Foreign Policy Begins at Home, it argues that the US has “jeopardised its ability to act effectively in the world” because of a raft of domestic failures and “flawed” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “For the US to continue to act successfully abroad, it must restore the domestic foundations of its power.”

Heading the CFR has meant a return to New York. Haass (who is also a regular Financial Times contributor) was born in Brooklyn – his father was a financial analyst – and brought up in idyllic 1950s Long Island suburbia before his career took him away.

Educated at Oberlin, the liberal arts college in Ohio, and at Oxford (as a Rhodes scholar), he joined the US defense department in 1979 and spent the first half of the 1980s at the state department, where – still in his early thirties – he was appointed US envoy to negotiations over communally divided Cyprus.

“Needless to say I did not succeed – and neither did anyone before me nor after me. But it was an incredibly valuable diplomatic lesson,” he says. What he learnt very quickly was that having a formula was the least of it. “I had to then figure out how to sell it.” This would be useful a few years later when he was US envoy to the Northern Ireland peace process.

The family room

Haass says he and Susan always thought they would retire to New York: “It is actually a great place as you get older ... extraordinarily family friendly.” However, the CFR job meant they got to the city earlier than expected. “I can’t now imagine calling any other place home,” he adds.

They also own a 300-year-old country house 90 minutes north of Manhattan, where Haass does a lot of his writing. “Once in a while I need to chill,” he says.

They chose their apartment for its proximity not only to Central Park but to the CFR offices. “It’s somewhere between a 15- and 20-minute walk ... It’s a great way to clear your head ... and when I sit down at a computer I’ve already done a lot of the writing in my head.”

Another must was a dining room for entertaining. “One of the great things about being part of the Council and living in New York is the people you can gather round the table,” says Haass. There is only one rule when 12 or 14 people sit down at the fine wooden dining table, in a room of pale blue hues and painted furniture: “One conversation at the table at a time ... I often get frustrated when you go out and you have remarkable people in the room and you don’t have a chance to hear them.”

The apartment also needed to be large enough for family living. A large eat-in kitchen – a luxury in New York – was important. With its white units, bright overhead lights and metal table and chairs, the kitchen’s air of industrial efficiency contrasts with the more rural feel of the dining room.

The eat-in kitchen, a rarity in New York

The kitchen has clearly been the hub of family life, although the couple’s two children are now in college. “This is where the kids grew up,” says Haass, gesturing to the kitchen table. Family dinners, he says, are important for grounding children and “the kitchen is where you do that”. He also does much of his reading and writing at the table. “I like the hubbub ... I sort of set up shop and the cooking goes on around me.” It explains why the apartment has no separate study. “We’ve tried them in the past – they’ve collected a lot of dust.”

As we tour the apartment, it becomes clear how much art means to him. It was not in his background – his parents, he says, “both came out of backgrounds of struggle” – and it was Oberlin, where he dabbled in film-making, that exposed him to things visual.

When he travels he loves visiting local galleries – “it can be an interesting window on a society” – and sometimes he comes home with a new piece. One of his earliest acquisitions, during a lull in peace talks, was a painting bought on the Turkish side of Cyprus, depicting a group of men at a café table. “It was Cézanne-like, I thought,” says Haass. It is hung in the living room, where there are also drawings by Norma Miller and two 20th-century US artists, Alexander Brook and Herbert Barnett.

Abstract painting in the dining room

In the dining room there is a recent acquisition – an abstract featuring three squares of colour by the Brazilian artist Sérgio Sister, bought in São Paulo. “I rather liked it, the colours, the way the paper bled. It was an impulse buy,” says Haass. There is another abstract with blocks of colour on the opposite wall, by the American artist Ed Kerns, and a still life with apples by the US painter Polly Kraft, who is also a friend.

But it is the Churchill that keeps drawing the eye back, and which provides a link to Haass’s new book and his preoccupation with the domestic challenges facing the US.

“We are sitting next to Mr Churchill’s portrait here,” he says, “and Churchill commented that Americans can be counted on to do the right thing but only when they’ve tried everything else. We seem to be at that stage, when we are trying quite a bit. The real question for me is a political one – whether we will be able to exert the collective interest over the special interest in this country, and I think the jury’s out.”

Favourite thing

Richard Haass has chosen the Norma Miller portrait of Winston Churchill, together with two deeply personal framed items. One is a note written by President George HW Bush to Haass’s wife Susan aboard Airforce One, the presidential jet, in November 1990 as Bush visited troops during the first Gulf war. The couple had only been married a day when Haass was despatched on the tour with the president. “Dear Susan,” runs the note, “Richard was with me in the desert. Honest. Please forgive both of us.”

The other is a set of three black-and-white pictures of the couple’s son Sam a couple of days after he was born, taken by Annie Leibovitz, the celebrated portrait photographer, with whom Susan had been working. “They are amazing photos. They are just so powerful,” Haass says.

Martin Dickson is the FT’s US managing editor

Foreign Policy Begins At Home’ by Richard Haass is published by Basic Books, RRP£17.99/$25.99

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