Ambassador Burns on Trump administration’s global foreign policy challenges

As the United States continues to face security challenges in arenas around the world, the MacMillan Center hosted Ambassador (Ret.) Nicholas Burns, who presented its annual George Herbert Walker Jr. Lecture in International Studies on “The Trump Administration’s Global Foreign Policy Challenges.” In attendance at the lecture was former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, as well as several members of the Walker and Bush families. (view video)

Beverley Gage, a professor in the History department, introduced Ambassador Burns as a career public servant who has served under presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama in a variety of diplomatic roles. He is currently the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

 “I am proud to have served both George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, who is one of my heroes,” Ambassador Burns began. “He ended the Cold War without a shot being fired. Masterful diplomacy.”

“My task is difficult,” he continued. “It is to try to explain and decipher the foreign policy challenges President Trump has inherited.”

However, Ambassador Burns is hopeful.

“I think America is in good shape as a global power,” he said. “We are the world leader economically. We should be the world leader in the next digital age that is coming. We are certainly militarily still the strongest country in the world.”

“I wanted to begin on a hopeful note, because it is so fashionable to believe that our best days are over,” he continued. “But President Trump did not inherit a country that is failing.”

Yet, he said, this is one of the most complex set of challenges that any president has faced since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although we have seen much more difficult times – the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the World Wars – the intersection of international issues that faces President Trump requires international understanding and cooperation.

He named several problems that leaders across the world are facing, including climate change, human trafficking, criminal and drug cartels, the threat of pandemics, and cyber espionage. It is clear, he said, that no country can hide from these problems, and significant efforts have been put toward forming coalitions on these issues. 

“Our presidents and prime ministers need to keep these coalitions running every day, because it is how 7.5 billion people survive in the world,” he said. “That’s a point that I’m not sure that Trump and his administration have realized.”

Ambassador Burns then moved to discuss specific foreign policy issues. He focused on the three that he believes the last four U.S. presidents would name as the biggest modern challenges: a weakening Europe, a turbulent and unstable Middle East, and a “generational challenge” to keep peace with China without being dominated by it.

“Europe is consequential to us,” he said. He noted that Europe is America’s largest trading partner, the largest investor in the American economy, and contains the largest number of American allies in the world. Currently, he continued, Europe is facing its biggest crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Moving forward, he said, “they are going to need [Trump’s] leadership and friendship, the help and support of the United States.” In the face of Brexit and the distant possibility that Scotland or Ireland could leave the United Kingdom, Europe is “worried that the United States may not be providing the type of leadership currently that we have in the past,” he said.

“President Trump said that it didn’t really matter to him whether the EU succeeded or failed,” he continued. “That contradicted seventy years of Republican Party policy.”

“Europeans look to us…and we’re not giving them much help,” he concluded.

He then moved to discuss the Middle East. He stated that the region is incredibly turbulent following the beginning of the Arab Spring, and that we are looking at least another ten to twenty years of regional instability.

“Then think of the tragedy of Syria,” he continued. “Before the revolution started in Syria, the UN reported that the population of Syria was 22.4 million people. Today the UN reports that at least 12 million of those people are homeless. It is the greatest humanitarian tragedy in the world today.”

“They’ve been blasted out of their homes by the Syrian Air Force dropping these bombs, the Russian Air Force mercilessly carpet bombing them,” he continued. “They are victims, they are just on the run.”

The United States’ current policy on Syrian refugees, he said, is shameful.

“In every refugee crisis since World War II, the U.S. always takes half the refugees that the UN seeks to take in during that current campaign. In this crisis we should have taken in several hundred thousand Syrian refugees…You know how many people we’ve taken in from Syria? Twelve thousand five hundred, all by President Obama. President Trump has said, in the greatest humanitarian crisis, we’re shutting the doors, we’re digging a great moat around the country and we’re building walls.”

“The proverbial question to Americans now is ‘what happened to you? Where are you? We need some help,’” Ambassador Burns said. “And the United States is not helping.”

Ambassador Burns concluded his remarks by discussing China. He related a story of the late Ambassador Stephen Bosworth coming into his classroom at Harvard and telling his students that the most daunting international challenge is to “find a way to be partners with China and then not to be dominated by China.”

 “In many ways, China is not our enemy, China is our partner,” he said. “How can you be successful in the modern world without working with China?” Yet, Ambassador Burns continued, China is bullying five sovereign nations in the South China Sea and has pursued international strategies that the United States cannot ignore.

“It would be catastrophic to go to war with China,” he said. “Here’s the question – have we ever had a relationship in American history where our strongest partner is our strongest competitor? That’s a difficult question that requires leadership that is historically minded, that is sophisticated, that is nuanced, that has a great deal of credibility.”

“If these are the big challenges, boy we better have good leadership in Washington,” he continued. “You need people with that depth, experience, gravitas, personal credibility, honesty, that’s what we need in Washington. And I don’t want to be unfair to the Trump administration, but they started in a very awkward position.”

Ambassador Burns concluded with a discussion of what the Trump slogan “America First” really means in the context of the Trump Administration.

“What will America First mean on trade? What will it mean on immigration and refugees? Do we close the doors on our history? What will it mean for our alliances?”

Article 5 of NATO, which states that an attack against one member of the alliance shall be treated as an attack against all, has only been invoked once, Ambassador Burns concluded. It was the day after September 11.

“So when I hear our president denigrate NATO…they’re all still fighting with us and for us in Afghanistan today. Where is our historical memory?” he asked. “Does ‘America First’ mean ‘America Only’? And does that make sense in the era of globalization?”

The ambassador’s visit concluded with a question and answer session, including a question from former President Zedillo about who can check the Trump administration to “prevent a terrible disaster for this country.”

Ambassador Burns answered that the most effective check on President Trump’s agenda might come from within the Republican Party itself.

“On issues of foreign policy and national security, there’s been a pushback to Trump from John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio,” he said. “Trump has never once criticized Putin for intervening in our election, and the Republicans are criticizing him…that gives me a little hope.”


Written by Olivia Paschal, B.A. Political Science and History, Class of 2018.

Thursday, May 4, 2017