Nicholas Burns: Why Does Good Diplomacy Matter?
What role does diplomacy play in the modern world order, and what are the characteristics of a good diplomat? Which countries are the great powers today, and which will lead in 2050? Does NATO have a role in helping manage the political, economic, and military challenges facing the United States? And why is morale reportedly at a low ebb in the State Department? In this episode, former ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns, the Goodman Family professor of the practice of diplomacy and international relations at Harvard Kennedy School, answers these questions and more, based on his long career in government service.
Transcript (the following was prepared by a machine algorithm, and may not perfectly reflect the audio file of the interview):
Jonathan Shaw: Welcome to the Harvard Magazine Podcast, “Ask a Harvard Professor.” I’m Jonathan Shaw. What role does diplomacy play in the modern world order? We’ll explore that question during today’s office hours with Nicholas Burns, Goodman Family Professor of the practice of diplomacy and international relations. Formerly a career foreign service officer, Professor Burns has served in important government positions under three presidents. He was Ambassador to NATO and then Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs under President George W. Bush, Senior Director for Russian, Ukraine and Eurasia Affairs on the National Security Council staff, and Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton, and Director for Soviet Affairs in the administration of President George H.W. Bush. He currently teaches courses on diplomacy and negotiation and on great power competition in the international system. He is Faculty Chair of the Future of Diplomacy Project and of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship. Welcome Professor Burns.
Nicholas Burns: Thank you, Jon. Delighted to be here.
Jonathan Shaw: I’d like to ask you about two subjects today. First, the role of diplomacy in American global influence, and second, the part that NATO plays in that influence. In The Atlantic magazine last year you described George H.W. Bush, the elder Bush president, as a master diplomat who could further American goals by working skillfully with allies. What are the characteristics of a good diplomat? What made him so good?
Nicholas Burns: You know, George H.W. Bush is a good example of what we hope our presidents will be in conducting foreign policy on behalf of the American people. By the time he was inaugurated in January 1989, he had been Minister to China. He had been Ambassador to the United Nations. He’d been Director of the CIA. He’d been vice president for eight years at a consequential time under President Reagan. He was a veteran of the Second World War, so he’d seen war and knew what it meant.
And I think you can make a case that he was perhaps the best prepared president in the history of the country to lead America overseas, both in its foreign policy and its national security, its military policy, and it showed. I worked on the National Security Council staff for three years in his administration. I worked on Soviet affairs at the end of the Soviet Union during the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 25th, 1991. Then in the new period, when the Soviet Union broke into 15 new States.
He was a protean man. He had a panoply of skills and personal attributes that made him effective. He was a listener. I would say he had a great deal of humility. He didn’t think he knew all the answers, but he had so much more experience and yet he’d listen to the younger people like me and my then-boss Condoleezza Rice. We were the two-person Soviet team. He’d hear us out. He was open to alternative views. He wanted to know if you disagreed. He very deeply believed in personal relationships in conducting foreign policy, and so he was a mad dialer of the telephone back when you’d actually dial the telephone.
And it was his personal relationships with Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, as Gorbachev was waxing and Yeltsin was waning, that I think helped to allow the Soviet Union to crash peacefully without a shot being fired. And it was his personal relationships with the king of Saudi Arabia and world leaders that formed that incredible coalition of countries that kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991. He knew the limits of power at the end of that war when we had defeated the Iraqi army. There was a compelling moment in the Oval Office when General Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, came in to say to the President, “We’ve defeated the Iraqi Army. We’ve surrounded it in the desert. What do you want us to do?”
Some Presidents might’ve chosen to have completely defeated that army and killed lots of people. They might have taken the road to Baghdad that was open and occupied Baghdad. He chose to do neither. He knew we’d achieved the ejection of Saddam from Kuwait. We’d achieved a victory, but he didn’t believe we needed to occupy an Arab capital. Boy, with the benefit of hindsight doesn’t that sound prescient, and a wise decision?
Jonathan Shaw: Yes it does. How has the world order changed since then?
Nicholas Burns: Shortly after his presidency, really in the presidency of Bill Clinton, America was predominant. Russia was a declining power. China not yet a great power. Europe looking inward as it created the Euro and the European Union. The United States probably had more power in the 1990s than at any other time in its history. And what’s changed is the return of China to global power—China, a near peer competitor of the United States, both economically and militarily.
What’s changed is that other countries have a larger share of power. Whether it’s a share of global GDP. Whether it’s military effectiveness. Whether it’s, as my colleague Joe Nye, recently interviewed on this podcast series, calls “soft power.” The ability of your culture to attract admiration and influence.
I would put it this way, and I teach a course called Great Powers at the Kennedy School. We look ahead and try to figure out how are we going to maintain a peaceful world at a time of this kind of change that you’re asking about, in absolute terms. There’s no question the United States is the greatest power in the world, the strongest power in the world today. We have the largest economy, the strongest military, the highest degree of political influence, huge cultural power through Hollywood and Netflix—maybe more Netflix than Hollywood now—and our tech companies. And yet in relative terms, our share of power has declined.
So as Americans, we’re going to need to become accustomed to not always being the strongest country on every issue. We’ll have to grow accustomed to sharing power, to building coalitions, and that’s where diplomacy comes in. It’s keeping the peace, hopefully, but it’s also helping to get our way and promote our values and interests. At it’s highest level, that’s what diplomacy should do for a country.
Jonathan Shaw: Right. You’ve described now a demoralized U.S. Diplomatic Corps. What has happened to cause this?
Nicholas Burns: It’s such a travesty, frankly. I’m a career member of the U.S. Foreign Service. I served 27 years and I do believe, and this may sound arrogant, that we have the finest diplomatic corps in the world. We’re very small: 8,500 American career diplomats, compared to say two and a half million people in the U.S. Military, active duty and reserve. And yet I think we turn out people, men and women, who are area experts who understand culture, history, politics, economics, foreign languages, probably better than any other institution in the American government. We’re on point.
We have 288, more or less, embassies and consulates around the world and we are on the front lines. We’re the ones who decide who gets a visa to come into the United States, non-immigrant or immigrant. We decide which refugees come into the country. We help American businesses export and compete. We help American citizens who are in distress and we, at the high level, we negotiate war and peace issues and treaties and try to make sure the United States is acting according to its values. It’s a big job.
I think we do it well, but what’s happened is under President Trump, he’s tried to slash the budget by 31 percent his first year, 23 percent his second year. Fortunately—and here’s the silver lining—Republicans and Democrats have coalesced in the House and Senate to block those budget cuts. But more importantly, the President has not appointed career diplomats at anywhere close to the numbers to high level positions, as all of his predecessors did. Going back to President Franklin Roosevelt.
The President has disparaged our diplomats. He’s attacked the State Department as being part of the deep state. He came in and fired four of the most senior diplomats we had—just summarily fired them—it doesn’t often happen with career civil servants. And he has politicized the State Department. I was so proud of Ambassador Masha Yovanovitch, Ambassador Bill Taylor, George Kent—[of] Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard College.
Jonathan Shaw: Classmate of mine, in fact.
Nicholas Burns: Is he a classmate of yours?
Jonathan Shaw: Yes, ’89.
Nicholas Burns: ’89. I was so proud of those foreign service officers who testified in the house impeachment trial. They were all warned personally by the Trump administration not to testify. And yet they knew that their oath of office that they took was to the Constitution, not to any particular person. And they fulfilled that oath and they testified and I think the American people were able to see, “Boy, we have smart, nonpartisan, very sophisticated, patriotic people representing us in the permanent government.”
I think it was an eye opener for a lot of people to see the quality of people that we have because our politicians so often disparage people who work in public service in government. It’s such a shame. Here at Harvard we encourage our undergraduate college students to think about public service. We certainly at the Kennedy School of Government, the reason for being at the Kennedy School is to encourage people to run for office and be part of public service in whatever country they’re from. We have students from 90 countries.
And so I think that the morale now is very low in the State Department. It needs good leadership and I think the worst moment was when Secretary [Mike] Pompeo [J.D. ’94] did not stand up for our diplomats who were asked to testify in the impeachment inquiry. That was a very, very sorry example of poor leadership on his part.
Jonathan Shaw: I see. You’ve called on Congress to reauthorize the foreign service as a response to this. What does that mean and what kind of an effect do you hope it might have?
Nicholas Burns: All of our cabinet agencies are authorized by bills passed in the Congress. The bills primarily say, “Here’s what we want this cabinet agency to do. Here’s how big it should be. Here’s what its roles and functions should be.” The State Department—and we’re the oldest cabinet agency, we were the first created in 1789—that’s why the Secretary of State is fifth in line to the Presidency. The Secretary of State is the senior member of the cabinet, Secretary of State sits to the right of the President in all meetings.
And we’ve only been authorized twice in the history of the United States: 1924 and 1980. So, long ago, that was my first year in the State Department as an intern, and so I think it’s time for Congress to think through what should a 21st century State Department look like? It should be different than the State Department I first experienced as an intern 39 years ago, in 1980. Fortunately now, women have taken their rightful place in the State Department. That was not true in 1980. African Americans and Latino Americans are now fully part of it. That was not the case at a time when it was really white males, when I joined.
The mission has changed because the United States has changed, and technology has changed the world. So, I do think it’s time for Congress on a bipartisan basis to think through in a very deliberate way, “Wait, how do we want to lead in the 21st century?” Because the State Department’s our lead agency in, I won’t say confronting the rest of the world, [but] working with the rest of the world, which is really what we need to do.
Jonathan Shaw: In some sense, the President is the nation’s top diplomat. He has called our allies a drain on the U.S. treasury and treats authoritarian leaders of Russia, North Korea and China with what you call unusual tact. What are some of President Trump’s public disagreements with allied leaders and his unorthodox approaches to authoritarian leaders, and how might these relationships have been handled differently with traditional forms of diplomacy?
Nicholas Burns: I think one of President Trump’s greatest failures as President is that he does not appreciate in any way the value of allies. The United States has in NATO 27 European allies and Canada. The United States has in East Asia, Japan, South Korea and Australia, [as] treaty allies. Defense partnerships with the Philippines and Thailand. Security partnerships with Singapore and close relations with India. These alliances and partnerships are the power differential between the United States and Russia, which has no allies, and the United States and China, which has no allies. They magnify our power. And President Trump has come to office under the banner of Nationalism saying the United States really should be alone in the world.
He has spent, in my view, an inordinate amount of time criticizing the allies. He’s not led with a positive vision. He kind of cuts the alliances, tries to, down to size, and it’s injured NATO. NATO is at a very weak point now because for its 70 years, and this is the 70th Anniversary of the founding of NATO, we’ve always had principled, strong, positive American leadership, from Harry Truman to Dwight D. Eisenhower to every president until president Trump. President Trump right now, he’s really trying to milk the South Korean government. Leverage it and threaten it into paying us four or five times the amount that it has been for the maintenance of American troops in South Korea. I think he’s driving our allies away and it’s a colossal mistake of judgment on his part.
Jonathan Shaw: One of the principles on which NATO was founded was this principle of collective defense: that an attack on one member is an attack on all. You were the Ambassador to NATO on 9/11, weren’t you?
Nicholas Burns: Yes, I was.
Jonathan Shaw: How did the NATO allies respond to that attack?
Nicholas Burns: Well, it was an extraordinary day, and you’re right that the heart of NATO is this collective, Defense Article Five of the Washington Treaty of 1949. If one of us is attacked, all of us will be attacked. All of us will respond.
We wrote that in, Dean Acheson and Harry Truman in 1949, because there was a high probability that Stalin and the Soviet Union would attack Western Europe. These were very weak States after the Second World War, and we were deathly afraid that would happen. It was that assurance through NATO that the United States would come across the pond a third time to defend Western Europe that deterred Stalin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the whole cast of Soviet leaders, that it made no sense to attack.
The irony is that on 9/11, it was the United States that was attacked. I was sitting in my office at NATO when the Twin Towers were attacked. I remember we couldn’t reach Washington for several hours because the Pentagon, the State Department, the White House were all evacuated because they were worried about Flight 93 heading towards Washington, until Flight 93 tragically crashed in Pennsylvania. In the intervening time, when I couldn’t talk to a single soul in Washington, the phone started to ring.
The Canadian ambassador first, David Wright, and I give him massive credit for this, said, “Have you thought about invoking Article Five? Have you thought about asking all of us to come to your defense?” And then the German ambassador called. And the British ambassador called. And the Greek ambassador called. And by that evening, every nation had pledged to defend us.
And the next morning, September twelfth, 4:00 AM Washington time, 10:00 AM Brussels time, I called Condoleezza Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, very close friend of mine. I said, “Condi, the allies want to invoke Article Five. They want to go to war with us. We’re just about to vote this. I think I need the President’s permission because it’s essentially an Act of War.” And she said, “Go for it.”
I said, “Thank you Condi, but I really think I need the President’s permission.” She said, “Go for it.” And just as I was about to object a third time, that I really needed the President to personally authorize this, she said, “He’s had a really bad day. It’s four in the morning. Go for it.” I said, “I’ll take that as my Presidential instruction through you.” And before I got off the phone, she said, “One more thing.” I say, “What’s that?” She said, “It’s good to have friends in the world.”
And I’ve never forgotten that. You know 9/11, was our lowest, darkest moment, I think for our lifetimes. Those of us who worked for the government in the 80s, 90s, the turn of the century. 3000 people dead. The symbol of our economic power, the Twin Towers, collapsed. The Pentagon attacked. And our allies came to our rescue. They all went into Afghanistan with us, and 18 years later, they’re still there. Every single one of them. They’ve suffered over a thousand combat deaths, our allies and partners, several thousand wounded.
So when I hear President Trump tee off on the allies, it really angers me because I know the history and I lived the history and I know what these countries have done for us. And boy, we would not want to live in the 21st century without allies. What heartens me is that I think that if you put President Trump aside, nearly every senior Republican leader of the Congress believes in NATO and believes in our East Asian allies. The President, I think is unique, and uniquely wrong, in his attitude about going it alone in the world.
Jonathan Shaw: In your opinion, would President Trump come to the aid of NATO allies, if one member nation were attacked?
Nicholas Burns: I never would have doubted any American president from Truman on. Never would have doubted that they would have come to the defense of an ally. Unfortunately, the honest answer is I simply don’t know what our President would do, and that deterrence rests on the assurance that the adversary, in this case Vladimir Putin, is convinced that the United States would act to defend an ally. Therefore, Putin wouldn’t dare try it.
If Putin thinks he could get away with attacking Latvia right on his border—one third of the Latvian population is ethnic Russian—or Montenegro, a very small country that just came into NATO two years ago when President Trump was interviewed by Tucker Carlson, Fox News. Tucker Carlson said, “Why should my son die for Montenegro?” And President Trump said something like, I can’t remember exact quote. “Exactly right. Why should he?”
So I think unfortunately he’s the first American President of either party ever to cast doubt on the reliability and integrity of the American commitment to NATO.
Jonathan Shaw: You recently coauthored a report on NATO at 70 years. What are some of the problems that plague NATO today?
Nicholas Burns: So this report is a Harvard Kennedy school report that was issued in February of 2019, with my colleague Doug Lute as a Fellow in my program, also a former ambassador to NATO. I think our major point was NATO’s strong. NATO is still the most powerful military alliance in the world. It’s of inestimable value to the United States. We wanted to make that argument. But in terms of problems, problem number one, for the first time in NATO’s history, we’re not seeing strong principled American leadership from the President.
Problem two, the European allies need to do more. Spend more on defense and actually acquire 21st century military hardware so they can be effective in the type of battles that we have to fight. Certainly their cyber defenses need to be stronger. Their ability to lift troops through a strategic lift like a C-130. The Europeans don’t have much in the way of strategic airlift is very limiting for them, so we’re calling the Europeans to spend more.
Problem three, the appearance in NATO of some authoritarian state democracy’s gone bad. Three of them, Hungary, Viktor Orbán, an autocrat. Poland, whose government has exhibited autocratic laws and tendencies, and most especially Turkey. I think, unfortunately, Turkey’s democracy has been extinguished by President Erdogan. There are more journalists in jail and more generals in jail in Turkey than any other country in the world. So we advocate that NATO develop some type of punitive mechanism so that there’d be some penalty for these authoritarian allies who live really under the protection of all the others.
Jonathan Shaw: What are the chances that if Trump wins a second term, he might try to end participation in NATO? Is that something he could do without Congressional assent?
Nicholas Burns: You know, if you’d asked me that question in any other year of my adult life before 2017, I would’ve said it’s preposterous. Why would an American President take the United States out of our uniquely powerful and capable alliance, which does so much for the United States? Too many members of the Trump administration have said off the record and some on the record, those who’ve left, that they fear the President could try to do that in the second term. I think we have to take it seriously. I think it should be an issue in the 2020 campaign. I think the President should be asked about this time and again because there are a few things that he could do in our foreign and defense policy that would be so injurious to the clear interests of the United States.
And again, he has this view that somehow allies bleed us dry. That when we belong to an alliance or a coalition, that somehow we give up power. It’s the exact opposite. We can’t be strong militarily unless we’re in an alliance. We can’t fight climate change—and we’re the only country not part of the Paris agreement, the only one in the world—without banding together. We can’t stop pandemics without collective action. We can’t help refugees without collective action. And the President’s stuck back in some 1820 mindset, 200 years ago when the United States was a very small country, kind of inconsequential in world affairs. The Atlantic and Pacific could protect us. It didn’t really matter if we are engaged with the world or not.
This is the 21st century. We’re the strongest, most capable country. If we isolate ourselves, self-isolate, we hurt ourselves. I just think his entire attitude towards the rest of the world is a losing proposition for us. For we the American people, under his leadership.
Jonathan Shaw: Right. Is any progress being made on bills moving through Congress that would express support for NATO?
Nicholas Burns: What’s been very interesting, since the President’s been such a weak leader of NATO, Republicans in Congress and Democrats have passed several ‘Sense of the Senate’ and ‘Sense of the House’ resolutions. They don’t become law, but they’re an expression of the views of Congress supporting, overwhelmingly, NATO. There is a bill, bi-partisan, that I don’t believe has been passed by the Senate, by Republicans and Democrats, that if the President tries to take us out of NATO, he could not do so for one year. So that during that intervening time the Congress could mobilize to block the President from doing so.
The Constitution, I think appropriately, gives the President wide powers in foreign and defense policy. You need the President to have that kind of the ability to act quickly and decisively in the modern world. And yet, as we know, Congress also has power. And I think it’s time. I’ve testified before Congress over the last two years and I’ve said to committees of both houses, it’s time for the Congress to assert itself against the President on this particular issue that you’ve asked about and on some others, so that American interests can be protected from a president who is not fulfilling those interests.
Jonathan Shaw: What are some of the political, economic and military challenges facing the United States in the decade ahead and what is the role of NATO and our other alliances today in helping manage these challenges?
Nicholas Burns: I think in America’s role overseas, in international affairs, clearly climate change is the vital issue. If we don’t act dramatically in the next half decade to begin to arrest the worst aspects of, of climate change and put in climate mitigation efforts on a broad and aggressive scale, the environmental damage to our planet and to the next generation, the millennial generation, to the generation of my grandchildren, is going to be in jeopardy. And again, the United States not leading, as the twin carbon emission leader of the world along with China. That’s clearly, I think, the greatest danger facing the planet.
I would say second for the United States is to cope with the return of China to global power. Return because in most of the last 20 centuries, China’s been the largest global economy and I think that’s a critical issue for us because we have to compete with China on trade. We don’t want China to run roughshod over our allies in East Asia. We don’t want China to rip off American technology and jobs. So we have to compete and we have to be aggressive. I think that both parties have swung towards a competitive mode with China and yet we have to cooperate. If climate change is going to be addressed, the United States and China have to lead, which we’re not doing now.
And so I think there’s a balance of competition and cooperation. And by all means we have to avoid war. War would be catastrophic. It’s unthinkable, between our two countries. I think for our students here at Harvard, undergraduate and graduate, I think those are probably out of many, many issues, probably the two that stand out most in my mind.
Jonathan Shaw: In a recent speech at Oxford University, you said, “Diplomacy cannot work if it is not cemented in a clear moral and strategic foundation.” What do you mean by that? And how would you characterize the current administration’s foreign policy in terms of its moral and strategic qualities?
Nicholas Burns: I was thinking, I gave this speech at Wilson College, Oxford, in October. And I was thinking of how unique we are, the United States. We’re the only country founded on an idea. We’re a revolutionary nation because the whole birth of the United States was about human freedom and democracy and free will for women and men. So we have an obligation as Americans to be that light. We use the word beacon to the rest of the world, and it doesn’t mean that the United States cannot chase parochial interests when sometimes that’s important—trade interests, business interests. But I think it does mean that we have to be a country that stands up for democracy and for human freedom when it’s challenged and for religious freedom. For an open internet in the 21st century to combat the surveillance state that China has become.
I’m greatly concerned by this administration because I do not see that President Trump has any kind of moral compass guiding him. I don’t think the President is attached to these traditional foundational American values that make us unique. That made Lincoln unique as a leader of a country going through the Civil War. That made FDR, that allowed him to mobilize the American people in the Second World War. That allowed President Kennedy and President Reagan to stand at the Berlin wall and with moral authority, say “Tear down the wall,” Reagan; “I am a Berliner,” Kennedy.
President Trump seems completely separated from this American tradition and it worries me greatly. He appears to be entirely kind of deal oriented, transaction oriented, short-term gain. And yet no sight, no, focus on the long-term interests of the country and values of the country. That’s what I meant in that speech at Oxford.
I think I said we’ve been knocked off our axis by this presidency. We’re not acting the way that Americans in Republican and Democratic administrations, both in the past decades have acted.
Jonathan Shaw: And finally, what do you think the world power balance will look like in 2050?
Nicholas Burns: Oh, that’s a great question. I teach a course called Great Powers, like I mentioned earlier in the podcast, and my students and I try in part to look into the future and 2050 is our date. So what’s the world going to look like? Who’s going to have power, who’s not? What will the big issues be? Will we have done anything about climate change or will we have ruined the Earth by 2050. We ask big questions. How do we coalesce globally to prevent war? How do we coalesce globally to stop human trafficking, drug cartels, pandemics?
I think we’re going to see a tremendous change in the balance of power. I have no doubt that the United States and China will still be in the great power ranks. I do think we’ll see a major shift in power from the Atlantic and Mediterranean world in the last four or five centuries, that’s where most of the power’s been. We’ll see that the four strongest military powers will likely be the United States, China, Japan, and India, all Pacific countries. And four of the five largest economies, those four plus the European Union will probably be the five largest economies in the world. So you can see power is going to be in East Asia. I think what President Trump rightly calls the Indo-Pacific, that region of the world, I wish we could draw a map on the podcast, from the East coast of Africa, the Arabian Sea, the sub-continent, the Bay of Bengal, the big Asian economies of the Western Pacific, the South Pacific, and that’s where power will be.
It doesn’t mean that Latin America, Europe, South Asia, Africa are not going to be important, but I just think if you’re looking at where the ultimate power is going to be by nation state, I think that’s where it will be. But we will have some surprises.
Nigeria is going to double in population. Sub-Saharan Africa is going to double in population. If Nigerians can create a modern economy, can stem corruption, they could be a great power by mid-century. India, certainly by dint of its population, the demographics that the youngest of the great powers demographically and it’s extraordinary scientific talent.
This is going to be a technology century. Countries will sink or swim based on their brainpower in the AI, biotech, quantum computing, nanotech future that we’re going to be living in. India, certainly. Whether Brazil will be, I hope, if Brazil can corral its incredible natural resource base and stem its own political inefficiencies. We’re going to see some new countries. Countries of the global South and it’s going to be a good thing, I think and hopefully those countries will have capacity to join with the rest of us to take on the biggest human problems and conquer them. Make this, what I think we would all agree is what we want. We want a more just world. We want a more peaceful world and a more stable world. So we’ve got a lot of work to do and our course tries to project into the future. What can we do to bring that world about?
Jonathan Shaw: Thank you very much for joining us today.
Nicholas Burns: It’s a pleasure. Thanks so much, Jon.
This episode of “Ask a Harvard Professor” is hosted by Jonathan Shaw and produced by Jacob Sweet. Our theme music was created by Louis Weeks. This second season was sponsored by the Harvard University Employees Credit Union and supported by voluntary donations from listeners like you. To support the podcast, visit harvardmagazine.com/supportpodcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please consider rating and reviewing us on iTunes. Contact us with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.