- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Q&A with Nicholas Burns

Winter 2008-09

R. Nicholas (Nick) Burns, formerly the highest-ranking career diplomat at the U.S. Department of State, has been appointed Harvard Kennedy School professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics with the Belfer Center and will also serve on the Center’s board of directors. Burns has an extensive background in diplomacy and international affairs, having served most recently as U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs (2005-08). He was a lead member of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior management team. We asked Burns about his plans at the Belfer Center and his views on some of the foremost international challenges facing the United States.

What attracted you to Harvard Kennedy School and the Belfer Center and why did you decide to make the move?

Harvard and the Kennedy School seemed a natural fit for me after my retirement in April after 27 years in the American Foreign Service. I had a challenging and interesting career at a unique time in our history. I was very proud to serve our country, and my family and I enjoyed living in Africa, the Middle East and Europe. I thought about business but decided that teaching, writing, and thinking about America's role in the world was my abiding interest. I grew up in Wellesley and graduated from Boston College and was close friends with Graham Allison and Ash Carter. So, I was obviously grateful for the invitation to become a professor here.

What are your plans for this year?

I look forward to teaching courses in diplomacy, American foreign policy, and international politics. I am a passionate advocate for diplomacy in the era of globalization and believe we Americans have often undervalued and underutilized it. I will also use the time to reflect on my years in government. I may write a book about America's global leadership challenges. There are so many challenges that require our sustained commitment, starting with climate change, terrorism, nuclear proliferation. The list is long.

What do you think are the top three international priorities for the next administration?

First, the next president will need to convince the American people and Congress that, despite our enormous domestic challenges--the recession, an exploding deficit, weakening financial institutions, the price of gas, our reliance on foreign energy--we have no alternative but to stay engaged all around the world. In fact, in a globalized world, it is the only way forward. He will need to repudiate our episodic infatuation with isolationism and reject unilateralism, which I believe is a recipe for failure in our foreign policy. Instead, he should seek to return us to purposeful and energetic multilateral leadership.

Second, we have vital and critical challenges in every part of the world--war and proliferation in the Middle East and South Asia, the necessity of working more effectively with rising powers China, India, Brazil and South Africa, climate change and the perilous global energy problems, pandemics, food shortages and trafficking in human beings. We must tackle all of these and more.

Third, the next president will need to work hard to restore our influence and credibility where it has taken a major hit--in the Muslim and Arab worlds, in parts of Europe, and in Latin America. He will need to project hope, not fear, and convince the rest of the world that we are ready to lead on what average people on every continent care about, starting with climate change.

You were the negotiator on Iran. What is the best move that the U.S. President could make at this juncture?

Iran may be the single, most difficult issue for the next president. Iran is the leading sponsor of the terrorist groups that are operating against us, the Israelis, and the moderate Palestinians. Iran is also seeking a nuclear capability. If it becomes a nuclear power, that will change the balance of power in the Middle East against our interests. My strong sense is that we need to keep all options on the table. But, we should make a very strong effort to get to the negotiating table with Iran. We have not had a serious discussion with them since 1979. I do not believe war with Iran is inevitable. The next President should exhaust the diplomatic options. If Iran fails to stop its nuclear research, we will then be in a stronger position to argue for substantially stronger economic sanctions.

Russia is playing an increasingly assertive role in global affairs.  What are the implications of this posture, and what should the U.S. do now?

Russian behavior and rhetoric is deeply troubling. There is no question that Russia is and will continue to be a major problem for the U.S.  I would argue for a balancing of our interests. On the one hand, we should seek to work with Russia on the global and vital issues where it has influence--countering terrorist threats and limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons and materials, especially in North Korea and Iran. On the other hand, it will be very important, even critical, for the next president to oppose resolutely Russia's attempt to reestablish its sphere of influence in the countries neighboring it.

The single, greatest benefit of the end of the Cold War was the establishment of a democratic peace in Europe after the bloodiest century in history.   With that firmly in mind, we should continue to condemn and isolate Russia in its bullying of Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, and the Baltic countries. Their sovereignty and territorial integrity must be supported by the U.S and our European allies.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Belfer Center Communications Office. Q&A with Nicholas Burns.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Winter 2008-09).