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Ambassador Nick Burns discusses foreign policy challenges & hopes for the next U.S. president

October 10, 2016

Former Ambassador and Harvard Kennedy School Professor Nicholas Burns meets Jackson School Director Reşat Kasaba at the invitation of the Jackson School and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation to speak on "Memo to the Next President" at a public event on Oct. 5.

“I think you have to go back 70 years ago to find a time when we have been so challenged around the world. It’s a complex time,” said former Ambassador and Harvard Kennedy School Professor Nicholas Burns speaking on “Memo to the Next President: Challenges for the U.S. in a Complex World” for the Jackson School’s U.S. in the World Speaker Series to over 250 students, faculty and members of the public on Oct. 5 at Kane Hall 220.

The Henry M. Jackson Foundation co-sponsored the event with the Jackson School and Center for Global Studies at the University of Washington.


Former Ambassador and Harvard Kennedy School Professor Nick Burns speaking on challenges and opportunities for the next U.S. president to a packed audience of students, faculty, donors and members of the public at Kane Hall on Oct. 5.

Jackson School Director Reşat Kasaba welcomed the audience to the event.

The Anne H.H. and Kenneth B. Pyle Assistant Professor in American Foreign Policy Daniel Bessner then introduced former Ambassador Burns and his long career as a U.S. diplomat, including as former Ambassador to NATO and to Greece and his high-level roles at the State Department for which he is currently a member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Foreign Policy Advisory Board.

Ambassador Burns opened the talk by emphasizing the vision of Senator Henry M. Jackson that America’s strength and defense should be preserved and the importance of the entrepreneurship of the Pacific Northwest.

“You are built on human ingenuity. It will be a lot of the ideas produced here at the University of Washington and others in the Pacific Northwest … that is something to be positive about for the future of our country,” he said in referencing Seattle as home to companies that are creating a strong economy and global influencers, such as Microsoft, Boeing, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

[Click on the video to view the entire lecture]

Greatest foreign policy threats to the U.S.

In talking about global challenges facing the next U.S. president — from climate change, trafficking in drugs and humans, to the threat of pandemics such as Ebola and cyber attacks, and more — Burns focused on three issues the next U.S. president should worry about most as the biggest threats to the vital interests of the U.S.

  • How to contain Russia’s opportunistic leader Vladimir Putin and his assault on the independence of other states
  • What can the U.S. do to calm the violence in the Middle East, with a focus on power struggles in four failed states (Iraq, Syria, Iran and Yemen)
  • Especially relevant to the Pacific Rim, how to balance U.S.-China relations as both friend and threat

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Nick Burns focused on Russia, the Middle East and China as some of the biggest challenges for U.S. foreign policy.

“These are the three big challenges before us [U.S.], and we’ve got to get them right if we want to have a peaceful, stable future,” he said.

While Asia is a dynamic and emerging region of power, he underscored that the U.S. can’t afford to turn away from the rest of the world.

He emphasized that security threats from Putin and Russia today are back at levels not seen since the Soviet Union era, and the importance of U.S. support to Europe in particular in this regard.

In addressing the ongoing violence in a number of the 22 countries that make up the modern Middle East, Ambassador Burns noted few are better off following the “Arab Spring” revolution in 2010.

In talking about the need for increased U.S. humanitarian and military assistance in the Middle East, he reviewed power struggles in the four failed states of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen, especially the situation in Syria, which has left half its population homeless, with millions trapped inside an ongoing violent conflict or refugees in other countries.

“This is the greatest humanitarian catastrophe, some people think since the Second World War,” he said. While this situation [the four failed states] is “not the whole story of the Middle East, analytically, you have to assume the  Middle East is going to remain unstable … for the next decade or two,” he added.

On U.S.-China relations, he noted the fine balance between needing China to help tackle issues from climate change to trafficking as it is the world’s second largest

Former Ambassador Burns met with audience members after his lecture on "Memo to the next president."

Former Ambassador Burns met with audience members after his lecture on “Memo to the Next President.”

economy, and compete with China as it is also one of the strongest economic and military competitors to the U.S.

Some reasons for hope of global human progress 

“We need someone in the Oval Office who is smart, substantive, experienced, level-headed, pragmatic and not thin-skinned,” Ambassador Burns said.

He outlined several areas as hopeful areas of opportunity for the U.S. and the world:

  • Global poverty alleviation has improved significantly, especially in China, India and Brazil, and with sub-Saharan Africa as some of the fastest growing economies in the world
  • Global public health with advances in reduction or treatment of malaria, polio and HIV, and putting private and philantormoney such as from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation behind these big problems
  • A virtuous link between university and marketplace, and the great digital information, biotech and nano-tech revolution in the U.S. in the last 25-30 years, such as the relationships between Stanford and Silicon Valley or MIT and biotech, where students have an idea and venture capitalists provide funding

In closing, he noted these as examples of why “this is a great time to be American, to be in a great city like Seattle,” he said.

During his visit, he also met with Jackson School donors, graduate students and faculty.