Ambassador Nicholas Burns: Obama must convince Americans that US should be a global leader

November 12, 2008
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

Prof. Nicholas Burns outlined Wednesday (Nov. 12) in a brown bag seminar what he would tell President Obama in a hypothetical Oval Office meeting on the evening of the presidential inauguration.

“I’d say ‘Mr. President, there’s good news and there’s bad news about the situation in the United States today’,” Burns said.

The good news, according to Burns: Obama is inheriting the most powerful country in the world politically, militarily and economically, even though the economy is strained.

“Whether countries like us or not, whether we’re popular or not, whether we’re up or down, if there’s a crisis or a civil war or a tsunami or some huge political problem, countries are likely to call us to be a mediator or an umpire or a friendly arbitrator of disputes,” he said.

The bad news, Burns outlined: foreign policy challenges, the rise of other countries, the economic crisis and, most importantly, the need to convince the American people that the country should be a global leader despite its many problems at home.

“I’d say to the president ‘Your biggest problem may be to convince the American people that we should be a … multi-lateral, global leader. A global leader that continues to pay more taxes and ship our troops overseas and do the things we have to do for peace and civility in the world’,” Burns said.

Burns advised the president-elect to tackle the nation’s economic problems first, with the creation of a national energy strategy second on the list.

Burns also contended that serious attention must be paid to the Middle East and South Asia, especially Iran and Pakistan, and that institutions like the National Security Council be transformed to better serve the 21st century.

As a final piece of advice to the next president, Burns recommended that he be mindful of the power of rhetoric.

“The way you talk to the world is very important and if you use the ‘royal we,’ meaning ‘we the people of the world, we the countries of the world’, I think you have a much better chance of demonstrating the country’s willingness to listen, [and to show that] we’re willing to work with countries and share power for the greater global good,” Burns said.

Burns is Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy and International Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. He spoke at the first in a series of Library speaker events.

Nicholas Burns

Burns advised the president-elect to tackle the nation’s economic problems first, with the creation of a national energy strategy second on the list.

“I’d say to the president ‘Your biggest problem may be to convince the American people that we should be a … multi-lateral, global leader.'" - Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

Burns addresses the full room gathered to hear him speak.


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