MARCH 23, 2020
1 Hour, 7 Minutes, and 57 Seconds
Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations, discusses COVID-19, U.S.-China competition, transatlantic troubles, and more.
Wiener Conference Calls recognize Malcolm Wiener’s role in proposing and supporting this series as well as the Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard Kennedy School.
Good day everyone. I am Mari Megias in the Office of Alumni Relations and Resource Development at Harvard Kennedy School, and I’m delighted to welcome you to this Wiener Conference Call. As we all navigate the new normal brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, we will be increasing opportunities for remote engagement with Harvard Kennedy School so keep your eye out for more invitations to learn from HKS faculty. Also, given the fact that Harvard has gone to remote work only, we are running this call a bit differently in that we are not all in the same room. So apologies in advance for any technical hiccups we may experience.
Today we are lucky to be joined by Nicholas Burns, who is the Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at Harvard Kennedy School. He is the founder and faculty chair of the Future of Diplomacy project and faculty chair of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship, both at the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Ambassador Burns is executive director of the Aspen Strategy Group and Aspen Security Forum, and is the senior counselor at the Cohen Group. He is chairman of the Board of Our Generation Speaks, which seeks to bring together young Palestinians and Israelis in common purpose. Ambassador Burns served for 27 years in the U.S. government as a career foreign service officer. He was undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008, the State Department’s third-ranking official. He was US ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005, ambassador to Greece from 1997 to 2001, and State Department spokesman from 1995 to 1997. He worked on the National Security Council as senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Affairs, special assistant to President Bill Clinton, and director of Soviet Affairs for President George H. W. Bush. Burns served in the American Consulate in Jerusalem, where he coordinated U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinian people in the West Bank, and before that at the American embassies in Egypt and Mauritania. We are so fortunate that Ambassador Burns has chosen to share his expertise today with the Kennedy School’s alumni and friends. Ambassador Burns.
Well thank you very much and good afternoon everybody. Or good evening depending where you are. We have a lot of people in this call from the Kennedy School family, and we’re grateful you’re taking the time. I know a lot of you are hunkered down, living in isolation, maybe some of you living in quarantine and we hope everyone’s in good health and we hope everyone’s family is in good health.
These are extraordinary times, and so we thought today that I’d say a few words first about the COVID-19 crisis. How it’s affecting the United States, how it’s affecting the world. At least from my perspective, I have three major points to make. And then I’m happy to take any questions that you have and engage in a conversation.
So let me make my first point and it’s one that I think will be obvious to nearly everybody on this call. We are living through a crisis. A crisis that humanity has never faced before. It’s a true global pandemic. When potentially all of us 7.7 billion people on the earth in every country are at some degree of risk individually and collectively. To think of it in a slightly different way: it’s the first time ever in human history when the fate of everyone is linked, in this case by a pandemic. In a broader sense, over the next few decades, by the challenge of climate change. And so we know we live in an age of global interconnectedness and we’re just now seeing its birth and the public health crisis that we’re all focused on necessarily and preoccupied with is also linked potentially to the most rapid collapse of the global economy at least in the next few months in economic history. So this combined crisis, the public health pandemic and the global economic downturn is going to test us as never before. And in a very real sense, personally, individually, we’re living through what is surely the most difficult and the most harrowing public crisis of our lifetimes. And we’re facing many tests, people all around the world in every country. We are all facing a test of our public health systems. Some of those public health systems, Italy, the United States, seem to be at the breaking point. We’re facing a test of how we can effectively shut down the economy in each region of the world without turning what is certainly going to be a global recession into a global depression. It’s a test of whether individual countries can summon the strength and the discipline and the leadership to carry on, to move forward, to help each other, to avoid division. In the worst case avoid anarchy. This is a test of leadership in each of the countries represented on this phone call. We’re facing a test of whether countries can work together in common cause across the globe to unite in fighting the contagion. And that’s my first point. We cannot and should not and I don’t believe anyone in this call would, minimize the extraordinary threats we’re now facing, this is a perilous, perilous combination of threats. That’s my first point.
My second point is there is hope. There’s always hope. We can as a human community and as individual nations and as cities and local communities—we can get through this crisis. And we will then have to rebuild. To be parochial, in the history of the United States where I live, certainly the Civil War and the combination of the Great Depression and the Second World War, they were much more challenging than what we’re facing at this point in this particular crisis. In the American Civil War we lost over 750,000 dead. Statistically every family in the country lost someone. The country was torn apart and divided against each other. In the Great Depression by 1932, one-third of the workforce was out of a job. There was tremendous poverty and human suffering at a time of a very weak social safety net. Nothing as strong as a social safety net that the United States, particularly Europe, and Japan, and China, South Korea have today. In its twin crisis, the Second World War with the Great Depression, we had 16 million Americans in uniform by 1944 , we had more than 60 million people die in Asia and Africa and the Middle East and Europe, all over the world, during the Second World War.
I would say that those two crises, the American Civil War for those of us who are American, the Second World War, and the global Depression of the 1930s for all of us around the world, they were more serious challenges. And so the message is, as we reflect on history, that human beings before us and in the case of the Second World War and the Great Depression our parents or our grandparents or our great grandparents depending on the age of people on the call, those people surmounted those global threats. And so the message to us today is we can come through them. We can come through this threat today. It may take a year or more. We may have waves of the public health crisis of the coronavirus afflicting all parts of the world in one, two, or three ways as the public health experts are telling us. But we can come through them if we have leadership.
In the case of the United States, probably our two greatest presidents were Lincoln and FDR, and they are considered to be great because they governed during the most severe crises and they showed the qualities of leadership necessary to rally people and to inspire people. And I thought long and hard today. I don’t want to be political on this phone call but I want to be honest. In my personal view we’re not seeing that kind of effective, competent, inspirational leadership from the White House, from the president. But we have to hope that he can adapt. That he can be more effective. That he can succeed. Because he is our president for those of us who are American and we need him to be successful.
But we are seeing the kind of inspirational and effective leadership—we’re seeing it all around us where it really matters. In our states, in our communities, in towns and villages. We’re seeing it in the heroism of the doctors in Italy. We saw it in the heroism of the public health officials in China. We saw it in the discipline of the Singaporean and South Korean governments. Here in the U.S. I think we’re seeing it in two Republican governors among many Republican officials. Mike DeWine the governor of Ohio, Charlie Baker, the governor of Massachusetts where I live. We’re seeing it in two Democratic governors, In Gavin Newsom in California and in Andrew Cuomo in New York state. Two Republicans and two Democrats and there are many, many others providing that kind of effective leadership that we truly need. We’re definitely seeing it in our hospitals around the world. In our doctors, our nurses, technicians, aids, hospital staff, the courage and heroism that these people, women and men have shown at great personal risk. And for me that points to the deep value of public servants and of expertise. And the medical profession and public health experts and epidemiologists, and social workers, and economists, all the people who are struggling now all around the world to try to help us all cope with this major global crisis and human crisis.
And in that sense, since we’re united on this phone call by a devotion to the Kennedy School, it reaffirms the mission of our School. And that is to make government work. At all levels. At the town and village level. At the city and municipal level. At the state and regional level. At the federal level and at the global level. That is the mission of the Kennedy School. And we can take some comfort in knowing that the mission that unites us all is a vital one and we’re seeing the importance of that mission play out every day across the world amid the pandemic.
We’re going to have to begin to learn the lessons of what has gone wrong and what has right. The failures that we clearly see all around the world. Not just in the United States, all around the world. We know that we need to build up the ability of government at all levels to serve people capably and effectively and honestly. That’s the first lesson for us all to internalize.
And we’re going to have to be honest about what has gone wrong—but the time for that lesson learning I think should be ahead of us. The focus now has to be on moving forward. Uniting. Pulling together. Being effective. In that sense, I think minimizing recriminations, which we’re really seeing in the United States in a partisan way. I think it would be good to minimize those recriminations. There will be times for expert panels, Kennedy School seminars, national commissions of how we respond better. We have to learn the lessons but we can’t be divided by them now. What we really need is unity.
And we know that humans are adaptive. We know that humans are resilient and can be strong and there’s hope if we place that trust in each other. So that’s my second point. That we have to understand that we can resolve this crisis but through hope and unity and togetherness.
My final point, the third point, is this. And it really gets to what I’m focused on at the Kennedy School and many of us, and that is, what’s the responsibility of governments around the world to unite? We know that the front lines of the battle are in our local communities. In our hospitals, in our health clinics. And that’s where the overriding focus of our efforts and money and assistance has to be. But we also know something else. That the pandemic must be fought simultaneously at a global level. That we need unprecedented global cooperation. And we know that in a way because these twin crises of the pandemic and the economic crisis may well end up resembling a world war.
Now what do I mean by that? President Macron of France has been talking to his country about a World War. President Trump has likened our effort to a war effort. In a way they’re both right because this crisis may end up, and the number of people it affects, and the massive changes to the way we live on every continent and ultimately in its final death toll, this crisis may well resemble the seismic impact of a world war.
So that gets to this third point. Where we’re really failing is in the lack of global cooperation to fight the battle. The Security Council is silent. The European Union countries are raising barriers against each other and closing borders to each other for the first time in eight decades. China was not truthful about the crisis at the start. Not transparent to the rest of the world. They denied the World Health Organization entry into China for several weeks. They denied public health experts from other countries including the CDC here in the U.S. from even entering China to help them or to help us all understand the dimensions of the crisis.
The United States has been entirely disengaged from the rest of the world. President Trump has not led. He has not led in the way that we would have expected an American president to have led both domestically and globally. And when he decided, as an example, to close off air travel by Europeans to the U.S. and there were good public health reasons for deciding that, he failed to even call Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the EU Commission, or Angela Merkel, or Emmanuel Macron.
Compare this to the 2008–2009 economic crisis, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, the British and German and Japanese leaderships all responded together. The G20 was actually created during the autumn of 2008 to bring China and India and Brazil and Nigeria and Turkey and Saudi Arabia in with the Europeans and Japanese and Canadians and Americans. The 20 largest economies to work together to respond to that global economic crisis. So we need something like that now.
We need President Trump and President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi of India and Chancellor Merkel of Germany and President Bolsanoro of Brazil and all the other leaders to get together and decide that they’re going to of course work first and foremost in their own countries because that’s where the battle is being fought, but also work on a global solution.
So what issues are most important? First is to form a group. First is to have a teleconference of these 20 or 25 or 30 global leaders so that they can unite around certain goals. And they can then deputize senior leaders in each country to work together on a daily basis to try to resolve the urgent issues that are stymieing us in our national efforts.
Some examples of that, we need a much better exchange of data on infection levels and mortality levels to be able to model the disease. The public experts, the people at the Chan School at Harvard. Countries that have weathered the first wave of attacks are now in a position as the Chinese are doing and the Chinese are showing leadership in this respect. Well, we’ve weathered the first wave so now we can turn and help others as the Chinese have tried to do for instance with the European Union.
We’ve got to deputize public health experts from all over the world to learn what is working, what’s not working, what institutions are failing, what leaks in the system need to be plugged and repaired, what permanent changes need to be made. They are the best people to do that. We need to be coordinating the work of research universities and pharmaceutical firms and labs on a vaccine. And then face a huge public policy question globally, “How do we distribute a vaccine among 7 billion people and do that effectively? And do it fairly and equitably?”
At the same time as they’re focused on the public health crisis, they’ve got to focus this group of powerful countries on the economic crisis. They’ve got to align their monetary policies and their fiscal policies. They’ve got to sequence them. We are seeing some leadership. I think Jerome Powell at the Fed, the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank. Christine Lagarde, the chairman, the president of the European Central Bank, the Canadians, the Japanese, have all been working together.
That’s good but it’s not sufficient without China, without India, without Nigeria, without Brazil, without South Africa, without Indonesia, the other big global economies, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. You need everybody in the same room. Everyone thinking together. In particular, on this third point about global cooperation, the United States and China need to do better. Together.
Right now we’re all witnessing a war of words. The Chinese have made a preposterous, untrue, and shameful assertion, and they’re doing this through the spokespeople of their government. They say that the crisis began because the U.S. army planted a weapon, a virus in the city of Wuhan. There is no basis for this. It’s entirely untrue. It’s meant because they’re an authoritarian country and government to deflect attention from their own failings and to put it on us.
At the same time, President Trump personally calls this the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus.” We all know that’s wrong. We all know it’s racist. We all know it’s not true. The virus doesn’t know boundaries, the virus doesn’t recognize national borders. And these two countries, so competitive with each other, before the crisis began, for global power and influence, are not coming together to resolve it as they should and they need to. Because the two countries with greatest capacity, the two largest economies, the two, in a way, strongest civil services in the world are in Beijing and Washington. In China and the United States. They need to pull together.
And I think they also need to, the G20 countries, they need to tell the rest of the world that we’re on it. We’re together. We’re working. Issue a statement of purpose, a vision of unity. I was on a call, we’re now teaching online as you all know at Harvard, I’ll be teaching a three-hour class tonight with 60 people. A three-hour class Wednesday night with a hundred people. Some of my students last Tuesday morning said to me what they found lacking, these are students from all over the world, is where are the public expressions of support of sympathy from a European leader to a Chinese leader? A Chinese leader to an Indian leader? The American leader to the Italian leadership? Every press conference that these leaders give of course should be focused on their own country first and foremost but right now we should all be cheering Italy on, trying to give the Italians some hope. They lost several hundred people last night over the last 24 hours in Italy.
So you need leadership. And you need solidarity. That great European word. Solidarity. In a global level and on a national and local level. Let me conclude this third point and let me conclude my opening statement, we’ll get to your questions. We’ve seen this kind of leadership before, the most obvious example historically, recently in the last century would be Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. When their backs were truly against the wall, August 1941, when it looked like the Nazis and the Italian fascists and the Japanese imperialists might even win. FDR and Churchill proclaimed the Atlantic Charter, which was a vision of unity, resolve, and a vision of a better world. And they created the alliance that defeated the fascists and then they created the institutions that we are living with today that provide our liberal, democratic world. If they could do it then, we can do it now. But we need desperately more focused, determined, effective global leadership. And in that sense, in an age of nationalism, the ironic truth is that we’re all in the same boat now. So those were three thoughts that I had for you this afternoon, this evening.
First off, we’re living through a time of extraordinary crisis and we have to tell the truth about it. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. That’s point number one. Point number two, there is always hope if we band together and draw on, as Lincoln would have said, the better angels of our nature. And point three, we need to be globally connected and we need to work this problem globally as well as locally.
Thank you so much for listening to these errant thoughts of mine. Happy to take any questions and look forward to a good conversation and thanks again to the Kennedy School for organizing this phone call.
Q: What challenges and opportunities does this crisis bring about for global governance mechanisms?
Well one of my students said last week in a broadly attended conference call we had on this very subject, he said, one of the things we’ve got to do—he’s a young American student—he said, we’ve got to look at the institutions that are failing and shore them up in the short term. But this is going to be such a huge crisis with such incredible impact on every aspect of human life, we’re probably going to have to reform the international system, create some new institutions in the future, to deal with the pandemics to come.
I mean I’m not a public health expert but we saw SARS in 2013, we saw Ebola in 2014, we lived through H1N1, I missed one, in 2009, and now we’re living through the coronavirus COVID-19. We’re so interconnected, these pandemics will be part of our future. Other pandemics. Climate change is part of our future. We know that. And so we’re going to have to organize more effectively globally to take on these challenges and to fight them.
And that means we need stronger global institutions. Stronger leadership. It depends on ... For public health we need a stronger World Health Organization. Is that the right organization? Is it configured right for these challenges? Does it need greater funding? Does it need more scientists? Does it need more epidemiologists? Does it need more buy in? Where does the leadership come from? So I think that’s one of the lessons for us.
A second, broader lesson that I’ve been reflecting on and I’m biased because I was a public servant, I think in the United States we are learning a severe lesson. We need strong governments. Our local governments, our town governments, city governments, state governments, our national government is not strong enough. What FDR did during the 1930s, so miraculously, was to rebuild the federal government to support people at a time of crisis and thus came Social Security and Lyndon Johnson gave us Medicare and Medicaid and President Obama gave us a national health care, at least the beginnings of a national health care system.
We are seeing, in my view, in the United States, the weakness of government, the fact that we have not funded our public health institutions at the state level or the local level. They are stretched to the bone and we’re at the beginning of the crisis. We’re not even in the middle of the crisis. So one of the lessons learned for me already at least is we need stronger government. We need to honor public service. We need to fund government at each level. We need to rely on expertise and not on wishful thinking. Rely on the Dr. Anthony Faucis of the world to lead us. Not politicians in crises like this. So I think that’s where we’re going to have to think hard at the Kennedy School and around the world. How do we strengthen public institutions to serve men and women around the world?
It’s not as much of a problem for the European governments. They’ve always believed in strong governments, strong social safety net. My view is the social safety net in the United States is too weak. You see it in the debate right now—and it’s an honest debate between President Trump and Andrew Cuomo, Governor Cuomo. Governor Cuomo wants the president to use his authority from the Defense Act to actually compel certain companies to make certain products, say face masks right now, to fill the void. The oresident prefers to rely on voluntary measures. Note that this is an honest debate. I’m not trying to say one’s completely wrong and one’s completely right. I’m not sure where the truth is but we got to have that debate and have to strengthen government to face these crises. Thank you.
Q: My question to you, Ambassador Burns, is if you could elaborate a bit more on what you think the governors did right and what we can learn from them so that we do it as well. But what I see is challenging is in fact just the scale of this problem. I am just spending so much of my time correcting my friends on WhatsApp on wrong information that they’re circulating and that that is more dangerous than the virus itself. So if you could elaborate a bit more on whether it is ... That those governors are more, like they’re doing a good coordination work, or they are taking matters into their own hands as opposed to waiting for the federal government to kick in. If you could elaborate on that and therefore from there, what are things that we can do where we are at our levels? Thank you.
Thank you. What a good question. We could organize an entire course at the Kennedy School around your question so thank you and I’ll try to be brief in answering it. The U.S. of course is so different than most other countries around the world in the way we’re structured. Our federal system distributes power to the states. We have a tiered power system. Compared to say France where the government in Paris has really national authority. Or in China of course an authoritarian government where the same applies. And so I think as I’ve as a citizen just watched this unfold, particularly over the last two or three weeks. And I’m not trying to be partisan here but the federal government was not organized. And we didn’t have a series of decisive decisions coming out of Washington. And so I think a lot of these governors just stepped up and said, “I’m going to take the power. And I’m going to lead at least my state.”
And Governor DeWine has been on TV, of Ohio, he’s Republican, someone I knew when he was a member of the Senate and highly respected. He has been very communicative, a constant presence, reassuring, stable, calm, on radio and TV. He’s taken some very tough decisions and very controversial ones. He suspended the primary last Tuesday in Ohio and said, “We’re going to delay this until June because we’re not ready and I don’t want people voting. I don’t want people out congregating.” That was a tough decision. But he put it on his shoulders and took it and I admired him for it. Governor Newsom was the first governor, as our largest state, it’s our most important state economically, he took the biggest decision early on, “I’m basically going to put northern California in a lockdown. And now the entire state.” Governor Cuomo, in the state that’s been hardest hit, New York by far is hardest hit at this stage of the crisis, greatest number of people who have been tested who are positive, the public health system in New York City already stretched to the limit. I think, I mean, it’s been incredible to watch him. My wife Libby and I watched his press conference Sunday afternoon, yesterday afternoon. He is authoritative. He’s credible. He can dive 20 levels down on every issue so he’s very data-driven and he knows what he’s talking about. He is not being partisan. He’s been praising President Trump. And if you listen to President Trump, I think he and Cuomo, and they are not allies, politically they’ve been talking to each other, they’ve been communicating by phone and I think they’re trying to work together now. They have a big disagreement on the Defense Production Act but I think he’s been a leader.
And I see Governor Baker, who’s a Republican governor in my state, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts where I live and vote. Calm, authoritative, data-driven. I’ve kind of used the same words to describe all of them. They’re empirical, they’re relying on the experts, no politics, not trying to sell us on anything, and being brutally honest that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I think that’s leadership at this stage of the crisis. Thank you.
Q: Hello this is Barry Bluestone at Northeastern University in Boston. Nick I would like you to follow up with some of your comments about what happened during the 1920s and 30s and then after World War 2. My impression, and I know it’s difficult to find silver linings at such a terrible time for so many people, but my impression is that there has been a tremendous response to crisis. We go through the stock market crash, the rising unemployment, and we come back with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, defeating Hoover who had won by almost 58 percent four years before. And following that comes the most progressive era in America and we continue to do that right up through the next two decades. Do you see some optimism about what the end of this crisis might bring to America and the world?
Well, I’ve got to tell everybody on the phone what a special person you just heard. Professor Barry Bluestone is frankly one of my heroes. And I’m going to embarrass him and myself by saying he was my economics professor at Boston College in 1977–78 in my senior year and I never had a better professor. He’s one of our great public policy experts in the United States. He came out of the union movement, his dad was in the union movement in Michigan. He’s someone who is a progressive. Who has thought deeply about the need to have strong government and he’s thought a lot about the lessons of the 1920s and 30s. And so Professor Bluestone, Barry, so good that you’re on this call with us.
I would say, and I do think that the early lesson for me as I said, but I’ll repeat it because I think it’s an important one for us all to begin thinking about. We know that the private sector is the engine of the American economy and should be going forward. I certainly don’t support a socialist framework in the classical sense of what we would mean by socialism. But I do think that the perils of Reaganism, of weakening governments, weakening our public schools, the vast inequality in our society because of a lack of a strong social safety net, the regressive tax system that we currently have, which does not favor the middle class and certainly does not favor poor people. These are warning signs to us.
And that in a country of 300 million people, so wealthy, to see the level of poverty we have, to see the hospitals stretched, our wonderful hospitals stretched to the breaking point this week, to see the inability—because they don’t have the money or the people with local governments—to provide the services that all of us need right now to frankly see the failure of our vaunted Centers of Disease Control on the issue of testing for COVID-19. We need stronger government. We need better government.
This does reaffirm the mission of the Kennedy School Barry but I also think it should lead us to reflect politically in how we think about our future. Stronger social safety net. Stronger government. We don’t want to rob the public sector of the creativity and entrepreneurialism. You need to get the balance right that has been producing jobs and wealth. And it’s lifted lots of people out of poverty, that free market system around the world in places like China and India and Brazil. But we do need to go back particularly in the United States to thinking about the commonwealth, the commonwealth, the original vision of the Europeans who came here in the 17th century, we are all connected to each other. We all owe something to each other. One person’s misfortune is our misfortune.
That’s a very important principle. I think in some ways we’ve lost sight of that. In the way that we’ve constructed our tax system, our regulatory system, and not funded our schools, and not funded our public systems around the country. Barry I’m going to call you separately, we’ll have a longer conversation but I’m so glad you’re on the call and I hope everyone on the call you might just Google Professor Bluestone and you’ll get a lot more wisdom and a lot more intelligence on economics from him than you will from me. Thank you.
Q: Hi, I’m in Washington DC. My question was really about the shining stars out there. You mentioned the governors who are really making a difference and they’re admirable public leaders. Who else at this time do we look to for leadership in this area?
Thank you so much. I may be a little bit parochial here and you’ll hear why in a minute. We’re seeing it in our doctors and nurses, orderlies, aides, social workers in the hospitals. I mean probably all of us know someone who’s a doctor. My brother Jeff is chief of pediatric critical care at Children’s Hospital in Boston, professor at Harvard Med. He is coordinating through an NGO he developed seven or eight years ago, called Open Pediatrics, he’s on daily conference calls with hundreds of doctors from around the world, just trying to learn the lessons of, what are you seeing? What’s working? What’s not working?
These are pediatric hospitals in Iran and Cuba and China. And he has two daughters who are doctors who are on the front lines right now in two hospitals in Boston. So I don’t mean to personalize this but those are examples of doctors, nurses, experts, who are just inspiring. The rate of infection among our health care workers, people working in nursing homes, people working in the hospitals is very high. We need to think of how to protect them. That’s the equipment issue. That’s the mask issue. That’s the protective gown issue. And if frankly, if there are shortages that the private sector is not filling we should invoke the Defense Production Act and compel companies. And they will do it willingly to provide the kind of quick production that we need. But the heroes to me are in the public health system right now. As well as some of our local leaders, governors, and mayors who are just stepping up courageously to face this problem. Thank you.
Q: I’m calling from Washington DC. Thanks for the comments thus far. My question has to do with the Iran sanctions and in particular, I and I think a lot of people are distressed by sort of the lack of movement on relaxing those sanctions and just pursuant to some of your comments, sir, do you see that not doing something clear and moral on helping and relaxing those sanctions, I mean is that going to hinder the ability to accomplish some of the cooperation that you were talking about in your main points?
Thank you very much. This question came up I think at Saturday’s White House press conference and both President Trump and Secretary Pompeo answered it, answered your question. They basically said, if I remember Secretary Pompeo’s answer, look there’s a provision right now that countries can export humanitarian assistance into Iran. So he said it’s possible.
One of the problems is that the Iranians have rejected some of that humanitarian aid. For instance, the supreme leader Ali Khameni gave a speech on I think Friday or Saturday basically saying we’re not going to take aid from the United States. So it’s a complicated issue and I have a little bit of sympathy with the Trump administration trying to face it.
Having said that, given the severity of this global crisis, I think it would be a very good symbol if the UN Security Council—because the Security Council has placed the sanctions on these countries Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, to give you three examples. If the Security Council would vote and say, “We’re going to suspend all the economic sanctions on these three countries and maybe some others who are subject to Chapter 7 UN Security Council sanctions for the life of this crisis.” Because frankly the health of the people of those countries shouldn’t be prejudiced because their governments broke international law.
So put people first. That would be a tremendous humanitarian gesture. It would in a way unite people around the world. Obviously we’re going to have to work to constrain Iran from developing a nuclear weapon and constrain North Korea from using a nuclear weapon. So you’re going to have to go back to sanctions. You certainly want to keep the nuclear sanctions on. But the humanitarian sanctions, the economic sanctions that prevent normal trade across borders, I would be in favor of suspending them for the life of this crisis if that answers your question. Thank you.
Q: Hi you all. How you doing Professor Burns? I’m MPP ’11. And worked as a TA in the Future of Diplomacy Project with you. Professor, my question is a bit different and concerns international failing governments and failing states as in the case of Brazil right now. The president of Brazil considers the pandemic to be fake news and he’s misleading the population. At the same time his secretary of finance has been constructing this kind of strong government we had and implementing new liberal measures while downgrading the economy at a faster pace than naturally amid this crisis. So my question to you—and I know it’s not your area of expertise—how can we organize within our governments in Brazil when there is the total absence of public leadership in the federal government? And if you see it possible that international aid might come at some point in this crisis even to a country that seems more stable than it is, such as Brazil? Thank you very much.
Thank you so much and it’s so good to hear your voice and I enjoyed having you as a student and having you work for our Future of Diplomacy Project. It’s a very hard question that you’ve asked because in a way I think the public health experts that I try to learn from and listen to would say, “We need to be tending to our own people first.” So I mean I was trying to be very careful when I suggested we needed greater global cooperation because obviously the front lines are going to be in each country and each country has to help itself first.
It’s almost like, you know in those drills getting on the airplane when they say, “In the event of an emergency when the masks come down, put the mask on yourself first before you put it on the person next to you or your child next to you.” There’s a reason you do that. And all of us need to work locally first. But what you and I have been talking about, what I’ve been talking about in this phone call is we also need an addition to that, a global mission. And it’s hard I think for any one country to tell the Brazilian government what to do. But if you do form this group of leaders that I’ve been talking about in the G20, they’re going to challenge each other. And frankly they’re going to learn from each other. And it is possible that countries that have gone through the first wave, South Korea, Singapore, China, just to name three. They went through the terrible time a month or two ago. Now they’re in a better position to help other countries as the Chinese are doing, as I said before, and they should be praised for that, who are in the worst part of the crisis. And maybe we can, as citizens, encourage our governments, let’s learn what the Chinese did well. Let’s also learn what they didn’t do well. Let’s learn what the South Koreans did well. And what they didn’t do well. Learn from each other.
But we’re going to have to have those struggles inside our countries to make our governments reform, respond better. And you’re fighting that battle in Brazil it sounds like, and I certainly in this call and publicly have been critical of my own government that they didn’t recognize the problem earlier. They didn’t listen to the scientists early enough. The people with data. The public health professionals. Thank you.
Q: I’m calling also from Washington DC, MPA 2019. Thanks Professor Burns for your insights and inspiring remarks. But I would ask you if you could entertain a more grim scenario of the crisis where the U.S. does not handle the crisis properly and where that might lead the world after this war or crisis. You mentioned World War II and we all saw that where European countries were after that war and how that changed the balance of power and gave the U.S., for example, an opportunity to become more powerful in the global order. So we discussed also in your class that year how China is trying to alter some international institutions and create parallel ones. Do you see a scenario where the Chinese government might actually use this crisis? Especially if the U.S. doesn’t respond properly? To also create other institutions to weaken the current global institutions? Thank you.
Ibrahim, what a good question. It’s great to hear your voice and thank you for being on the call. It was great to have you as a student here at the Kennedy School. This is a big question. My Great Powers class, which you know is going to be meeting, the class is meeting tonight for three hours, we’re going to talk about this question. And I guess I’d say two things. Number one. This is not a time for countries to compete for global influence in a narrow, parochial way. And frankly if you listen to the Chinese government that’s how it sounds to the rest of the world. At least to Americans. That they are trying to pin this crisis on us. And if you’re sitting in China and you hear President Trump talk about the Chinese virus, I think they probably have the same reaction. And so for the good of everybody around the world, the two strongest countries have to come together, put aside their competition, a truce for several months maybe, or for a year, and rally around each other and work together. That’s point number one.
Point number two. After great crises, particularly ones that are damaging. Loss of life. Systems have failed. We’re going to have to get together in a year or so around the world and say what worked, what didn’t work. Do we need a new global institution to replace or renovate the World Health Organization, we had mentioned this before in this call. Learn the lessons. After World War I, at Versailles they thought that the panacea would be the League of Nations. It wasn’t. But after the second world war the panacea was the United Nations and its tributary agencies like the WHO and NATO and what became the European Union and the regional development banks and the whole liberal system. It was a miraculous system. The right system.
But we also knew before this crisis that that system was beginning to atrophy and fray and it was really almost a mid-20th century set of institutions and they weren’t truly 21st century enough. So this crisis, the public health crisis and the economic crisis I think will compel us to think about establishing new ways of working together, new institutions to help people and to help the world be peaceful and stable and prosperous, which we want it to be after these crises have subsided, the twin crises. Thank you.
Q: Yes good afternoon Ambassador Burns. This is your former student, I’m calling in from Singapore today and it’s great to hear your inspiring words and sense of optimism. I think we really need it in these times. And my question to you today was just around the role of diplomacy and rebuilding trust with allies. I think now clearly this administration in the U.S. has perhaps broken a lot of the strong bonds between both allies and adversaries and the lines of communication. And when we look beyond just the next four years, the eight years, or 10 years we look into the future and perhaps another administration, how do you see and how would you go about rebuilding trust, rebuilding those lines of communication, and connections that the U.S. has with both allies and even adversaries in using diplomacy and other connections to rebuild I think some quite frayed bonds? Thank you.
Thank you. It’s great to hear your voice. It’s great to hear from so many students. And I hope everything’s going well in Singapore. You’ve asked a good question. I think I will say this. We do need greater trust at that global governing level, at the G20. Right now I think the biggest problem in the international system, in the world today, and this was true before coronavirus ,was the deteriorating trust between the authoritarian countries–China, Russia—and the democratic countries. The U.S.-China competition which frankly has had just red hot competition across the board—military, political, economic, coronavirus competition. The distrust and competition between Putin and the NATO countries, the European countries, Canada and the U.S., this is dividing global politics. This was all happening the last few years before coronavirus and so now we’re seeing that distrust deepened or magnified in the coronavirus crisis. We’ve got to fix that. During the crisis and when it’s over.
Here in the United States I’d say one of the other lessons, again a parochial lesson for me. We have weakened the State Department. We have weakened our ability to practice diplomacy at a time when diplomacy’s desperately needed during the COVID-19 crisis. If you think of it this way, since 9/11 we have fully funded and modernized the military, the intelligence community. We created the Department of Homeland Security. We created the position of director of national intelligence. So we’ve fully kind of learned the lessons of September 11th, 2001, but we’ve weakened the State Department. Particularly the Donald Trump administration. I joined as an intern 40 years ago this year the State Department, I’m that old and I’ve never seen morale so bad as it is now.
One of the current crises we’re facing is that we simply don’t have enough officers in the field. We have tens of thousands of Americans stranded overseas, trying to get back home. Borders are closing. Rail links. Air links have been closed. And we don’t have enough people in the embassies and consulates to help those American citizens at a time of huge crisis.
And so one of my personal takeaways that I want to work on, we’re launching a Harvard Kennedy School project in fact on this right now, is how do we strengthen the State Department on a bipartisan basis? Convince Republicans and Democrats to do that together. And that’s the funding. That’s reauthorizing the mission of the Foreign Service, which is critical to the defense of the United States, and we’ve got to do that, again, Republicans and Democrats working together.
Diplomacy is the coin of the realm in a crisis like this. When I’m calling for a G20, a group to lead the global dimensions, it’s really all about diplomacy. Working together through tough problems. So thank you.
Q: Hi Professor Burns. I was the MPA 2015 and I’m calling from New Delhi India. I’m also working as an advisor to the government of India on security matters. Professor Burns, my question is with regards to, it’s related to the previous question, is the deep mistrust and the international order in the neighboring countries. What do you foresee as the future of nationalistic regimes around the world? Will order gain political legitimacy because of the crisis that has unfolded and the deep suspicions that the common man in these countries is facing with respect to the international order? Thank you.
Thank you and so great to hear from so many students. Former students I should say. And thank you for all the work you’re doing in New Delhi for the Indian government. And I just want to say to our organizers as well I’m happy to answer one or two more questions if that’s technically possible, if the line can say it’s up to you.
But on this question, another great question, are we going to see nationalism strengthened because of the crisis or weakened? You probably know my bias on this. Nationalism is a cancer and I don’t confuse it with patriotism. Patriotism is we love our country. You are Indian? You love your country. You should. You’re Chinese? You love your country. Good. We’re Americans. We love ours. Good. That’s patriotism. Nationalism is more perverse. Because the nationalists see in the world as, “I’m better than you are.” Or “I’m superior to you.” Or “My religion is superior to yours and should be advantaged in our society.” We’re seeing nationalism strengthened around the world and it’s very worrisome. Certainly the kind of narrow, nationalism that Xi Jinping has been practicing and promoting the strength of this brutally authoritarian system that has been so detrimental to human and civil and political religious rights in China. Frankly I’m going to say this about your country, the Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi and the BJP is injurious to the second-largest Muslim population of the world, India’s Muslims. And we saw that in the religious riots that left over 40 people dead in Delhi when President Trump was visiting India he had to observe all, he and the press corps observed those terrible riots and the anti-Muslim violence.
We’re seeing ugly nationalism, we’re seeing white nationalism. It’s a minority of people in the United States promoting whites over blacks over African Americans or over Latinos. It’s ugly. It’s racist. It’s wrong. And so if we believe in democracy and the future of democracy, we have to fight the worst aspects of nationalism and resist it.
And who are the leaders doing that? Angela Merkel is doing it. She spoke at our commencement last May. Some of the people on this line graduated in that class of 2019. They saw a leader who rejects nationalism and who I think is upholding the moral values of the democratic world better than probably any democratic leader right now.
What we’re also seeing, and for those who are pro-President Trump, forgive my statement but I’m going to have to be honest. The natural leader of the democratic world for the last seven decades has been the United States given our power in the world. And yet President Trump? He’s been cavorting, embracing nationalist, authoritarian leaders like Kim Jong Un and like President Xi and Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban in Hungary. And at the same time he has been an unceasing public critic of Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May when she was in office in Britain, and especially Angela Merkel. And if the American president doesn’t stand up for democracy and for liberal, international values, then you see that the authoritarians and the nationalists have the upper hand. So this is a big battle. It’s a rhetorical battle. It’s an ideological battle. But it’s a human battle. And I’m certainly on the side of those like Merkel, Chancellor Merkel, who are trying to support the future of the democratic world. The liberal, pluralist world of human values that are at the root of what most of our democratic governments are based on.
I don’t want to end this call and I’m happy to stay on and take a couple more questions but I don’t want to end it without going back to hope. We’re living under very dark clouds. All of us individually, collectively. This is a huge challenge. The economic challenge and especially the public health challenge. We’re in a very difficult time. But human beings can surmount every difficulty if we stay together, if we have good leadership, if we are tolerant of each other, if we put aside the petty grievances, that gets to suspending some of these sanctions that inhibit humanitarian aid to authoritarian countries, we can rise to the occasion. And we can come out stronger. It’s not automatic. We’ll only do that if our leaders are wise. And let’s hope that that’s the result a year from now, that we say, “We survived the twin crises and now we’re going to build a better and stronger world.” I hope that’s the case. Thank you so much.
Q: Professor Burns, I’m calling from Bogotá in Colombia, MPA 2014. Two questions. One is if we are in the third world war and second, how the oil prices affect this crisis? Thank you.
Thank you so much. Very much. And I hope that you and your family are well in Bogotá. I know that Colombians have suffered a lot over the last 30 years because of the civil war and narcotics war and now you have on top of it these incredible crises, so all best to you in Colombia.
I wish Professor Meghan O’Sullivan were here, she’s my good friend and she knows 100 million times more than I do about global energy markets. But we’re seeing with the collapse of global oil prices, this is going to in the short- and mid- and long-term change global energy power if the current price system persists. We’re seeing a big, big rivalry, a power play of sorts between Mohammad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and Vladimir Putin.
So I don’t frankly know how this is going to come out. It’s not my area of expertise. I don’t want to make predictions when I’m not comfortable with the data. But it is an indication of dislocation. And if you compound that with a rapid loss of economic productivity, we may have several million people go on the unemployment rolls in the next 7 to 10 days in the United States. We may go from 3.5 percent unemployment to double-digit unemployment in a week or two.
Barry Bluestone, Professor Bluestone, would know this better than me, he’s an economist. We’ve never had such a rapid drop, if it happens, in economic activity in the history of the American economy and probably not in the history of the global economy. We’re facing a huge economic tidal wave. And so we need global powers to be concerting with each other, working with each other, aligning policies, plugging the gaps short- and long-term to deal with this challenge.
And so it’s much greater than the oil price collapse or drop. We’re looking at a huge drop of economic activity and now we already see the tension in one of President Trump’s tweets this morning. He essentially said, “We got to be careful that the cure is not worse than the sickness.” I’m paraphrasing. And he’s right to think about this balance. If you put the country in a lockdown and it’s true of Italy, it’s true of Germany, it’s true of China, and you suspend most economic activity for two, four, six, eight weeks, I mean who knows how long it’ll be, is that the right thing to do? What’s the trade-off between the public health crisis and the economic crisis? I am not an expert in either of them. But as a citizen, having wise leaders to create the right balance and get that question right—that’s going to be important. As a citizen I’d rather see us prioritize the health crisis first, say over two to three weeks. Because most of the public health experts at least are saying you need this kind of shock lockdown, isolation, social distancing from each other for a couple of weeks at least. We have to do that. If we try to open up the economy sooner, most of the public health experts are saying it’ll intensify the health crisis.
So getting the balance right between the two crises is going to be critical. That gets back to data. Empiricism. Listening to experts. Not being political. Putting aside politics. That’s going to be hard to do in the United States and in many other countries. But if this is the last, last question, let’s end with hope. Let’s stay together. Let’s keep talking to each other.
My email address is on the Kennedy School website. Email me if you have a question that you couldn’t raise and I’ll try to answer it online tonight or tomorrow or the next day. And I wish everyone the best individually. Wish your families health, well, and let’s come through this crisis together. Thank you so much.
Great. Well thank you so much Ambassador Burns for sharing your expertise with us this morning and thank you for our Harvard Kennedy School community for coming together during this crisis.
I would also like to promote our next call on the COVID crisis which will be Thursday April 2nd at noon Eastern time. This time we’re going to be hearing from Dean Doug Elmendorf, dean of the School and an economist, and his wife, economist Karen Dynan. So just keep your eyes open for that invitation. But meanwhile I hope that everyone stays healthy and well. Take care.