Burns looks at future foreign policy
By Marielle Battistoni, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Thursday, January 22, 2009
The United States must avoid isolationism in order to address the most significant threats to its national security, R. Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of State for political affairs, said in a public lecture on Wednesday afternoon in Filene Auditorium. Burns echoed President Barack Obama's inaugural address, arguing that the United States needs to "rebuild the international system and believe in it."
"I think after the great crisis of 9/11, we went into a defensive crouch, and the world felt excluded," Burns said. "We can be the country that unites."
Burns began his speech, "The Obama Foreign Policy Agenda," by referring to Obama's inauguration. He called the event, and the large crowd in Washington, "inspiring."
"Physically and psychologically, I thought he filled the stage," Burns said of Obama.
The new president will have to prioritize, considering the many issues that face the country, Burns said.
"I can't remember a time when a president has taken office with so many problems to deal with simultaneously," he said.
The United States will remain the strongest nation in the world in terms of political, military and cultural power, but it is no longer the world's only superpower, Burns said.
"The old, static, zero-sum approach would be, if they're gaining, we must be losing," Burns said.
When "a cough on Wall Street causes a flu in Shanghai," America must start looking at the world in a more "sophisticated" way, Burns said, by strengthening the United Nations and reaching out to other world powers.
The U. N. Security Council, for example, which was formed more than 60 years ago by the victors of World War II, excludes newly dominant powers such as India, Brazil and Japan from permanent membership.
The Middle East and South Asia require the most U. S. attention in this new era, Burns said, as opposed to the old, 20th-century focus on Europe. Tension between the nuclear states of India and Pakistan, Iran's goal of becoming a nuclear power, the enduring conflict between Israel and Palestine, and the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan stand at the forefront of Obama's foreign policy concerns, he said.
"If the fires were burning in the 20th century in Europe, the fires are now burning in the Middle East and South Asia," he said. "If Europe was the focus from [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] to George Bush, then the Middle East and South Asia will be for Obama."
The United States' historical tendency toward isolationism must be checked in order to address a long list of complex international issues including climate change, drug and human trafficking, and terrorism, Burns said.
"The United States cannot succeed in a single one of them if it tries to go it alone," he said.
Now is not the time to withdraw from the world stage, Burns argued, despite the economic crisis at home. While the economy should be the new administration's primary concern, the crisis is not only domestic and must be combatted on a global level, he said.
"The American people will question government spending because of tough times here," he said. "They will ask, 'Why should we spend millions on the military? Why should we increase foreign aid?' If we turn the covers over our head on stormy mornings, then we will fail."
Burns retired in 2008 from the U.S. Foreign Service as undersecretary of State for political affairs, the highest ranking position for a career diplomat. A member of the foreign service since 1983, he was also ambassador to Greece and NATO, led negotiations on Iran, India and Kosovo, and served as a member of the National Security Council staff during the breakup of the former Soviet Union.
Burns' speech was part of a two-week-long celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., "Getting to the Mountaintop: Working through Conflict toward Reconciliation," and the Dickey Center for International Understanding's "Great Issues" lecture series.