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Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State lectures on foreign policy challenges

In light of global conflicts ranging from the refugee crisis to North Korean nuclear threats, the University invited William J. Burns, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and current president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to speak about U.S. foreign policy. He focused on three key areas: Asia, Europe, and Iran.

In his first area of focus, Burns explains that the rise of China, the “single most consequential phenomenon,” demonstrates the shift in the center of gravity from the West to the East. He predicted that within the next decade the four global powers will be Pacific powers: the United States, China, Japan, and Russia.


The largest test to America’s relationship with China is North Korea, particularly Kim Jong-Un and the North’s capacity to fire missiles into the Western Hemisphere. Burns explained that the plans of action of the United States “are pretty limited,” since the safety of the nearby Seoul inhabitants will directly be endangered when considering any military action towards North Korea. However, Burns said that the United States will end up adopting a “classic diplomatic fashion” towards North Korea when preventing its proliferation of weapons and mobilizing other countries to take action. 

Moving onto the second area, Burns identifies that Europe “faces the toughest set” of internal and external challenges. Internal challenges include Brexit, while external challenges include insecurity of migration flows and the volatility of Russia.

“Putin is likely to remain a combustible combination,” Burns said.

He attributes the instability of Russia to its one-dimensional economy that is dependent on hydrocarbons and Putin’s attempt to “chip away American international order.” Putin often points to the United States to justify or explain threats at home, and his distrust of the United States was exemplified by his remark to Burns and other diplomats in a Moscow meeting: “Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing.”

In light of the Arab Spring, Burns expressed worry about American relations with Arab partners and the vacuum that was created by the Arab Spring. 

“What comes next? Terrorists? Predatory regions?” asked Burns. “Maybe we are too indulgent with American policy.” Since the United States offers the reassurance that it wants, this may lead to overreach in Yemen and Lebanon.


“Arab Spring is going to occur again,” continued Burns, “if indignity is not addressed.”

He acknowledges that there exists a huge burden on the United States to “kick in diplomatically and de-escalate tensions.” Yet, at the same time, he continued expressing worry about the potential vacuum that U.S. foreign policy action will create in the Middle East.

When describing the potential vacuum, Burns referenced a metaphor that one of his previous bosses at the State Department used.

“When you’re in a hole and you want a way out, the first thing you have to do is to stop digging,“ he said.

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In order to contain the permanent damage to both the United States and the international order caused by the vacuum, Burns suggested that “the sooner we stop digging the better.” 

The last area of focus, Iran, revolved around its development of nuclear weaponry and whether or not the United States ought to expand sanctions again as a response.

Before opening the floor to a public Q&A session, Burns ended the lecture on a more positive note, pointing out recent global achievements in decreases in poverty in China and Africa, as well as the increase in life expectancy and human health. Questions ranged from American relations with Turkey and Pakistan to the role of think tanks contributing to policy dialogue to whether U.S.  troops will ever leave Afghanistan.

The lecture, “American Foreign Policy in an Era of Turbulence and Trump,” took place in Robertson Hall’s Arthur Lewis Auditorium on Monday, Feb. 26, at 4:30 p.m.

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