Students, staff, and the rest of the Bates community had a chance to hear a lecture from a former United States Ambassador and current Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Nicholas Burns on Thursday night in the Olin Arts Center. Burns was an ambassador to Greece and the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance that includes the United States and most of Western Europe.
Following an introduction by both President Clayton Spencer and politics professor Jason Scheideman, Burns began his speech on a lighthearted note, telling the story of how he had been waitlisted by Bates as a high school senior and jokingly letting President Spencer, an old friend from their work on Capitol Hill and at Harvard University, know that he was “still waiting.”
“We [Clayton and I] have known each other, I won’t say how many decades,” Burns joked.
From there, Burns spoke of the need for America to be confident in itself on the global stage and spoke optimistically of the future, including the current generation of students.
“Our generation will very quickly be handing the baton to you, to be the teachers in our schools. To run on school committees and city councils; to be our CIA; to run our businesses; to run Bates college. I think there’s a lot we can be hopeful for,” Burns told the audience.
Burns spent the bulk of speech laying out the ways in which he believes President Donald Trump has deviated from previous presidents on foreign policy issues, which he organized into four categories: alliances, trade, immigration, and the promotion of democracy worldwide. Overall, across each of these issues, Burns was highly critical of President Trump and presented his foreign policy as a push towards isolationism that hadn’t been seen since before World War II.
Burns called on his experience as a former NATO ambassador to explain the way the United States has needed its allies in the past, and criticized Trump for not doing enough to support its allies or focus on diplomacy in general. Burns gave the example of President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.
“Right now, we have a situation where the largest economy in the world, the second-biggest carbon emitter in the world, is saying that we’re out of the game… We said we’re not going to work with the rest of the world,” said Burns.
Burns was also critical of Trump’s flippant attitude toward the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a trade agreement between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Burns views NAFTA as a net positive for the United States economy. In particular, Burns singled out Trump’s criticism of Mexico in speeches as being bad for the alliance.
“He [Trump] somehow makes Mexico out to be an enemy of the United States, when Mexico is a virtuous friend of the United States… he is disavowing what made us great economically: seventy years of trade with the rest of the world,” said Burns.
Towards the end of the speech, Burns also criticized Trump on his handling of domestic issues, like the violence surrounding a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer. Burns felt that Trump did not do enough to disavow the “racist, American neo-Nazis,” involved in the protests.
According to his Harvard staff page, Burns also served as the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, the third highest position in the State Department, for three years under President George Bush.