Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Professor at Harvard University and an advisor to Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden, spoke with “The Arena” on the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis (“a failure that has cost over 110,000 Americans lives”), rising U.S.-China tensions (“deeply hurt global recovery efforts from both the coronavirus and the economic crises”), the upcoming presidential election (“Trump has chosen China as his demon”), and Israel’s annexation plans (“the issue that could most harm the U.S.-Israel relationship”)
PM Netanyahu (left) with then-Vice President Biden at the White House, in 2011. Has already spoken against annexation | Photo: Avi Ohayon, GPO
Like millions of his compatriots, U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns has also watched in recent months with growing concern his government’s growing failure to properly address the coronavirus crisis, which has led to over 110,000 deaths on U.S. soil so far. “This has been a dispiriting spectacle for the American people,” he says. “They have seen what appears as the failure of the federal government on the pandemic.”
Ambassador Burns, who is Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School, served for 27 years in the U.S. Department of State, rising to the position of Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the second George. W. Bush administration (2005-2008). He has been involved in Middle East geopolitics since first arriving in the region to serve in Egypt and Israel in the 1980s. Later, in his senior positions at the State Department, Burns represented his government in numerous negotiations with regional partners and adversaries and negotiated the 2007 U.S.-Israel Military Assistance Agreement. Even after leaving government, he remains closely involved through “Our Generation Speaks,” an organization he chairs which brings Israeli and Palestinian millennials together to form joint venture business.
In late May, The Arena’s Diplomatic Forum hosted Ambassador Burns for an online discussion of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, the upcoming presidential election, Israel’s annexation plans, and other burning issues.
[Editor's note: The interview with Ambassador Burns was conducted before the death of George Floyd in Minnesota and the protests it sparked across the United States.]
A Shocking Failure
Q: How would you describe the situation in the U.S. these days in regards to the coronavirus crisis?
You should know that Israel has been getting a lot of praise in the United States for the way you handled the coronavirus crisis. Here, however, the situation is completely different. The U.S. represents just over 5% of the world’s population, but as of late May has nearly a quarter of the world’s coronavirus cases and leads the world in number of deaths.
The economic statistics on the consequences of the pandemic in America are appalling. On March 1st, the U.S. had only 3.5% unemployment and arguably the strongest economy for generations. Since then, over 40 million Americans have lost their jobs and unemployment is at roughly 15%. For comparison, in the great recession of 2008-2009 only 8.7 million people were unemployed.
Jerome Powell, chairman of the Federal Reserve, recently said that the U.S. unemployment rate could reach 20-25% by the end of June or the beginning of July. This is even more devastating in light of the fact that most Americans do not receive a pension; they rely on their own investments and 401k accounts.
What’s more, the IMF is predicting a 5-6% decline in U.S. GDP this year, and a 7% decline in E.U. GDP – the U.S.’s largest trade partner. This is an example of the many compounding factors that could worsen the economic crisis.
It took approximately a full decade for the average American to recover economically from the 2008-2009 financial crisis. Many had just recovered when the coronavirus hit. This combination of the pandemic and an economic recession is the greatest crisis America has faced since the Second World War.
President Trump at an update briefing on testing capacity at the White House, in May | Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead (Public Domain)
Q: Who do Americans find responsible given these appalling death rates and dismal economic figures?
The effectiveness of the federal government has been called into question because of the way it is handling the crisis. The government has provided inconsistent advice and guidelines and focused on assigning blame for failures to the 50 state governors. Yet while the CDC was recommending that citizens not wear masks and President Trump was suggesting injections of disinfectant might help treat the virus, most governors were implementing stay-at-home orders, improving the capacity of their state hospitals, and promoting research and advice from health experts.
For example, California Governor Gavin Newsom was the first governor to shut down his state. Newsom was harshly criticized at the time for exaggerating the threat, but today California is in better shape than any other state in the country, even though it’s the largest state in the country with 35 million people.
The U.S. is still in the middle of the crisis, but when it hopefully dies out, we will have to determine what went wrong, and a lot of Democrats and Republican will say the federal government failed – a failure that has cost over 100,000 Americans their lives. The idea that the government failed is quite shocking to the nation, and its response to the Covid-19 crisis is likely going to be the most important issue in the November 2020 U.S. presidential election.
A Vulnerable International Position
Q: In your opinion, how has the Trump administration’s handling of the crisis affected the U.S.’s international image and standing?
The U.S. government has failed not only in its internal response to the pandemic, but also in its external response. The U.S. has not led international efforts against the virus, including the search for a vaccine or the sharing of data. Instead, President Trump announced on May 29th that he will withdraw the U.S. from the World Health Organization because, according to him, the Organization did not demonstrate its independence from China. This is like withdrawing the fire department as the building is burning.
Because the United States is by far the largest funder of the WHO, China will now almost surely step in. Such a move will benefit Beijing’s reputation with other countries which do support the WHO. We have already seen President Xi Jinping pledge to deliver $2 billion in aid to the rest of the world during the World Health Assembly on May 19th.
Chinese money and foreign aid is going to have a large and positive impact on its reputation around the world, whereas the U.S. has not provided such support and leadership in this unprecedented global event
It’s important to stress that the Chinese government bears much of the responsibility for the coronavirus crisis, despite all its rhetoric and propaganda. It did not respond effectively to the outbreak, and had Beijing been transparent about its danger in late December or even the first three weeks of January, the world could have reacted earlier. For this reason, it must be held to account. Over 100 countries have demanded that a global commission investigate why the WHO did not warn the world about Covid-19 sooner. However, China continues to block such an investigation and refuses to share its data.
Despite this behavior, Chinese money and foreign aid is going to have a large and positive impact on its reputation around the world, whereas the U.S. has not provided such support and leadership in this unprecedented global event. Instead, Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been promoting a conspiracy theory accusing the Chinese military of manufacturing the coronavirus – for which there is absolutely zero proof.
All in all, the Trump administration’s actions during the Covid-19 crisis have quite certainly left the United States in a vulnerable international position.
Q: Yet the Chinese have circulated a parallel conspiracy theory, according to which the U.S. Army introduced the novel coronavirus during the 2019 Military Games in Beijing. The mudslinging comes from both sides.
That’s true. The tragedy is that U.S.-China tensions have undoubtedly hampered global efforts to combat the coronavirus. For example, it would have been reasonable to expect that, by mid-March, the G20 leaders would have all come together for a decisive meeting to outline how they would cooperate on tackling the pandemic and the global financial crisis, yet this never happened because of the white-hot U.S-China competition.
Q: How do you expect this crisis – and the international tensions it has created or exasperated – will affect future multilateral cooperation?
In the past seventeen years we have experienced four pandemics: SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, Ebola in 2014 and now Covid-19. It is logical to assume that in the next decade or two we’re going to go through several more pandemics and we need to be better prepared, globally and regionally.
Regretfully, this time we've seen mainly national reactions to the coronavirus. It would have made a lot more sense, for example, for the Mexicans and Americans to have worked more closely than they did in March and April. Perhaps that's one of the ways in which a pandemic changes how people think about their neighbors and about relations in the world.
In the U.S., it’s been interesting to see the governors of north-eastern states forming a kind of informal alliance. New York, New Jersey and the six New England states [Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut] have all been working together, essentially following the same criteria for opening their economies, and California, Oregon and Washington do the same. A similar process has been happening in Europe, where the northern European countries, except for Sweden, have overcome their initial wariness and are working together.
Indirectly, this brings us to the Middle East: why can't this be a model for Israel and your Arab neighbors in the Levant, as well as some of your more distant neighbors in the Gulf? It makes absolute sense to try and set up regional cooperation around something front-line like a pandemic and preparedness for it. You are all part of one region and can use the pandemic to knit it together, purely out of self-interest.
Q: Would you say there’s a high degree of irony in the fact that a global pandemic is, in fact, driving a process of de-globalization?
I find it difficult to imagine a sweeping “de-globalization” in the upcoming years. There is no doubt our lives have changed. Most people are not choosing air travel the way they used to. Many people are teleworking, as we are now in this interview. But I believe this change is only going to be temporary.
True, when the threat of Covid-19 ends, not everything will return to the old way of life. But airlines will fly again, trade over the high seas will flow again, and a large amount of manufacturing will continue to be based in countries like China, Vietnam and Bangladesh, not to mention emerging manufacturing centers in Africa like Ethiopia and Kenya.
There will be an intensification of the same processes in North America. The symbiotic economic links between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico have not broken down to any appreciable extent over the past three months. I am therefore skeptical of the idea of de-globalization.
Following Covid-19, there will quite certainly be significant changes in supply chain design. The U.S. government, for one, will likely decide to bring back manufacturing for critical services and supplies to our shores
That said, there will quite certainly be significant changes in supply chain design, for national security reasons. Even before the pandemic, trade disagreements and intellectual property difficulties with China were leading some firms to relocate manufacturing to Bangladesh and Vietnam, countries whose low-wage manufacturing now rivals China’s traditional comparative advantage in labor. Nowadays, many American firms have also begun questioning their supply chain dependence on China, particularly regarding certain products like N95 masks and ventilators. In the future, it is likely that the U.S. government will decide to bring back manufacturing for critical services and supplies to our shores.
Finally, there is the dismal state of the U.S. economy. If unemployment reaches 25%, free trade will not be an issue that either presidential candidate will be willing to run on until November. While there is public support for the US-Canada-Mexico free trade agreement – it’s been part of the American economy since 1994 – broader trade agreements like the U.S.-E.U. agreement President Obama proposed are not going to be attractive to U.S. citizens. This will also slow the return to a functioning global economy.
Q: Let’s go back to the rivalry between Washington and Beijing. It seems that even President Trump’s political rivals support at least some of his moves against China.
In the United States, there is bipartisan agreement about focusing our energy and resources on competing with China across military, economic, and ideological fronts – and China has been competitive in return. The U.S.-China competition has worsened over the course of the pandemic and the economic crisis, and Xi and Trump’s inability to work together has hurt global recovery efforts from both.
The competition between the two is multifaceted. First, there is a competition for military predominance in the Indo-Pacific. This stretches over the entire region of the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the subcontinent, the Bay of Bengal, and the Western Pacific. Although it remains well short of war, it is a true military standoff. Over the last eight years, the Chinese military has expanded aggressively towards the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and towards the Spratly and Paracel/Xisha islands of the South China Sea. It has also expanded into the Indian Ocean in an effort to confront and encircle India with Chinese land, naval, and air military installations.
U.S. warships during an exercise in the South China Sea, in 2019 | Photo: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
This expansion has prompted a counter-reaction by the “Quad” – the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia – each of which works with the others as naval and air partners. These four countries do not want to fight China, but rather to curb its military ambitions. Such efforts require freedom of navigation naval exercises by the Quad through the international waters of the South China Sea, waters which China claims illegally. They require a large buildup of American military forces in the Indo-Pacific, one which began under President Obama and has continued under President Trump. They require that the preponderance of American naval and air forces be deployed in the Pacific – not evenly balanced between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the way U.S. forces have been for the last 75 years. The time for maintaining 50% of American military might in the Atlantic theater is over.
In addition to the military competition, there is an economic competition. This includes, for example, efforts by the U.S., the E.U., and Japan to convince China to implement its WTO commitments on intellectual property and other trade practices. And it’s important to note that many Democrats silently support Trump’s efforts to confront the Chinese in this theater.
Finally, there is also an ideological aspect. Xi Jinping is the first Chinese leader since Mao to trumpet the attractiveness of an authoritarian system of government. While former U.S. Presidents Bush and Obama would contest such an ideological claim by affirming that democracy is the best political system and way of life, Donald Trump has not. However, in the U.S., the fact remains that Joe Biden, alongside most other Democrats and Republicans, would.
Ultimately, the U.S. is not insane; it understands that a war with China would be an existential and catastrophic event, and so the U.S. intends to keep such a competition well short of war. But that competition does exist and will continue to exist.
Q: In the past several years, Israel has been drawing closer and closer to Beijing. How do you expect deteriorating U.S.-China relations to affect its ties with both?
Profoundly. The U.S.-China relationship will remain the central international relationship and the central international competition, no matter who wins the November election. Washington does not want Israel to get too close to Beijing, because such a relationship would be disadvantageous to the U.S.
The big challenge the U.S. is facing now is to achieve some type of balance in our relationship with China. There are those on the extremes of our political system who have effectively demonized Beijing in a way we hadn't demonized a foreign power since the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
If the U.S. shifts too much towards competition with China, it’s going to hurt our own self-interest about climate change and the global economy, since we won’t be able to work with Beijing
But there is also a recognition in the U.S., even among a lot of people around President Trump like the Secretary of the Treasury, Steve Mnuchin, and White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, that we need China. The U.S. and China are two of the biggest economies worldwide, so they need to work together on economic stabilization. They are also the two largest carbon emitters and need to work together on climate change. Ultimately, they must also work together on combating the coronavirus.
I believe most people in the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, agree on the need for a mature relationship with Beijing, and for striking some balance between competition and cooperation with it. But such cooperation is going to be difficult to maintain at a time when – and this is an objective statement, not a partisan one – President Trump has clearly decided that China is going to be the demon in his re-election campaign. He is going to blame everything on China. But if the U.S. shifts too much towards competition, it’s going to hurt our own self-interest about climate change and the global economy, since we won’t be able to work with Beijing.
I think Israel will eventually get caught up in this.
If you believe the reports in American and Israeli publications following Secretary of State Pompeo’s visit to Israel in mid-May, he made clear that there must be some limits to Israel’s technology trade with China, just as there have to be limits on American technology trade with China.
It’s also interesting to see that the Europeans are really awakening on this matter. They’re not speaking with one voice, but there are more Europeans now than a year ago saying they also must be wary of China on technology trade, particularly Huawei. The debate on Huawei is changing in Europe; some countries have already agreed to go ahead with Huawei and 5G, but not everyone, and there may be some decisions that have to be looked at again. I think Israel will hear from European and American leaders calling it to join them on some of these limits so that China doesn’t have an open field.
Unilateralist vs. Atlanticist at the Ballot
Q: What can we expect in the last five months of the presidential election campaign?
Before commenting on the American election, it is important that I state that I am an advisor to Joe Biden and have been a part of his presidential campaign for over a year now. I have known him for 25 years, and I believe that he is a very good man.
In this upcoming election, the primary battles will be waged over healthcare, the economy, and the Government’s response to the pandemic. While it’s still too early to predict how the American public is going to react to this crisis, there are two separate but linked issues.
The first is that we’ve only been studying the coronavirus for six months globally and don’t know a lot about it yet. There are so many open questions that it’s hard to predict how Americans are going to translate their experience of Covid-19 at the ballot.
Having said that, the second point is that there is a majority view in all the public opinion polls saying that the federal government did not react appropriately and effectively. I think this will hurt the President’s odds of re-election.
President Trump arrives at the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels. "Has been the Alliance's chief critic for three years" | Photo: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
My own sense, however, is that perhaps by November 3rd, the economy will be a bigger issue than the pandemic, if we avoid a second wave. This is an extremely difficult environment for President Trump. No president has ever run for office successfully when the country was at 25% unemployment.
That said, there will also be a foreign policy/national security element to the election, which represents a clash between two completely different schools of thought about how America should act in the world. President Trump is not shy about declaring that he is a unilateralist. He is certain that America’s alliances and partnerships weaken it, hold it back and drag it down. He truly believes that America is strong enough to stand on its own. This belief is borne out in his decision to abandon the Paris climate agreement in 2017, to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, and now to retract funding for the WHO. He has made these decisions despite their unpopularity in the U.S.
Joe Biden, in contrast, is an Atlanticist who also believes deeply in the U.S.’s Pacific alliances. While Trump says the European Union is a competitor and a foe of the United States and has been NATO’s chief critic for three years, Biden is committed to both institutions.
Between these contrasting views of what American foreign policy should look like, Biden’s vision is going to win. American public opinion polls today show the highest support for NATO in 70 years. A majority of Americans support free trade agreements, albeit by a small margin. In contrast to President Trump’s anti-immigration policies, a majority of Americans support immigration and refugees and see the president’s ban on immigration from nine majority-Muslim countries as “un-American.”
“Annexation Would Greatly Harm Israel”
Q: Israel has traditionally played an outsized role in U.S. elections. What role do you think it has and will have until November?
There is extremely strong support for Israel in both American political parties, and by both presidential candidates. The United States feels a lot of sympathy and support for Israel’s security predicament.
However, I personally think that an Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank, which the Israeli government has declared, is the one issue which could most harm the U.S.-Israel relationship. There is a majority view among those who served in the last several Republican and Democratic administrations that annexation, if the Israeli government chooses to move forward with it, would be not just unwise, but a huge mistake. It would greatly harm Israel, internationally and among its strongest supporters. Annexation would fundamentally undermine any notion of a two-state solution in the future, which has been the official U.S. stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1967.
If the Israeli government takes the step of annexation of some kind, capitalizing on their friend President Trump still being in office, I think there will be almost complete denunciation by the American political leadership, aside from the Administration. I also cannot imagine a single major newspaper, including the Wall Street Journal, that would support it. I know some will think I am a partisan supporter of the Democrats; I am not. I have served in both Republican and Democratic administrations and am simply doing my best to analyze both sides of the issue and to be frank.
The Outlier in U.S. Middle East Strategy
Q: The Trump administration has taken a hardline approach on Iran. Do you expect a significant change of policy if he is not re-elected in November? What do you think are the U.S.’s goals concerning Iran’s activities in the region, with and without regards to Israel?
When I was Under Secretary of State, I was the “Iran negotiator.” I also simultaneously chaired our U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue and was negotiating our military assistance agreement with Israel back in 2006-2007. I've therefore been focused on the Iran issue for a long time, and I don't see any difference between Democrats and Republicans in their concern about Iran's regional aggression. Both parties understand the need to limit and contain Iran or prevent it from becoming a nuclear power, and are concerned about its activities in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. Therefore, whoever wins in November, I think the strong focus on Iran as a regional problem will not change.
I believe whichever administration is in office in January 2021 will continue focusing on Iran as a priority
In order to understand how truly unique the Iran case is, it’s important to put this in the wider context of the U.S.’s re-evaluation of its strategic focus in recent years. First, most senior Republicans and Democrats now agree that the United States took a major strategic detour into the Middle East after 9/11 which deeply hurt American national security. This includes U.S. troop commitments to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. There is now declining public support for maintaining forces abroad in any of those places. President Trump has reduced U.S. deployments to Syria to a few hundred people – which I believe is a great mistake – and I think you're going to see a continuation of American troops exiting the Middle East. The exception for that, of course, will be Israel.
Second, we are also looking at a major shift of American attention to the Indo-Pacific. It is a huge expanse, covering the east coast of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and all the way across to the Western Pacific and South Pacific. This is where about 50% of the global oil and gas is trafficked West to East, and it accounts for about 60% of global container traffic in both directions. It is also where four of the five largest economies, and arguably the four strongest military powers in the world, at least in the foreseeable future, are located: the United States, China, Japan and India are all there.
Nevertheless, I believe whichever administration is in office in January 2021 will continue focusing on Iran as a priority.
Q: Do you support President Trump’s policy towards Tehran?
I agree with most of what he has done regionally. This is also one of the most important issues to Secretary Pompeo, who spends more time on Iran than just about anything else.
Nevertheless, many think that the Administration should perhaps have been even more aggressive towards Tehran. The Iranians have taken a series of shots at the U.S. in the Gulf for the last 18 months, and for a long time the Administration didn’t react, for example when they attacked [Aramco oil-producing facilities in] Saudi Arabia last September. There was a lot of criticism from the left that the president should have been tougher, to show the Iranians the limits of what they can do.
The difference will be on the Iran nuclear deal. I don't think anyone believes it is possible to go back to July 2015 and just reassemble the old JCPOA. But is it possible to figure out a novel way to make absolutely sure the Iranians do not develop nuclear weapons? Is that better done by threat, or is there a new agreement ahead? Personally, I would argue that it is easier done within an agreement than outside one. Even President Trump has talked about the possibility of new negotiations over the last 18 months.
Either way, there is zero American appetite to allow a situation in which Iran could become a nuclear power. That, by definition, will mean a close strategic relationship with the IDF and with the other Israeli government agencies, as well as Jordan, Egypt, and some of the Gulf states to contain Iranian ambitions in the Middle East. I don’t think that is going to change.
 While California had over 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases as of late May, its death toll was below 4,000. By contrast, New York documented 300,000 confirmed cases, but its death toll stood at 29,000 – seven times larger. See: https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-27/california-100-000-coronavirus-cases-as-state-continues-reopening
Sapir Melamed, Jake Pettit and Tomer Raanan contributed to this article