As a speaker at this spring’s Global Investment Conference at the Terranea Resort in Ranchos Palos Verdes, LA, (April 4-6), Nicholas Burns, professor, Harvard University and former U.S. Under Secretary of State, will speak on global geopolitical trend lines and their impact. In advance of the conference, we asked Nicholas about advances in global well-being, changes in international leadership and the impact of the Trump presidency.
What are the trend lines you think are most significant in today’s world?
First of all, it’s a time of tremendous opportunity in the world. I think it’s important to start with the positive at a time like this. There’s been tremendous poverty alleviation in the world: more people have been lifted out of poverty in the last 30 years than at any time in global history. There’s gains being made on economic growth, and on global public health — more people are living longer and leading healthier lives than ever before. While technology can be a double-edged sword, there’s a lot of positive developments, certainly in terms of cancer research, and with biotechnology and nanotechnology breakthroughs on the horizon.
On the other hand, we’re seeing tremendous challenges in Europe, from terrorism to the rise of anti-democratic right-wing populism to the influx of refugees, which has divided Europeans from each other. There is the Putin challenge: cyber attacks during Western elections to the land grab in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014. There is tremendous dislocation in the Middle East, with failed states, four failed states to be exact, the terrible war that continues in Syria, the Sunni-Shia rivalry exemplified in the Saudi-Iran contest for power. And then in Asia, there’s a very complicated relationship between China and the United States. They are partners on issues like climate change and the global economy. They are competitors for military power in the future.
Finally, there’s all the unanswerable questions right now about whether the Trump revolution is a great departure from where the United States has been for the last 70 years as the primary global leader — and what does that mean for global peace?
What are the drivers behind improvements in global well-being and public health and what can be done to foster these trends?
There is tremendous altruistic energy and our global health efforts: United Nations funding, great U.S., European Union, Canadian, Japanese funding. You have corporations getting into the act by helping to fund the global campaign against AIDS, for instance. The Gates Foundation, which is putting billions into HIV and malaria, is a major part of these efforts. There is a concert of positive actors who all see an opportunity for transformational change in global public health, the results are very positive.
The human race has not eradicated a global disease since smallpox. Now, we’re within just a couple of years of eradicating polio. There have been major advances on HIV-AIDS treatment that are allowing people to live longer and survive it. Bill Gates even thinks that eradicating malaria is a plausible goal in his lifetime. There are many reasons to feel optimistic that this confluence of government, private sector and NGO money and effort is leading to a positive change for the better.
What will it take for this to become self-sustaining?
Well, the continuation of leadership in the public sector and the private sector: if there are leaders who believe it’s a priority and believe that money should be made available and that it should be made a priority of the United Nations and governments and individuals. A decade ago, George W. Bush committed $30 billion in government money to fund an HIV treatment and prevention programs and initiatives to combat polio and malaria. That is one piece of the global puzzle and it’s been working remarkably well. I like to say to people sometimes when I talk about global challenges: start with the positive because you can feel overwhelmed by the numbers and difficulty of the challenges that we’re facing around the world.
Is there a void of leadership, for example in Europe?
Certainly I think Angela Merkel is considered by most people to be the single most important leader in Europe right now. She is a leader of experience, intelligence, of balance and determination. She knows when to be tough as she was with Putin over the invasion of Crimea and she knows when to compromise as she did when she led the effort to keep Greece in the Eurozone a couple of years back. Emmanuel Macron has shown signs of being a very promising leader. I believe you in Canada have a very exciting, smart, able young leader in Justin Trudeau.
Do we have anyone thinking about the global good the way Nelson Mandela did or Bill Clinton, Lew Kwan Yew and Tony Blair and their generation of leaders did? I think that’s what we’re really looking for today.
One of the key questions is the nature of Donald Trump’s leadership. I fear President Trump is taking the United States away from global leadership towards a more insular American approach and pulling back on our obligations to the world.
I think that’s the most troubling question in the world today.
What are the consequences?
The U.S. has an outsize role in the world. We’re still the largest economy, a very dynamic 21st-century economy, we still have by far the largest military in the world, we’re politically influential in private sector and the NGO sector. But we’re pulling back. President Trump has been contesting NAFTA and withdrawing from global trade agreements. Treaty. I look at NAFTA as a great success. He’s backing off on immigration and refugees, so we’ve cut quite sharply the number of immigrants and refugees we’re taking into the United States, which puts the pressure on countries like Canada and European countries to take in relatively more people because we’re taking in relatively fewer.
These are major changes — a structural change in American foreign policy. It changes the 70-year consensus we’ve had since the Second World War. Republicans and Democrats administrations in the past believed that we should lead, we should trade, we should be in alliances, we should be admitting refugees, receiving immigrants. When you begin to change the policy in those areas, it changes the way the rest of the world thinks about leadership and it makes it more difficult, arguably, to achieve change around the world.