R. Nicholas Burns

American diplomat and academic

Robert Nicholas Burns (born January 28, 1956) is an American diplomat and academic who has served as the United States ambassador to China since 2022. Burns has had a 25-year career in the State Department, and served as United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and the United States ambassador to Greece. As under secretary, he oversaw the bureaus responsible for U.S. policy in each region of the world and served in the senior career Foreign Service position at the department. He retired on April 30, 2008. He was a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in summer 2008.

R. Nicholas Burns in 2016

Burns was a professor of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University and a member of the Board of Directors of the school's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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  • Any time you're talking about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and of the ability to manufacture them, and you add to that unstable or aggressive states, and North Korea and Iran meet both of those definitions, then you've got a terrible problem on your hands. And so I can't think of any two bigger problems right now that the world is facing than those two.
  • I was an American diplomat for twenty-seven years and I wouldn’t trade a day of that career for anything. It was an extraordinary experience to serve our country and to live overseas with my family in five different diplomatic posts.
  • I became interested in international politics from my experience living as an exchange student in Europe, both in high school and in college, and I wanted to contribute to a restoration of wise and effective American leadership in the world.
  • America has never been perfectly bipartisan. But for that generation of congressional leaders and American presidents from Ford to H.W. Bush, there was a consensus in both political parties that American engagement in the world mattered, that it was in our interest, that we had obligations and that we should fulfill them, and that our alliances mattered.
  • On 9/11, having friends and allies made all the difference in the world. As we look at the pandemic and a possible second wave, the global economic collapse, the challenge that China and other authoritarian countries are presenting to our democracies, do we really want to face all this alone? Having retreated, are we going to return to our senses and re-establish and strengthen these alliances? That is a rhetorical question, but it’s an important one for Americans.
  • The United States is, in many ways, the linchpin of NATO. It’s true, NATO is an alliance of equals, a collective defense alliance, and a political organization. But the United States, by virtue of its size and power, has always been the leader of the alliance.
  • We need a president and secretary of state who will value diplomacy. Really. And we need a president and secretary of state and a Congress that will embrace the fact that most of the big challenges ahead of us are not going to lend themselves to the use of military power, but to the need to build coalitions and strengthen alliances to fight common global problems, such as future pandemics, climate change, or trafficking of women and children.
  • China is contesting the American-led democratic alliance system in East Asia. It’s contesting it militarily in the South and East China Seas. It’s contesting it via the development of a blue water navy and ballistic missiles, trying to push the American carrier task forces way out beyond the first island chain in the western Pacific. We cannot afford, and we should never accept, being dominated militarily by China in the Indo-Pacific. We’ve got to hold our position. No one wants to fight China, but we have an absolute right— working with Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, India, Singapore, and Vietnam—to make sure that the Chinese are respecting the rule of law, maritime transit, and the sovereign territorial rights of other countries in that region.
  • My entire life I knew that the United States was not perfect because of the Vietnam War and Watergate during my teenage years, and I knew that race in particular was a curse on our history. We had never gotten race right since the first slave ship arrived in Virginia in 1619. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others have said that this is our original sin, of America itself, of our Constitution, which did not give African Americans, as you well know, full citizenship rights; nothing even close to it. But I feel now that America cannot be successful in its foreign and defense policy if we don’t heal and repair America at home. I’ve never felt that more strongly than I do right now.
  • One of the reasons I really love teaching is it allows an older person like myself to be inspired by the optimism of younger people. Don’t lose that optimism, and don’t lose that conviction that you can change things—you can!
  • This is a unique position to be American Ambassador in China at this time, given the complexities in our relationship. When President Biden called me to ask me to take the job, of course I accepted, because, as a career diplomat… I think it’s one of the great challenges that we face around the world these days. We have a very large and very competent Mission here filled with people who are experts on every aspect of the relationship. So I take it as my job to help people in our Mission succeed, to be working on the issues that are critical to the future of our country, such as our very competitive relationship, the military competition between us in the Indo-Pacific, and the building up of our very important alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia; our defense alliances and treaty agreements with the Philippines and Thailand; our strategic relationship with India.
  • One of the motivations for the CHIPS [Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors] and Science Act is to make sure that we’re not only competitive in semiconductors, but that we actually have fabs in the United States that are world class. So that in a crisis, semiconductors – which are the building blocks of everything in a 21st century economy – are closer to home. The Chinese, I think in a way, have also learned that lesson, as I look at what the government here is trying to do. They’re trying to alter supply chains, they’re trying to insulate themselves, hypothetically, from pressure from the rest of the world in the future.
  • To a certain extent, what we’ve learned from nearly three years now of the global pandemic is the over reliance that some of us have had on supply chains from China in critical materials, critical for the functioning of our economy or for the industrial enterprises of our most competitive industries. So I think there’s been a major movement to try to make sure that we control our own [supply chains] in certain industries, [so] we have greater access and more reliability about supply chains. This is not just a lesson that we’ve learned; the Europeans [and] Japanese have learned this. You’ve seen movement around the world to make sure that, in a crisis, you control your destiny, and you control your own fate, so your economy can continue to perform at a high level, and you’re not at the mercy of an autocratic power that might deny you critical materials. So, that’s a lesson we’ve learned, and you’ve heard our President, other senior members of our government and many members of the business community talk about that.
  • I often get asked about decoupling, but it’s not a word that we’ve used. I always say in my talks with the business community, we’re not actively seeking to decouple two economies that have come together over 45 years, a $718 billion two-way trade relationship annually, with thousands, tens of thousands of companies interacting with each other. If either side is beginning to decouple, it’s more China than the United States. They’ve talked about it more – they don’t use the word – but that’s certainly what they’re signaling in some respects, and they’ve been taking actions far longer than we have.
  • We think we have about 290,000 Chinese students in the United States. The United States remains the leading destination for Chinese students. We just had a major fair here two weeks ago at the Embassy on a Saturday for Chinese students and their parents to familiarize themselves with the visa process, and also, most importantly, educational opportunities in the United States. Our doors are open to Chinese students. We want Chinese students to study in our country.
  • The Biden administration encourages all of the Embassies to take part in the international debate… We have an embassy Weibo account, we have WeChat accounts, we have a Twitter account of 1.2 million followers, I have my own separate Twitter account. What we’re trying to do here is speak to the Chinese people and give them accurate information about us. We try to give the Chinese people an accurate portrayal of who we are as a country, what we believe in, and correct basic misstatements by their own government about us. There’s a powerful censorship body here. When Secretary Blinken gave his big speech on the US-China relationship, the major speech of this administration, it was censored on WeChat and Weibo within two hours. We put it back up a couple of days later and it was censored within 20 minutes. But in that two-hour span, and in that 20-minute span, you can get a lot of people looking at it. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and we think that people have a right to free and accurate information. That’s our goal, and to show respect to the people of China, respect for their culture, and their civilization, their history.There are times we use our social media presence to debate the government here, to correct misstatements by the government, to criticize. So, I think we’re never going to live in a world where social media is not a presence.
  • The United States is disappointed that China continues to provide political and diplomatic support to Moscow’s fundamental break with the United Nations Charter two years ago in its brutal, illegal invasion of Ukraine. We are disappointed the state-controlled press here blames NATO and the European Union for this war. The blame is squarely on the shoulders of one man in the Kremlin. We are very concerned by the actions of Chinese companies that fuel Russia’s defense industrial complex. We have raised those concerns quite recently in the last two to three weeks with our Chinese counterparts. China’s silence on the existential issue of Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence is deafening. And its support to Russia is very troubling indeed.
  • It's sometimes about compromise. But often, diplomacy is also defending your side. We have a number of major disagreements with China, and we're not compromising. For instance, on Taiwan - we believe that the government here in Beijing has been far too aggressive in trying to intimidate and coerce with their military actions in the Taiwan Strait. Second, we obviously do not want to see any kind of lethal military support by China to Russia for Russia's brutal illegal war in Ukraine. The third example of that - we can't compromise, cannot, on human rights. And during this visit, Secretary Blinken raised difficult human rights issues - forced labor in Xinjiang, the actions by the government of China that are repressive in Tibet and, of course, the end, really, of civil liberties and democratic freedoms in Hong Kong.
  • The Chinese people have been very civil to me and very welcoming as I travel around the country. You know, if you get into a conversation about Taiwan, most Chinese here are nationalistic, and an average Chinese citizen might defend their government on that. But they do, I think, understand that the relationship with the United States is critical for them, as ours is with China - that they want a peaceful future.
  • You know, most of the major differences in the relationship have not been bridged. But the only way you can bridge them or manage the differences, because sometimes differences cannot be bridged. Our differences with China over Taiwan are not going to be easily bridged, but can we manage the differences in such a way that we are frank with each other? We in the United States defend our position as we have to do, but we don’t descend into conflict. That I think is the key test of diplomacy, and that’s what animates the men and women of our U.S. mission here in China.
  • My message to young people all over the world, and in the U.S., and Canada and China is engage with each other. If this is going to be the most important bilateral relationship in the world, and it is, if we are the two strongest powers, we’ve got to find a way to live together in peace. it would be insanity to think that we would allow this relationship to descend into conflict or war. We’re not going to do that. And so our people have to work together, study together, do business together. Learn Mandarin if you’re Canadian or Brit or German or American. If you’re Chinese, you study in the United States. Our door is open to Chinese students. We want Chinese students to walk through the door of our universities. I was a university professor, taught many, well over a hundred Chinese students in 12 years, and they’re great students.
  • Well, I wish we lived in a world where I could sit down in front of Chinese CCTV and say what I wanted to and not have that edited or distorted by the state-controlled press. I mean, the reality is when you deal with the state-controlled press here, they often will completely fail to report any kind of constructive criticism, and they’ll only report when you say something positive. That’s not true of Chinese diplomats in the United States. They can write op-eds in the Washington Post, which nobody edits. And that’s part of the problem we face here.

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