Nicholas Burns on Healing the Political Divide

American history teaches that we can rise above our deep political divide, according to Nicholas Burns. The U.S. rose to independence based on the “power of ideas,” he said. Lincoln put the country together after a divide far deeper than what we face today, and FDR led the country to victory in its most difficult war. Those challenges were infinitely more difficult than what we face now, Burns said.

Burns was a keynote speaker at the Schwab IMPACT conference in San Diego on November 13.

He is a professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Previously, he served in diplomatic positions for both Democratic and Republican administrations. He served as the ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush and as ambassador to Greece under Presidents Bush and Clinton.

Burns gave a scripted talk, starting with the advantages the U.S. has in economic, political, military and “soft” power. He defined soft power as the attractiveness of our culture, based on our rule of law, free speech and technology. He discussed five broad trends that are driving the world economy and geopolitical outlook. I have summarized those trends below.

Burns was nonpartisan, but he acknowledged the degree to which discourse in the U.S. has been divided by political party, age, ethnicity and geographical location. When pressed in the question-and-answer portion of his talk, he identified policies under President Trump that have been harmful to U.S. interests (e.g., minimizing the importance of NATO and withdrawing from Northern Syria).

His most memorable comments came at the very end of his talk, as I noted above, when he provided a positive outlook for healing the political divide in the U.S.

1. The economy

It’s all about the economy, Burns said, which is the “enabling power.” Without a strong economy, a country cannot have a strong military. The last two presidents have been good stewards of the economy, Burns said, based on stock market performance, employment and corporate profitability.