Speech
William J. Burns
Under Secretary for Political Affairs
Oxford University, Oxford, United Kingdom
November 26, 2009


Thank you for that kind introduction. It’s an honor to be back at Oxford, an institution for which I have enormous respect. It is a particular pleasure to speak to you on Thanksgiving, the most distinctly American of the holidays that we celebrate across the Atlantic.

I remember my first Thanksgiving away from home, as a struggling and uncertain post-graduate student at St. John’s College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1978, gathered not around a table with roast turkey and my family, but around more pints than I can recall and new-found friends at the Lamb and Flag. I can dimly recollect giving enthusiastic thanks for everything from the rise of Jimmy Carter and Margaret Thatcher, to John Travolta's fashion sense in Saturday Night Fever.

Thirty-one years later, I stand before you still lacking John Travolta's fashion sense, still lacking in certainty about many things, but deeply thankful for the honor to give this year's Cyril Foster lecture. The list of previous speakers – from great statesmen like Kofi Annan to great historians like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. – is a humbling one for an everyday diplomat. Standards are obviously slipping. But I will do my best, drawing on nearly three decades in the U.S. Foreign Service, to offer a few modest insights about this critical moment for my country and for the world.

You’ve already heard Cyril Foster’s extraordinary story. Foster’s only condition was that the lecture named after him feature “a prominent and sincere speaker” who would address “the elimination of war and the better understanding of the nations of the world.” I can’t make any claim to prominence, but I’ll do my best to be sincere.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cyril Foster’s personal cause – peace and understanding – has also been a central goal of American foreign policy during my career in the diplomatic service, spanning five Presidents and eight Secretaries of State. We have made more than our share of mistakes along the way, offering frequent validation of Winston Churchill's famous observation that "the thing that I like most about Americans is they generally choose the right course in the end … it's just that they like to exhaust all the alternatives first."

When I reflect on the experiences I’ve had over the past three decades, something striking occurs to me: from a diplomat’s perspective, what it takes to promote peace has changed. Now more than ever, no country can solve any major problem alone. So today, success depends more than ever before on our ability to build partnerships – and not just partnerships between governments, but between societies and peoples as well. This partnership imperative is what I want to focus on this evening -- giving you not just a sense of why it is so necessary, but of how, from my perspective as a diplomat, we are pursuing it.

The Partnership Imperative
I joined the American diplomatic service in 1982. We didn’t know then that the Cold War was entering its final phase. If anything, East-West tensions seemed to be flaring as dangerously as ever. We were consumed with debates over Euromissiles and Star Wars, Central American revolutions and the Soviet war in Afghanistan. Yet there was a basic logic governing what we did. Soviet-American rivalry gave order to the international landscape, and Containment provided a framework for our foreign policy. We thought of countries like China – where Deng’s reforms were just starting – or India – which was still mired in what used to be called “the Hindu rate of growth” – largely in terms of this bipolar order. Amid all the danger, there was still a kind of clarity.

There is much about today’s world that we can celebrate. Astounding economic growth in much of Asia has raised hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The number of children dying from preventable illness is at an historic low. And the number of people who die in war every year has been declining drastically, thanks to the prolonged absence of great-power conflict.

Now, I don’t mean to offer some Panglossian reading of the international situation. For along with these changes has come a growing sense of confusion and insecurity. And for those of us trying to interpret and navigate this new world, a growing sense of humility.

The best attempts to define this new era have focused less on what it is than on what it is not – the “post-Cold War.” Richard Haass talks about “the age of nonpolarity”: we’ve left behind the bipolar world of the Cold War, we’ve passed the supposed “unipolar moment” of the 1990's, and yet the notion of a multi-polar world, with various power centers balancing and competing with one another, doesn’t quite capture it either. Fareed Zakaria has written about “the post-American world” – one in which American dominance is fading, or at least rising powers are catching up, but where the order that will replace it is not yet clear.

Whatever label you choose, today’s threats do feel more varied and less predictable; the sources of our security seem less certain and more diffuse. Our interconnectedness means that none of us can solve problems alone, while threats – from nuclear weapons proliferation to climate change, pandemics, economic crisis, and transnational crime – can spread among us more quickly than ever. New powers, from China and India to Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia, are playing an ever-greater role, while non-state actors are claiming influence in ways both profoundly positive and deeply destructive.

Despite this, we are not doomed to insecurity or chaos. But we have to develop new tools of leadership and cooperation where the old ones are no longer doing their job. And we have to use those tools to build a new architecture of cooperation.

That is the spirit that animates American foreign policy today – the impetus behind our strategy of partnership. When President Obama spoke at the United Nations a couple of months ago, he described “a new era of engagement with the world … in word and deed.” Secretary Clinton has talked about “tilting the balance away from a multi-polar world and toward a multi-partner world.”

Now, I wish I could stop here, on a conveniently high note: our new commitment to the promise of partnership – a nice new bumper-sticker slogan for American foreign policy. But not wishing to insult Cyril Foster or his appeal for sincerity, I’ll be the first to acknowledge that partnership is an easy slogan but an exceedingly difficult task to carry out in practice.

For example, as we set out to build a multi-partner world we have to appreciate the force of history and the power of nationalism. When it comes to building partnerships, ignoring history makes it much less likely that we will manage to overcome it. For many nations, actions are guided by a sense of past slights or traumas, or a desire to revive past glory, as much as by clear interests. Only by addressing historical aspirations and resentments directly can we build partnerships on strong foundations.

This challenge of history is a potent force in any society, but particularly powerful in places like Russia, where I have been privileged to spend much of my checkered career. For Russians, perhaps in contrast to Americans, history is very much alive. People still talk about the Mongol invasion – which started in 1223. There is strong, and justified, pride in the Soviet role and massive Soviet sacrifice in World War II. There is, among many, a yearning for the influence (if not the totalitarian repressiveness) of the Soviet days, and lingering trauma over the difficulties of the 1990s. Without understanding all of this, Russia’s stance on many issues can often seem incomprehensible. But where we have started to consider and at least take into account all of Russia’s living history, we have a good chance of moving beyond it, to partnership on issues of common concern.

So keeping these difficulties in mind, how do we get beyond the bumper stickers and translate a commitment to partnership into real policy? My experience, particularly in these first 10 months of the Obama administration, has yielded a number of basic observations. Let me focus on three.

Partnership Begins At Home
The first step in a successful partnership strategy – and one to which President Obama and his Administration attach great importance – is making the United States an attractive partner for others. Partnership really does begin at home. The truth is that the power of our example matters more than the power of our preaching. We need to live our own values, demonstrating through our own behavior the ideals and standards that we seek in others – and that others expect of us. Where we have fallen short of these in recent years, we are now working hard to correct our mistakes.

But it is not just about values. It is about showing ourselves to be reliable, consistent, and tough-minded. We can’t simply jettison partnerships when they don’t serve us in some particular area. We need to meet disagreement with frank and respectful discussion. And we need to show that we are willing to take some risks to build partnerships and to make them work over the long term.

A crucial part of this is in many ways the simplest: listening, which can sometimes seem like an unnatural act for Americans. It is not always all about us. The fact is that we live in a world where other people and other societies have their own realities, not always perfectly aligned with or even hospitable to ours. We don’t have to accept their realities as our own, or agree with them, or indulge them -- but understanding them is the starting point for sensible policy, and enduring partnership.

Just as important as considering the priorities of others is making our own priorities clear. During its 10 months in office, the Obama administration has made a concerted effort to explain our priorities – in many cases by speaking to the rest of the world directly. In a series of speeches from Prague to Cairo, Moscow, Accra and Tokyo, the President has outlined a set of ambitious goals: to reduce and prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and ultimately seek a nuclear weapons-free world; to secure our future by addressing climate change and producing clean energy; to isolate and defeat violent extremists; to bolster and spread global prosperity; and to enhance good governance and universal human rights. In all of our partnerships, we are working to advance these same fundamental priorities – although our approach may differ case by case.

Partnership Comes In Many Shapes And Sizes
That brings me to my second point: partnerships come in many different shapes and sizes. We should be ambitious. But we also have to be realistic about what some partnerships can achieve.

In many ways, the premier partnership for the United States remains our special relationship with the United Kingdom. This relationship is built on a bedrock of shared values and common interests, tested over a long history, through genuine triumphs and real disagreements.

But we need to be realistic in our expectations for partnership more generally. Not all of them will be like the special relationship – which is what, I suppose, makes it special – or like some of the United States’ other close friendships, such as those with our other trans-Atlantic partners, or with countries such as Canada, Japan, Israel and Australia. Nor should they be. Partnership takes many different forms, all of which bring their own benefits.

We also have to keep some perspective. As Secretary Clinton has put it, commonality of interest doesn’t automatically mean common action. No matter how overwhelming the logic of cooperation, there are still endless opportunities for mistrust and misunderstanding in partnerships new and old.

In fact, partnership can be as much about disagreement as it is about agreement. Acting on clear agreement will happen more or less easily. Yet addressing a disagreement takes work – to reach a compromise where possible, but more often than not, to make sure that disagreements don’t escalate. Even in a world defined by partnership, nations will still have interests that don’t align – having to do with trade, with borders, with resources, and on and on. If there is a genetic shortcoming common to diplomats, it is a tendency to ignore points of discord and hope that cooperation in other areas will take care of them. But as with human relationships in general, these things can get worse rather than better over time if we don’t address them, seeking out ways to compromise or, at the very least, prevent competing interests from turning into broader conflict.

A few examples from U.S. foreign policy today might be useful here, so let me say something about our work with the emerging and re-emerging Great Powers that Goldman Sachs famously referred to as the BRICs – Brazil, Russia, India, and China. These are certainly not the only, or even necessarily the most important, partnerships we are focused on, but for the sake of demonstration I’ll consider these four.

First Russia – a country that, as I’ve mentioned, has been a focus of my career. After much acrimony between the United States and Russia in recent years, the Obama administration has made a concerted effort to “reset” relations, building on potential common ground on issues from strategic arms reduction to Afghanistan and Iran.

We can’t say that this is truly a strategic partnership, in the sense of a neat coincidence of values and interests -- but it certainly can be a partnership on key strategic issues. Of course we have significant differences, on questions ranging from Russia's neighborhood to human rights. And of course our relationship is a combination of cooperation and competition. But that does not mean that we cannot work better together on some crucial fronts.

Today, the United States and Russia hold 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons. It is profoundly important that the two of us set a good example in how we manage and reduce our own nuclear arsenals. And we must work together to strengthen the global non-proliferation regime. If we can cooperate on nonproliferation and Afghanistan and global economic stability, then the strategic benefits will be great even when disagreements and tensions persist. And ultimately, trust and an established ability to work together may allow us to broaden our partnership and overcome some of these disagreements.

The dynamic with Brazil is in many ways quite different. Rather than a re-emerging power, Brazil’s rise in recent years is giving it a newfound potential to play a regional and global role, and the United States is gratified to see Brazil seizing this potential in a variety of ways – from using its own experience in agricultural development and combating hunger to help sub-Saharan African countries, to showing new leadership in the sometimes fractious politics of its own continent.

We in the United States welcome Brazil’s rise. We see a strong and globally active Brazil as a very positive force in our own hemisphere. Brazil's commitment to democracy, market economics, regional integration, and trade, and its willingness to embrace globalization and assert a leadership role within the international system makes it an attractive and useful partner. Its successful combination of political stability, economic growth, and effective commitment to social justice makes it an example to others around the world. Yet we have our share of disagreements with Brazil. We have seen this in the WTO and other trade fora. We have no illusions that such competing interests will simply vanish. Rather, we’ll continue to address them in a spirit of mutual respect. And we also understand that our partnership must evolve as Brazil continues to grow, as its interests expand and change, and as it demonstrates the responsibility that comes along with its influence.

India is another country whose extraordinary growth is giving it a powerful, new role on the global stage. As illustrated by Prime Minister Singh’s visit to Washington earlier this week, significantly the first State visit of our new Presidency, the Obama Administration is determined to deepen the ties between the U.S. and India that have evolved over the past decade. From counterterrorism to nonproliferation, education to agriculture, science and technology to women’s empowerment, our cooperation reflects the depth and breadth of the relationship between the world’s two largest democracies. India is another hugely-significant model for other emerging democracies, and it has a central role to play on virtually all of the major challenges of this new century. As President Obama emphasized during the Prime Minister’s visit, India’s leadership and partnership will be crucial for helping to shape the rise of a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Asia.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we will always agree, because we won’t. That doesn’t mean that we can always avoid mutual suspicions or misunderstandings, because we can’t. But there is enormous and growing scope for real partnership between us. And what is especially noteworthy in this effort is that the ties between our governments are in many ways far behind the deep connections between our societies and our people.

As Secretary Clinton has put it, “we need the bilateral cooperation between our governments to catch up with our people-to-people and economic ties. We need to make sure that the partnership between Washington and New Delhi, our capitals, will be as advanced and fruitful as the linkages that already exist between Manhattan and Mumbai, or Boston and Bangalore.” In this partnership, you could say the people are leading the leaders.

And finally, there’s China. As President Obama made clear last week in Beijing, the United States welcomes China’s rise as a responsible player in world affairs, and we do not see any zero-sum game or inevitable rivalry. In fact, we’re working hard to build new mechanisms of cooperation with China, built on the recognition that virtually no major international problem can be solved without it. Take climate change: the United States and China are the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses, so we are working to reduce our own emissions while helping China continue its extraordinary development without doing irrevocable damage to the environment.

But of course, at times we do have real disagreements. As President Obama said at the first meeting of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July and again on his recent visit to China, we will be very straightforward about these disagreements – such as over basic human rights or China’s treatment of some of its ethnic and religious minorities – and we will make clear that these issues matter to us. But at the same time, we cannot let them prevent us from cooperating on challenges like reducing global emissions or rebalancing the global economy or de-nuclearizing North Korea. Just because we don’t see eye-to-eye on every issue doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work together on issues where we do – where our common interest is so clear and so urgent that common action cannot be put off.

Let me pause here to make an obvious but important point: just as we understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to partnership, we also recognize clearly that strategies for partnership also require strategies for dealing firmly and creatively with adversaries. Dealing with adversaries is the subject of an entirely different lecture, but here I will simply offer the following thoughts. Direct engagement with adversaries has its own purposes. With Iran, since the beginning of the Obama Administration, we have sought to engage with the Iranian leadership, to make clear plainly and directly both our interest in a more normal relationship, based upon mutual interest and mutual respect, but also our profound concern about many of Iran's actions, especially its nuclear program. Focus on nuclear issues does not – and must not – mean turning a blind eye to serious human rights abuses in Iran; the brutal repression of people seeking simply to express their views peacefully is appalling.

Nevertheless, our sincere hope has been -- and remains -- to find a way out of the mutual animus of the last three decades. We have worked intensively with Russia and the IAEA and others to offer creative confidence-building proposals to Iran, such as the use of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium as the basis for refueling a research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes. Sadly, we have little to show for that effort so far, and the Iranian leadership has thus far not been able to get to yes on a very significant – and fleeting – opportunity.

The wider purpose of engagement with an adversary, like Iran, is to help cement partnership with others who share our concerns. By participating actively and energetically in direct talks with Iran in the so-called "P5+1," we strip away the argument that our unwillingness to engage is the core problem, rather than Iran's own reluctance to make an agreement. On Iran, as on North Korea, engagement with adversaries is an investment in partnership with key international players, whose support we will need to build the leverage that is essential to successful diplomacy.

Broad Partnerships Are Enduring Partnerships
Third and finally, our multi-partnership strategy is guided by the principle that the wider the base of a partnership, the more lasting it is. Broader partnerships tend to be more enduring partnerships. That’s why we are seeking to build durable structures of partnership, both bilaterally and in multilateral institutions. And that’s why the Obama administration is working to develop ways to move beyond governments to build deeper ties between our citizens and societies.

As any diplomat would tell you, in setting out to build new partnerships or to improve difficult relationships, there is a temptation to approach things narrowly, on an issue-by-issue basis – trying to achieve cooperation on one specific thing or address one specific problem instead of laying the foundation for a broader, more comprehensive solution. But this won’t always work. The more challenging the relationship, the more important it is that we build a partnership as broad as possible, introducing new areas for cooperation, which sometimes spill over constructively on areas of difficulty.

All partnerships need some kind of structure – think about the various kinds of alliances and fora that underpin trans-Atlantic ties, like the U.S.-EU Summit held in Washington earlier this month. Structure helps improve communication between partners and ensures follow through on decisions and initiatives. And it can also help avoid surprises.

That is why the United States is setting out to build different kinds of structures to support our key bilateral partnerships, especially with rising or resurging global players.

With India, we have built a new strategic dialogue that will ensure communication on a range of issues while remaining flexible enough to change as our relations develop. In the case of Russia, where we also have many overlapping strategic interests but far from complete convergence, we have created a new bilateral Presidential commission, launched during President Obama's visit to Moscow last July. With China, we have started the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which met in Washington in July and will convene in China next year. And with Brazil, we are actively exploring similar structures to fit that extraordinarily important partnership.

Along with creating enduring bilateral structures, we’re also committed to adapting multilateral institutions. One of the great triumphs of the twentieth-century was building a global architecture in the wake of World War II that survived through the Cold War and did much to promote collective problem-solving and avert violence. That architecture continues to serve us today, but it increasingly doesn’t fit this century's challenges and realities.

We need to make our existing institutions better reflect the distribution of power and the kinds of problems they must solve. We also need to build new mechanisms and update existing ones, some of them formal – like the G-20, which has just replaced the G-8 as the main forum for global economic policy, or the UN Security Council – and some of them informal – like the Six-Party Talks or the P5+1. All of these are key to getting partnership right, and it is crucial that we reshape them before they’re reshaped for us by a new distribution of power or unforeseen events.

Widening the base of partnership means more than the diplo-speak of global architecture and international institutions. Partnerships need to go beyond governments – and strengthen connections with and among peoples and societies at all levels. The nature of power in the twenty-first century, in other words, demands a whole new approach; problems will not be solved by a government or governments alone; they demand action from a whole range of actors new and old.

As hard as it is for someone who has spent over a quarter-century in the diplomatic service to say, the future can’t just be left to professional diplomats. We need to build public-private partnerships, with governments working alongside civil society, NGOs, businesses, and citizens. And we also need to build connections between them – empowering networks of people who can harness new technologies and make common cause on their own to find common solutions.

Expanding scholarship programs and people-to-people exchanges is one of the smartest investments that we can make in long-term partnerships across societies and national borders. One of the best initiatives we undertook in Russia in the 1990's was to increase exchanges. Today, there are some 70,000 alumni of those programs living and working all across Russia, each equipped with a better understanding of how Americans think and what we can accomplish together.

Secretary Clinton has focused on our broad approach to partnership again and again, and her travels have reflected her own commitment to it: everywhere she goes, she spends as much time meeting with students, civil-society activists, war widows, and regular citizens as she does meeting with government ministers. She has appointed the State Department’s first ever Special Representative for Global Partnerships to focus on building broad public-private partnerships in the United States and around the world. And she has made it a priority to use new social network technologies to engage with citizens with a regularity and depth that was impossible before.

Conclusion
Partnership is a neat bumper-sticker and a handy slogan, but the practice of partnership is hard. That should come as no great surprise, in this complicated new century unfolding before us. Nor should it be a source of pessimism.

That may sound strange coming from someone who has spent most of his career in Russia and the Middle East, both regions where pessimists rarely lack either company or validation. I'm reminded of one of the many, characteristically fatalistic, Russian definitions of a pessimist -- someone who thinks that tomorrow will be better than the day after. I have something a little different in mind. I think that tomorrow will actually be a pretty complicated period for building partnerships in a very unsettled world. But I genuinely do believe that, with strong vision and leadership from the United States, a multi-partner world is within our reach, and well-worth our sustained effort. And I genuinely do believe that the day after tomorrow holds real and enduring promise for the kind of pragmatic partnerships that benefit us all.

Thank you very much, and Happy Thanksgiving!

[This is a mobile copy of Remarks at Oxford University]