“Our Planet in Microcosm”

Nicholas Burns, U.S. Ambassador to China, addresses the Harvard Kennedy School.

Nicholas Burns at the podium

Nicholas Burns  |  Photograph by Kayana Szymczak/Harvard Kennedy School of Goverment

US. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China Nicholas Burns addressed the 659 members of the Harvard Kennedy School’s class of 2024 at their Class Day on May 22, bearing a message of hope. Amid a litany of challenges facing this generation of students, he emphasized the global nature of the most important problems, issues the graduating class—56 percent of them international, hailing from 87 different countries—are especially well-positioned to address together. “You are our planet in microcosm,” he told them. “You form a network built for a rapidly changing world where international collaboration is essential to resolve just about every major global challenge in this decade and the next.”

Burns, who taught at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) for 13 years, most recently as Goodman Family professor of the practice of diplomacy and international relations, had spoken the previous day with many of the school’s Chinese graduates, a small number among the “nearly 300,000 Chinese students in the U.S.,” he said, “who are most welcome in our country.” The HKS network is alive and well in China, where Burns reported frequently running into former students: one who called out his name as she biked by on a busy street in Beijing, another who bumped into him in Nanjing and chatted about his career since graduating from HKS, a third who happened to sit next to him at a Mass in Beijing’s North Cathedral on Easter Sunday.

“This is one of Harvard’s secret powers,” he continued. “Keep this network alive in your 87 countries.”

Burns, who spoke with this magazine in 2020 about the important role of diplomacy in addressing global challenges, exhorted the class to find solutions to the most pressing issues of the next decade:

First, climate change is an existential threat to humanity. We are not on course to limit the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We are lagging behind.

Find a way to get us back on course.

Second, technology has moved to the very heart of global politics. We see the enormous promise in biotechnology, quantum science, robotics, and artificial intelligence. But, we also see the dark side—the forbidding challenge, for example, of managing the risks of A.I. in a nuclear weapons world.

Find a way to get this balance on technology right.

Third, democracy is under assault in the United States and other countries, challenged from within, in many cases, by anti-democratic forces. And challenged from without by authoritarian powers preying on weaker neighbors, assailing the foundations of the world order that has enshrined human rights as universal—for all people.

Defend democracy.

Fourth, brutal wars have broken out in Russia’s assault on Ukraine, in Israel and Gaza, and in parts of Africa. The highest priority in international politics should be to end them and stop the bloodshed.

Fifth, there are a multitude—a staggering number actually—of transnational challenges that know no borders. Cyber aggression, the race for dominance in space, global health challenges, billions of people still below the poverty line, human trafficking, ever more powerful drug and criminal cartels, alarming income inequality and terrorism.

These are forbidding, seemingly overwhelming challenges. And we could add many more to this list.

“Use your HKS network to coalesce and meet them head on,” he urged, because “it is the real world you are inheriting along with your Harvard degree.”

Burns told the soon-to-be graduates that as part of a global network, they have both the opportunity and the obligation to address these issues. He invoked President Kennedy’s famous challenge to his generation of Americans:

Ask What you Can Do.

Not—What will I gain?

Not—How will I profit?

Not—What’s in it for me?

But, “Ask What You Can Do” to make the world more just, more prosperous, more peaceful. The Kennedy School asks that you not just be involved in the world but to be great in your impact as individuals and as a class.

Burns quoted Winston Churchill, who “came to Harvard in September 1943, in the middle of the Second World War. He challenged Harvard students,” said Burns, “with a message that is strikingly relevant for our world today:”

The price of greatness is Responsibility.

One cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being

  • Involved in its Problems;

  • Convulsed by its Agonies;

  • And inspired by its Causes.

The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.

“Churchill’s warning to Americans remains true in 2024,” Burns continued. And although the global challenges ahead can seem overwhelming, history shows that “courageous, far-sighted leaders stepped forward when the world needed them most.

Lincoln in writing the Emancipation Proclamation;

Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in asserting that women have fundamental rights;

Dr. Martin Luther King in writing a single letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Nelson Mandela who, after enduring twenty-seven years of imprisonment, emerged to dismantle Apartheid and create a multiracial South Africa.

The courage of a Polish Pope, Karol Wojtyla, in standing up to soulless communism.

The courage of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine in standing up to Russia’s wicked despot.

The bravery of tomorrow’s Harvard Commencement speaker, Maria Ressa, in standing up for freedom of the press—all over the world. 

Burns concluded by addressing “the crisis over the War in Israel and Gaza that has engulfed our universities” this year. “All I can offer today is my own experience as a diplomat in dealing with difficult and emotional discussions about war, polarization, injustice, and the tragic loss of life on both sides of the conflict.”

My profession of diplomacy is all about disagreement and debate in situations like this. Nearly every issue at the United Nations comes down to accommodating disagreement across national boundaries. Professor Meghan O’Sullivan and I agreed the other day that the process of disagreeing and debating and arguing is actually a life skill that we all need to develop. So, what are the lessons about how we should disagree in university debate or at the United Nations?

  • You know the adage from the bible: Be slow to judge and quick to forgive.

  • Listen, as well as speak.

  • Ask yourself: “How might I be wrong?”

  • Find the humanity in the person disagreeing and debating with you.

  • Find more space for voices you disagree with here at Harvard.

  • Be civil and be peaceful in debate.

Burns again quoted President Kennedy, who “spoke at a graduation much like this at the American University in Washington in June 1963.” At the height of the Cold War, urging that Americans not demonize the Soviet people, Kennedy said, “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

“Those are remarkably insightful words,” said Burns. “You will find them on one of the nearby granite posts in this very park dedicated to his memory.”

Ending his address on a hopeful note, Burns turned to words written by the late Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Seamus Heaney who “had this to say in his poem, ‘The Cure at Troy’”:

History says, don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.

“Give us hope in the lives you lead, beyond Harvard,” Burns closed. “Give us hope, indeed.”

Based on the remarks of Nicholas Burns as prepared for delivery.

Read more articles by Jonathan Shaw

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