April 1, 2005

Former Ambassador Discusses U.S., Europe

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Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Burt ’69 discussed the tenuous relationship between the United States and Europe yesterday in McGraw Hall. Burt’s talk, “Reinventing the Transatlantic Alliance,” was sponsored by the Government department.

Burt said global politics have undergone a significant shift since the “optimistic” post-Cold War era. Since the 1990s, the remarkable cooperation and collaboration between the U.S. and Europe has shifted as both have focused on domestic issues, rather than international politics. In the last decade, Europe has concentrated on building the European Union, while U.S. politicians have not given attention to global issues until only recently.

“During the Clinton period particularly, international issues were treated as a side show to domestic issues,” Burt said. “Also in the 2000 election campaign and debates, foreign policy was given a short shrift. Foreign policy was ranked as the number 10 or 11 concern of American voters.”

During the 2000 election, Burt said then-presidential candidate George W. Bush depicted the U.S. as an isolationist that was not involved in the affairs of emerging markets and developing nations.

Since 2000, however, the international community has been marked by significant political, economic and military challenges that no longer permit the “lull of the 90s” to exist. Burt said the most important of these concerns include: the U.S.’s dependence on foreign sources of energy, the victimization and alienation of the Arab world and the subsequent threat of terrorism, the fragility of nations such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, environmental issues like global warming and problems in Africa.

“As best [shown] by Iraq, the U.S. alone doesn’t have the capacity of legitimacy to solve these problems on our own,” Burt said. “The U.S. needs to work with others to accomplish our goals internationally.”

Burt said the U.S. has primarily defined its goals in “maximalist” ways, often going further with its actions than other countries have. While Burt believes that the U.S. should still try to accomplish its goals, he does not agree with its often “high-handed diplomacy” that has turned off other nations.

Burt believes a joint U.S and European response to global issues is possible as both have the skills, resources and experience to achieve success. However, Burt said the U.S. and Europe are both preventing the formation of a strong transatlantic alliance.

Burt said the U.S. is not good at promoting itself to other nations.

“The language we use and our arrogant attitude is evident … and does not resonate well in Europe,” Burt said. “To what in America sounds thrilling and visionary is not so in Europe. Europe has not had as bright and optimistic a history and is more measured in its language and style.”

In addition, Burt believes current American policy abroad is made without taking the interests of other countries into account.

“The U.S asks for 100 percent of what it needs without taking [anything] back to make sure its allies are comfortable,” Burt said. “We’ve lost the sense we understand our role as leaders.”

However, Burt said Europe is also at fault for its flagging relationship with the U.S. Burt said Europe romantically believes that its own success with building the European Union can be applied to the rest of the world. This view is too parochial, Burt said, as Europe should think in more strategic terms.

“Europe believes if everyone else pursued their system, things would work,” Burt said. “In the Middle East especially it is romantic to believe this.”

In addition, many European nations, particularly Germany, believe the U.S. is too willing to apply military power.

Besides these differences, Burt believes the divergence between the U.S. and Europe is reinforced by deeper social factors. While politicians have always talked of the similar cultures and values of the two, this no longer holds true. In the U.S., Burt said, this pertains foremost to social grounds. Religious fundamentalism particularly has risen as an important factor in U.S. politics, something the increasingly secular Europe has trouble understanding. “To Europeans, America seems on the verge of abandoning the Enlightenment,” Burt said. To fix the Transatlantic alliance, Burt believes the international community needs to develop the right institutions to create and coordinate policy. NATO has become obsolete, according to Burt, and the action in Europe is now with the European Union. Europe must adopt a Constitution soon if it is committed to making the E.U. work and salvaging its relationship with the U.S.

“Europe is at a crossroads,” Burt said in an earlier interview with The Sun. “The E.U. has had huge economic success with the creation of the Euro. The real question is if it can translate progress in economic integration to political integration. Will Europe be able to speak with one voice politically?”

Burt encourages students to study and travel abroad if they are looking to pursue a career in international relations.

“As important as academic preparation is, there is no substitute to experience,” he said. “The irony from the U.S. is you are living in the world’s most powerful country but it is also very parochial. You need to get abroad to see the world through other people’s eyes.”

After graduating from Cornell with a degree in government, Burt earned his master’s degree in International Relations from Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1971.

Burt then worked for the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London until 1977, before joining The New York Times as the national security correspondent until 1980. Burt calls his job at the Times “the most challenging period in my life.”

“There is nothing more exciting and stressful [than journalism],” he said.

Following his career at the Times, Burt worked at the U.S. State Department as Assistant Secretary and at the U.S. Department of Defense.

As U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1985 to 1989, during the fall of the Berlin Wall, Burt recalls the shifting views of Europeans towards America. When Burt arrived in Germany, many Germans were wary of Americans and saw the Reagan administration as an aggressive and unpopular force. Only four years later after Germany achieved reunification, however, the image of the U.S. turned around for the better.

“This event is remarkable when thinking about the U.S. unpopularity now,” he said. “Our country’s image has the ability to rapidly change.”

Burt then served as the U.S. Chief Negotiator in the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) with the former USSR, and as a partner at the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Burt considers his time working with Presidents Carter and George H.W. Bush to be his most gratifying experience.

“I participated in watching history and saw history unfold,” he said.

Burt currently services as chair of Diligence LLC, a business intelligence and risk advisory firm that assists companies conducting transactions in difficult markets, such as in the Middle East, China, Russia and India. He is also the international director of Barbour, Griffith and Rodgers, a governmental affairs firm and an advisor to the Carlyle Group.

Peter Lynch ’05 said he was impressed with Burt’s wealth of experience in the international relations, journalism and business fields.

“Because of his experience, his opinions carry a lot of weight,” Lynch said. “Overall, I believe that his theory of reuniting the U.S. and Europe makes a lot of sense.”

Alex Tullis ’00, who also attended the lecture, said that while he thought the talk was good, he felt Burt failed to mention key differences between the Cold War and the present global climate.

“During the Cold War and in World War II the U.S. and Europe worked together because they had a common enemy,” Tullis said. “But right now Europe is not convinced we have a common enemy. This is the main reason we don’t have an alliance and it is more important than any religio
us or social cause.”

Archived article by Eric Finkelstein