He is a career diplomat, not a political appointee. Nicholas Burns has worked his way up as a professional in the U.S. State Department and brings ample diplomatic experience to the table. He has been ambassador to NATO and Greece. In Washington, he was appointed deputy secretary. Under George H.W. Bush, he was already involved in all negotiations with the Soviet Union during its final days. Now, the 65-year-old is to become the new U.S. ambassador to China.
The difference between political appointments and career experts is profound. During his office, Donald Trump had appointed many ambassadorships to individuals close to him or to whom he owed a favor. Burns is firmly located in the Joe Biden camp, but he is first and foremost an expert on international relations. He speaks French, Arabic, and Greek.
His views on China so far sound promising. Burns has long observed the nation’s rise and growing geo strategic rivalry. “I want to remind America of one thing: Global peace and security still depends on us more than any other country.” he wrote in a 2014 guest editorial for the Boston Globe newspaper.
While the rise of a new power has often led to war in the past and such a scenario is also possible between China and the US, Burns assessed the situation in the article, the responsibility of the government in Washington is to prevent an open conflict. To do so, he says, China must be accommodated.
In light of such views, it hardly comes as a surprise that the Chinese have a positive attitude towards him. Five years ago, state media had already praised him as a U.S. diplomat with a “vision” for foreign policy and as a “voice of reason.” Even the Global Times had positive things to say after his appointment on Friday. The state newspaper associates him with the possibility of resolving “differences and misunderstandings” between both superpowers. They acknowledge this as a difficult undertaking. But from a propaganda mouthpiece like the Global Times, it was already a warm welcome for the new U.S. representative in China.
Burns is no stranger to Europe
Indeed, the current situation between the two superpowers is a complicated one. The trade conflict is deadlocked and can hardly be resolved easily. Xi Jinping is likely to assert his country’s territorial claims ever more forcefully. At the same time, China is accepting fewer and fewer voices from outside. Burns himself said over the weekend that he looks forward to addressing “the strategic competition between the U.S. and the PRC and other challenges at this important crossroads.”
Burns studied in France in the 1970s and earned his first degree in European history in Boston. He went on to earn a master’s degree in international relations at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland. Right out of college, he started as an intern at the U.S. Mission in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania. Since then, it’s been onward and upward to a post as deputy secretary under George W. Bush. Burns served in high positions under Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
In fact, Burns has so far focused on Europe, Eastern Europe and Middle East policy. But he also has experience in East Asia. In 2006, for example, he negotiated the disarmament of North Korea with Beijing in his role as Secretary of State. In 2008, at the age of 52, he retired from active duty, for the time being, limiting himself to a role as an academic and adviser. Now Biden reactivated him.
His appointment came after the ambassadorial post in Beijing had been vacant for months. This proves that Biden cares about the position and needs a hard-working expert there who makes few mistakes and keeps a level head. Finn Mayer-Kuckuk