Shri Rahul Gandhi’s conversation with Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Professor of Diplomacy & International Relations at Harvard, on how the COVID crisis is reshaping the world order

Rahul nicholas Thu, 11 Jun 2020

Shri Rahul Gandhi’s conversation with Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Professor of Diplomacy & International Relations at Harvard, on how the COVID crisis is reshaping the world order

Ambassador Nicholas Burns: (Nicholas Burns:) and Rahul Gandhi (Rahul Gandhi:) Professor, Diplomacy and International Relations, Harvard 

Rahul Gandhi: Good morning, Ambassador Burns. How are you?

Nicholas Burns: Good morning, Rahul. So nice to see you and I bring you greetings from all your friends in the United States

Rahul Gandhi: And then how are things in Cambridge?

Nicholas Burns: Well, you know, we are in lockdown, the way India is and that is a surreal environment in existence for all of us in both India and the United States. Our country is in deep political and existential crisis. And I think that's what's really gripping all of us right now. 

Rahul Gandhi: So what do you think is going on in the United States? Why are we seeing these images. 

Nicholas Burns: In the United States, we've had a problem of race, of mistreatment of African Americans since the beginning of the founding of the country.  The first slave ships arrived here in 1619. That's a year before the pilgrims came from England to settle Massachusetts bay colony, where I live now. And you think about our civil war fought over slavery. Our greatest, I think American of the last 100 years is Martin Luther King Jr. He fought battles peaceful, nonviolent battles. His of course, you know his Idol, his spiritual idol was Mahatma Gandhi. He modelled his movement after the Gandhi movement to liberate India from British rule. Peaceful non-violence. King led us to become a better country. We elected an African-American President Barack Obama, a man I deeply respect.  And yet you see race come back now. You see African Americans mistreated this horrible murder of George Floyd, this young African-American man by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. We have millions of Americans trying to protest peacefully, as is our right as is your right in India and yet the President treats them all like terrorists.

Nicholas Burns: In many ways India and the United States share many traits. We were both subjects of the British empire, we both liberated ourselves from that empire in different centuries, but we did. I've always admired India.  And so countries sometimes have to go through a discussion and a political debate about who are we at the core? What kind of nation are we?We are an immigrant Nation, a tolerant Nation.

Rahul Gandhi: I mean, I think the thing we share and I think why our partnership works is because we are tolerant systems. You mentioned that you are an immigrant nation. We are very tolerant nation. Our DNA is supposed to be tolerant. We're supposed to accept new ideas. We're supposed to be open but the surprising thing is that that DNA, that open DNA is sort of disappearing. I mean I say this with sadness that I don't see that level of tolerance that I used to see. I don't see it in the United States and I don't see it in India.

Nicholas Burns: I think you've identified a central issue at least for the United States and the silver lining here is, the good news is that we have people demonstrating all across the country, in every major city in the United States this week peacefully, on behalf of tolerance, inclusion, minority rights, all these essential issues at the core of our democracy and I think one of the advantages that we democracies have, say over an authoritarian country like China, is that we can correct ourselves. as a self-corrective part of our national DNA, and India and the United States. As all democracies, we resolve this at the ballot box in free and fair elections. We do not turn to violence. We do this peacefully.  That's the Indian tradition that we love India from your founding. Yeah, the 1930s, the protest movement, the Salt March all the way to 1947 and 48. So I take (unclear word ) that I can't comment on your country because I don't know it nearly as well, obviously, but my country I think we'll be back. We will be back, we will strengthen our democracy.

Rahul Gandhi: But I feel that this division which occurs is actually tremendously weakening for the country, but the people who do the division, portray it as the strength of the country. When you divide African Americans, Mexicans and other people in the United States, so you divide Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs in India,  you're weakening the structure of the country. But then the same people who weaken the structure of the country say tt they are the nationalists.

Nicholas Burns: Well, I think that is, I mean that is what President Trump is all about. He wraps himself in a flag. He declares that he alone can fix the problems. I must say, I think President Trump is in many ways an authoritarian personality. But in our country, you're seeing the institutions remain strong. The military clearly saying over the last few days, individual senior military leaders, we will not put American military troops onto the streets. That’s the function of the police forces, not the military force. We will abide by the Constitution. The senior military officer General Mark Milley said this week, Americans have a right to protest. They have a right to disagree with the government. These are so fundamental, you it's extraordinary how to even debate these. So we're back to debating first principles. But again, I do see strengths that democracies go through trials. We play out our differences, in political campaigns or in street protests, but at least we can do that. You can see authoritarianism coming back in China and Russia. We democracies, we sometimes go through painful episodes because of our freedoms, but we're so much stronger because of them. That's our advantage. I think inherently over the authoritarian countries. 

Rahul Gandhi: When we look at the relationship between India and the United States, there has been a lot of progress over the last couple of decades. But one of the things I've noticed is that a relationship that used to be a partnership, seems to have become very transactional. It has become episodic and transactional, and then a relationship that used to be very broad- education, defence, healthcare, multiple fronts, has sort of focussed down mainly on defence. I mean, what do you think about where the relationship between India and the United States is going?

Nicholas Burns: Well from an American perspective, you know, it is interesting in our country right now, Democrats and Republicans agree on very little on in our Congress. But there is I think nearly universal support in both of our political parties, that the United States ought to have a very close, supportive and all-encompassing relationship with India. We are the two largest global democracies. I would argue we are the two most important global democracies. The secret weapon in the relationship, I'm sure you will agree has been the Indian American community. It is an extraordinary community in the United States, you know, they started out lots of engineers and scientists staying on in the 1970s and 80s becoming doctors in our hospitals. We now have as you know, senior political leaders in Congress, in State Governors, Senators who are Indian American, we have Indian Americans in every facet of life. Some of our major tech companies in California are CEOs are Indian Americans. So I think there has been a maturation of that community and it is a profound bridge between the two countries. So I'm very hopeful that the US and India, our societies and not just our governments are very closely intertwined, integrated and that's a great strength.  If you think that one of the challenges we face is the coming power of authoritarian countries. I mentioned two before, China and Russia. We never want to fight, we don't want war but we want to preserve our way of life and we want to preserve our positions in the world. That's why I think so much of our, I think our relationship is so important between our two countries for that reason. 

Rahul Gandhi: I think the Indian American community is a real asset for us and an asset for you. So it's a joint asset. It's a good bridge to have. And how does one think about that going forward?

Nicholas Burns: Well, I think that to mention something you said before Rahul. Our military relationship is very strong. If you think Nicholas about the US India Naval and Air Force cooperation in the Bay of Bengal and throughout the entire Indian Ocean region, we're really together and this gives me hope. But you are right, it can't be just about that. So my advice would be but I look forward to your thoughts is, that keep the doors open to each other, lower the restrictions on the movement of peoples between the two countries. I think H-1B visas were a lot of University, high-tech Indian business people come to the United States on H-1B visas. They've been severely limited in recent years. We simply don't have enough engineers in the United States to run our economy and India can supply many of those Engineers. I keep the barriers low. I would encourage the movement of people, encourage University exchanges and certainly encourage us to be working together on democracy promotion around the world, on science and public health issues. If there's another pandemic in our future and they're most likely is, some sort in our two countries could be doing a lot more together in terms of (disruption) for poorer members of our society. I'd like to see our relationship going that direction as well.

Rahul Gandhi: See if I look at the history of the United States and I go back over the last century. I see big Ideas, right? I see the Marshall plan. I see how the United States worked with Japan for example, I see how the United States worked with the Koreans. These societies were transformed. I don't see that right now. I'll be very blunt with you. I don't see that type of a of a vision coming from the United States that is transformative. And one doesn't expect regional ideas from the United States, one expects global ideas from the United States. 

Nicholas Burns: Well, that is a big idea itself, the search for a big idea. I remember we were working very closely with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. You'll remember this. Our relationship when I was involved centrally with the Indian government, it really was focused on trade, it was focused on the military relationship and we were always searching for your big idea. You are right because we have something very precious in common and that is our democratic traditions. I still think that finding a way for Indians and Americans and our governments to combine forces to promote human freedom, promote democracy, promote rule of the people in the world. I think that is a powerful idea that Indians and Americans can bring together to the rest of the world. Again, you know, we are not looking for a conflict with China, but we are waging in a way, a battle of ideas with China.

Nicholas Burns: We can't decouple ourselves or delink ourselves from China. I would love to have you hear your thoughts on this. 

Rahul Gandhi: I see cooperative competition without ever going into violence. And yes, they have a different worldview. Yes they have an authoritarian worldview. Yes we have a democratic world view and I'm pretty confident that the Democratic world view will do well. But in order to achieve that, that has to start from inside our countries. We can't have an authoritarian perspective internally and then make that argument has to be made from the foundation of democracy, within the country itself, within our countries. And that's where I see the problem. That it becomes very difficult for us to, from our perspective, to make an argument of democracy when our institutions are being torn apart. When our people are scared, when millions of people in our country are terrified of what is going to happen to them.  So the first, the most important battle from our perspective, yours and and ours, is to actually bring back our countries to where they used to be. Which is sort of where we embrace our cultures, where we embrace our past, where we embrace our people. And where we sort of give a healing touch as opposed to this sort of aggressive politics that we are we stuck in.

Nicholas Burns: Yeah, I think that's a very interesting point. 

Nicholas Burns: I think that in India the United States can be working together. Not as you say not to fight China but to make it observe the rule of law as we try to live together in this in this world.

Rahul Gandhi: Why do you think that in this Covid crisis?  And I say this for most countries, including India and the United States. Why do you think there has been almost no cooperation?

Nicholas Burns: I mean you and I have talked about this before it is a terrible disappointment to me. I'm sure it is to you. You know, this crisis was made for the G20. It was made for  Prime Minister Modi and President Xi Jinping and Donald Trump to be working together. All of our countries for the common global good. All of us are confronted, every Indian American is vulnerable to this disease. And I would have thought at the beginning of the crisis, I would have predicted that countries would have put down their differences and worked for a vaccine together or how to distribute that vaccine in an equitable and humane fashion and it hasn't happened. Even the US and China at the heart of the problem here. I hope when the next crisis comes, will do better to work together in a more effective way. 

Rahul Gandhi: And it's the same. It's the same in Europe. I mean one sees the same friction between Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom that one sees across the world. So there is something happening in the world where people are going into themselves, becoming insular and I think this Covid crisis has accelerated that  sense.

Rahul Gandhi: Few days ago I had a conversation with similar conversation like this with one of the big business people in India, and he said to me look, you know before I spoke to you, some of my friends called me up and said don't speak to him, It will be very bad for you bad things will happen to you. So There is this atmosphere of fear. You take unilateral decisions, you do the biggest lockdown in the world, most rigorous lock down in the world and then you have millions of manual laborers walking thousands of kilometers back home. So it is this unilateral episodic type of leadership, where you just come in and do something and go away. It's very destructive. But it's the flavor of the time that's the unfortunate thing. It's everywhere. And we are fighting it.

Nicholas Burns: These are difficult days in all over the world. I think they're difficult days a major political party. I imagine you're still hopeful?

Rahul Gandhi: A hundred percent. See I'm hundred percent hopeful . I’ll tell you why I'm hopeful. Because I understand the DNA of my country and I know that for thousands of years the DNA of my country is being of one type and it can't be changed. So yes, we are going through a bad patch. Covid is a horrible time, but I do see new ideas emerging after Covid, new ways. I can already see people cooperating much more than they were before. Now they realize that actually there are advantages to being unified. There are advantages to helping each other. So that that is there. How do you think Covid is going to shape the balance of power? What is going to happen in your view between the United States, China, Russia, India? What is going to be the effect of Covid?

Nicholas Burns: That we set aside global political rivalries on issues like climate change or pandemics and it's because these issues are existential for everyone. They unite every person in the world 7.7 billion people. We need to have a future of global politics. Of course, we're going to compete. China and the United States, India and the United States. But we need to preserve space that we can work together on behalf of individual people around the world and give those people some hope that you know, that we as governments can help them. That's the challenge with Covid. If you think of it the last several years we've had SARS, H1N1, Ebola and now the coronavirus. Four pandemics in the last 17 years. We will have another pandemic in the next four or five years. Can we respond as a global Community more effectively? Can we work together? I think that's the great challenge that I see coming out of Covid.

Rahul Gandhi: And in terms of the balance of power. Do you think that's going to shift in any way or do you think that's going to stay the same? Well, what what is going to be like. Nicholas Burns: I think a lot of people right now are saying the China is going to surpass. China's winning the battle of coronavirus, that it's gaining hearts and minds. I actually don't see that. China certainly has extraordinary power in the world. Probably not equal to the United States militarily, economically, politically yet, but it's gaining no question about it. What China lacks is the sophistication and openness of a democratic country like India or the United States. China has a fearful leadership. Fearful men trying to preserve their own power , increasing the grip that they have on their own in citizens. Look what's happening inXinxiang and the Uyghurs and in Hong Kong just to give those examples. And I actually think I'm hopeful about the future of India and United States. I worry the Chinese system is not going to be flexible enough to accommodate the desires of the Chinese people for human freedom and liberty. So  I'm a champion of democracy, as are you. I have confidence that democracies will survive these tests. I imagine Rahul one last question for you. It changes politics. I mean you can't go out right now and shake people's hand. You can't speak to a crowd.

Rahul Gandhi: I don't shake hands but I go into contact with people with the masks and stuff. Yeah, but it does because public meetings are not possible and that's the lifeblood of politics here. So a lot of social media, a lot of Zoom conversations happening. It is going to change some habits in the political sphere for sure.

Rahul Gandhi: In India, it's also changed the psychology because of the lockdown and the way it was done. There is there is quite a lot of fear in the air. People believe that the virus is a  very serious disease which it is, but they're convinced that it is a fatal disease. So that sort of needs to be slowly removed as the virus fades out. You know that sense of fear.

Nicholas Burns: I was just going to say our battle here is to maintain social distancing, try to convince people to wear a mask just like it is in India because people are beginning to let down their guard in the United States. Typically young people.Another reason I think to keep the University's closed is to protect people and so having that discipline to maintain these kind of shut down is important to get through to this in the future.

Rahul Gandhi: Thank you Ambassador and lovely chatting to you. And do get in touch when you're here. Nicholas Burns: I certainly will come by to see you and all the best to you and to your family 

Rahul Gandhi: Thank you so much. Thank you.