U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns warns of democratic challenges at Harvard graduation

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Nicolas Burns

23rd May 2024 – (Cambridge) During a compelling address to Harvard University graduates, U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns issued a warning about the threats facing democracy globally. Speaking at the graduation ceremony of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Burns, a former professor at the institution, highlighted the dual pressures on democratic systems from both internal and external adversaries.

During his speech to 659 graduates from 87 different countries, Burns stressed that democracy is “under assault” in the United States and abroad, being undermined by “anti-democratic forces” within and authoritarian regimes trying to reshape the global order. Although he refrained from pinpointing specific countries, his message was clear: the stability of global democracy is at risk.

Burns addressed a range of formidable challenges that the new graduates are likely to face over the next decade, including climate change, the emergence of artificial intelligence, armed conflict, and other significant transnational issues.

Furthermore, in his 37-minute discourse, Burns emphasised the importance of maintaining civility and respect in disagreements. He encouraged the graduates to always seek the humanity in their adversaries, reflecting on the words of former US President John F. Kennedy about the shared human experiences binding all people together.

The ambassador’s comments were particularly poignant given the current polarised atmosphere in US academia, exacerbated by recent American actions in the Israel-Gaza conflict, which he referred to as the “elephant in the room.”

Despite his cautious approach to direct references, Burns acknowledged the presence of 25 Chinese graduates among the audience, appreciating their contribution to the vibrant academic exchange that typifies US-Chinese educational relations. This gesture comes amid a backdrop of complex U.S.-China relations, with recent U.S. policy moves, including significant tariff hikes on Chinese imports, straining the dialogue.