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Senior U.S. diplomat speaks on foreign affairs

William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, addresses various U.S. foreign policy issues in his speech Monday afternoon.
William Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, addresses various U.S. foreign policy issues in his speech Monday afternoon.

Despite a busy career that has taken him from Moscow to Amman to Baghdad, William Burns found time to travel four hours south of his office in Washington, D.C. to talk with Duke students Monday.

Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, spoke to approximately 75 students and faculty members in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Considered the highest-ranking career diplomat in the U.S. government, Burns was invited to speak at Duke by the American Grand Strategy program and the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

Burns addressed several key foreign policy issues in his speech, ranging from nuclear proliferation to global warming. Formerly an ambassador to Jordan and Russia, Burns is perhaps most well-known for his recent role as chief U.S. negotiator in talks with Iran regarding its controversial nuclear program.

“I don’t underestimate for a minute the challenges before us, in dealing with domestic challenges or the daunting array of international challenges,” Burns said. “We face a very complicated next few years, but I am also an optimist about the U.S.’s ability to cope with those challenges.”

In his talk, titled “Foreign Policy in a New Era,” Burns laid out four partnerships necessary to American diplomacy in the future. He said the U.S. needs to build and enhance its partnerships with a range of institutions to promote great power cooperation, regional peace and security, economic and political modernization and domestic cooperation.

Burns spent much of his speech evaluating how the rise of China, India and Russia may affect U.S. foreign policy. He said China-U.S. relations are contingent upon numerous economic and political linkages, noting that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first overseas trip in office last year was to China.

“There will be no challenge more important to the United States than the rise of China,” Burns said. “We’re likely to have a complicated relationship.”

But China is not the only country with which the U.S. is likely to have a complex relationship, Burns added. The U.S. and Russia combined hold 95 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, which in part affords Russia a unique place in global affairs and a key role in nuclear negotiations with Iran. Russia’s cooperation will be necessary to maintaining the integrity of the nuclear non-proliferation framework, Burns said.

Although relations with the so-called BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—are important long-term U.S. foreign policy issues, Burns recognized that some of the most pressing issues are currently related to the Middle East, namely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Commenting with two stints in the U.S. embassy in Jordan and previous contributions to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process under his belt, Burns said broad Middle East peace will require active U.S. engagement with all stakeholders.

“The problem with the Arab-Israeli peace process is like riding a bike. If you’re not moving forward, you’re going to fall over,” Burns said. “There’s nothing static about it.”

Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Burns commended the Obama administration for engaging in high-level talks—at which Burns himself presided—with Iranian leadership. Despite Iran’s recent statements outlining an acceleration in uranium enrichment, the international community should seek to present a common front to Iran, regardless of whether sanctions or other penalties are used, Burns argued.

“2010 will be a very complicated period in dealing with Iran,” he said. “An enormous amount is at stake.”

Beyond defense and diplomatic issues, Burns also emphasized the need to enhance the “third D” of American foreign policy—development. In an extensive question-and-answer session following his speech, Burns credited the George W. Bush administration with prioritizing development issues—like the alleviation of HIV/AIDS, as demonstrated by the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program, better known as PEPFAR.

Audience members said Burns spoke effectively on a broad range of issues pertinent to U.S. foreign policy.

Dan Holodnik, a graduate student in religion with a concentration in Islamic Studies, asked about U.S. diplomacy and domestic reform in Iran.

“I think he was able to address [my question] really well,” Holodnik said. “I hope we can work with other countries in the region to try and negotiate with the government, but obviously like he said, it’s become more difficult in the past year.”

When AGS Director Peter Feaver, Alexander F. Hehmeyer professor of political science, asked Burns to comment on a recent policy decision that could have been improved, Burns mentioned the tactical approach to settlement activity in Palestine.

Earlier in the day, Burns spoke to about 50 students for a talk on jobs at the U.S. Department of State. He chronicled his 28-year career in the Foreign Service against the backdrop of a changing organization that has increased its hiring of minority applicants and expanded its foreign language programs. Burns noted, however, that with about 7,000 officers, the Foreign Service is still smaller than the collective size of the American military band, despite the service’s importance in U.S. diplomacy.

“Hearing undersecretary Burns was a rare and special opportunity for Duke students. He is quite literally at the center of the most important diplomatic efforts the Obama administration has launched,” Feaver wrote in an e-mail. “It is great for students to hear his first-hand account and to see the breadth and complexity of the issues he must deal with on a daily basis.... I hope they caught his spirit of public service.”

With complex and tough foreign policy problems on the Obama administration’s agenda, Burns conceded that the near future may be a difficult period for U.S. diplomacy.

“Tomorrow is going to be very complicated for the United States, but I think there is a lot of promise for the day after,” Burns said. “If we are willing to invest creatively in partnerships with other countries with a sense of humility and purpose and priority, the U.S. can and will continue to play a successful role in international affairs.”


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