William Burns, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan, commented on contemporary American international relations in a talk at the Nasher Museum Tuesday.

Burns served for 33 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, before retiring in 2014 to become president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He delivered the Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Jr. Lecture on International Studies, which was hosted by the Duke University Center for International Studies. In his talk, Burns stressed prioritizing diplomatic solutions instead of immediate military reaction in order to adapt to the changing global arena.

“It seems to me that the United States has a window…within which we can help shape the complicated international landscape and the institutions that are on it, before it is shaped for us,” Burns said. 

Important regional players have crowded the international landscape, redistributing power to a greater number of countries, Burns explained.

He noted that the U.S. can adapt to this changing distribution of power by re-balancing its investments and altering institutional alliances, which will better represent contemporary American interests, rather than those of the post-World War II era.

Reducing domestic political gridlock, which inhibits global competitiveness, is key to making some of these changes, Burns said. He added that the domestic policy decisions facing the U.S. Congress—such as immigration reform, educational investment and income inequality—have significant impacts on the country’s demography and competitiveness internationally.

“We need to try to rediscover the bipartisan gene, which sometimes seems like it’s been surgically removed in Washington,” Burns said. “I’ve always found in my diplomatic experience that it’s very difficult to build coalitions overseas if you clearly can’t build them at home.”

Burns explained that negotiation between the U.S. and other countries will be necessary to re-balance the nation’s investments in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. He noted that some of the major challenges diplomats will face in these efforts include marginalizing and ultimately defeating the Islamic State group and being creative in finding areas of common ground with China. 

In addition to an overview of American foreign policy challenges, Burns provided insights from his experience serving as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008.

He said that despite Russia’s one-dimensional economy, it remains a significant global player due to its membership on the United Nations Security Council and its presence as the only nuclear power in the world comparable to the U.S.

“Whether you agree with him or not, I think Putin, at least in my experience, is absolutely convinced that he is the last thing standing between order and chaos in Russia,” Burns said.

Burns highlighted the importance of the tension between Russia and Ukraine. He noted that the former Soviet Union states are economically and politically vulnerable to Russian annexation efforts, with Ukraine being the most important of those nations. It is in the best interests of Europe and the U.S. to see healthy economic and political operations in Ukraine, he said.

“It seems to me that the Ukraine deserves a lot more attention than it often times gets,” Burns explained. 

Burns’ talk ended with a question-and-answer portion, during which he expressed confidence in the ability of diplomats to negotiate solutions as a first option, rather than resorting to military force.

“I really do remain optimistic,” he said.  

Several students who attended the talk noted that Burns’ diplomatic experience informed his breadth of insights.

“I thought he was pretty relatable,” junior McCall Wells said. “You always think about diplomats, they’re not fully approachable, but I thought his response to all the questions were understandable for undergraduate students that don’t have a lot of knowledge and experience about these things.”

Junior John Guarco noted that even though he did not agree with Burns’ comments that the Iran deal was in the best interests of the U.S. and Israel, he appreciated the insights Burns offered.

“It illustrated some viewpoints that I may have disagreed with, but it gave me a more nuanced understanding of a side that I disagreed with,” Guarco said.