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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Decorated U.S. Diplomat William Burns Speaks at Buffett Institute

U.S. Ambassador William J. Burns, author of the national bestseller “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal,” visited Northwestern’s Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs on February 25 for a discussion with Northwestern Buffett Executive Director Annelise Riles on how his experiences in public diplomacy can inform debates on contemporary policy challenges.

Ambassador Burns retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after a thirty-three-year diplomatic career, as the second serving career diplomat in history to become deputy secretary of state. Prior to his tenure as deputy secretary, Ambassador Burns served from 2008 to 2011 as undersecretary for political affairs. He was ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs from 2001 to 2005, and ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001. As a result of his long-standing dedication to the Foreign Service and his excellent service, Ambassador Burns has been honored with numerous awards, including three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and several honors from the Department of State, including three Secretary’s Distinguished Service Awards and two Distinguished Honor Awards.

In his discussion with Riles, Burns shared examples of recently declassified correspondence to illustrate pivotal moments in U.S. foreign policy such as the crises in Chechnya, Gaddafi’s Libya, and post-Cold War Russia among others. He also touched on how U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy have evolved over the course of his decades-long career—particularly with the emergence of technology—but affirmed the importance of informed perspective and wisdom.

Watch a recording of the discussion where students and faculty asked questions about his experience serving in the Foreign Service.