America's Role in a Changing World: Ambassador William Burns Gives Biddle Lecture

April 15, 2016

By Laura Brinn

This article was published on Duke Today on April 15, 2016 (LINK).

Ambassador Willliam Burns addresses contemporary challenges for American foreign policy. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography
Ambassador Willliam Burns addresses contemporary challenges for American foreign policy. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          ​

The United States currently faces a key moment in history, with a “window of opportunity in which we can shape the international landscape before it gets shaped for us,” said William Burns, former United States Ambassador to Russia and Jordan.

Burns, who served for more than 30 years in the State Department before retiring to become head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, delivered the Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle Lecture to a capacity audience at the Nasher Museum of Art April 12. The lecture is hosted by Duke’s Center for International Studies.

Burns argued that the international landscape is changing and reshaping America’s place on the global stage. Power has become more diffuse among states, within states and beyond states, he noted, adding that new state actors, such as China and India, make for a more crowded and complicated world. The weight of gravity in global affairs is shifting to the Asian Pacific.

The growth of the middle class and new information technology allows millions to advocate for change in new ways. Non-state actors, like al-Qaeda and ISL, not only threaten specific nations but are eroding the political order in general, Burns said.

While acknowledging these challenges, Burns emphasized that he remained optimistic about the future, and stressed that to take advantage of this window of opportunity, American leaders should reinforce the foundations of domestic power by investing in U.S. infrastructure, addressing income inequality, growing the middle class, emphasizing education, and tackling immigration reform.

U.S. politicians need to rediscover bipartisanship, he advised, not only to come together to solve problems at home, but to lead by example abroad.

Burns also stated that the United States should rebalance the instruments of foreign policy that have been so effective in the past, with diplomacy as the primary tool, rather than last resort. 

In discussing specific policies related to Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and India, Burns asked U.S. leaders to have an open mind and to be flexible in their approach. These attributes were key to the nuclear agreement with Iran, a negotiation that Burns began in secret, flying to Oman over long weekends to bring about the first agreement in November of 2013.

Looking ahead, Burns sees the United States taking the initiative to shape an integrated global economy, reforming international institutions that manage governance to tackle pressing issues such as climate change, cyber security and terrorism. “It’s a mistake to be fatalistic,” said Burns, and he emphasized that the United States can use diplomacy to create common ground and find solutions.