Peace Still Ultimate Goal of Diplomacy

Speaking at Duke’s Biddle Lecture, Ambassador Nicholas Burns urges the U.S. to restore its diplomatic power on the global stage in service of big ideas.

Nicholas Burns
Nicholas Burns

Instead of solely relying on military might, the U.S. needs to expand its diplomatic powers to  safeguard the country and deal with authoritarian nations, a former U.S. ambassador told a Duke audience recently.

Nicholas Burns,  Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (2005-2008) and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and Greece, said climate change and the global pandemic make clear the US “will have to create and nurture a grand coalition of countries to do something about it,” Burns said via Zoom.

Burns was delivering the 2021 Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Jr. Lecture on International Studies as the flagbearer of the United States Foreign Service, in which he served for more than 30 years.

The Biddle Lecture is a bi-annual event organized by the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS) and established by Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans, James H. Semans, and their family to honor Mrs. Semans' father, Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle, Jr., who had a distinguished career as a United States diplomat and was an original signer of The Duke Endowment. This lecture series symbolizes Duke University's continuing commitment to promoting international understanding and public service.

The rising authoritarianism in some corners of the world is giving the U.S. a lot to deal with, Burns said.

“China’s bid for global power and Russia’s assault on the independence and freedom of its neighbors [demand a] fully revived and rebuilt and restored State Department and Foreign Service,” he said, “wielding an unrivaled knowledge of negotiation, history, politics, and culture.”

But a strong foreign service is exactly what we have been missing in the last years, he added.

“It’s no secret that the [Department of State’s] foreign and civil service are at their lowest points in morale and effectiveness in the memory of anybody,” he said as he recalled “the damage done to the career foreign service during the last four years.”

In November 2020, Burns and two other veteran diplomats issued a series of recommendations for what Burns called the ‘first comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. Foreign Service in 40 years,” aimed not only at reviving the State Department but restructuring it.

“The last time Congress passed an act authorizing the mission of the foreign service was 41 years ago,” said Burns, who now teaches at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Burns and his co-authors recommended raising the percentage of ambassadors who are career appointees to 90 percent – up from 70 percent, the long-held custom. The group also recommended that three-quarters of assistant secretary of state positions be held by career officers.

“During the Trump administration, not a single one of the assistant secretary positions was led by a Senate-confirmed career diplomat,” Burns said. “That has never happened before, in the modern history of the United States Foreign Service over the last 100 years,” he said.

Burns was asked how diplomats reconcile sudden, significant policy changes when presidential administrations change – like President Biden’s recent decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement and World Health Organization.

“What we have to do as public servants is be non-partisan,” Burns said. “We take an oath to the Constitution, not to any party or president. You can't play politics. And that means you have to give every president your 100% dedication and loyalty, and you work as hard for one president you may have not voted for [as for one you did vote for].”

Burns also said it is increasingly important for American diplomats to have a grounding in science and technology.

“We've arrived at a time when a modern diplomatic corps has to have a capacity in public health,” Burns said. “The State Department has to bring people at mid-level, people with experience, with expertise in public health, in artificial intelligence, in machine learning, in biotech, in climate sciences, because this is what is being discussed around the world, it’s what is being negotiated. Technology is going to be the dominant currency of power in the future.”

Throughout the lecture, Ambassador Burns expressed his confidence in the Biden administration’s commitment to restore U.S. diplomatic leadership in the world.

And “the ultimate big idea throughout human history has been the search for a state of peace,” he said, noting that in the post 9/11 world, “the goal of peace has largely disappeared from our national discussion for those who might think that aspiring to peace might be naïve.”

Mary Duke Trent Jones greeted Ambassador Burns through pre-recorded remarks, where she reflected on the long and distinguished career of her grandfather, Ambassador Anthony Joseph Drexel Biddle, Jr., “a bon-vivant and an avid sportsman” whose life was forever altered after he joined the army in World War I and “realized what serving his country meant to him, as it had to his father. And this began his life of service.”

The discussion is available online here.