The Foreign Service Journal - July/August 2017
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The Value and Purpose

of American Diplomacy


William J. Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Ambassador Burns retired from the U.S. Foreign

Service in 2014, after a 33-year diplomatic career, with the rank of Career Ambassador. He is only the second serving career diplomat

in history to serve as Deputy Secretary of State. Prior to his tenure as Deputy Secretary, Amb. Burns served as under secretary for

political affairs (2008-2011), ambassador to Russia (2005-2008), assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs (2001-2005)

and ambassador to Jordan (1998-2001). He also served as executive secretary of the State Department and special assistant to former Secretaries

of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright; minister-counselor for political affairs at Embassy Moscow; acting director and principal

deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff; and special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South

Asian affairs at the National Security Council.


ear after year for more than

a half-century, we’ve come

together on the first Friday in

May. We’ve come together during

Republican and Democratic administra-

tions, during times of war and peace, and

during moments of promise andmoments

of reckoning. We’ve come together to

mourn after gut-wrenching loss and hard-

ship and heartache. We’ve come together

to celebrate diplomatic triumphs, as well

as those less heralded examples of good

professionals wading through risk and dif-

ficulty tomake our imperfect world a little

less threatening.

We’ve come together to honor those

who came before us, and to remind our-

selves of our obligation to new generations

of diplomats. And we’ve come together at

moments of growth and revitalization, as

well as moments of austerity and bureau-

cratic consolidation, and even amputation.

We come together this year at an

undeniably difficult moment—a time

of domestic upheaval and global disor-

der, and a time of deep doubt about the

value and purpose of American diplo-

macy. After more than 15 years of war

in Iraq and Afghanistan, and almost a

decade removed from the Great Reces-

sion, Americans feel a profound sense of

insecurity about their future and fatigue

about engagement with the world. Baffled

and battered by the dislocating forces of

globalization, the sense of identity that has

long animated us as a nation is fraying.

Fed a narrative of carnage and chaos at

home, and of decline and danger abroad,

Americans wonder whether we can—and

whether we even should—continue to play

a leadership role on an endlessly compli-

cated international landscape. …

I am still close enough tomy time

in government to understand vividly

what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and

everyone in this department wake up to

every morning—challenges that are relent-

less and choices that have to be made

under unforgiving time pressures and

with inevitably incomplete information. I

have immense respect for what they must

cope with, and for the professionalism

and decency that they bring to the task.

I miss the people I served with, and the

unique fulfillment of public service; but

I must admit that my nostalgia is under

control for yet another meeting in the

White House Situation Room to debate the

tortured policy possibilities of North Korea

or Syria, or to worry about the next big

global health or humanitarian crisis. Ours

is a hard business.

But I worry, really worry, that we’re

about tomake diplomacy a lot harder.

Thirty percent budget cuts, substantial

reductions in both the Foreign and Civil

Services, disruptive fantasies about deep

states and the particularly pernicious


At a moment when international order is

under severe strain, power is fragmenting

and great-power rivalry has returned,

the values and purpose at the core of the

American idea matter more than ever.

This piece is excerpted from Ambassador

Burns’ remarks at the May 5 Foreign

Affairs Day luncheon at the Department

of State.