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The diplomat -- Perhaps the only thing Shultz, Christopher, Berger, Rice, Powell, Clinton, and two George Bushes have in commonis that they’ve all trusted Nicholas Burns ’78


At the age of 47, at a point when most Foreign Service colleagues of his generation are still laboring as regional desk officers in Washington or deputy chiefs of mission in modest U.S. embassies abroad, R. Nicholas Burns ’78 is already in his fourth high-profile job. Since August 2001, Burns has been the U.S. ambassador to NATO, and as such he is a significant player in the arenas of American foreign policy that seem to matter most now: the twin struggles against the terrorists of Al Qaeda and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Other than the United Nations, perhaps, no diplomatic assignment is quite like this one. Burns is the president’s envoy to a multinational alliance of 19 not always harmonious national security perspectives, in a dramatically changing Europe. In the days following the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, he used his pivotal seat in Brussels, where NATO is headquartered, to bring the Atlantic alliance aboard the war on Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network. And he used it last fall to bring NATO’s membership to the best consensus possible on the United Nations resolution that framed the U.S. approach to war against Iraq. More recently, his efforts have focused on persuading recalcitrant NATO allies to embrace the prospective defense of Turkey, the only member contiguous with Iraq. “NATO is now facing a serious crisis. . . a crisis of credibility,” said Burns in February. “The core fabric of our alliance is that when allies are in trouble we all come to their assistance.”

Ever since the end of the Cold War, NATO has been on an institutional psychiatric couch. Has it outlived its purpose? Is it drifting toward irrelevance? Will the Europeans ever step forward to share the burdens of their common defense? Trim, pleasant-faced, and tightly wired, Nick Burns says that, for all its internal tensions, the institution has never had so much potential to be “a bridge” between North America and Europe and to make a difference beyond its members’ borders.

In late October, Burns sits in crisp shirtsleeves at the end of another long day of parleying with Washington and his NATO brethren. When he is not touring the alliance capitals to stroke and cajole politicians, diplomats, and generals about U.S. security needs and their own military responsibilities (he’s generally on the road about a week per month), Burns works out of a long office in the grim NATO headquarters just outside the Belgian capital. From his windows is a view of the complex—an array of prefab structures described recently by the International Herald Tribune as “an overgrown trailer park” (the 1967 central building was thrown up hastily on an old airfield after France withdrew from the military wing of the alliance and the previous site in Paris suddenly became untenable). Like the U.N., the NATO headquarters is essentially a warren of embassies, although here the staffs are as likely to wear military uniforms as pin-striped suits.

photo of burns at a press conferenceThe next evening Burns is to deliver a speech in Berlin, in the jaws of Europe’s new anti-American behemoth, that will lay out U.S. objectives for NATO’s forthcoming summit in Prague, which President George W. Bush will attend. It will be a historic occasion: NATO’s first such meeting in a former Warsaw Pact country. The Berlin speech is an endowed lecture, honoring the late German former Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Woerner; the cream of the German foreign policy establishment will make up Burns’s audience. The speech is on his mind—he pauses our conversation to ask his deputy, Victoria Nuland, for some last-minute revisions—and on his lips. The phrases he uses to describe the new threats that NATO must evolve to meet will recur, in some cases verbatim, in the Berlin speech, as well as in quotations, both sourced and unsourced, in the leading U.S. newspapers’ curtain-raisers for Prague.

The threats to common security, Burns says, come “from unstable failed states or terrorist organizations far from Europe’s borders”—adding (but not in Berlin) that the masterminds are “wackos.” He refers to a “toxic mix” of terrorism and nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, “aimed not just at our militaries but at our civilian populations as well.” NATO, he says, “must be able to act wherever our security and the safety of our people demand action, because the virus of terrorism and insecurity is spreading.”

Burns’s generation of American diplomats, guided in part by Burns’s own example, is marked by its emergence from the shadows of anonymity and opaqueness that once sheltered older breeds of Foreign Service officers and steered their style and conduct. Burns is certainly best known in the wider world as the boyish—the descriptive is invariable—State Department spokesman during the middle years of the Clinton administration, notably during the end of the conflict in Bosnia and the Dayton peace negotiations that ensued in the fall of 1995. During those talks, remarkably, Burns briefed the news media on behalf of all the delegations—Americans, Croats, Serbs, Muslims—in a successful effort to manage the news and hermetically seal the negotiations. In this challenging role at the State Department podium every day, Burns became a fixture on CNN and a Washington celebrity of sorts for his smiling imperturbability.

Do State Department officials spend too much of their time and of the public purse in the care and feeding of the news media? Not surprisingly for a former spokesman, Burns doesn’t think so. “You need the public to understand and support what you are doing,” he says. “There was a time when it was all backroom dealing—invisible. Now we have to communicate. It makes a better democracy.”

Burns gets generally positive reviews from the exacting State Department press corps, not a forgiving lot. Clearly intelligent, well briefed, and a reliable messenger for Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Burns’s relationship with reporters was at arm’s length, and occasionally contentious. A regular reporter in the pressroom, who wishes to remain anonymous, says Burns suffered from excessive loyalty and subservience to his bosses—probably not a quality Burns would fault—which earned him the nickname of “the Weenie.” Put in other terms, this reporter described Burns as “always the good son.”

In any case, Burns’s stretch as one of America’s official voices raised his profile to a level rarely achieved in his profession. (He volunteers that Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, recognized him from watching CNN.) To some in the Foreign Service, this made him suspect. But one of his former bosses, a career officer and assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration, Nicholas Veliotes, expresses irritation at the suggestion that Burns is just a pretty face, some kind of golden-tongued front man. “Nick Burns earned his reputation before he became spokesman of the State Department. . . . He established himself long before the world recognized him—and in the crucible of the White House.”

Veliotes is referring to Burns’s five years—1990 to 1995, bridging the Bush and Clinton administrations—on special detachment from the State Department to the National Security Council (NSC). There his work was anything but public. It took place deep on the inside of the capital’s diplomatic machinery, where tact, lucidity, and bureaucratic surefootedness, to say nothing of brains, are essential to success. Burns, in discussing the Foreign Service culture, says that some of his colleagues prefer being in the field and some prefer being in Washington—“the fudge factory,” he quips. “I’ve done both.” Today he describes those years as the “turning point in my career. I’m prouder of that than of anything else I’ve done.”

The NSC assignment would have seemed an unlikely move for Burns only a short time before. Back from two tours of duty as a mid-level officer in the Middle East, at 32 Burns was posted to the prestigious secretariat of the State Department—the secretary of state’s operational staff, or “the line.” There he caught the eye of George Shultz, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, who assigned him to the transition team of incoming secretary James Baker after George H. W. Bush won election in 1988. Following the inauguration, Burns became the right-hand man to the secretary’s right-hand man, Robert Zoellick, today the U.S. trade representative.

The main issue of the day was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet empire, and Burns—who had joined the Foreign Service with a strong interest in the Third World, and who had learned Arabic and served in Cairo and Jerusalem—became an overnight Russia specialist, with a seat at the center of the action. Burns admits that he had no background, language, or training in Russia or eastern Europe; rather, he is a proud generalist in a service that has trended toward specialization.

To call him a quick study is probably an understatement. Burns was evidently good enough to catch the eye of the young senior director for Soviet affairs in the first Bush White House, Condoleezza Rice, who asked to borrow Burns as her deputy at the National Security Council. A planned posting to New Delhi was canceled.

Burns’s longevity as a highly trusted operator is one measure of his adroitness and his character. In a Foreign Service where changes at the White House strike regular terror, he has managed to keep his lines open to both political parties over the years. If he is beloved of current secretary of state Colin Powell and national security advisor Condoleezza Rice, he was also a favorite of Clinton national security advisor Sandy Berger and deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott. Indeed, after working as Rice’s deputy at the NSC, he was promoted to her position as senior director for Soviet affairs when the Clinton Democrats took office—surely a rare transition.

Photo of Burns with President Clinton and Warren Christopher The trust Burns built in the Clinton White House led to his appointment to the State Department spokesman’s job in 1995, although that too happened quite by surprise. Eager to get back out and “be a diplomat again,” he says, Burns had been nominated to serve as ambassador to Estonia, one of the emerging republics spawned by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But on a trip to Cleveland, President Clinton pulled Burns into a side room and told him that Mike McCurry was moving from the State Department to become his White House spokesperson and that Secretary Christopher needed a new spokesperson.

“It was a horrible decision,” recalls Burns—he and his wife, Libby, had expected an end to stressful 18-hour Washington days and a chance for him to spend more time with his three young daughters. “But when the president of the United States tells you he needs you, there have to be fairly overwhelming reasons to say no,” he says. “We realized it was a unique opportunity that wasn’t likely to come along again. In this business, sometimes you’re not the master of your own fate.”

Two years later, with Madeleine Albright’s move to the State Department, Burns finally had a chance to leave Washington for a significant embassy: Prague. He accepted readily. But again at the last minute a pressing vacancy occurred—this time, in Athens. He was given his choice. “I let Libby make that decision,” Burns says. When he was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Greece, he was 41.

By every account, Burns took to his job with gusto. Greece was still laboring under the historical memory of U.S. intervention in its political affairs during the 1960s, and, like his predecessors, Burns struggled to seal off the bygones and reconstruct U.S.≠Greek relations around current security issues in southeastern Europe.

His appreciation of the job in Athens reflected the new diplomatic zeitgeist of promoting American commercial interests abroad and of playing a highly public role in building bridges. As ambassador, he aggressively promoted a sale of Patriot missiles to Greece by Raytheon, a U.S. defense contractor. And as part of his public diplomacy agenda, he networked with the Greek-American owner of the Baltimore Orioles and Maryland’s Greek-American senator, Paul Sarbanes, to stimulate the playing and watching of baseball in Greece. Burns, let the record show, is an ardent Red Sox fan, his office festooned with BoSox and Fenway Park memorabilia—“and I do believe they will win the World Series next year.”

Diplomacy, Burns noted in an interview published in Boston College’s 2000 Annual Report while he was in Athens, is no longer practiced exclusively “in the foreign ministries, in the prime ministers’ offices, man to man.” While acknowledging the importance of his face time with the prime minister and foreign minister of Greece, he said, “Now . . . there’s a heavy emphasis on getting out of the confines of this walled embassy compound in Athens and getting out to the cities and villages, into newspaper offices where we communicate America’s message.” For Burns, the ambassadorship involved everything from high-level discussions in the effort to resolve Greece’s long-standing enmity with Turkey to sharing his enjoyment of Greek pop music with interviewers from Athens’s Music Online.

Greece, where five American diplomats have been assassinated in the last quarter-century, gave Burns a bracing exposure to the new anti-Americanism abroad—and to the strange new world of bunker diplomacy. He and his family were guarded everywhere they went. But he remains resolute about the importance of being in the field.

“John F. Kennedy had this idea that we should be represented everywhere, and I think that’s right,” he says in his NATO office. “Despite the terrorism, we need to go out and lead normal lives among the people. I went to every major city to see Greeks where they were.” He comes back to the “historic rise of anti-Americanism” since the attacks of 9/11: “If there was ever a time for American diplomats to be on the ground in places like Yemen and Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s now. You can’t see the world from Washington, filter the world from Washington, understand the world from Washington. You can’t do that by watching television. I don’t think technology will ever replace the human element.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Burns is a big booster of the modern Foreign Service. He politely declines to comment on the suggestion that it is a bureaucracy beset with poor morale—yet another institution trying to arrest its drift toward irrelevance. That is in the past, he says. When Colin Powell took charge of the Department of State in 2001, the Foreign Service had endured years of declining budgets, static pay, and crumbling infrastructure—symbolized by the Pleistocene Wang computers to which the foreign policy of the United States was long entrusted in some parts. General Powell has turned the tide, says Ambassador Burns. “He’s increased the budget 14 percent. That’s the first time that’s happened in a generation. The working conditions are getting much better. He talks about the Foreign Service the way a general talks about his troops.”

Burns also doesn’t buy another common perception about the Foreign Service: that sophisticated telecommunications and the ability of senior officials in Washington to fly anywhere easily have served to marginalize diplomats posted abroad. Ambassadors, the charge goes, have become errand boys at best.

A smile slips across the youthful face. “Ever since we negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, presidents have taken an interest in foreign policy. It never bothered me that a president or a secretary of state might have something to say about what I was doing.”

Burns’s first “posting” in the Foreign Service was in 1980, two years after graduating summa cum laude from BC with a major in history, and shortly after earning a master’s degree, with distinction, in international economics and American foreign policy from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The job was a six-month internship at the embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania, where the Sahara meets the Atlantic Ocean and about as tiny and remote a post as the United States maintains abroad. “It was the poorest, most desperate place you can imagine,” Burns recalls, a “feudal” country where the majority of the population was nomadic and something very close to slavery was openly practiced.

Since high school, Burns says, he had felt “a moral obligation to be involved in some way” with redressing “the vast inequities between rich and poor in the world”—a sense that was reinforced, he says, by the “moral compass” of a Jesuit education at BC. The experience in Mauritania in effect confirmed his direction, and he decided to take the Foreign Service examination. “I wanted to be fully in the game of American foreign policy to effect the changes I thought important,” he recalls. While preparing for the exam, he joined a nonprofit company called Appropriate Technology, Inc., bringing small-scale development projects to the Third World. He and Libby Baylies, an architectural historian who shared his concerns and fascination with the Third World, were married in 1981; he took the Foreign Service exams in 1982; and after intensive Arabic language training for both of them, the two took up a new life in Cairo in 1983, as Burns became staff aide to the ambassador in the huge U.S. mission to Egypt.

The ambassador in Cairo was Nick Veliotes, who recalls his young confrere as “the most outstanding junior officer I had ever run into. I relied on him to carry out my instructions and to listen to his own judgment,” says the retired ambassador. “He had a marvelous touch in working with people who were senior to him. . . . He is smart enough to know what he doesn’t know. He has no arrogance whatsoever, and he’s got a terrific wife.”

Photo of Burns in the Middle EastRounding out the initial Middle Eastern swing of his career, Burns moved on to Jerusalem in 1985 for another two-year stint. As political officer of the U.S. consulate general—one of a very few consulates, like Hong Kong, that have the informal status of full-fledged embassies—Burns played a lead role in distributing economic assistance to Palestinians. Those were the days before the first intifada, when violence was largely limited to stone throwing, and before the Palestinians achieved civilian authority for themselves. His work on the West Bank consisted of shuttling among Palestinians, the relief agencies trying to help them, and the Israeli military governor.

Burns sported a red beard at the time, and, in the desert heat, seldom wore a necktie. The refugee camps where he spent a lot of time were “rough places where hatred of the Israeli army and the international community were strong.” One day, in a refugee camp in Bethlehem, a Palestinian friend warned him that he might be mistaken for an Israeli settler. “Better to look like what you are—an American diplomat,” the friend said. He advised Burns to shave off the beard and start wearing a tie. “I did.”

The Burnses lived in East Jerusalem and made some of their closest friends there, Israelis and Palestinians alike. The ambassador offers a striking memory of the animosity that has, of course, worsened considerably since the mid-1980s. As they had opted for natural childbirth for their second daughter, and it was unavailable on the Palestinian side, Libby Burns went to an Israeli clinic to deliver the baby. Burns is still shaken by the accusations—some of them in the local Palestinian newspapers—that they had “sold out” to the Israelis by making this decision. Meanwhile, when Libby’s Israeli maternity-ward roommate found out to whom she was married and the work he did with and for the Palestinians, she refused to speak to Libby for the duration of their shared experience.

“We’ve always remembered that event as the metaphor for our time in the Middle East,” Burns reflected in January. “Both the Israelis and the Palestinians wanted to pull you over to their side. To be their friend and to be fully trusted, they wanted you to be fully in their camp. I felt strongly that as an American diplomat the only morally and politically acceptable place to be was planted firmly between them.”

He mused on the way he had to navigate his friendships there. “I was close personal friends with many Palestinians but opposed them when they preached the destruction of Israel; I was friendly with Israelis but opposed them when they advocated an expansive settlement policy in the occupied territories.”

Burns was an early and constant bloomer and will probably be called boyish for years to come. Yet he speaks with the collectedness and confidence of someone who was probably an adult long before his time. He certainly knew which way he was going sooner than most.

“He was voted class politician,” recalls his old friend Kevin Donahue ’78, who has known Burns since junior high school in Wellesley, Massachusetts. “When he ran for class president [at Wellesley High School], he would bring in all these world issues to his campaign speeches while the other candidates were arguing for better food in the cafeteria or less homework. Nick Burns was on a higher plane.”

Burns’s worldview can be traced to those formative days. In a Roman Catholic family that revered the Kennedys, his parents were nonetheless Republicans. At 18, Burns worked in the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Michael Dukakis. When he edited the paper at Wellesley High School in 1973, he recalls, he railed against the Vietnam War, the death penalty, the pitiable state of race relations in America. He wore an “Impeach Nixon” button to his high school graduation, Donahue says.

Photo of Burns at his BC graduationBurns entered Boston College in the fall of 1974, a month after Richard Nixon’s resignation. In high school, he had considered becoming a priest, he says, and though “it wasn’t for me,” he was drawn to the Jesuit sense of purpose. “BC was perfect for me,” he says. “I had professors who tried to encourage the idealism but temper it, too, with a sense of how the world worked.” In 2002, Burns had the opportunity to reciprocate, delivering a commencement address in which he spoke both of the “fragility of the modern world” and of what “good people serving a good cause” could accomplish.

Burns is the fourth of five children, and his ties to his family and friends in Wellesley are still close. He married a woman who lived on the same street, five miles away across the town line in Weston—although they had never met before they turned up in the same junior year abroad program at the Sorbonne in Paris in the fall of 1976. (“It took her four months to ask me out,” he recalls with a smile.)

Donahue marvels at the unlikely coincidence, and remembers the striking contrast too. “He was this clean-cut, all-American kid, and she was in jeans, a peasant shirt and no shoes.” He says,“They’re still a great couple. She’s more practical than Nick—he’s the visionary.”

Nick Burns acknowledges the importance of personal conscience as a government servant—he is willing to declare for the record, for example, that he opposes the death penalty and always has. Nonetheless, in his chosen profession, and in the service of Democrats and Republicans alike, he says, “I’ve never had a moment when I disagreed with the position my government was taking.” And if he did? “Every public servant has to have internal moral red lines that you won’t cross—what it is you won’t do. I am very proud to be an American diplomat, but there are some things you just won’t do. Luckily I’ve never faced such a problem. But could it happen? Sure.”

As agile as Burns has been in keeping his nose clean in both the Democratic and Republican foreign-policy households, he doesn’t seem to mind aligning himself with the Colin Powell side of the ideological family feud over which President Bush now presides. “My whole career has been on the engagement side,” of foreign policy, he declares on the morning of his speech in Berlin. “The kinds of threats the world faces now—drugs, pollution, terrorism, child pornography—call for the most robust kind of engagement with the world,” he says. “You can’t fight it by yourself. That’s why I’m so opposed to unilateralism. Despite what you hear from the Richard Perles of the world”—Perle, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was assistant secretary of defense under Reagan—“we can’t be so blinded by our own power that we think we can do it all ourselves.”

Finishing breakfast in a small dining room in Truman Hall, the ambassadorial residence on 25 acres in a Brussels suburb, Burns reflects on the evolution of his worldview. “I haven’t changed fundamentally from the person I was in high school and at BC. But I appreciate now far more that the United States has to exercise power responsibly—and sometimes use that power as we did in Bosnia and Kosovo, and hit back. As a college student, I was quite the pacifist—war was wrong and there were always peaceful solutions. As a diplomat, I can see that the U.S. sometimes has to use its power to make war.”

When he is asked to say whether he is registered as a Democrat or a Republican, he replies that in the state of Virginia, where he votes, he is not required to declare a party affiliation.

“This is a very delicate matter,” he says with gravity, at pains not to be misunderstood. “I’ve worked for two Bushes and one Clinton at fairly high levels. I think it is important to give presidents that objectivity—for them to have a core group of professionals who won’t twist in the political winds.”

Charles Trueheart is a writer based in Paris.

Photos (from top):

At a NATO ceremony in Brussels, Burns speaks on the first anniversary of September 11. Behind him is NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. Courtesy of NATO Photos

A younger Burns fields questions from the press as the State Department’s spokesman. Courtesy of Nicholas Burns

State Department days, with President Clinton and Secretary Christopher. Courtesy of Nicholas Burns

The West Bank, 1987. Courtesy of Nicholas Burns

Graduation Day at BC, with wife-to-be Libby Baylies. Courtesy of Nicholas Burns

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