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Diplomacy in Action

Remarks to NY State Bar Association


Remarks
William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
New York City
January 23, 2013

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Date: 01/23/2013 Description: Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns received the New York State Bar Association's Distinction in International Affairs Award on behalf of this year's honoree, the professional diplomatic corps.  - State Dept ImageThank you for that kind introduction. It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as an American career diplomat. I am truly humbled to accept this award on behalf of my friends and colleagues, many serving in hard places across the globe, in a profession which is not always well-understood by Americans, but which matters enormously to the security and prosperity of our country in a very complicated world.

And I accept it always mindful of those who came before us ... from Ben Franklin, upsetting French sartorial standards with his fur cap in the salons of Paris, but paving the way diplomatically for the birth of our republic ... to George Kennan, laboring through a frigid Moscow winter to produce his long telegram, and lay the basis for America's success in the Cold War ... to modern legends like Tom Pickering, who helped chart a new course for American diplomacy in a post-Cold War world of emerging and re-emerging powers.

Teddy Roosevelt, who addressed the New York State Bar Association more than a century ago, once remarked that life's greatest gift is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing. By that standard, American career diplomats are extraordinarily fortunate.

As President Obama emphasized in his Inaugural Address on Monday, we serve our country at a moment when the connection between domestic renewal and navigating a rapidly changing international landscape is more important than ever.

Millions of American jobs depend directly on open markets and expanding exports overseas. Our physical security depends on reducing weapons of mass destruction and preventing their proliferation ... it depends on cooperation with other countries to combat terrorists and ease the economic troubles and unresolved conflicts on which violent extremists feed ... it depends on supporting economic openness and rule of law and democratic freedoms wherever we can, recognizing the limits of our influence, but recognizing also that stability is not a static phenomenon, and that societies which do not keep pace with the thirst of their citizens for human dignity and universal human rights will become brittle and break ... and it depends on doing all we can to advance a wider agenda of better global health, better prospects for food and water security, and better possibilities for dealing effectively with climate and energy challenges.

America cannot fix all those problems on its own. But progress toward fixing them is not very likely without active American leadership, and energetic and imaginative American diplomacy.

The United States Foreign Service is much smaller than most Americans would probably think. There are only about 7500 American Foreign Service Officers today, fewer than there are members of U.S. military bands, and only one-tenth the size of the New York State Bar Association. The total annual budget for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development is only about one percent of the federal budget. Once seen as the province of East Coast elitists, the Foreign Service today is remarkably diverse, increasingly reflecting the incredible mosaic of peoples and experiences that is America's most enduring source of strength. A quarter of current Foreign Service Officers have served in war zones over the last decade, separated from their families, and exposed to persistent risk and violence. Along with thousands of other equally-dedicated specialists, career civil servants, and Foreign Service Nationals … along with the family members who make so many sacrifices of their own … we serve the American people at home and abroad.

We serve American interests and values in a world that scarcely resembles the Cold War world of thirty years ago, when I entered the diplomatic service. It is a world in which power is more diffuse, and measured in more ways. It is a world in which there are more players, in governments and outside governments, in which information moves faster and in greater volume than ever before.

It is a world in which other people and other societies will always have their own realities, not always hospitable to ours. That doesn't mean that we have to accept those perspectives or agree with them or indulge them, but it does mean that understanding them is the starting point for sensible foreign policy.

It is a world in which a little modesty in the pursuit of American interests is often a good thing, and in which there's still no substitute for setting careful priorities, and connecting ends to means. It is still a world in which the power of our example and our generosity of spirit matter more than the power of our preaching. It is still a world in which American leadership, a capacity unique among major powers to mobilize others, should serve as a catalyst for making common cause in taking on the planet's biggest challenges.

And it is still a world in which there is no substitute for finding exceptional American men and women -- with a facility for languages and for understanding and navigating foreign societies, with a deep devotion to our country and its best interests, with curiosity and adaptability -- to join the Foreign Service. I have in mind people like Erin Webster-Main, a young diplomat in Rangoon who worked painstakingly with Burmese officials and activists to lay the groundwork for a new political opening, the first visit to Burma by an American Secretary of State since John Foster Dulles, and the first-ever visit by an American President. People like Steve Gillen, who helped Bosnians clear landmines and resettle refugees and fight corruption. People like Josh Glazeroff, a consular officer in New Delhi, who worked tirelessly to enable Indian family members to travel to Wisconsin after a terrible attack at a Sikh temple. People like Herro Mustafa, who came with her family to America as Kurdish refugees, and has become one of the most talented diplomats of her generation. And people like my friend Chris Stevens, who fell in love with the Arab world as a young Peace Corps volunteer, and died tragically trying to help Libyans realize the promise of their revolution.

Those are some of the real people that you honor today -- dedicated American patriots, with all the hopes and worries and flaws and ambitions that animate all of us as citizens of this great country. Those are some of the real people who work hard at work well-worth doing, who do their best every day to help America ensure its prosperity and security in an endlessly changing world. Those are some of the real people who, inspired by the very American model of doggedness and optimism and determination of great leaders like Teddy Roosevelt and our extraordinary outgoing Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, stay in the arena every day, picking themselves up after setbacks, fighting for America's interests across the globe, never giving up, and always looking for new opportunities.

I am deeply proud to be one of America's career diplomats. Thank you so much for honoring our profession today, and honoring all the men and women who work so hard to help America succeed in the world, and help America remain a source of hope and strength amidst so much turmoil and uncertainty outside our borders. Never has there been a moment when American diplomacy mattered more to the future of the United States, and never has there been a moment when your recognition meant more to all of us in the American diplomatic service.

Again, many thanks.



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