It is hard to find words adequate to express who Bill Burns is, and what he means not just to the State Department, but to American foreign policy. With characteristic humility, he has enormous impact and influence in untold ways and myriad issues. The real measure of Bill Burns is not just a brilliant resume, even though he’s just the second serving career Deputy Secretary of State, and has served in remarkably diverse positions from Moscow to Amman, the Policy Planning Staff to Assistant Secretary for the Middle East and Undersecretary for Political Affairs here on Mahogany Row.
It’s not just where he’s served, it’s who he is and what he’s done. This guy is the real deal. Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.
I knew this well long before I was privileged to become the tenth Secretary of State to benefit from Bill’s judgment, counsel, and skill. It’s the reason why one of my first phone calls as Secretary-designate was to ask Bill to come meet with me and I asked him to delay his long-planned retirement. He’s a diplomat’s diplomat with this terrifically rare mix of strategic vision and operational skill. He really is the gold standard for quiet, head-down, get-it-done diplomacy. He has spent these 32 years in the Foreign Service driving and developing policy, not just observing it. He is smart and savvy, and he understands not just where policy should move, but how to navigate the distance between Washington and capitals around the world. I’ve never seen him flustered, and I’ve seen him under extraordinary pressure. I respect his clarity. He boils every challenge down to its essence and thinks strategically. His dispatches and reports from his meetings are legendary in the Department, those famous Bill Burns moments where he emerges from negotiations and distills in his own words in front of a computer screen exactly what he’s learned and what the path ahead demands. It’s the model of clarity, candor, and almost military efficiency and it sums up who Bill is.
Whenever I am thinking about future generations of Foreign Service officers, I tell people we need to build a system that builds the next Bill Burns. He embodies exactly the combination of capable and agile thinker and doer that the career Foreign Service was envisioned to produce. The x factor is his quiet leadership and remarkable humility. I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t thoroughly enjoyed their experience working with him and learning from him, and I also know that when he retires this Fall, whatever he does next, he will only be a phone call away where, in that calm and steady voice, he’ll be called upon for wise counsel for decades to come. He and his wife, Lisa, and their two daughters deserve this transition in their lives after so many years of long hours and frequent moves, and I’m deeply grateful for his willingness to serve so long and so effectively, and to keep up a superb effort these next six months.
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In his letter to Secretary Kerry informing the Secretary of his decision to retire from the Foreign Service in October after thirty two years of service, Deputy Secretary Burns wrote, that he was “deeply honored to have had the opportunity to serve you and the President as Deputy Secretary of State, and immensely grateful for the chance to serve my country for the past thirty-two years in the Foreign service...You and the President will always have my deepest respect and admiration.” Burns looked back on his remarkable career, and wrote, “Over more than three decades, I have done my best to serve ten Secretaries of State. I have had the opportunities and experiences far beyond anything I would have imagined when I entered the Foreign Service. I owe a great deal to my friends and colleagues in the Department – to the mentors and role models who showed me over the years how to be a good diplomat; to the peers and subordinates who always made me look far better than I ever deserved; and to the men and women who serve our country with honor and distinction in hard places around the world as I write this letter. I also owe a debt of gratitude greater than I can ever express to Lisa and our two wonderful daughters, who shared fully in our Foreign Service life and made it whole. I look forward to the next chapter in my professional life, but nothing will ever make me prouder than to be a career American diplomat.”
Deputy Secretary Burns holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service—Career Ambassador—and became Deputy Secretary of State in July 2011. He is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become Deputy Secretary, and the longest serving. Ambassador Burns served from 2008 until 2011 as Under Secretary for Political Affairs. He was U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005, and Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 until 2001. Ambassador Burns has also served in a number of other posts since entering the Foreign Service in 1982, including: Executive Secretary of the State Department and Special Assistant to Secretaries Christopher and Albright; Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in 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 staff. He speaks Russian, Arabic, and French, and is the recipient of two Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and a number of Department of State awards, including the Secretary’s Distinguished Service Award, two Distinguished Honor Awards, the 2006 Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Ambassadorial Award for Initiative and Success in Trade Development, the 2005 Robert C. Frasure Memorial Award for conflict resolution and peacemaking, and the James Clement Dunn Award. In 1994, he was named to TIME Magazine's list of the "50 Most Promising American Leaders Under Age 40", and to TIME's list of "100 Young Global Leaders."