AUP students enjoying an evening picnic at the Seine river.

University Communications

Nicholas Burns to receive an honorary degree

Ambassador Nicholas Burns will receive an honorary degree from the American University of Paris on Tuesday May 23, 2017.

Ambassador Burns’s decision to dedicate his life to diplomacy began in 1976 as a study abroad student in Paris. “That year had a major impact on me: the extraordinary experience of living in Paris and France, of traveling throughout Europe, of gaining a better understanding of politics on the continent.” The diplomatic relationship between the US and Europe was tense. “This was during the Cold War at a time when the US was still recovering from Vietnam and Watergate. The cumulative experiences of that year inspired me to think about a career in diplomacy at the State Department. I wanted to play a role in building a better US relationship with Europe and the rest of the world and to find a way to prevent what we all feared in those years: a catastrophic, nuclear war.”

This desire would manifest itself in a 27-year career in the service of the US government and persists in his current role as Faculty Director with Harvard University’s Future of Diplomacy Project, which promotes the study and understanding of diplomacy, negotiation and statecraft. That devotion to diplomacy is why Ambassador Burns is an ideal graduation speaker and Honorary Degree recipient for AUP, as we plan to launch a Center for Global Governance and Diplomacy. His graduation speech will explore the future of diplomacy at this moment of heightened nationalisms and the role of political engagement across all sectors of American culture. 

Ambassador Burns has worked under four different administrations, each with very different approaches to international affairs. As President Schenck explains, “He describes himself as a patriot and he cares passionately about the politics, morality and ethics of his country. This is why, I think, he’s been able to serve multiple administrations led by different parties.” In each of his roles, be it as Director for Soviet Affairs under President George H. W. Bush, Special Assistant to and Spokesman of the Department of State with President Bill Clinton, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs under President George W. Bush, or advisor on the US-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act under President Barack Obama, Burns has aimed to advance the objectives of diplomacy, earning him such accolades as the Woodrow Wilson Award for Distinguished Government Service from Johns Hopkins University and the Presidential Distinguished Service Award.

As director of the Future of Diplomacy Project, Ambassador Burns uses his teaching, lecturing, and writing to help further the Project’s goal of redefining diplomacy in a modern context. With its latest initiative, the American Secretaries of State Project, the Project invites former Secretaries of State to come to Harvard and share their most challenging negotiations as well as their insights into diplomacy. The Project has already hosted James A. Baker III, Henry A. Kissinger, and Madeleine K. Albright, while Colin L. Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Rodham Clinton have all agreed to participate. The Project also supports original research in diplomacy, statecraft, and peaceful conflict resolution, and has published three books: Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and US Intervention by David L. Phillips; The Crisis with Russia, edited by Nicholas Burns; Diplomatic Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Bosnia and Herzegovina by Philippe Leroux-Martin.           

AUP has maintained a tradition of honoring members of its own community during anniversary years; and this year, our 55th, is no different, as Ambassador Burns is also the father of Sarah Burns (’05). The Burns family was living in Brussels, Belgium when they decided to visit AUP with Sarah in 2001. “She [Sarah] was taken immediately with the city, the school, and its course offerings”, Burns remembers. “She also had a transformative experience as a student at AUP.”