Nicholas Burns, BC ’78, a career ambassador and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, has had an extensive career in public service around the world. If his parents were here today, however, he isn’t so sure that both of them would believe what he has accomplished.
“If my parents were here today, my mom would be very proud to hear it,” Burns said. “My dad would’ve believed about half of it.”
Burns was presented with the Ignatian Award following the Laetare Sunday Mass at a Boston College Alumni Association event. The award is given to individuals by who “live out the Ignatian mission of ‘men and women for others.’” In 2001, Burns was given the Public Service Award by the BC Alumni Association.
He briefly described the current state of international affairs, which he believes is just about as contentious as it has ever been.
“This might be the most complicated foreign policy agenda, the agenda that President [Donald] Trump has to face, of any generation going back to the Second World War,” he said.
Burns has spent the majority of his career in public service. He got his start in diplomacy as a member of the State Department Foreign Service, working overseas in multiple embassies and consulates. His first assignments were spread across Africa and the Middle East, where he served in Nouakchott, Cairo, and Jerusalem.
He was director of Soviet (and then Russian) Affairs under President George H. W. Bush, and then served on the National Security Council of the White House from 1990 to 1995. Burns went on to work as a special assistant to President Bill Clinton, spokesman of the State Department (1995-1997), and U.S. Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001) and NATO (2001-2005). He is currently the Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Despite his background, Burns elected not to talk too much about global politics at Sunday’s event. Instead, he focused on a message of hope for the future, and where he sees hope in the BC community and the world beyond. He discussed the influence that his education at BC had on his life, and that he was inspired by his professors and the Jesuit mission of service.
“The Ignatian creed, finding God in all things and the importance of service to Boston, to Massachusetts, and to the world, that’s what makes a Jesuit education different, and I am profoundly grateful for it,” Burns said.
Later, Burns mentioned Director of Campus Ministry Rev. Tony Penna, S.J., a close friend who taught Burns in eighth grade religious education. Burns called him “the finest moral leader” he has ever met.
He then discussed some of the domestic problems currently facing the U.S. He mentioned income inequality, the opioid crisis, and transportation reform as some of the most pressing issues that the next generation of Americans will face in the coming years.
Burns, however, sees hope all around him. He alluded to the achievements of Leonardo Da Vinci, Martin Luther King, Jr., Susan B. Anthony, and Albert Einstein as examples of what a person can accomplish through hope and belief. He called for hope following an election that he and many others believe deeply divided the nation down the middle.
“At a time like this, I think if you look back and look at some of the people who really gave us hope, and then look at our present society, hope is actually all around us,” Burns said. “Hope fuels the human heart, as they say.”
He discussed the hope that he sees in the refugee families coming from the Middle East to live in the U.S. He pointed to BC’s heritage as a school for Irish immigrants, and drew a parallel between Irish and Italian immigrants that came to the U.S. in the past, and the refugees from the Middle East that are coming to America today.
“The people, Italians and Irish, in the 19th century, are not very different from the Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans, who want the same dream as them,” he said.
In one of his classes at Harvard, Burns asked his students to send him an email telling him what gives them hope for the future. Many students responded by mentioning the millions of people that have been lifted out of poverty over the last century, technological advances in society, and the potential eradication of world diseases such as polio. He stated that many of the most promising advances in the world are coming from colleges and universities across the country.
“The ideas and innovations produced at BC, at the University of Texas, Harvard, MIT, CalTech, University of Utah, those ideas produced here are linking up with private equity and venture capital, and they’re transforming the world,” he said.
Burns then transitioned to a discussion of the Catholic Church and the Jesuit mission, in which he praised the hope that Church brings to the world. He mentioned the Jesuit Peace Corps and Catholic Relief services, the latter of which he worked with in the West Bank during his time in Israel. He lauded Pope Francis and his “luminous, poetical humanity” that he believes inspires Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike.
Burns touched upon the Jesuit spiritual belief in the “Magis,” which means “more” in Latin. The distinguishing aspect of BC, Burns said, is its call for students to do and to be more, and this is what he believes will allow the University to continue to make a difference in the world in the future.
“It’s why BC will continue to be a beacon of hope for generations to come,” he said.