Category: Featured News, News, On Campus

Title: Institute for the Study of Diplomacy Honors CIA Director Ambassador William J. Burns with Trainor Award at Ceremony

Author: Ula Ekmecic
Date Published: February 13, 2023

On February 2, 2023, SFS and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) presented the 2022 Trainor Award to Ambassador WIlliam J. Burns, recognizing his groundbreaking work as a former U.S. diplomat and Deputy Secretary of State.

Named after the late J. Raymond “Jit” Trainor — a former registrar and one of the first students to enroll in SFS — each year the award is given to an outstanding practitioner for distinction in the conduct of diplomacy. Previous awardees have included Amb. Marie Yovanovitch, Sec. Madeleine Albright and United Nations High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, among others.

Hogan presents Burns with the Trainor Award. The two men stand, smiling, side-by-side on stage with both of their hands on the plaque.
Chairman Frank Hogan presents Amb. Burns with the 2022 Trainor Award. Burns is the 39th recipient of the honor since the ceremony first began in 1978.

Life at the Forefront of Foreign Policy

With experience cross-cutting the fields of intelligence and diplomacy, Amb. Burns currently serves as the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Prior to assuming this position, he was the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one of the oldest international affairs think tanks in the country.

Amb. Barabara K. Bodine, Director of the ISD and a former colleague of Burns’, emphasized that this year’s recipient was more than qualified for the honor. “To describe Ambassador Burns’ career…as exceptional risks remarkable understatement,” she stated in her introductory remarks. “The Ambassador [played] a major and direct, if sometimes quiet role…[during] 9/11 and in the early days of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Bodine speaks from the podium while on-stage.
Amb. Barbara Bodine introduced Burns. Prior to joining Georgetown’s faculty, she spent 30 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and served as the Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen (1997-2001).

Having held various posts in government, Burns’ career in the U.S. Foreign Service spanned 33 years. His career took him to the forefront of some of the greatest foreign policy challenges in modern history — among them, leading successful back-channel negotiations related to the signing of the Iran nuclear deal and convincing Muammar Gaddafi to pursue Libyan disarmament.

Guiding Burns through these events was a steady commitment to public service and an openness to learning. “At every step along the way, I learned something new,” he said. “Sometimes, it was about classic diplomatic challenges…like supporting Secretary of State Baker as the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union disintegrated, [and] Germany was reunified…or watching Vladimir Putin expand his appetite for risk and deepen his brutish sense of destiny.”

Uncovering Putin’s Calculus

After being presented with the Trainor Award by Frank Hogan, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Trainor Endowment,  Burns joined Bodine for a moderated conversation centered on “Addressing the Global Threat Landscape.” In line with this theme, the two touched on Putin’s calculus in Ukraine, counterterrorism in the Middle East and the evolving nature of competition with China.

Speaking with a nuanced understanding of  Vladimir Putin’s character from his time as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, Burns argued that Putin’s policy decisions have been animated by two major goals: restoring Russia’s status as a revered power in the international system and establishing himself as the next great Russian leader.

Both of these objectives stem from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s — the perceived humiliation of which Amb. Burns described as having laid the groundwork for Putin’s aggressive approach to foreign policy.

Amb. Barbara Bodine served as moderator during her conversation with Burns, which revolved around this year’s theme, “Addressing the Global Threat Landscape.”

“I think [Putin] has seen, as I look back over the last 20 years, the progress that Ukraine has made toward democratic institutions…and its increasing ties with the West,” Burns said, in regards to the current conflict in Europe. “Putin had always said privately…that he doesn’t think Ukraine is a real country. [But] real countries fight back, and that’s just what the Ukrainians have done.”

Renewed Great Power Competition

Critically, Burns discussed how contemporary foreign policy will not be limited to the West; in particular, that the Middle East and North Africa would re-emerge as a theater bringing a new set of challenges for policymakers.

“Part of that is about Iran” he stated. “It’s about an Iranian regime that I think is increasingly unsettled by what’s going on inside Iran — the remarkable courage of demonstrators over the course of the last few months, especially young Iranian women, who I think…[are] fed up with a lack of dignity. And none of this is about us, it’s not about Americans, it’s about Iranians and their future.”

However, Burns warned that domestic instability within Iran has the potential to push the Iranian regime to take a more aggressive stance in their actions abroad, having a marked — though often overlooked — impact on conflicts like Ukraine.

“Especially concerning  is the deepening of an Iranian-Russian military connection,” Burns highlighted. “Last time I was Kyiv a couple of weeks ago…I spent six [hours] in bomb shelters because there were two separate strikes by the Russians against Ukrainian civilian facilities, many of them by Shahed-136 Ukranian UAVs, or Iranian UAVs, that have been supplied to the Russians.”

Great power competition with Russia and China is also likely to play out in increasing parts of Africa. A continent whose population is projected to double over the next century, Burns and Bodine discussed the need for policymakers to balance tackling current governance and terrorism threats in the region with preparing for future challenges.

“I think China is the biggest geopolitical challenge that our government faces,” Burns emphasized. “Competition with China is unique in its scale in that it really unfolds over just about every domain — not just military and ideological, but economic, technological, [encompassing] everything from cyberspace to space itself.”

Burns asserted that meeting China at the table will require a long-term bipartisan strategy, greater focus on domestic renewal, increased cooperation with The Quad and other regional allies and a sustained commitment to increasing the U.S.’ technological competitiveness.

Lessons from Ukraine

At the end of the ceremony, Burns fielded questions from students on topics ranging from the probability of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan and the future of U.S. counterterrorism strategy, to the threat of nuclear escalation over Ukraine.

On the latter, Burns discussed how the intelligence community has made the consequences of nuclear use clear — and that threats of escalation from Russia are likely an intimidation tactic. “I think we have to stay on an even keel in weighing those kinds of threats carefully, but also not being intimidated by them as well in our support for the Ukranians,” he stated.

Burns closed out the event by addressing the broader implications of the war in Europe. “There’s a lot at stake in terms of the lessons that the rest of the world draws from this,” he said. “This is a pretty big challenge to the basic role that big countries don’t get to swallow up parts of smaller countries just because they can, and so that’s why I think there’s a great deal at stake here…to demonstrate that Putin’s going to fail.”