R. Nicholas Burns

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R. Nicholas Burns
Official portrait, 2022
13th United States Ambassador to China
Assumed office
April 1, 2022
PresidentJoe Biden
Preceded byTerry Branstad
Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
In office
March 18, 2005 – February 29, 2008
PresidentGeorge W. Bush
Preceded byMarc Grossman
Succeeded byWilliam J. Burns
United States Ambassador to NATO
In office
August 7, 2001 – March 7, 2005
PresidentGeorge W. Bush
Preceded bySandy Vershbow
Succeeded byVictoria Nuland
United States Ambassador to Greece
In office
December 22, 1997 – July 29, 2001
PresidentBill Clinton
George W. Bush
Preceded byThomas Niles
Succeeded byThomas Miller
Spokesperson for the United States Department of State
In office
PresidentBill Clinton
Preceded byMike McCurry
Succeeded byJames Rubin
Personal details
Robert Nicholas Burns

(1956-01-28) January 28, 1956 (age 68)
Buffalo, New York, U.S.
SpouseElizabeth Baylies
EducationBoston College (BA)
Johns Hopkins University (MA)

Robert Nicholas Burns (born January 28, 1956) is an American diplomat and academic who has served as the United States ambassador to China since 2022.[1]

Burns has had a 25-year career in the State Department, and served as United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Appointed by President George W. Bush, he was confirmed by the United States Senate on March 17, 2005, and was sworn into office by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As under secretary, he oversaw the bureaus responsible for U.S. policy in each region of the world and served in the senior career Foreign Service position at the department. He retired on April 30, 2008. He was a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in summer 2008.

Burns was a professor of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School at Harvard University and a member of the Board of Directors of the school's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He was director of the Aspen Strategy Group,[2] senior counselor at The Cohen Group, and serves on the board of directors of Entegris, Inc. He writes a bi-weekly column on foreign affairs for The Boston Globe and is a senior foreign affairs columnist for GlobalPost. He also serves on the board of directors of the Atlantic Council,[3] the Council on Foreign Relations, Special Olympics, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, American Media Abroad, the Gennadius Library and the Richard Lounsbery Foundation. Burns is vice chairman of the American Ditchley Foundation and serves on the panel of senior advisors at Chatham House.

President Joe Biden nominated Burns to be Ambassador to China in August 2021. He was confirmed by the Senate on December 16, 2021, by a vote of 75–18. He presented his credentials on April 1, 2022.

Early life and education[edit]

Burns was born in Buffalo, New York, and raised in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Burns attended Wellesley High School,[4] and studied abroad in Luxembourg in 1973 with the American Field Service Program. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history, with a concentration in European history, from Boston College. He also studied abroad at the University of Paris. He received a master's degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1980 in international relations concentrating on international economics, American foreign policy, and Africa.

He speaks French, Arabic, Greek, and English.


Burns and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at NATO headquarters in Brussels on December 2, 2003
Burns during the Munich Security Conference in 2016

Prior to entering the Foreign Service, Burns worked as program officer at A.T. International, a nonprofit organization specializing in economic assistance for Third World countries.

U.S. Foreign Service[edit]

Burns began his Foreign Service career in Africa and the Middle East. He was an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania, Vice Consul and Staff Assistant to the Ambassador in Cairo, Egypt, from 1983 to 1985, and then political officer at the American Consulate General in Jerusalem from 1985 to 1987, where his second daughter Elizabeth was born in 1986. In this position, he coordinated U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinian population in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.

Under President George H. W. Bush, he was director for Soviet and then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian affairs. During this time, he attended all U.S.–Soviet summits and numerous other international meetings and specialized on economic assistance issues, U.S. ties with Russia and Ukraine, and relations with the Baltic countries. He was a member of the Department's Transition Team in 1988, and served as Staff Officer in the Department's Operations Center and Secretariat in 1987–1988.

Burns served for five years (1990–1995) on the National Security Council staff at the White House. He was special assistant to President Bill Clinton and Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Affairs. He had lead responsibility in the White House for advising the president on all aspects of U.S. relations with the fifteen countries of the former Soviet Union.

From 1995 to 1997, Burns was Spokesman of the Department of State and Acting Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs for Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Secretary Madeleine Albright. In this position, he gave daily press conferences on U.S. foreign policy issues, accompanied both Secretaries of State on all their foreign trips and coordinated all of the department's public outreach programs.

From 1997 to 2001, Burns was the United States Ambassador to Greece.[5] During his tenure as Ambassador, the U.S. expanded its military and law enforcement cooperation with Greece, strengthened their partnership in the Balkans, and increased trade investment and people-to-people programs.[citation needed]

Burns supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[6] Prior to his final assignment, Burns was the United States Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.[7] As Ambassador to NATO, he headed the combined State-Defense Department U.S. Mission to NATO at a time when the Alliance committed to new missions in Iraq, Afghanistan and the global war against terrorism, and accepted seven new members.

On January 18, 2008, Burns announced his retirement from the Foreign Service effective March 2008. The reason cited was to go back to family concerns and to pursue other opportunities outside of government.[8][9] A White House press statement stated that Burns would continue to serve in an advisory capacity as the United States Special Envoy in finalizing the United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act.

Private service[edit]

After leaving government service Burns started working for the Cohen Group, an international business consulting firm. [10]

At Harvard Kennedy School, Burns has taught courses in diplomacy, American foreign policy, and international politics. He is a strong advocate for diplomacy, and has argued that the United States "should make a very strong effort to get to the negotiating table with Iran".[11] Burns is also an active speaker on the lecture circuit and in 2013 gave the lecture at the year's installment of the Waldo Family Lecture Series on International Relations at Old Dominion University.[12]

Burns said that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden is a traitor: "He went to China and Russia. That is why I dislike Snowden".[6] On the 2012 Benghazi attack, Burns defended Secretary of State Clinton, saying "I find it distasteful that Benghazi has been politicized."[6] He endorsed Hillary Clinton's campaign for president.[6]

Burns was a foreign policy adviser for the Joe Biden 2020 presidential campaign, and was an informal adviser to Hillary Clinton 2016 presidential campaign. As a Bush advisor, Burns supported the Iraq War, though today he calls it "a pretty serious blunder." He is director of the Aspen Strategy Group, a forum of establishment foreign policy thinkers.[13]

Burns has also consulted and given paid speeches for the employees of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, State Street, CitiBank, Honeywell, and a number of other companies, universities, and associations.[13]

Ambassador to China[edit]

Burns sworn in as ambassador to China by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in January 2022

In August 2021, Burns was nominated by the Biden administration to serve as Ambassador to China.[14] The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on his nomination on October 20, 2021. The committee favorably reported his nomination to the Senate floor on November 3, 2021. Republican Senator Marco Rubio had stalled Burns's nomination, citing his business relationships in China.[15][16]

Burns was confirmed by the Senate on December 16, 2021, by a vote of 75–18.[17] He presented his credentials to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on April 1, 2022.[18] He also presented his credentials to Chinese president Xi Jinping on 25 April 2023.[19]

Burns was involved in the June 2023 meeting between American and Chinese officials, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang, that aimed to re-establish diplomatic communications after the bilateral relationship worsened in preceding years and months, including after the US shoot-down of a Chinese high-altitude balloon in February 2023.[20]

Email breach[edit]

In July 2023, it was reported that Burns's email account was hacked in a breach of Microsoft emails by the Chinese government.[21][22]

Personal life[edit]

Burns and his wife Elizabeth Baylies have three daughters.


Burns is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, The Trilateral Commission, American Academy of Diplomacy, The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Order of St. John, America Abroad Media advisory board,[23] and is a lifelong member of Red Sox Nation.[24]




  • Fifteen honorary degrees
  • Presidential Distinguished Service Award
  • Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award
  • 2017 Ignatian Award from Boston College
  • 2016 New Englander of the Year from the New England Council
  • Woodrow Wilson Award for Public Service from the Johns Hopkins University
  • Boston College Alumni Achievement Award
  • Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award from Tufts University
  • Trainor Award for Diplomacy by Georgetown University
  • Communicator of the Year by the National Association of Government Communicators in 1997.


  1. ^ "New U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns arrives in China". Reuters. March 5, 2022.
  2. ^ "Nicholas Burns Stepping Down as Executive Director of the Aspen Strategy Group to become Ambassador of the United States to China & Anja Manuel Named Next Executive Director of the Aspen Strategy Group". The Aspen Institute. December 22, 2021. Retrieved June 19, 2023.
  3. ^ "Board of Directors". Atlantic Council. Retrieved February 11, 2020.
  4. ^ Charles Truehart (Winter 2003). "The diplomat". Boston College Magazine.
  5. ^ "PN596 — R. Nicholas Burns — Department of State 105th Congress (1997-1998)". US Congress. Retrieved March 22, 2022.
  6. ^ a b c d "Speaking in Sturbridge, former diplomat Nicholas Burns says China poses biggest challenge for US". Telegram & Gazette. October 22, 2015. Archived from the original on April 15, 2019. Retrieved January 14, 2019.
  7. ^ "PN667 — R. Nicholas Burns — Department of State 107th Congress (2001-2002)". US Congress. Retrieved March 22, 2022.
  8. ^ Janine, Zacharia; Viola Gienger (January 18, 2008). "Burns, Rice's Point Man on Iran and India Talks, to Resign Post". Bloomberg. Retrieved January 18, 2008.
  9. ^ "Announcement of Departure of Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns". U.S. Department of State. January 18, 2008. Retrieved January 18, 2008.
  10. ^ "What We Do". The Cohen Group. Retrieved August 12, 2020.
  11. ^ "Q&A with Nicholas Burns". Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Winter 2008–2009. Retrieved October 30, 2008.
  12. ^ "Waldo Family Lecture Series on International Relations Digital Collection". Old Dominion University. Retrieved July 17, 2017.
  13. ^ a b Grim, Ryan (July 24, 2019). "Joe Biden's New Foreign Policy Adviser Supported Iraq War and Dubbed Edward Snowden a "Traitor"". The Intercept. Retrieved August 12, 2020.
  14. ^ Karni, Annie (August 20, 2021). "Biden Nominates Burns and Emanuel to Be His Ambassadors to China and Japan". The New York Times.
  15. ^ "Marco Rubio blocks Biden's nominee for ambassador to China". news.yahoo.com. Retrieved November 18, 2021.
  16. ^ Pierce, Charles P. (November 17, 2021). "Marco Rubio Is Burnishing His Nihilist Credentials in a Political Party Gone Mad". Esquire. Retrieved November 18, 2021.
  17. ^ "On the Nomination (Confirmation: R. Nicholas Burns, of Massachusetts, to be Ambassador to the People's Republic of China)". US Senate. Retrieved December 20, 2021.
  18. ^ Burns, Nicholas [@USAmbChina] (April 2, 2022). "I presented a copy of my credentials today at the Foreign Ministry as the U.S. Ambassador to the People's Republic of China" (Tweet). Retrieved April 9, 2022 – via Twitter.
  19. ^ Ching, Nike (April 26, 2023). "China Accepts US Envoy's Credentials More Than a Year After His Arrival". Voice of America. Retrieved May 24, 2023.
  20. ^ Wei, Lingling. "After Months of Cold Shoulder, China Welcomes Blinken to Beijing". The Wall Street Journal.
  21. ^ Volz, Dustin; Strobel, Warren P. (July 20, 2023). "U.S. Ambassador to China Hacked in China-Linked Spying Operation". The Wall Street Journal. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  22. ^ "US ambassador to China and high level diplomat in East Asia targeted in recent cyberattack: Sources". ABC News. July 21, 2023. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  23. ^ "Advisory Board - Nick Burns". America Abroad Media. 2011. Archived from the original on January 25, 2013.
  24. ^ "R. Nicholas Burns". U.S. Department of State.
  25. ^ Burns, Nicholas (February 19, 2021). "The Diplomat as Gardener". Foreign Affairs. ISSN 0015-7120. Retrieved January 23, 2024.
  26. ^ Burns, Nicholas (March 25, 2020). "How to Lead in a Time of Pandemic". Foreign Affairs. ISSN 0015-7120. Retrieved January 23, 2024.
  27. ^ Burns, Nicholas (August 11, 2014). "Passage to India". Foreign Affairs. No. September/October 2014. ISSN 0015-7120. Retrieved January 23, 2024.
  28. ^ Burns, R. Nicholas (November 1, 2007). "America's Strategic Opportunity With India". Foreign Affairs. No. November/December 2007. ISSN 0015-7120. Retrieved January 23, 2024.

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by United States Ambassador to Greece
Succeeded by
Preceded by United States Ambassador to NATO
Succeeded by
Preceded by United States Ambassador to China
Political offices
Preceded by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs
Succeeded by