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Who is Nicholas Burns, Biden’s reported pick for ambassador to China?

Nicholas Burns.
Nicholas Burns.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that President Biden will nominate Nicholas Burns, a Wellesley native and former diplomat in the George W. Bush administration with Harvard and Boston College ties, to serve as ambassador to China.

Here are some key things to know about Burns, who teaches diplomacy and international relations at the Harvard Kennedy School:

Prior government service

Burns would bring nearly three decades of government service to the ambassadorial post, should Biden pick him.

According to his bio on the Kennedy School site, Burns, a career Foreign Service officer, served as undersecretary of state for political affairs from 2005 to 2008 and was the lead negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program.

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Earlier in his career, he was a top aide in Bill Clinton’s administration, serving from 1990 to 1995 on the National Security Council as senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia affairs, and he went on to direct Russian affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration, the biography says.

More recently, he served on then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board from 2014-2017.

In 2015, he published an opinion piece in the Globe lauding the talks that would lead to the Iran nuclear deal, and saying progress had been made due to the work of both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“What seems lost in the furious, partisan debate about the Iran nuclear deal is just how long it took the United States to actually get back to a negotiating table with the Iranian government — nearly 35 years,” Burns wrote. “The talks have already achieved something tangible and rare: The United States and Iran are talking again, after decades of a bitter divorce and near total isolation from each other.”

Burns added that Democrats “don’t give President George W. Bush enough credit for his critical decision in 2005 to seek negotiations with Iran before considering the use of force,” and he faulted Republicans for failing to “admit that President Obama has been skillful in adopting Bush’s original construct of combining tough sanctions and the threat of force with diplomacy to pressure Iran to negotiate.”

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Work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Burns currently chairs the board of Our Generation Speaks, a Boston-based group working to unite young Palestinians and Israelis in “common purpose,” according to the bio.

The group’s website says its mission is “to create an entrepreneurial community of leaders to shape a more peaceful Israeli-Palestinian future built on trust.”

In addition, the Harvard bio says, Burns served early in his career in the American Consulate General in Jerusalem from 1985 to 1987, where he coordinated aid to Palestinians in the West Bank.

His BC ties and other local connections

Burns serves on the Board of Trustees at Boston College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1978, according to the Harvard bio.

He also delivered the BC commencement address in 2002.

The BC website says he told graduates at the time that they had been imbued “whether we consciously realized it or not, with the Jesuit tradition of faith and service to others — to our families and friends, our communities, our country, the world. This is BC’s distinguishing feature. It is the core belief that how we lead our lives should not be just about and for ourselves but about what we all can do, in the poet Tennyson’s words, to ‘seek a newer world’ here on earth.”

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Burns considers himself a “life-long member of Red Sox Nation” and serves as fellow of the Massachusetts Historical Society, the Harvard bio says.

Other top diplomatic posts

He served as ambassador to NATO from 2001 to 2005 and ambassador to Greece from 1997 to 2001, according to the bio.

Last year, he reflected on what he said were the challenges facing the Foreign Service.

“The foreign service today faces one of the greatest crises in its history,” Burns said in November 2020 at a remote conference sponsored by the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School. “It faces a crisis in lack of support, it faces a crisis in lack of leadership in some cases.”



Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.