In Case You Missed It!

November 10th, 2014 Posted in In Case You Missed It

Editor’s Note: Bruce G. Burton ’72 was originally run in the fall/winter 2010 edition The Spartan.

Burton_BruceBruce G. Burton ’72

You never know how a college course will shape your destiny. For Bruce Burton, recently returned from service as a platoon leader in Vietnam, destiny called in Millard Peck’s class at Auburn Community College in 1972.

“I wrote a paper for Professor Peck on the rise of postwar Japan as an economic power,” remembers Burton. “That class triggered my interest in international affairs. A few years later, I updated that paper on postwar Japan for a class at Syracuse University. While at SU, one of the professors in a large international relations class was asked about taking the Foreign Service Exam. ‘Don’t bother,’ he said, ‘20,000 people take that exam and only 200 get appointed. None of you stands a chance.’”

“So I took the test. It’s long and difficult. In the final part, you get to choose one of three topics to write an essay. One of them was the rise of Japan as a post war economic power. I had that paper memorized, and to this day, I think that stroke of good luck is what let me pass the exam and get into the Foreign Service.”

For over two decades, as an American diplomat, Bruce Burton witnessed history as it was being made. He started in the Carter Administration as a political officer reporting on human rights in Paraguay, then began working on arms control and security in Europe. “In the early 1980s, NATO was locked in what turned out to be the last great political-military confrontation with the Soviet Union,” Burton recalled. “Some questioned whether the NATO alliance could hold together, especially if Germany buckled. There were many long days and negotiating sessions as we worked to counter Soviet efforts to split the Alliance. Germany and the other Allies held firm, and we succeeded.”

In the late 1980s, Bruce served as U.S. Deputy Director of Soviet Affairs. In this role he coordinated preparations in Washington for many high-level meetings between Secretary of State Shultz and his Soviet counterpart, as well as the series of Reagan-Gorbachev summits in Geneva, Reykjavik, Washington and Moscow. At Reykjavik, Burton recounted, “I was the official record keeper at an all-night negotiating session on arms control. Although some called it ‘The Summit that failed,’ we accomplished tremendous breakthroughs in arms control and other areas that night. Even though Reagan and Gorbachev departed Iceland without an overarching agreement to eliminate nuclear weapons, both were determined to solve the problems vexing the U.S. and the Soviet Union. So what we and others accomplished at a lower level that evening endured and served as the basis for great progress when the President and Gorbachev were ready to try again.”

Future assignments in London and Tel Aviv kept Burton in the center of world history. As head of the political section at the embassy in London, he helped coordinate policy with our closest ally on a range of global issues and was eyewitness to momentous developments: the end of communism in Europe; the fall of Margaret Thatcher; the collapse of the Berlin Wall; the reunification of Germany; and the First Gulf War.

From London, Burton went to Tel Aviv. “Working in Tel Aviv with the Israelis and Palestinians was especially complex,” recalled Burton. “Years before, as a reporter for the Herald-Journal, I had interviewed Yitzhak Rabin when he visited Syracuse as Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. When I commented to him that some people accused Israel of not wanting to negotiate, he practically bit my head off: ‘Give us a negotiating partner and we will negotiate,’ he replied angrily. I never thought then that years later I would be working with this man who, as Prime Minister, was now trying so hard to secure peace in the Middle East. With his signing of the Mideast Peace Accord at the White House in 1993 and his determined efforts afterwards to make both Palestinians and Israel live up to the accord, Prime Minister Rabin delivered on that commitment he had expressed twenty years before.”

Bruce retired from the State Department but still serves as Senior Advisor for the relatively new and somewhat experimental Office of eDiplomacy. “This is an unprecedented effort to use new information technologies to improve the State Department’s ability to communicate and collaborate around the globe,” he said. “It includes online communities, a Department wide wiki, blogs, traditional websites, virtual outreach initiatives and much more. It’s a challenge keeping up with social media, but this is the new wave of diplomacy. No matter what the medium is, we will always need to talk to each other.”

Looking back over his career, Bruce acknowledges the role that ACC/CCC played in his life. “For one very important thing, I met my wife Amy (Class of ’66) when she was going to ACC, and she has been a partner with me in all these places. As for the school, a college is really about its teachers, and ACC had a great group of professors,” Burton remembers. “Ken Scouten made literature entertaining but also taught the need to have the courage of your convictions in critical thinking. In his own quiet and contemplative way, David Richards imparted the profound insights of the great philosophers about the human experience. Nancy Mattson showed how the Greek tragedies still speak to us, two millennia after they were written, a wonderful lesson in the continuity of Western civilization. Ray Leszczynski sparked a lifelong interest in the physical world, from geology to astronomy. And, of course, there was Millard Peck.”

What advice would Bruce Burton give to today’s Cayuga students? “Speak up in class. If you think you’re right, say so and say why. Learn to make decisions with incomplete information, because you rarely have all the facts for any situation. Accept challenges—you’ll never know what you can do if you don’t dare. As the late basketball coach John Wooden said, ‘Those who say something can’t be done should get out of the way of those who are doing it.’”

Update:   Fall 2014

“I’m still with the Office of eDiplomacy and we are still experimenting with the use of social media – and now crowdsourcing – to enhance American diplomacy.  One of our most successful new programs has been the Virtual Student Foreign Service, which matches the energy and special skills of American college students with the needs of our embassies, State Department offices and even other federal agencies for unclassified, online projects.  Interested CCC students should visit http://www.state.gov/vsfs/ for more information.

The article mentions my work on relations with the Soviet Union (and the USSR’s breakup) and on Israeli-Palestinian issues.  Current events regarding both remind me of Secretary of Shultz’s statement one time that nothing is ever finished in foreign policy.    The Soviet Union isn’t coming back but events this year in Ukraine sure make it feel like the bad old days of the Cold War.  And despite those early hopes of achieving a settlement in the Middle East, conflict rather than peace remains the rule between Israel and the Palestinians.”

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