Nicholas Burns, the ambassador of the United States to the People’s Republic of China, will give the 2024 graduation address at Harvard Kennedy School, Dean Douglas Elmendorf announced today. After a distinguished career as a senior U.S. diplomat, Nick Burns taught for thirteen years on the Kennedy School faculty until he was sworn in as ambassador to China in 2021. 

As U.S. Ambassador in Beijing, Burns leads public servants from 48 U.S. government agencies in overseeing one of America's most important and challenging bilateral relationships.  He has travelled widely in China and has called for a major increase in student exchanges and academic links between the two countries. 

In a quarter-century of service in the U.S. State Department, Burns rose to become the highest-ranking career diplomat in the United States Foreign Service, serving as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008 under President George W. Bush. In that position, he played a key role in negotiating the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement and managing U.S.-Iran relations. Previously he served as U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and as U.S. ambassador to Greece. Burns was the State Department’s chief spokesperson under President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1997. Before that he spent five years at the White House on the National Security Council as director for Soviet affairs for President George H.W. Bush and senior director for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia Affairs for President Clinton.  

In his second career at the Kennedy School, Burns was Roy and Barbara Goodman Family Professor of the Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations. He founded the Future of Diplomacy Project and was faculty chair of the School’s programs on the Middle East and South Asia in the School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Among the Future of Diplomacy Project’s initiatives was the American Secretaries of State Project, which interviewed nearly every secretary of state in recent decades, including Henry Kissinger, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and Hillary Clinton. He taught courses on Great Power politics and war and peace negotiations. 

“Nick Burns offers a wonderful example for our students of principled and effective public service,” said Dean Elmendorf. “At the Kennedy School, Nick’s courses were in high demand as students sought out his deep wisdom and broad experience on international affairs, including his insights on the subtleties of diplomatic negotiation.” 

Burns said: “I will be honored to return to the Kennedy School to join this year’s graduates and their family and friends to celebrate the completion of their time at Harvard and to look ahead to their future challenges and accomplishments in the U.S. and around the world.” 

Burns grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts; his only lapse from non-partisan diplomacy is his lifelong devotion to the Boston Red Sox.  

Harvard Kennedy School graduation speakers in recent years have included former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon MC/MPA 1984, Moldova President Maia Sandu MC/MPA 2010, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos MC/MPA 1981. The graduation address, part of the Kennedy School’s Commencement Week activities, will be held on Wednesday, May 22. The events will be livestreamed on the HKS website at

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