Nick Burns to Be China Ambassador

An exceptional choice that breaks the recent tradition of politicos in the post.

A well-respected foreign policy hand is set to be President Biden’s representative to Beijing, Axios reports.

Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat, is in the final stages of vetting to serve as President Biden’s ambassador to China, people familiar with the matter tell Axios.

Why it matters: Across the administration, there’s a consensus the U.S. relationship with China will be the most critical — and consequential — of Biden’s presidency. From trade to Taiwan, the stakes are high. Burns could be among the first batch of diplomatic nominees announced in the coming weeks.

Biden set the table for those nominations Thursday, drawing from the State Department Foreign Service as he named nine career diplomats for postings from Somalia to Senegal. The Foreign Service traditionally supplies 70% of the roughly 190 nominees, and naming career appointees first should reduce internal complaints about political appointments. The remaining spots, typically in coveted Western European capitals and crucial Asian countries, are usually reserved for well-heeled donors, former politicians or policy experts.

Between the lines: Burns is a Harvard University professor and former State Department spokesman who capped his Foreign Service career by serving as undersecretary of state for political affairs for President George W. Bush.

That exactly sells Burns short, giving the impression that he’s a political appointee. In fact, he was a career FSO who held senior posts across multiple administrations:

Professor Burns served in the United States government for twenty-seven years.  As a career Foreign Service Officer, he was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 2005 to 2008; the State Department’s third-ranking official when he led negotiations on the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement; a long-term military assistance agreement with Israel; and was the lead U.S. negotiator on Iran’s nuclear program. He was U.S. Ambassador to NATO (2001-2005), Ambassador to Greece (1997-2001) and State Department Spokesman (1995-1997).  He worked for five years (1990-1995) on the National Security Council at the White House where he was Senior Director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia Affairs and Special Assistant to President Clinton and Director for Soviet Affairs in the Administration of President George H.W. Bush. Burns also served in the American Consulate General in Jerusalem (1985-1987) where he coordinated U.S. economic assistance to the Palestinian people in the West Bank and before that, at the American embassies in Egypt (1983-1985) and Mauritania (1980 as an intern). He was a member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board from 2014-2017.

He was pegged as a rising star very early in his career and held positions of high visibility and responsibility and rose steadily through the ranks. Yet he managed to develop a reputation as a nonpartisan professional, getting tabbed by President after President. Had Biden named him Secretary of State, I’d have been quite pleased.

But, oddly, this wealth of experience may actually hinder his confirmation:

Biden officials have been urged to nominate a former elected official for Beijing, under the theory the Chinese prefer to deal with a big name who can pick up the phone, cut through the bureaucracy and speak to the president directly.”He needs to appoint a ‘wow-wow’ person to show the world the importance of this relationship,” said former Sen. Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat who served as Obama’s second China ambassador. “It’s also critical that the person is empowered to negotiate on the president’s behalf,” he said. “The ambassadors should not just be a person to deliver messages.”

Frankly, it’s not obvious why Max Baucus would have been considered a big deal, much less a “wow wow person.” Nor was he an exceptionally accomplished ambassador to China.

Regardless, I’d be surprised if Burns isn’t confirmed. Unlike some who have run into trouble, he hasn’t turned into a Twitter troll out of government. Indeed, as befits a professional diplomat, he’s remarkably adept at providing substantive commentary on extremely controversial issues without giving offense.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Good. We need professional diplomats to serve as Ambassadors in nations like China not friends of the President who happens to appoint them.

  2. Jen says:

    This is an excellent choice, and underscores that Biden understands the importance of the relationship with China and the need for someone extremely competent to manage that relationship.

    Frankly, putting a “wow-wow” appointee with a flashy name but less understanding of the complexities probably *is* what the Chinese want. It is not, however, what our country needs.

    I hope he’s approved swiftly.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Max Backus? Bow wow perhaps, but not wow wow. Backus’ idea is Trumpian. Admittedly. beyond being reasonably will read, I’ve no real insight into diplomacy, but my professional experience tells me that professionals prefer to deal with other professionals, so Chinese diplomats should be satisfied with this choice as well.

    Burns is an excellent choice and shows Biden’s seriousness in our most critical diplomatic relationships.

  4. CSK says:

    For a half a second, I read this as: “Nick burns to be China ambassador,” and I thought:”Wow, that guy really wants the job.”

  5. Ken_L says:

    A great disappointment to the Trump Cult, who expected Hunter Biden to get the job.