Ambassador Susan Burk ’76

Working to Keep the World Safe

by Judy Cabassa Tart ’78

Ambassador Susan Burk '76

Ambassador Susan Burk ’76

When political science major Susan Flood Burk graduated in May of 1976, no one could imagine the ensuing political changes that would come to affect the global dynamic. The American hostage crisis in Iran, which began in November 1979 and resulted in the end of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan in 1980, launched a decade that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and later the end of the Cold War in 1991. The United States remained a “superpower,” but the next ten years saw the breakup of the U.S.S.R. and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, regional instability and strife that included wars in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan, and finally, the present-day reality of the war on terrorism which began with the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil – September 11, 2001.

With nearly 34 years in government service, Burk has witnessed firsthand the changes that have both challenged and redefined the international affairs landscape. As she approaches the end of her first year serving as ambassador for nuclear nonproliferation for the Obama administration, her focus is entirely on preparing for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference scheduled for May 2010. It has been a grueling schedule of travel, from Tokyo to Manila to Pretoria and Algiers, Moscow, Vienna and Geneva, to name just a few destinations. Her schedule includes round after round of meetings with members from the international community in preparation for this conference that is held every five years. Earlier this spring she found time to share some of her story, both before and since this prestigious appointment, and to reflect on her career thus far.

No Trinity story would be complete without the internship experience that is central to a Trinity education. Following her graduation from Trinity in 1976, Burk secured an internship with the Department of Defense, which led to her first job – a position with the International Security Affairs office in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. She recalls with characteristic understatement, “I had no long-term plan. I just saw an interesting job opportunity, applied for it, and got the job.”

She is quick to mention the crucial good fortune of having a woman mentor, Sheila Buckley, who was director of the office dealing with multilateral arms control issues. Now retired, Buckley remains a close friend and is the person Burk credits with urging greater responsibilities on the fledgling Pentagon worker. Her guidance led Burk to apply for a position with the Theater Nuclear Forces Policy Office where she dealt with the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) negotiations with the former Soviet Union.

Susan Burk '76 and family

Susan Burk ’76 and family at her swearing in.

Probably the best thing about the transition was that it eventually led to another transition – an opening with the Nonproliferation Bureau of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). With this new position dealing with issues related to the spread of nuclear weapons, Burk was hooked. Her interest in and knowledge of proliferation issues and international security architecture grew. During her 15-year stint with the ACDA she became familiar with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, created specifically to deal with the global threat of nuclear weapons. She also was involved in preparations for and participated in two previous NPT Review Conferences, first in 1985 and again in 1995, foreshadowing her current assignment as ambassador. When the ACDA was abolished in 1999, she moved to the Department of State where her wealth of knowledge in nuclear proliferation would establish her as a go-to person.

Issues related to nuclear power remain a source for great discussion, ranging from weapons stockpiles and warheads to secure nuclear material storage, as well as the ongoing debate on the safety of widespread nuclear energy for a greener planet. Burk’s tenure in government covers more than three decades of discourse, and her knowledge of the subject is comprehensive, creating a strong foundation on which to help convey U.S. policy and to encourage partnership in nonproliferation and energy pursuits.

She cites President Kennedy’s warning of the possibility of 15 to 20 countries that might acquire nuclear capabilities if the nations of the world did not unite to end proliferation. Multilateral discussions resulted in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was negotiated in 1968 and included the following: the five nations already possessing nuclear weapons pledged to pursue disarmament; equally important, nations without nuclear capability united in their commitment to remaining nuclear-free with regard to weapons; finally, all countries would share the benefits of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Susan BurkBurk notes, “March 5 was the 40th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force, and the past 40 years reflect efforts to keep faith with this basic bargain, as well as some setbacks for those goals. During my career, I have seen Argentina and Brazil move from the status of ‘threshold states,’ i.e., states with advanced nuclear capabilities but without foreswearing nuclear weapons, to being full parties of the NPT, [as well as partners in] a Latin American Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty. And South Africa demonstrated that you can put the genie back in the bottle when it dismantled its nuclear weapons and joined the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.”

In the past the treaty has received great support; with 189 nations party to the treaty, it is the most widely subscribed arms control agreement in history. In 1995, members pledged to abide by the terms of the treaty indefinitely. However, there is a very real threat from nations like North Korea, a former member that subsequently withdrew and has since tested a nuclear device, and Iran with its push for a national nuclear program that many believe is intended to provide weapons capability. These are some of the greater challenges facing the global community, and they are part of the continuing multilateral talks for which Burk and her team are preparing as they look toward the May NPT Review Conference.

That said, the 2010 RevCon – shorthand for the upcoming conference – comes at a pivotal time for treaty members, as they press to keep the treaty relevant and strong. Burk will oversee the U.S. contingent, and has designated three senior colleagues to chair committees for each of the three parts or pillars, as they are commonly referred to, for the conference: disarmament, nonproliferation and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. In the course of the month-long summit, members will look to the five recognized NPT nuclear weapon states – the United States, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, France and China – to share their current plans for disarmament, as well as future initiatives to keep the process moving forward. Burk notes that in addition to these members, Egypt has an important role as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, “a numerically large group of mostly developing states that are keenly interested in seeing progress on disarmament, as well as having access to the peaceful benefits of nuclear energy.”

As a participant in two previous review conferences, Burk has expertise that will serve her well heading into this year’s conference. At the time of the 1995 RevCon, the United States was in a powerful position vis-à-vis nuclear disarmament, given the United States’ support at that time for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and an additional treaty that banned production of fissile material (used to produce nuclear fission) for nuclear weapons. Burk and her team will reaffirm the Obama administration’s commitment to these tenets. She expects this year’s conference to also cover increased support for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which conducts inspections and verifies compliance with the NPT. Additionally, the U.S. has a long history of support for nuclear energy initiatives that include peaceful programs relating to medicine, agriculture and other industries. Burk hopes to emphasize this record.

Burk’s years of experience working with her peers in the international community are certainly an advantage for this diplomatic mission. Her dealings with foreign countries over the past year (nearly eighty at this writing) that are involved in the NPT have emphasized both the need for, and the United States’ commitment to, multilateral negotiations that can advance the cause of peace. She notes, “The president has said the United States is prepared to lead, but he has made clear that we cannot do it alone. In my conversations with foreign partners, I have emphasized the willingness of the United States to contribute constructively and creatively in the review this May, but I am also making clear that we cannot do it alone and we will need to work together if we want a good outcome.”

She expresses a reserved optimism in the process, based on conversations that she characterizes as quite candid, in which treaty partners concur that the opportunity is there to advance the NPT agenda. She also recognizes the great challenges of North Korea’s continued push for nuclear capability as well as Iran’s noncompliance. Also obvious is the growing threat of global terrorism and the prospect of a group rather than a nation obtaining – and using – nuclear weapons. Security for nuclear materials and information is paramount in the effort to contain and control.

When asked about her greatest concerns and hopes for the future, Burk responds, “My immediate concern is leaving no stone unturned in our efforts to prepare for the NPT Review Conference. Longer term: grappling with the very real dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation. I am grateful to be working for an administration that believes it should lead by example in this regard. Hopes for the future: that our next generation will become seized with these issues, as they seem to be doing on the issues of the environment and climate change, and that they will bring their technical skills and interest in the wider world to bear in helping to solve what appear to be intractable problems.”

This first year as ambassador has been intense as Burk prepares herself and her team for the 2010 RevCon. Challenge is nothing new. She reflects, “When I began my career, I did not give much thought to being a professional woman in what was then, in the Defense Department, a very male-dominated environment. What was new at that time was the civilian versus military dynamic. There is no doubt that my Trinity experience, especially my four years in a women’s college, gave me a confidence and a perspective that helped me.”

Having benefited from a mentor herself, she has enjoyed the opportunity to advise and direct young men and women starting their careers in government service. She is proud of her reputation as a manager, and the fact that many people have asked to work with her as she served in various senior positions within the State Department. While she loved her later years working in counter-terrorism, as ambassador for nuclear nonproliferation she is back to her roots, and very committed to the cause. As she looks back on her career, she knows she has always given her best advice to each administration, regardless of politics, and she remains committed to always execute to the best of her abilities.

Q&A with Burk


Why Trinity?

That’s easy. My father wanted us to go to Catholic colleges (two of my four sisters are Trinity alumnae) and I wanted to go to school in Washington, D.C. On a visit to Georgetown and Dumbarton (a Catholic women’s college that closed my freshman year), my Dad took a route that brought us by Trinity. He had gone to Georgetown and had his own memories of Trinity dances, etc. Before I knew it, he’d bounded up the front steps and then returned with the academic dean. By the time I’d finished my tour with Marianne Horstman, Class of 1975, I’d made up my mind. I could not see myself anywhere else. Although I turned Georgetown down at that time, I did my graduate work there.

Words of advice for today’s students:

  • Find a mentor and network with others in your field. Mentor others – share your gifts.
  • Develop your leadership skills. The problems of today require expertise to solve, but good leaders are hard to find.
  • Working is good, and it pays the bills, but make time for your family and friends. Among my closest friends are my Trinity classmates. We have a group from my class and the Class of 1975 who make a point of getting together at least once a year for lunch either in Philadelphia, Baltimore or Northern Virginia. We have supported each other through the loss or illness of parents and other family members, through illness among our ranks, through job changes, elections and every other kind of life issue. I don’t know what I would do without the support of those Trinity “sisters.”

Speech Excerpt


Excerpted From: Strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime: A Blueprint for Progress

A speech given by: Ambassador Susan F. Burk at the Geneva Center for Security Policy

Location: Geneva, Switzerland

Date: August 12, 2009

The United States and other nuclear weapon states bear a special responsibility under the NPT to pursue nuclear disarmament. President Obama has described his agenda for meeting this responsibility, and we will pursue it with resolve.

But non-nuclear weapon states bear no less responsibility to work constructively and actively to prevent further proliferation and help create the conditions for nuclear disarmament efforts to succeed. The responsibility does not end with their decision to forswear a nuclear weapons capability and to accept IAEA safeguards to verify their commitments. It must continue through the participation of those non-nuclear weapon states in rigorous, collective efforts to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons. These efforts benefit the international community as a whole, whose collective security and well-being is threatened by the spread of nuclear weapons. Through such efforts all states can help create the conditions necessary to achieve the nuclear free world that we seek.