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ObamaCorps: Bill Burke-White
By Larry Teitelbaum
"It's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential."
Barack Obama, June 16, 2006


Bill Burke-White is rushing across town to attend a meeting at the White House. It is one of many. All day long he goes to meetings. Meetings on the Congo. Meetings about Europe.

Meetings on global governance. Meetings on the G20.

His portfolio is the world. And so there is a lot to do.

A member of the policy planning staff at the State Department, Burke-White works on reforms of international organizations.

He's also assigned to Russia, the former Soviet satellites and is playing a leading role in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, a major rethinking of the capabilities the U.S. needs in development and diplomacy to be effective in the 21st Century.

When he's not in meetings, Burke-White spends his 14-hour days editing memos, reading, thinking and talking to people across government agencies. And he travels.

During a two-month stretch last fall, Burke-White had been to China, The Netherlands, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, United Kingdom, India, Russia, Brazil, South Africa and South Korea, where he will be devoting a great deal of time to what is arguably his biggest project: the G20.

The G20 will be in South Korea next year. Burke-White is charged with helping to develop an architecture, or operating principles, if you will, for a new international economic forum that now includes more countries, such as Brazil, India, and Turkey, than the G8.

It is a hefty agenda, and clearly a young man's game. There are 30 members on the policy planning staff. Six or seven are in their mid-30s, like Burke-White, who, unencumbered by family commitments, has the energy and time to devote all of his attention to the job.

On a two-year leave from Penn Law School, professor Burke-White joined the Obama administration last June, drawn by the president's idealism and call for service.

"I deeply believed in this new administration and wanted to bring whatever skills and resources and energy and passion I could to help implement, and in some ways design a new agenda for American foreign policy."

However, Burke-White recognizes the obstacles, as well as the distinct differences between academia and government.

"When you're writing a Law Review article, you want to be bold and controversial and counterintuitive and really strike a claim to an idea," he says. "Here my goal is to convince other people of a very small idea and get them to buy into it."

He has also discovered how slowly gears turn in a bureaucracy.

"One of the things you learn very quickly when in government is just how hard it is to actually get results and move things forward. It's not a job for someone easily discouraged or dissuaded because it takes absolute perserverance to get anything accomplished."

But, for all of the frustrations and challenges, Burke-White finds the work fascinating and important.

During his second week on the job, Burke-White was tapped to attend a meeting with senior members of the Russian government to discuss a reset of relations between the United States and Russia.

The minute he walked into the room it dawned on him that he was representing the U.S. government. And that thought concentrated his mind.