Born at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Burns earned a B.A. in History from La Salle University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and M.Phil and D.Phil degrees in International Relations from Oxford University, United Kingdom, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar. His dissertation was expanded and published in 1985 as Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, 1955–1981.
Ambassador Burns entered the Foreign Service in 1982, and served as Deputy Secretary of State from 2011 until 2014. Previously, he served as Under Secretary for Political Affairs from 2008 until 2011. He was U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005, and U.S. Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 until 2001. Before these, he was also Executive Secretary of the State Department and Special Assistant to Secretaries Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright; Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; Acting Director and Principal Deputy Director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff; and Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.
Burns, together with George Tenet was instrumental in forcing through the short-lived Israeli-Palestinian cease fire agreement of June 2001. He played a leading role in the elimination of Libya’s illicit weapons program, and the secret bilateral channel with the Iranians that led to a historic interim agreement between Iran and the P5+1., and as well as in efforts to re-set relations with Russia early in the Obama Administration and in the strengthening of the strategic partnership with India. Secretary of State John Kerry lauded his "quiet, head-down, get-it-done diplomacy", stating that it had earned him the trust of both Republican and Democratic administrations; The Atlantic called him a “secret diplomatic weapon” deployed against some of the United States' thorniest foreign policy challenges.
A cable Burns signed as ambassador and released by WikiLeaks describing "a high society wedding in the Caucasus -- complete with massive quantities of alcohol, lumps of gold and revolver-wielding drunkards" attended by President Ramzan Kadyrov, received widespread international coverage, with historian Timothy Garton Ash writing that "Burns's analyses of Russian politics are astute," with the "highly entertaining account" of the wedding "almost worthy of Evelyn Waugh."
On April 11, the State Department announced Burns would step down as Deputy Secretary of State in October 2014, after he twice delayed his retirement first at the request of Secretary John Kerry and then at the request of President Obama,
In a press statement announcing Ambassador Burns’ decision to retire, Secretary Kerry said that “Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George F. Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends”. President Obama, in his own statement, said Ambassador Burns “has been a skilled advisor, consummate diplomat, and inspiration to generations of public servants…the country is stronger for Bill’s service”.
On October 29, 2014, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace announced that Ambassador Burns would begin his tenure as its ninth President on February 4, 2015.
Burns was widely assumed to be on presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's shortlist of Secretary of State nominees, had she won.
Burns is the recipient of three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and a number of Department of State awards, including three Secretary's Distinguished Service Awards, the Secretary's Career Achievement Award, the 2006 Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Ambassadorial Award for Initiative and Success in Trade Development, the 2005 Robert C. Frasure Memorial Award, and the James Clement Dunn Award. He also received the Department of Defense Award for Distinguished Public Service and the U.S. Intelligence Community Medallion. In 1994, he was named to TIME Magazine's list of the "50 Most Promising American Leaders Under Age 40", and its list of "100 Young Global Leaders". Burns holds four honorary doctoral degrees and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was also awarded Foreign Policy's “Diplomat of the Year” award in 2013; and the Anti-Defamation League’s “Distinguished Statesman Award” (2014). He is also an Honorary Fellow, St. John’s College, Oxford (from 2012).
Burns and his wife Lisa Carty have two daughters.