February 10, 2016

Faculty Fellow Spotlight: William Burke-White

William Burke-White is a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, the Richard Perry Professor and Inaugural Director of Penn’s Perry World House and Deputy Dean and Professor of Law in Penn’s Law School. Burke-White joined Penn in 2005 and has been a Deputy Dean of the Law School since 2011. Penn IUR sat down with Burke-White to discuss his work and his vision for Perry World House.

Penn IUR: You are the Inaugural Director of Perry World House, a University-wide center for Penn’s global initiatives. Perry World House was founded in 2014—though it will not formerly open until September of 2016, programming has begun. What is your vision for this center?

Burke-White: When Perry World House opens in the fall of 2016, we will perform three key functions: we will serve as a public forum for international events and programs, will give an academic home to students interested in international affairs, and will function as a policy- and international affairs-oriented think tank. In our role as a public forum, we will partner with Penn’s existing schools and centers to enhance and promote events—making them even more interdisciplinary and even more engaging across different parts of the University—and we will start a lot of new programs and events as well. For example, Perry World House spearheaded the visit of the German president this past September and the Russian punk activist group Pussy Riot last Spring—these are the kinds of things that, in the past, haven’t had a natural home on Penn’s campus because Penn doesn’t have an international affairs school. The kinds of conferences and events that might otherwise happen at that type of school will happen at Perry World House.

The second pillar of the vision for Perry World House is to give students who are interested in international affairs and international issues an intellectual and academic home on campus. While we are not going to be a school or a major, we will create programs for students interested in international affairs. For example, we are launching the World House Fellows program next year for undergraduate students. These students will get to serve as research assistants and, through Perry World House, will be able to intern in a policy-oriented and international affairs-oriented think tank. This program will create a community for students who have passions for international affairs. Perry World House will serve a similar function for international students; the building will be a place for them to hang out, physically, but the center will also serve as a kind of community-creating mechanism for them.

Third, Perry World House will be a think tank on Penn’s campus committed to linking academic knowledge with global policy challenges. So we will take themes—like the theme that we’ll be working on with Penn IUR, about urbanization and migration—and bring groups of visiting postdocs, visiting scholars, and visiting policymakers to work with Penn faculty and students with the ultimate goal of producing policy-relevant outcomes: a big conference that links academe and policy, for example, or a signature report on a timely topic. We will use Perry World House to convene scholars and visitors across disciplines around some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Penn IUR: A new facility housing Perry World House will open in September 2016. What opening activities are you planning?

Burke-White: There will be a grand opening on the 19th and 20th of September that will include a ribbon cutting as well as addresses by significant international policy figures. These activities will be embedded in a two-day conference that will examine some of the themes that Perry World House is focusing on: themes such as urbanization and migration, the future of the international economic and political order, and the intersection of technology and policy. This conference will launch the Perry World House’s think tank side. It should be a really exciting two days.

Penn IUR: Perry World House will draw on all twelve of Penn’s schools to develop solutions to persistent and emerging international challenges.  Why is this cross-disciplinary approach to global challenges valuable? What does it offer that more traditional approaches do not?

Burke-White: Penn’s comparative advantage—working on almost anything but particularly in the international affairs space—is that we have professional schools and graduate schools that have extraordinary expertise that, when you bring them together, can be really transformative. So take for example the technology governance issues: we have some of the best drone labs in the country in the School of Engineering, and we have the lawyers in the Law School who think about regulation and governance issues, and the faculty at Wharton who think about how to finance solutions.  If you bring those people together you can truly transform thinking around global challenges in a way that you can never do within one discipline. For example, the work in Engineering is wonderful but, in in order to come up with solutions to global challenges, the lawyers, the business people, and the philosophers are going to have to be part of the conversation.

Part of Perry World House’s mandate is to link up and build together the centers of excellence that exist on Penn’s campus and make them more than the sum of their parts. We hope to have this kind of catalytic effect across a whole range of places at Penn where we have great academic expertise and a real potential for policy influence.

Penn IUR: Your scholarly work has addressed issues of post-conflict justice, the International Criminal Court, international human rights, and international arbitration. You have also been particularly active in the political sphere, having served in the Obama Administration from 2009-2011 on Secretary Hillary Clinton’s policy planning staff. How have your academic and political activities influenced one another over the course of your career?

Burke-White: My work is really at the intersection of internal law and international relations. When I worked for Secretary Clinton I spent a lot of time looking at how to solve global challenges in a world of rising powers, such as Russia, China, India, and Brazil. How should the international system be organized? Through the G7, the old group of seven democracies? Or through the new G20? How should global institutions be structured to meet global challenges? These are big questions that come up whether the conversation is around climate change or nuclear nonproliferation or security.

When I came back to academic world after working for Secretary Clinton, I was able to bring to bear on my own scholarship what I’d learned and seen and at times been frustrated by at the State Department. You really see the role and impact of international law very differently when you actually have to do it in international institutional settings.

Penn IUR: Penn IUR and Perry World House recently collaborated on a symposium on sustainable urban development and will continue to partner on the exploration of global issues related to urbanization, migration, and demographic change. With the UN predicting that, by 2050, an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in cities, urban policy is at the center of discussions about global change and sustainability. What do you think are the biggest challenges this massive urbanization presents? What are the opportunities?

Burke-White: Let me start on the opportunities side. I come at this as a foreign policy and international affairs thinker. Massive redistributions of people, such as the one you are talking about, change political dynamics within countries in enormous ways. For one thing, an individual who moves to a city is engaged in a very different political life than the one from which he or she moved. For another thing, cities themselves are becoming much more important international actors, where they were once just part of the black box of a state. I think there’s a chance to really transform domestic politics and the balance of power among governmental and non-governmental actors as populations urbanize and as cities emerge as players in an international system. To me that’s a really extraordinary opportunity.

The challenge, from my perspective as an international lawyer, is that internal law regulates national governments, not city governments; as cities become more important international actors, the question of how we organize international law to take account of them arises. There are also enormous human rights and development challenges that come with population transitions. International law can play a part in solving these problems, but it is just one piece in a larger puzzle. 

William Burke-White is a Penn IUR Faculty Fellow, the Richard Perry Professor and Inaugural Director of Penn’s Perry World House and Deputy Dean and Professor of Law in Penn’s Law School. Burke-White joined Penn in 2005 and has been a Deputy Dean of the Law School since 2011. From 2009-2011, he served on the Policy Planning Staff of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Burke-White has written extensively in the fields of international law and institutions, with a focus on international criminal and international economic law. His current research explores gaps in the global governance system and the challenges of international legal regulation in a world of rising powers and divergent interests.


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