John Drescher

Who are the five most powerful people in the world?

William Burke-White
William Burke-White

As a child, William Burke-White was a young citizen of the world. His mother was a college professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Every year, she’d take her family to a different country for the summer.

Young Bill spent summers in China, the former Soviet Union, Europe and South America. “It was very much a kind of global childhood,” Burke-White, now 39, told me this week by telephone.

Burke-White is now an expert on international law and global governance. He worked in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to ‘11 and now teaches in the law school at the University of Pennsylvania.

Next Saturday, April 30, Burke-White will lecture in Raleigh as part of One Day University, which is co-sponsored by The News & Observer. Burke-White and three other college professors will present versions of their lectures to adults who want to go back to college for a day. The event is at N.C. State’s McKimmon Center from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Burke-White will talk about “The Five Most Powerful People in the World.” He defines power as “the capacity to do things in social situations that affect others to get the outcomes you want.”

Burke-White is a student of power. He says it comes in different forms — military strength, technological advancement, economic might. He will present his list of the 10 most powerful people in the world and what makes them powerful. Eventually, he will ask his audience to vote for its top five.

Spoiler alert: President Obama will not be on his top 10 list. “That’s about the constraints of power,” Burke-White said of Obama, who has about nine months remaining in office. Burke-White will talk about why Obama is not on the top 10 list but why whoever is elected president in November almost surely will be.

Burke-White will draw on his experiences working for former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“What made Secretary Clinton a great boss is first of all she is very powerful in Washington, which meant you could accomplish the goals she gave you in the political world of Washington,” he said. “When we traveled around the world she had the stature and the vision and the ability to get people anywhere in the world to listen to her and engage with her. That was powerful for American foreign policy.”

Burke-White hasn’t been to Raleigh before, although he spoke at Duke Law School last year. He was introduced by Larry Helfer, an old friend who teaches law at Duke.

“Bill is widely regarded as a creative and thoughtful scholar,” Helfer said. “Bill is a clear and engaging speaker. He knows how to make the sometimes technical subjects of his research accessible to a diverse array of audiences.”

Burke-White has the first session at 9:30 am. He will be followed by David Helfand of Columbia University and “What We Know About the Universe (and What We Don’t Know).”

In the afternoon, Murali Doraiswamy of Duke will talk about “The Future of the Brain: Maximizing Our Cognitive Powers.” The closing session, “Gershwin, Ellington and the Search for the American Sound,” will be led by Anna Celenza of Georgetown.

The fee for the day is $149. Lunch will be served. You can register at or by calling 800-300-3438.

Burke-White is a gifted lecturer who has won two teaching awards at Penn. But he enjoys the older, more experienced audience he encounters through One Day University.

He will show the 1989 video clip of the single protester stopping a column of tanks in China’s Tiananmen Square. Most of his law students weren’t born then. But for much of his audience in Raleigh, that will be a powerful memory of how a single person flipped the power equation and brought one of the largest armies in the world to a standstill.

John Drescher: 919-829-4515,, @john_drescher