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A global perspective

Starting as a White House intern in 2011, Bill Russo (Environment, Development and Policy 2009) has worked for the US government in foreign affairs, national security and diplomacy. He played a key role in the successful Biden-Harris presidential campaign and now, as Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs, he leads a team of 350 to promote American foreign policy. Here, he reflects on his current role and the journey towards it.


Bill Russo headshot
“At Sussex I was exposed to such a rich global culture that it stuck with me.” BILL RUSSO
Environment, Development and Policy 2009

The job is both straightforward and difficult. The reality is that the information space is changing rapidly, and each day it seems to accelerate. Whether it’s dealing with changes in the media landscape, providing factual information on current events, sharing the American policy perspective or telling broader stories about American values and culture, there’s never a dull day.

In 2024, a year of global elections, one of the things I’m focused on is how we shore up the information space. How do we help other governments, researchers and civil society to have the necessary tools to help understand what is true and what is not? In 2016 and 2020, we talked about disinformation. Now, we’re talking about deep fakes and generative AI. In the future, there’ll be more advanced technology that creates even bigger problems for people to understand what is basic fact.

The 2020 presidential race was unlike anything else. It was exciting to be part of the ebb and flow of the electoral campaign. On election night, I’d gone without sleep for close to 48 hours. I clearly recall being on my laptop, having the TV on and being in the middle of a phone call when the first calls were made that President Biden had won. I remember the tremendous sense of relief that we had gotten to a point where there was a unified sense of what had happened, that we had indeed won, and relief that I could start to move on to the next chapter.

My North Star has always been some form of service. At the University of Delaware, I initially wanted to be a psychiatrist. Psychology didn’t work out for me, but by studying political science, history and English, I realised what I wanted to do was combine my interest in the environment with something more global and development focused. That led me to Sussex’s Environment, Development and Policy programme. It’s a perfect intersection of my academic interests and this North Star pull to serve globally through international development.

Bill Russo and Antony Blinken stand side by side smiling at camera, with USA flag behind themBill Russo (left) with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

I tell students it’s great to have a 10-year plan – but life is going to intervene at some point. At Sussex, I had a vision of finishing my thesis and then either working for an NGO in the UK or going abroad for fieldwork. However, a week after I went home in the summer term, my father passed away aged 52. Suddenly my new objective was helping my family. This also gave me, even at 23, a realisation that I don’t know how much time I’m going to have, so I don’t want to waste it doing something that’s not going to have an impact on the world.

Sussex reinforced the importance of a global perspective. It was one of the first times in my life where I was the only American in a room full of people. Whether it was through the global studies coursework, the diversity of my class – of nationality, ethnicity, ideology and experience – or living with five international students in Brighton, I was exposed to such a rich global culture that it stuck with me. Now, finding ways to connect with people and do so across cultural and linguistic barriers is part of my everyday life.

Risk is often seen as something to avoid. Really, it’s something to mitigate. The world is rapidly changing. Those who can be nimble and flexible – and those who are willing to take smart risks – are the ones who have the highest ceiling for achievement in our work today. Right now, we collectively deal with two key challenges: being credible and being compelling. At a time where trust in institutions is on the decline, credibility is our greatest currency. But we can’t take it for granted. And that means meeting people where they are and having a certain level of humility. 

At a time where trust in institutions is on the decline, credibility is our greatest currency.” Bill Russo (Environment, Development and Policy 2009)
Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs


My academic career trained me to handle and distil large volumes of input, and to make it compelling. When I go from talking about disinformation at a NATO summit, then to other side of the world to talk about the 40th anniversary of US-Brunei relations, or speaking about the Israel-Hamas conflict, climate or ecotourism, being at the top of my game requires an ability to process all the input for these totally different contexts, countries and issue sets.

I try to be the best father and husband that I can, and having a wonderful spouse lightens the load. I think it’s important for colleagues that I demonstrate the value of that work-life balance. I also know that, to an extent, this is a sprint and not a marathon for me. These jobs don’t last forever.

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