Who will be the peace makers in uncertain times?

(CBS News) This Christmas season, peace on earth seems more elusive than ever. Earlier Saturday, I spoke with former Under Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, and asked who -- if anyone -- will be the peace makers. A transcript of the interview follows.

Nicholas Burns: When I was growing up listening to people like Lyndon Baines Johnson, Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, or Kennedy and Eisenhower before that -- their mantra was that the highest aspiration of our society should peace. It's interesting that since 9/11 our political leaders have stopped telling us that. It's time that they started reminding us again that ancient elusive goal of peace. It's part of the American tradition, it's part of who we are as a country.

Jim Axelrod: So if the mechanisms of security have to do with the proper personnel, the proper weapons systems and technology, what beyond that produces peace?

Burns: There are two things. First, it is a matter of national policy. We decide after a time to end wars -- the way we've ended the war in Iraq and will soon end the war in Afghanistan -- we decide that at certain times, the threat to other peoples is so grave that it endangers the general peace in the world. We've got to act as we must act right now to try to end the civil war in Syria-- where 40,000 people have died -- that we can't just stay at home.

Axelrod: Do you think people look at the notion of peace and think, "Look, peace is wonderful, it's noble, it's terrific for us to aspire to. But I'll talk to you about peace after I feel safe."

Burns: It's not a binary choice -- peace or security. You have to have both. But a great society will always remind itself that in the final analysis, our greatness will be determined by whether or not we're striving for peace. That's why we rate Lincoln, Washington, Martin Luther King and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as among the greatest leaders we ever had, because they all stood for peace especially when times were very, very difficult.

Axelrod: You mentioned a number of politicians that you could tick off as pursuing peace a generation ago. Are there a similar list of politicians to mention now?

Burns: It's hard to find sitting presidents and prime ministers who are saying to their people, "My overriding goal is peace in our country or peace in the world." Our politicians, understandably, have to cope with the economic crises, with the age of terrorism in which we live. But you can find people operating below that radar screen -- sometimes not with the power of a state at their disposal -- who are doing extraordinary things. People like Aung San Suu Kyi, the democratic leader of Burma; people like Lakhdar Brahimi, who's trying to negotiate an end to the war in Syria; people like Malala Yousufzai, who is this very courageous Pakistani teen who stood up the Taliban and championing the rights of girls to go to school in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She was nearly murdered for that. And we can really be inspired by people who put their lives on the line -- who risked everything in their own communities to make them more democratic, to make them stronger and to make them more secure.

Nick Burns served as a high-ranking diplomat in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. He's now a professor of international relations at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.