Hailing from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he earned bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In 1957 he joined the US Foreign Service, and served in various posts in embassies, consulates, and the State Department. From 1961 to 1965 he served as a staffer at the US Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
Starting in 1969, he served in the Nixon administration as an assistant to National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. He stayed in this appointment until 1971; thereafter he took on several positions, including advisor to the US Mission to NATO in Brussels, and, following Kissinger's appointment as Secretary of State, a number of additional posts in the State Department.
In 1982 Reagan appointed him as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs (the State Department's third-ranking position), a position he held for several years. In 1989 Bush appointed him Deputy Secretary of State (the Department's second-ranking position) and he also served as the President's primary advisor for affairs relating to the quickly disintegrating Yugoslavia. Finally in 1992 he rose to Secretary of State for a brief period until the end of Bush's term.
His period as advisor for Yugoslavian affairs from 1989 to 1992 was highly controversial. He gained a reputation for being a strong Serbian partisan, most controversially denying that Serbian paramilitaries and the Yugoslav National Army had committed atrocities in the breakway republic of Croatia. This perceived partisanship led the European press to dub him Lawrence of Serbia (a reference to Lawrence of Arabia).