Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once referred to diplomacy as the “patient accumulation of partial successes.“ For over 30 years, this was the life of William Burns, a widely revered career diplomat. Burns served on the front lines of U.S. diplomacy through five presidential administrations. From his perch at the State Department he played a role in some of America’s greatest diplomatic triumphs and also some of its biggest follies, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in the run-up to which Burns co-authored a memo presciently raising fears of a “Perfect Storm.”
In his new diplomatic memoir, The Back Channel, Burns expresses fears that the United States still has not learned the lessons of Iraq and what he calls the “militarization of diplomacy.” He reflects on a career that included stints as the U.S. ambassador to Jordan and to Russia, as the top State Department Middle East envoy during and after the 9/11 attacks, as a lead negotiator on the Iran nuclear deal, and as deputy secretary of state—he was only the second career diplomat to occupy that senior a post.
Burns sat down with Foreign Policy recently for an extended interview. He talked about his bizarre run-ins with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the lead-up to the Iraq War, U.S. President Donald Trump’s handling of diplomacy, and the dangerous atrophy of America’s diplomatic corps.
The interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: Your book argues for the urgent need to “renew diplomacy.” Who is your target audience for this plea?
William Burns: The hope, as I try to emphasize in the book, is to reach beyond the Washington policy community that’s interested in these issues. But I’m trying to reach a wider audience and bring diplomacy to life for other readers, because diplomacy does oftentimes operate in the back channels—out of sight and out of mind. I try to do that through my own experiences, what I got right and what I got wrong. But I also think that this is a critical moment for all of us as Americans to understand that diplomacy is more important than ever to promote American interests abroad.
As far out as I can see into the 21st century, I think the utility and the significance of diplomacy is only going to rise. I worry about its drift, which predates the Trump administration. It didn’t start at the beginning of 2017, but I do think it has accelerated and gotten infinitely worse over the last couple years.
FP: In your book, you wrote that diplomacy is misunderstood, unheroic, and “less swaggering than unrelenting.” Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has famously vowed to restore the department’s “swagger.” Was your word choice purposeful here? Do you think Pompeo is indeed restoring the department’s swagger?
WB: I start the book by talking about my experience as a relatively young diplomat, working for Secretary of State [James] Baker in the George H.W. Bush administration. That was a particularly skillful group of people—Bush 41, Baker, [National Security Advisor] Brent Scowcroft. They didn’t have much of a penchant for “swagger” at a moment when America’s unrivaled power certainly would have created a lot of scope for that. You didn’t see them spiking the football on top of the Berlin Wall at the end of the Cold War. So I think in that sense, it’s the persistence, it’s the systematic nature of effective diplomacy that matters more than the temptation to “swagger” or to engage in triumphalist rhetoric of the sort that you hear all the time from the president now.
FP: Turning to Russia, there seems to be this fixation on Vladimir Putin himself, especially in D.C., especially now. What was it like for you dealing with Putin himself? Do you think the United States and Russia will ever be able to forge a better relationship with Putin in power?
WB: I’ve always thought that either as a diplomat or an author, if you can’t get color out of personalities like Vladimir Putin, you should find a different profession. I vividly remember my first meeting with Putin as the newly arrived U.S. ambassador in 2005. This is when you present your credentials to the president of the country. Despite his kind of bear-chested persona, he’s not a particularly intimidating figure in terms of physical stature, but he carries himself with a lot of confidence.
He comes walking toward me, and before I handed him the letter or got a word out of my mouth, he said quite directly—and he always likes to stare directly at you—that “you Americans need to listen more. You can’t have everything your own way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms.” That was vintage Putin. It was not subtle. He had a big chip on his shoulder, which was shared by a lot of people in the Russian political elite, that the United States and the West had taken advantage of Russia’s moment of historical weakness in the ’90s. He was determined to underscore that times had changed … and he was in many respects, I think, an apostle of payback. So this was when he was going to demonstrate that Russia could push back.
But I think we also ought not give up on the Russia beyond Putin. There’s a middle class in Russia that’s emerged over the post-Cold War period. I think it’s restive now. I don’t mean to suggest it’s in a pre-revolutionary state, but restive in the sense that Putin’s old social contract was, “You stay out of politics, that’s my business. What I’ll ensure in return are rising standards of living and rising growth rates.” That’s become increasingly difficult for him to do as a result not just of outside sanctions, but corruption and mismanagement, and the fact that he’s created essentially a one-dimensional economy.
FP: You mentioned in your book there are certain hinge points in history. In hindsight, was there any hinge point in the U.S.-Russia relationship where it all went so wrong ,and could the United States have done anything to avert it? Or do you think this adversarial relationship we see today was inevitable?
WB: I’m not enough of a fatalist to think that the adversarial relationship we have today was foreordained. I think there was a certain amount of friction that was almost bound to happen after the Cold War. I served in our embassy in Moscow first in the early ’90s in [President Boris] Yeltsin’s Russia. You had to understand the curious mix of hope and humiliation, the sense of disorder, of a Russia that was flat on its back economically, politically, and with a Red Army that was supposed to be able to get to the English Channel in 48 hours but had become a street gang with nuclear weapons by that point. You have to understand that to then understand the smoldering aggressiveness of Putin.
There were different points I think in which our illusions in the U.S. were clear too. I think we operated on autopilot on NATO expansion for a number of years after the first wave in the ’90s. I think it’s probably fair to say we underestimated what the Russian reaction would ultimately be. Where I think we made a mistake was a decade later, in 2008 at the end of the George W. Bush administration, when we pushed hard to open the door for formal NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia.
Of course, Putin sees being a major power in the world as entitling you to a sphere of influence. We don’t need to accept that or agree with it, but I think we ended up feeding a sense of grievance and narrative that Putin has used for lots of reasons in Russia. And he also used that justify political repression at home.
FP: This month marks the 16th anniversary of the Iraq War. You described in one chapter in vivid detail how you and other U.S. officials tried and failed to slow walk the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Now, 16 years later, do you feel the U.S. foreign-policy establishment has adequately learned its lessons?
WB: No. I don’t think so. This is a criticism of all of us. We have a tendency in Washington, across both parties, to have short memories sometimes. Iraq 2003 was a cloud that then hung over a lot of other choices. President [Barack] Obama was criticized for, as some people put it, “over learning” the lessons of Iraq 2003. Today you hear echoes of some of the same false assumptions that underpinned the rush to war in 2003 against Saddam Hussein in what at least some people in the administration say about Iran. False assumptions about how a muscular, unilateralist U.S. approach can produce the capitulation or implosion of this Iranian regime, which I think is an assumption untethered to history. I don’t need to be convinced that the actions of this theocratic regime in Iran threaten our interests or the interests of our friends in the Middle East, but I think it was a profound mistake to abandon the comprehensive nuclear agreement.
So, the short answer to your question is no. Those are lessons we need to pay very careful attention to. I don’t think that we’ve fully absorbed them.
FP: One unnamed colleague you quoted on this time period said: “There’s honor in continuing to serve so long as you’re honest about your dissent. But you never entirely escape the feeling that you’re also an enabler.” This quote seems very relevant today, with some civil servants struggling with carrying out some of the administration’s more controversial policies. How do diplomats who might oppose a president’s policies on a practical or moral level reconcile this?
WB: Those are really hard choices. The United States needs disciplined professional services. You need a disciplined military. You can’t have an effective military if every battalion commander is going to dispute a lawful instruction and say, well I want to turn left instead of turning right. The same is true of the civilian career services like the U.S. foreign service. You have an obligation to operate in a disciplined way. If you disagree with a policy, you don’t have the right to run off and complain to the media.
You do, however, have an obligation to engage in disciplined, honest debate within the system. There has to be room for disciplined, honest dissent as well, imperfect as that is. In the case of the run-up to the war in Iraq in 2003, a couple of colleagues and I wrote a memo called “The Perfect Storm.” It was a very imperfect effort to puncture some of the wildly unrealistic and rosy assumptions that advocates of the war were pushing at the time about how easy the day after “victory” was going to be. We got a lot of things wrong in that memo, but it was an effort at that kind of honest, disciplined dissent.
FP: You do highlight one significant success during that time beyond Iraq: The diplomatic work you and others did to get Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi to give up his weapons of mass destruction program. Do you think there are any lessons from this work you did for the Trump administration today given its negotiations with North Korea?
WB: The situations are so different. Libya at that time had a really rudimentary nuclear program. North Korea today has nuclear weapons, and it continues to expand its capacity to produce more.
If you look at North Korea today, and Trump’s Hanoi summit [with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un] made this crystal clear, there’s not a chance in the world in the foreseeable future that Kim Jong Un is going to fully denuclearize. I think he sees the continued possession of nuclear weapons and sophisticated missiles as essential to his security and to the survival of his regime. So the question for diplomats is what can you do to reduce the dangers, even if you retain—as we should—full North Korean denuclearization as an aspirational goal?
If you set aside the rich irony in this, given the venom with which this White House has talked about the Iranian nuclear negotiations, you can look at the interim agreement that we did with the Iranians at the end of 2013 as a model. This came out of the secret bilateral talks we did through most of 2013, then very active coordination with our international partners. It froze and rolled back the Iranian nuclear program in some significant respects. It imposed quite intrusive verification monitoring measures, all in return for very modest sanctions relief, which retained the bulk of our leverage, in terms of sanctions pressure, for the comprehensive negotiations.
The two situations aren’t analogous, because the Iranians didn’t then and don’t now have nuclear weapons, and North Koreans do. But I do think that’s the kind of framework that would represent progress in dealing with the North Koreans. But what that would mean is setting aside the triumphalist rhetoric and the diplomatic love letters, and embarking on the hard work of diplomacy.
FP: Five Democratic presidential candidates have come out and said that they would re-enter the United States into the Iran nuclear deal if they were elected. Do you think the Iran deal can survive a one-term or two-term Trump presidency? What type would a new administration need to do to bring the U.S. back into the deal?
WB: My sense right now is that this Iranian regime would like to try and wait out the Trump administration. But if the president was elected to a second term, then their interest in doing that probably goes out the window.
If you had a circumstance where you had a new administration and you don’t have any big escalation in the meantime, the comprehensive agreement is still hanging out there—supported to the extent they can by the Europeans and others—then the challenge would be to renew our participation in the agreement and then address some of the concerns people have had with the agreement. With the passage of time, the so-called Sunset Clause that’s in the agreement would ease some of the restrictions on what the Iranians could do in a civilian nuclear program in the years ahead. I think it would be important to try and engage on those issues.
FP: Turning to Benghazi, you wrote, “Legitimate questions about what more we should have done on security were wrapped up in a set of investigations and hearings that were astonishingly cynical, even by the standards of modern Washington.” The current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made his political name first as a junior Kansas congressman through leading the charge on the Benghazi hearings. How do you square that with where he sits in Foggy Bottom today? Can you separate Pompeo the congressman from Pompeo the secretary of state now?
WB: I’m sure Secretary Pompeo is acutely aware of the importance of safeguarding American diplomats overseas. I’m absolutely certain of that. There were legitimate questions raised over Benghazi about what we should have done better. We tried to be honest about those and demonstrate that we were taking concrete steps to ensure we wouldn’t make those same mistakes again.
But I think the real mistake was turning this whole thing into a political circus. If you look at this from the point of view of our influence and reputation overseas and you look at other countries watching us tying ourselves around the axle politically over that issue, it can’t help but reduce our stature in the world.
FP: A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that chronic staff shortages across the department undermine security for diplomats overseas. Has Washington adequately learned the lessons from Benghazi in terms of ensuring embassies’ and diplomats’ safety?
WB: As that report you reference highlighted, you get similar kinds of problems at every level. At embassies, you have vacant economic officer positions, vacant political officer positions, which have really overstretched staffs who are working incredibly hard in hard places around the world. That’s bound to take a toll over time, too. Then you look at the fact that intake has been significantly reduced over the last couple years, most acutely under [former Secretary of State Rex] Tillerson, but to this day, applications to the foreign service, from what I’ve seen are down by nearly 50 percent. You add all those things together and you do a lot of corrosive damage. It takes a lot longer to fix than it does to break. And it has implications on security too.
FP: You referred to the Trump administration’s approach to the State Department as a “profoundly self-destructive shock and awe campaign against professional diplomacy.” Why do you phrase it like that? Do you think this “campaign” is still underway, and what type of impact will it have on U.S. foreign policy?
WB: I think in the Tillerson era, that was a pretty apt characterization. I think his plan to “redesign” the department was terminally flawed. The willingness to accept and even advocate for a one-third cut in the State Department budget was not a one-off thing. In the most recent budget proposal from the White House [earlier this month], the proposal was for a $40 billion State and aid budget, contrasted to a $750 billion defense budget. So that’s 19 times [as big]. There’s always going to be an imbalance in those budgets, but that’s a foolishly wide imbalance. You can go through all the different statistics about vacancies in the department, about intake into the foreign service, about reversing what was already painfully slow progress on gender and ethnic diversity in the foreign service, but you have to couple those statistics, dismal as they are, with the broader disdain that you hear from the White House.
Over a year ago, the president was asked at one point in a press conference whether he was concerned by all the senior vacancies in the State Department. His response was, “I’m the only one that matters.” That reflects a view of diplomacy as narcissism, not institutions.
FP: But you and Tillerson both agree that the department is sorely in need of reform. What are some specific and tangible reforms you would undertake at the department to help restore it?
WB: As an institution, the State Department is rarely accused of being too agile or too full of initiative. We’ve tended over recent decades, much like painting and repainting the walls of your house, to add layer after layer of bureaucracy to the department. We’ve become top-heavy. We’ve tended to beat down initiative in the system. So if you’re the desk officer for Jordan and you write a memo and are offering a recommendation, you’re now going have 19 other people that are going to fiddle, not with just your language, but also with the nature of your recommendation. Then you’re going to feel less sense of ownership in either the argument or the prose.
I think it’s urgent to add different kinds of skill sets too. You need to be creative in bringing in people to the department who have real-world experience in technology.
The last thing I’d say, if you look at self-criticism of all of us who served in the State Department, we need to do a better job of building a domestic compact. Not just with Congress, although that’s obviously crucial because Congress appropriates resources for the State Department, but with the wider American citizenry. There’s a pretty big disconnect right now between people like me—card-carrying members of the Washington establishment who preach the virtues of disciplined American engagement in the world—and much of the American public.
FP: Your book also warns of the “militarization of diplomacy.” What does that mean, and why is it so dangerous for American foreign policy?
WB: Especially in the post-9/11 period during the era of the global war on terrorism, we tended to overemphasize military and intelligence tools and to treat, across administrations, diplomacy as a kind of under-resourced afterthought. I remember President Obama said on more than one occasion that if the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, you’re going to see every problem as a nail. We’re still in many respects the pivotal player, because we have a better hand to play than anybody else and we can influence more big challenges, whether it’s great power rivalry, regional order, the overarching challenges of climate change, or the revolution of technology, through diplomacy as our tool of first resort. That means that you have to give greater priority to it in policy terms.
It’s not like diplomacy is going to solve every problem. After 9/11, you weren’t going to negotiate the capitulation of al Qaeda with diplomacy. Military and intelligence tools were essential. But there are lots of other places where you can use diplomacy to prevent or defuse problems and avoid the use of American force in ways which are going to cost significant blood and treasure.