Browse an archive of nearly 100 newly declassified cables, memos, and emails from Ambassador Burns’s thirty-three-year career—a sample of one diplomat’s imperfect efforts to provide ground truths, strategic advice, and—on occasion—disciplined dissent.
My diplomatic apprenticeship exposed me to the best—and worst—of American statecraft and its practitioners, from the early rituals of my first overseas tour to a junior role in a Reagan White House recovering from the self-inflicted wound of the Iran-Contra affair.
“Have you ever seen so many things changing so damn fast?” Secretary Baker asked. “This sure is quite a time. I bet you won’t see anything like it for as long as you stay in the Foreign Service.” He was right.
To understand the grievances, mistrust, and smoldering aggressiveness of Putin’s Russia, you first have to appreciate the sense of humiliation, wounded pride, and disorder that was often inescapable in Yeltsin’s.
Soon after the death of King Hussein, I cabled Washington: “We have a strong and continuing stake in a stable Jordanian partner at the geographic and political center of the Middle East. If we didn’t have such a partner, we’d have to invent one.”
After the pain and surprise of 9/11, we cast aside the Bush 41 administration’s unique mix of caution and daring, opting instead for a disastrous mix of militancy and hubris—compounding regional dysfunctions, undercutting our influence, and fumbling an historic opportunity to reset America’s role in the world.
This was not the Russia I had left a decade earlier, flat on its back and in strategic retreat. Putin was determined to show that he was making Russia great again, and we better get used to it.
Obama took office aiming to rebalance American policy and tools—molding an emerging international order, realigning relationships with major powers like China, India, and Russia, and reinvesting in diplomacy to tackle international threats.
Obama’s broad strategy was to gradually break the Middle East’s decades-long hold on American foreign policy. But as the revolutionary drama of the Arab Spring broke out, he soon found himself inexorably pulled back to the same crisis-driven focus that plagued his predecessors—and that he had hoped so much to escape.
The back channel with Iran gave us a chance to prove that smart, hard-nosed diplomacy could resolve one of the world’s most combustible challenges. President Obama’s guidance was straight-forward: “Don’t screw it up.”