Ambassador William J. Burns retired in 2014 after a 33-year diplomatic career with the rank of Career Ambassador, the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service. He became Deputy Secretary of State in July 2011, only the second serving career diplomat in history to do so. From 2008 to 2011, he served as under secretary of State for political affairs. He was ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs from 2001 until 2005 and ambassador to Jordan from 1998 until 2001.
He has served in a number of other posts since entering the Foreign Service in 1982: executive secretary of the State Department and special assistant to Secretaries Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright; minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Moscow; acting director and principal deputy director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff; and special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.
Ambassador Burns speaks Russian, Arabic and French, and is the recipient of numerous presidential, Department of State and other awards. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from La Salle University and master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar. He and his wife, Lisa, have two daughters.
Ambassador Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the oldest international affairs think-tank in the United States. He was last interviewed by The Foreign Service Journal in 2014, on the eve of his retirement. In February we caught up with Amb. Burns ahead of the publication of his new book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.
—Shawn Dorman, Editor
FSJ Editor Shawn Dorman: You’ve spoken about how today’s Foreign Service faces a more “disordered” world. What do you see as the top priority issues the United States should focus on today?
Ambassador William J. Burns: The overarching challenge for U.S. foreign policy today, it seems to me, is to adapt to an international landscape in which American dominance is fading. To put it bluntly, America is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block. That’s not meant to be a declinist argument. In fact, I’m still bullish about America’s place in the century unfolding before us. We can’t turn the clock back to the post–Cold War unipolar moment. But over at least the next few decades, we can remain the world’s pivotal power—best placed among our friends and rivals to navigate a more crowded, complicated and competitive world. We still have a better hand to play than any of our main competitors, if we play it wisely.
That means doing a better job managing the return of great power rivalry, as a rising China asserts itself and Russia continues to demonstrate that declining powers can be even more disruptive than rising ones. We’ll have to deal with the breakdown of regional order in places like the Middle East, where conflicts can quickly metastasize and disorder seems contagious. And we’ll also have to deal more thoughtfully with the pace of technological innovation. Advances in artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, for example, could continue to outpace international efforts to maximize their benefits, minimize their downsides and develop workable international rules of the road.
My argument in The Back Channel is that we will not be able to do any of that on our own or with big sticks alone. That makes diplomacy—backed up by military and economic leverage and the power of our example—more important than ever.
FSJ: Are you concerned about the so-called “militarization” of foreign policy? What is the right balance between military force and diplomacy?
WJB: We all ought to be concerned. Defense and military leaders are not shy about highlighting the debilitating tendency— across administrations of both parties—to invert the roles of force and diplomacy. We’ve all quoted Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ line about the military having more musicians than we have Foreign Service officers, and Jim Mattis’ point about needing to “buy more ammunition” if we continue to underinvest in diplomacy. But that hasn’t made much of a dent, I’m afraid.
Of course, we ought to ensure that our military is stronger than anyone else’s, that our tool of last resort is potent and durable. And of course, force or the threat of force has an important role to play in the conduct of diplomacy. We’ve all benefited from having the U.S. military focus the minds of those who sat across the table from us. The military success of Desert Storm was a pretty effective backdrop for Secretary [James] Baker’s persuasive skills in the run-up to the Madrid peace talks, and the potential use of force was similarly essential to Secretary [John] Kerry’s diplomacy with Iran.
But time and time again, we’ve seen how overreliance on military tools can lead us into policy quicksand. Time and time again, we’ve fallen into the trap of overusing—or prematurely using—force. That comes at much greater cost in American blood and treasure, and tends to make diplomacy a distorted and under-resourced afterthought.
In the forever wars of the post-9/11 era, the “great inversion” [of force and diplomacy] also tended to thrust State Department professionals into nation-building roles that are beyond the capacity of American diplomats, or any other external power. While our colleagues served with courage and ingenuity, the fact remains that we’re the American Foreign Service, not the British Colonial Service.
FSJ: Do you agree with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats who said recently that “we were asleep” during the last 15 years while China was rising rapidly? How should the Foreign Service manage competition from China?
WJB: I wouldn’t say that we were asleep, but we were certainly distracted. One of the most significant opportunity costs of the post-9/11 period has been the failure to invest as energetically and imaginatively as we should have in places like the Asia-Pacific region, a region that will remain the geopolitical and geoeconomic center of gravity as far out as I can see into the future. The Asia rebalance in the Obama administration was a logical response, but we continually found ourselves sucked back into the morass of our misadventures in the Middle East. Imagine if a bigger part of the time, energy and resources spent on the Global War on Terror had instead been spent on giving form to an affirmative vision for America’s role in Asia. We would be in a much stronger place to shape developments in the region and compete more effectively. Instead, all too often, we find ourselves on the defensive, playing catch-up.
But as I try to make clear in the book, we still have significant assets and advantages to draw on in the region—especially our alliances, which distinguish us from lonelier powers like China, or Russia for that matter. Managing competition with China will be the central task of American statecraft for decades to come. That’s what navigating great power rivalry is all about—maneuvering in the gray area between peace and war; exhibiting a healthy grasp of the limits of the possible; building leverage; exploring common ground where we can find it; and pushing back firmly and persistently where we can’t.
I don’t think we’re doomed to conflict with China, but there are real risks ahead. Adroit American diplomacy will be more crucial here than anywhere else—not only directly with the Chinese, but with a wider web of players across Asia. They may not all want to contain China, but they all want to ensure that its rise doesn’t come at their expense.
FSJ: With the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and Russia saying it will follow suit, are we heading for a new arms race? Is there anything U.S. diplomats can do to mitigate this?
WJB: We’re heading into very rough waters. However profound our differences—and they truly are profound—the United States and Russia have unique capabilities and unique responsibilities to reduce global nuclear threats. It’s cold-bloodedly in both our interests to do so, and certainly in the interests of the wider international community.
Russia had been violating the INF Treaty for a number of years. We may ultimately have had no alternative but to leave the treaty; I just wish we had worked more creatively to lay out our case for Russian violations, reassure our allies and explore ways to fix the problem.
My broader hope is that the collapse of INF doesn’t foreshadow the demise of what’s left of the U.S.-Russia arms control architecture. It would be especially dangerous to let the New START Treaty lapse in 2021. We ought to be engaging the Russians now on New START, and in serious strategic stability talks, particularly given the increasingly uncertain entanglement of nuclear systems with advanced conventional weaponry, missile defense and cyber tools.
FSJ: You were instrumental in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. Now that the United States has pulled out of the agreement, what advice do you have for U.S. officials trying to forge a diplomatic path forward for dealing with Tehran?
WJB: I’m not undecided on this one. It was an historic mistake to abandon the JCPOA, one more reminder that it’s easier to tear down diplomacy than to build it. We spent years painstakingly corralling an international coalition, and building economic and political leverage. Then we applied it in direct diplomacy with Iran, working closely with our international partners. As in any complicated diplomatic effort, we didn’t produce a perfect agreement. “Perfect” is rarely on the menu in diplomacy. What we did produce was the best of the available alternatives, an agreement unprecedented in its verification provisions and intrusiveness, sharply constraining Iran’s civilian nuclear program over a long period, and preventing it from developing a nuclear weapon.
Now we’ve thrown that away, at least as a matter of American policy, and we’re isolating ourselves instead of isolating the Iranian regime. Withdrawal makes it harder, not easier, to deal with Iran’s threatening behavior throughout the Middle East, and it further erodes international confidence in America’s willingness to hold up our end of diplomatic bargains. It creates even more fissures in relations with our closest European allies—in effect doing Vladimir Putin’s work for him. So other than that, I think withdrawal from the deal was a great idea.
As for America’s diplomats, they are faithfully implementing the new policy, as they should be. But I hope that we’ll still be alert for opportunities for hard-nosed diplomatic engagement with Tehran where it suits both of our interests. That’s certainly the case in Afghanistan, where Iran has a stake and the capacity to either help or hinder the political settlement that this administration is rightly working to reach.
FSJ: In light of all the other U.S. government players (Department of Defense, National Security Council and numerous agencies) in Washington, D.C., and overseas, what is the best role for State? Should the State Department be the lead agency for formulating and implementing foreign policy?
WJB: For better or worse, we will never again enjoy the monopoly we once had—or imagined we had—in foreign policymaking and execution. We have to come to terms with that. There are simply too many players, too many issues and too few resources. But State ought to be the conductor of the foreign policy orchestra. That means bringing together the soft power of ideas, economic incentives and sanctions, intelligence-gathering and covert action, military assistance, and the threat of force to achieve policy aims. State has a unique coordinating role in mobilizing the levers of American influence, and unique capacity to understand and navigate foreign landscapes. Led by strong ambassadors, embassy country teams remain an especially good mechanism. We’ve proven we can play all those roles effectively, when given the chance.
FSJ: When you retired from the State Department, you published your “10 Parting Thoughts for America’s Diplomats” in Foreign Policy. It’s a great list, worth repeating: Know where you come from. It’s not always about us. Master the fundamentals. Stay ahead of the curve. Promote economic renewal. Connect leverage to strategy. Don’t just admire the problem—offer a solution. Speak truth to power. Accept risk. Remain optimistic.
Looking back at the four years since you wrote that list, would you add any lessons to it?
WJB: One of the occupational hazards for recovering diplomats like me is an addiction to offering more and more unsolicited advice. I think that earlier list still holds up pretty well. But picking up on the image of diplomats as gardeners that George Shultz and George Kennan both used, highlighting the constant challenge of pruning and cultivating on the international landscape, one of the things I regret is that those of us in leadership positions at the department didn’t do more to tend our own messy plot of ground and do some serious institutional weeding.
Taking the initiative is important in diplomacy, but it’s equally important in bureaucratic reform. We could have done a lot more over the years to transcend our own tribal divisions, get out of our own way bureaucratically, and demonstrate the power and purpose of diplomacy. It’s much better for State to renew itself from within than to allow itself to become the subject of reforms from the outside, especially reforms devised by those who do not always have the institution’s best interests in mind or understand what sets us apart.
FSJ: What are the essential ingredients for a successful diplomat? Has that changed in recent years?
WJB: I am a firm believer that the fundamentals of our craft are not all that different from what they’ve always been: smart policy judgment, language skills, and a sure feel for foreign landscapes and domestic priorities. Diplomats are translators of the world to Washington and Washington to the world, responsible for building and fixing relations. That requires, and has always required, a nuanced grasp of history and culture, hard-nosed negotiating skill, and the capacity to convey American interests to other governments in ways that they can see as consistent with their own—or at least in ways that drive home to them the consequences of undermining us.
We have tended sometimes in recent years to discount and dismiss those core skills, and to chase various fads. Don’t get me wrong. As I said in that Foreign Policy piece, we absolutely have to stay ahead of the curve and learn new skills, new tools and new issues. The revolution in technology, the existential threat posed by climate change, the growing significance of engaging not just with governments but across societies, and the central role of economic issues in foreign policy, among other challenges, demand that we add new skill sets. But all that has to come on top of a solid foundation, not instead of it.
FSJ: In your estimation, what are the greatest challenges facing the U.S. Foreign Service as an institution?
WJB: There are lots of practical reforms that your readers understand as well as I do, from making the personnel system more flexible, to revamping the evaluation process to make it more honest and useful, to doing more to support families overseas and create opportunities for two-career couples.
A bigger institutional challenge, it seems to me, is making us more nimble and adept at helping to shape policy and execute it. I say this with plenty of humility, because I have been as guilty as anyone at State in sometimes slipping into passive-aggressive bureaucratic mode. But the truth is that, while individual diplomats and foreign affairs professionals can be incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial, at home and abroad, the department as an institution is rarely accused of being too agile or too full of initiative.
During my last months as Deputy Secretary, I remember receiving a half-page memo on a mundane policy issue—with a page and a half of clearances attached to it. Every imaginable office in the department had reviewed it, as well as a few that severely strained my imagination. A serious effort at de-layering the department, one that pushed responsibility downward in Washington and outward to ambassadors in the field, could markedly improve the workings of a bureaucracy that is too lumbering and conservative.
Taking those kinds of steps, on our own steam, is also the best way to make the argument to the White House and Congress that diplomacy is worth a more central role and adequate resources.
FSJ: For decades, the Foreign Service has drawn thousands of applications to join each year, with acceptance rates remaining very low, at 2 or 3 percent. We understand that the number of applications for the Foreign Service Officer Test has dropped during the past two years. Does that concern you? If so, how would you address it?
WJB: That drop-off absolutely concerns me, after nearly two decades of steadily rising applications. And it’s not a mystery, unfortunately.
This is an era in which diplomacy is all too often dismissed by political leaders. Public service is belittled, with government shutdowns the cavalier consequence of political conflicts. The State Department is seen by some as a den of deep-state recalcitrants. There are too many senior vacancies, and too few senior opportunities for career professionals. Painfully slow progress toward greater diversity in the Foreign Service in recent years has gone into reverse. A particularly pernicious practice has surfaced, in which individual mid-level employees are blacklisted because they worked on controversial issues in the previous administration. That all adds up to a pretty uninspiring recruitment campaign.
It will take time and effort to reverse those trendlines. We’re digging a hole for ourselves right now, at precisely the moment when diplomacy ought to matter more than ever; but there’s every reason to believe that we’ll find our way up and out of that hole. That’s why I urge young people (and some not so young) to try to join the Foreign or Civil Service now. They’ll have an important opportunity to help renew diplomacy.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote nearly two centuries ago that “the greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” I wish we weren’t testing our capacity for self-repair so severely, but I’d bet a lot that we’ll rebound.
FSJ: Are you optimistic about the future of diplomacy and the Foreign Service?
WJB: I am.
I wrote The Back Channel not as an elegy for diplomacy, but as a reminder of its significance and promise, and of the wider value of public service. I try to illuminate our profession, which is filled with honorable, committed and patriotic Americans. It’s the nature of our profession to operate much of the time in back channels, out of sight and out of mind. We’re mostly engaged in preventive care, working to forestall conflicts and quietly build partnerships or limit the range of adversaries. We don’t often bask in the kind of surgical triumphs that the U.S. military can achieve.
We need to do a better job of making the case in our own society, of showing that smart diplomacy not only begins at home, in a strong political and economic system, but ends there, too, in more jobs, more prosperity, a healthier environment and better security. There’s a compelling case for American diplomacy as our tool of first resort in this new and more competitive era, a case that can win more respect and support from our fellow citizens and attract a new generation of the best that our society has to offer.