From the challenges of a multipolar world to the cost of complacency, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns gave a sobering assessment of the current state of American diplomacy during a recent talk at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard Kennedy School.

The event, titled “Diplomacy: What is it Good For?” was hosted by Graham Allison, Douglas Dillon Professor of Government. Burns also took questions from Catherine Russell, an IOP resident fellow and former U.S. ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, and Wendy Sherman, the director of the Center for Public Leadership. Burns recently published a new book titled “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and a Case for its Renewal,” which takes its name from his below-the-radar efforts at diplomacy with Iran, which eventually resulted in the historic nuclear agreement of 2015, which President Trump withdrew from in 2018. Without Burn’s efforts, Allison said, “Iran would today either have nuclear weapons or Israel and the US would have attacked Iran and we would be still in our third war in the Middle East.”

Burns, a career diplomat, is the former ambassador to the Russian Federation and to the Kingdom of Jordan, and was assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs under President George W. Bush. He is currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Burns on the devaluation of American diplomacy

“I've never seen a moment when diplomacy mattered more to advancing American interests in the world or has been more adrift. By that I mean that we live in an era in which the United States is no longer the only big kid on that geopolitical block, with the rise of China the resurgence of Russia. And we face huge global challenges beyond the capacity of any one state to deal with, whether it's climate change—the biggest existential threat out there—or the revolution in technology. I would still argue that the United States still has a better hand to play than any of our major rivals, and that’s not just in terms of economic leverage and military leverage but in our capacity to draw on alliances and to mobilize coalitions of countries to deal with these kinds of problems. In a sense that's what sets us apart from lonelier powers like China and Russia.”

“But it's not as if Donald Trump invented the drift in American diplomacy. The truth is, after the end of the Cold War, administrations of both parties became a little bit complacent about how often we'd get our way, and we’ve been treating diplomacy as a kind of under-resourced afterthought. But what I do believe is that this White House over the course of the last two-and-a-half years now has accelerated that drift and made the situation for diplomacy infinitely worse at precisely the moment when we need it most.”


On gender, diversity, and understaffing at the State Department

“We’ve made painfully slow progress at trying to improve gender and ethnic diversity. When I came into the Foreign Service in the early 1980s, nine out of 10 Foreign Service officers were white and less than a quarter were women. By the time I left, gender balance had improved, but at the senior levels it was still not nearly where it should have been. But what's happened in the last two years is to reverse those trends.”

“Then on top of that you have the really pernicious practice of going after individual career officers because they worked on controversial issues in the last administration. The last thing I would say is that alongside those tangible measures, you have a president who has demonstrated a genuine disdain for professional expertise and for public service. When the president was asked, about a year and a half ago, whether he was concerned about the record number of senior vacancies in the State Department his response was: ‘Not really, because I'm the only one who matters.’ That's the diplomacy of narcissism, not institutions, and at this moment on the international landscape it's not going to get us where we need to go.”


On recommending diplomatic service as a career to young people

“Diplomacy is not a zero risk profession. As we sit here this evening there are lots of my former colleagues who are working in hard places, doing hard work at considerable risk around the world. And the State Department itself can be a frustrating place to work. While individual diplomats can be incredibly innovative and courageous and entrepreneurial, as an institution the State Department is rarely accused of being too agile or too full of initiative, so it has its frustrations. But for me it was an enormously rewarding profession.”

“I had taken the written exam for the Foreign Service at the old American embassy in London and I remember being in correspondence with my dad, sort of wondering what I should do. My dad was a career Army officer and I remember one line that he wrote to me was: ‘Nothing can make you prouder than to serve your country with honor.’ It didn't really register with me at the time to be honest, but I genuinely spent the next three and a half decades discovering the wisdom of that advice. The Foreign Service today—as are the civil service and the State Department—is filled with honorable, patriotic, hard-working people. And that's why it really bugs me, to be honest with you, when I see efforts to belittle and degrade public service at a time when I think it's more valuable than ever. So I'm not undecided on this. I think it's a wonderful profession and it can bring enormous rewards, so the answer is: ‘Do it.’”


On the U.S. relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia

“Putin's Russia allows us only a very narrow band of possibilities in relations, from the sharply competitive to the nastily adversarial. But I think it's important for us not to give in to Putin's aggressiveness. And it's important not to give up on Russia beyond Putin, because I do think there's a middle class in Russia that's restive today over economic stagnation and a sense of absence of possibilities. It’s not a revolutionary middle class, but it's a restive middle class. And I also think that Russians, as you look at over the next decade, are going to chafe at being China's junior partner, just as they chafed at being the junior partner of the United States after the Cold War. So there's space for artful American diplomacy as you look ahead.”


On his regrets about Middle East policy and run-up to the Iraq War

“Writing about that episode in my own checkered diplomatic career was the most painful thing I did in this book. The Iraq War in 2003 was, I think, the biggest tragedy in American foreign policy and the biggest mistake, at least over the course of my lifetime as a diplomat. I ran the Middle East bureau for the State Department during that period, so I shared in a lot of that.”

“We tried to be honest about our concerns, but I still to this day fault myself for not being eloquent enough or pushing hard enough to make clear the depth of those concerns. I remember one afternoon in the summer of 2002 two colleagues of mine—Ryan Crocker, a terrific diplomat, and David Pierce, another terrific diplomat—and I had the most depressing brainstorming session of our careers. Over a couple hours, what we tried to do was list all the things that could go wrong the day after Saddam Hussein was toppled. We titled it “The Perfect Storm.” And now rereading it—and you can also look at it for better or worse on the Carnegie website—we got some things right and some things wrong. We underestimated a lot of things, we overestimated others. But it was an honest, if imperfect, effort to try to puncture the incredibly rosy assumptions that advocates of the war were making. And I offer it not as a perfect illustration of anything—because when you reread it it's not really a coherent memo, it's a kind of hurried list of horribles—but it was meant to try to express honestly what our concerns were.  And obviously it was a dismal failure.”


On the qualities of principled, effective leaders

“I met lots of leaders in the course of my career, from the genuinely weird like Moammar Gadhafi to a lot of leaders for whom I have great admiration, like King Hussein of Jordan. The best of the leaders in our country and overseas that you encounter are honest—they're honest first with themselves. They're good at asking kind of second- and third-order consequences questions. They're good at connecting ends to means. They have an understanding of the limits of their own agency, which is a challenge often times for American leaders, especially coming out of what some people called the unipolar American moment, when it just didn't seem as if there were many breaks on our influence or power in the world. They have a respect for the expertise and the advice of people around them—it's rare that you see leaders who are genuinely effective who believe that they can do everything themselves.”

Photography by Martha Stewart

Diplomacy: What is it Good For?

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