R. Nicholas Burns celebrated his 17th birthday the day after the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords that formally ended the Vietnam War. At his birthday party, he could hear the church bells of his hometown, Wellesley, Mass., ringing.
“We were delivered of this terrible war,” he said, reflecting on the spark that ignited his interest in politics and foreign affairs.
Much as the millennial generation came of age in the shadow of the so-called “war on terror,” Burns’s generation awoke into political consciousness in the churning cauldron of Vietnam.
“The Vietnam War came into my life and everyone’s life in this country. And it really forced me as a 14-, 15-, 16-, 17-year-old to begin to think more about the world.”
In high school, Burns attended an anti-war rally headlined by actress Jane Fonda and activist Tom Hayden. But today, no one would consider Burns a lefty peacenik.
The Harvard professor’s opinions carry weight in a polarized landscape. Having served first as an intern during the Carter administration, and then in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations — with a stint on former Secretary of State John Kerry’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board from 2014 to 2017 — he is respected throughout Washington and across party lines.
His 27-year diplomatic career exposed him to hotspots around the world. From 2005 until his retirement from the Foreign Service in 2008, Burns served as undersecretary of state for political affairs, the State Department’s third-highest career position, where he led negotiations on the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement; a long-term military assistance agreement with Israel; and Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, he was U.S. ambassador to NATO (2001-05), ambassador to Greece (1997-2001) and State Department spokesman (1995-97). Earlier, he worked for five years on the National Security Council as senior director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia affairs. Burns also served at the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem in the 1980s, as well as at the American embassies in Egypt and Mauritania.
Today, in addition to teaching diplomacy and international relations at Harvard, Burns is director of the Aspen Strategy Group and senior counselor at the Cohen Group, and he writes a foreign affairs column for the Boston Globe. Even though he left diplomacy nearly a decade ago, his wide-ranging expertise is still called upon by policymakers in Washington. In recent months, he has testified before the Senate on Russian interference in European elections and on U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in her memoir “No Higher Honor,” recalled Burns as “one of the brightest young people in the Foreign Service” when she first encountered him while serving as director of Soviet and East European affairs at the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush.
Rice would ask Burns to be her deputy in 1990, and he would go on to succeed her as director for Soviet — and then Russian — affairs in 1991, after the Berlin Wall came down.
President Clinton retained Burns as his point person for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia affairs while the United States adapted to a world without the Soviet Union. In the thawing of the Cold War, the possibility of a benign Russian partner had replaced a malignant communist archenemy.
But relations between the U.S. and Russia have soured multiple times since then — stumbling after the failure of President Obama’s famed “reset” and reaching a new low in light of the investigations into whether President Trump’s team colluded with the Kremlin to discredit Hillary Clinton and win the 2016 election.
“The relationship is as bad now as any time since 1985,” Burns lamented.
That was the year Mikhail Gorbachev became premier of the Soviet Union after a period of political uncertainty and economic stagnancy.
“He quickly changed the relationship, made it better, improved it through his policies glasnost and perestroika. Before that, we were in the darkest part of the Cold War,” Burns said. Glasnost was Gorbachev’s policy of increased government transparency; perestroika referred broadly to a series of economic reforms that loosened state controls over business and trade.
Today, there are no green shoots like glasnost to offer optimism — despite a friendly, if highly controversial, rapport between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump that has landed the latter in hot legal water.
Throughout his campaign, Trump vowed to buck political orthodoxy and work with Putin to stamp out the Islamic State and find other areas of practical cooperation. As president, however, his rapprochement has been stymied by allegations of Russian meddling in the election and questions over Trump’s links to the Kremlin, which have triggered a special investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller.
Alarmed by Trump’s apparent coziness with Putin, Congress has also stepped in to tie the president’s hands. On July 25, the House voted overwhelmingly for a package of sanctions against Russia (as well as North Korea and Iran). Two days later, the Senate voted 98-2 to send the measure to the president’s desk. Notably, the bill that Trump reluctantly signed into law drastically limits his own ability to relax the sanctions without congressional approval.
In his Senate testimony in June, Burns supported moves to handcuff the president’s power to weaken sanctions on Russia. He also has said that Trump needs to openly address the cloud of suspicion hanging over him before he can move forward with his agenda, calling the Russia investigations an “albatross” around the administration’s neck.
“I find it dismaying and objectionable that President Trump continues to deny the undeniable fact that Russia launched a major cyber attack against the United States, regardless of what party he launched it against,” he told senators, adding that if Trump “continues to refuse to act, it’s a dereliction of the basic duty to defend the country.”
Despite the current tensions, Burns doesn’t discount the prospect of working with Putin in some areas.
“We have to keep an open relationship with [the Russians], we have to keep talking to them. I think it’s good that President Trump has met [Putin]; he needs to meet him again. There may be issues that we can cooperate on. We are both party to the Iran nuclear agreement. We both have interests in Afghanistan. We both should have an interest, although the Russians have been weak on this, in dealing with the North Korean nuclear crisis.”
But he cautioned that the strategic interests of policymakers in Washington and Putin — a shrewd former KGB operative who is determined to revive Russian influence on the world stage — often don’t align.
“There is no trust, we are in open conflict with each other in Eastern Europe, we have entirely different objectives in the Middle East and we have military forces, both of us, in close quarters in Syria,” Burns told us.
“I don’t think Putin will change his policy in Europe while he’s president, so this could go on for another 10 years or so. And we have to have the moral strength and political constancy to contain him in Europe and not let him invade and annex a NATO-allied country the way he’s done with Ukraine,” he added.
But Burns does not subscribe to the popular refrain that the U.S. and Russia are entering a new Cold War, although he says we are “experiencing memories of it.”
“I don’t think that we’re seeing a repeat or a re-emergence of the Cold War,” Burns said.
“The Cold War was the complete separation of two halves of Europe — a physical wall, ideological separation, complete economic separation for a while and relatively little trade for most of it, especially between the U.S. and the Soviet Union,” he explained. “And that’s not what we have now. But we are seeing a re-division of Europe by Putin, and that is a great danger.”
By Burns’s count, the list of military aggressions by Putin since Russia invaded Georgia during a brief war in 2008 includes the perpetuation of a frozen conflict in Moldova; the annexation of Crimea; the invasion of eastern Ukraine and occupation of the country’s Donbass region; and the sustained “harassment” of the Baltic states.
Putin is “trying to seek a zone to his south and west which he effectively controls. And that’s a re-division of Europe,” Burns concluded. “[W]e’ve got to contain that threat and draw a bright red line around the NATO states and tell Putin, ‘You can’t cross that line. This is NATO territory.’”
Whereas past U.S. presidents have traditionally upheld this foreign policy consensus, Trump famously called NATO obsolete and repeatedly disparaged its members for not spending enough on their defense.
To hear Burns, a former ambassador to NATO, speak about the security alliance, however, is like listening to a parent reminisce about his children. Having spent nearly half his life as a diplomat, Burns is not quick to emote — unless asked about the bloc coming to America’s defense after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In one of his first meetings with his fellow ambassadors at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Burns received a note from his Belgian driver saying only that “a plane has flown into the World Trade Center in New York.”
Burns’s immediate reaction was that there might have been a medical issue with the pilot or bad weather. But moments later, the driver returned with a second note informing him that the Twin Towers had been hit again. It was a coordinated attack.
“And then everyone around the table started getting phone calls and emails,” Burns recalled. He returned to the U.S. Mission and convened his senior staff.
“We couldn’t reach anybody in Washington for many hours. So we had time to think about the ramifications for NATO.”
David Wright, Canada’s ambassador to NATO at the time, called Burns and asked if the U.S. had considered invoking Article 5, the section of the NATO charter by which an attack on one member state is considered an attack on all. Burns told Wright he could support invoking Article 5 if all the NATO allies were in agreement.
“We had to have consensus,” he said.
Another challenge that day was confirming who, or what group, had committed the attacks. Officials did not want to prematurely point the finger.
“A lot of us had suspicions, but President Bush didn’t actually name … Osama bin Laden [or al-Qaeda] that day,” Burns said.
While Burns waited to get through to officials in Washington, he and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson worked the phones to prepare for the possibility of invoking Article 5.
“We called around to every ambassador, most of them called home and by that night we met in emergency session. I had a pretty good idea that all the allies were with us,” Burns said.
Finally, at 4 a.m. Washington time, he got through to Rice, his former mentor and now the national security adviser. She assured him that he had the president’s permission to move forward with the vote.
“When I sat there as the American ambassador on one of the worst days in the history of the United States — 3,000 people dead, our capital attacked, New York attacked — to hear those ambassadors one by one say, ‘We’re going to defend you,’ it was a gratifying moment on behalf of our country, to feel the support of this great alliance,” Burns said.
It was also the first time in its history that NATO invoked its mutual defense clause — to come to America’s aid, not Europe’s. To Burns, this is the value of alliances that he urges Trump to honor.
“When President Trump denigrates and castigates NATO, and beats up the Europeans about not spending enough, I always think, ‘Yeah, but when the chips were down, they were with us and they’re still in Afghanistan with us.’ I know because I felt the immediate support of our allies on 9/11,” Burns said.
Having dealt with thorny foreign policy dilemmas ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Burns has a bird’s-eye view of the threats keeping U.S. presidents up at night. He ticked off the probable list: North Korea, Syria, the “nightmare scenario [of] an evil terrorist group with weapons of mass destruction.”
And then, with a chill, he adds, “The threat of pandemics.”
He does not underestimate the destruction of the Syrian civil war, which he noted has destabilized Iraq, Turkey and other neighboring countries, fueled the rise of the Islamic State and contributed to the worst refugee crisis to hit Europe since World War II.
“Iraq and Syria may never return to be unitary states, so we’re looking at a change of the map possibly in the Middle East,” he said.
But pandemics are “really frightening,” he warned, “because no border is going to stop a pandemic in the modern age, as we saw with Ebola, as we saw with SARS, as we saw with Zika. And there will be others.”
At the moment, however, no threat is grabbing more headlines than the one emanating from North Korea, which has made steady progress in its nuclear weapons program.
Having first met Burns at an event hosted by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, I asked him if the Trump administration is ready for a Cuban Missile Crisis moment.
Some have compared those tense days to North Korea’s current race toward developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the United States. According to an Aug. 8 report in The Washington Post, U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that Pyongyang has produced a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could strike the U.S. mainland if placed on an effective ICBM, crossing a threshold that many experts had estimated was years away.
In response to the report, Trump declared that North Korea “will be met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before,” if it attacks the U.S. The apparently unscripted warning echoed the dramatic fire-and-brimstone rhetoric for which Kim Jong-un and his regime are well known. Shortly afterward, Burns tweeted out President Theodore Roosevelt’s famed maxim: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” He also tweeted a link to an article in The Economist arguing that “there are no good options when it comes to dealing with North Korea, but blundering into war would be the worst.”
Indeed, despite his harsh rhetoric, Trump faces the same set of unpalatable options that his predecessors did when it comes to the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea adamantly refuses to give up its nuclear weapons arsenal, which Kim likely sees as insurance against the type of regime change that befell Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Burns told “CBS This Morning” in early August that he believes Kim views nuclear weapons as his “ultimate protection against any foe, most especially the United States.”
Years of negotiations have failed to convince Kim otherwise. Most experts agree that a pre-emptive U.S. military strike on North Korea would spell disaster for the millions of South Koreans living in nearby Seoul who would face swift retaliation.
That leaves the option of further isolating the reclusive state. In August, Trump’s administration successfully pushed through a tough round of U.N. sanctions that could curb North Korea’s annual earnings by up to a third. But the effectiveness of sanctions depends largely on enforcement by China, the North’s economic lifeline. China, however, is less concerned about a nuclear-armed North Korea than it is about possible regime collapse, a scenario that would flood its borders with millions of destitute refugees and place a reunified Korea — and U.S. ally — on its doorstep.
That’s why some experts — and Beijing itself — have floated the idea that Washington should consider some of Kim’s demands, which include freezing U.S.-South Korean military exercises and negotiating without preconditions — a nonstarter for much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment.
Ever the diplomat, Burns is not against engagement, even with someone as unpredictable as Kim. He argues that one of the challenges to slowing North Korea’s march toward becoming a nuclear power is that no American leader has met with the elusive young dictator.
“So you can’t really assess what he’s capable of and what his intentions are and whether he’s rational, and whether you could work to avoid a crisis or to end one peacefully,” Burns said.
He demurred on whether or not Trump himself is ready to handle such a moment. But he said that Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster are ready “because they’re seasoned, experienced, rational, pragmatic, informed people.”
“I hope we don’t have this crisis,” Burns said. But if we do, “I would hope that President Trump would handle a crisis like that with as much wisdom and reflection and professionalism and vision that President Kennedy employed in October 1962.”
There is no doubt, however, of Burns’s faith in the Foreign Service to handle such a crisis. Having served in the country’s diplomatic corps for 27 years, he is fiercely loyal to its officers and its mission. Now, he has made defending diplomacy his next assignment.
In March, he condemned the Trump administration’s proposed 31 percent cut to the State Department and USAID budget in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee (also see “Critics Say Trump’s ‘Skinny’ Budget Starves U.S. Diplomacy, Aid at Time of Heightened Need” in the May 2017 issue).
“These proposed cuts are a slap in the face to our Foreign Service professionals. I have never seen morale so low and I started in the U.S. government as an intern in the Carter administration in the summer of 1980,” he told House lawmakers.
“Every single member, Republican and Democrat, with the exception of Congressman [Dana] Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), opposed President Trump and said they thought it was short-sighted, that we have to have a strong State Department and AID [program] given all the problems we face in the world,” he told MSNBC afterward.
“It was fascinating to see this mass Republican opposition to what the Trump administration is trying to do to State,” he told The Diplomat. “I’m very proud of the Service; we all are. It’s a national jewel. It’s the greatest collection of knowledge and insight into the world that the United States government has,” he said.
“I hope Congress can stand up and block the budget cuts.”
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.