William Burns looks like a diplomat from central casting. He is tall, elegant and refined. It is not hard to imagine him operating smoothly and negotiating skillfully at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 or the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 or at the recent Iran nuclear talks — which he did. In addition to looking the role, Burns is widely regarded as one of the most successful American diplomats of his generation.
“The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal” perfectly reflects its author. The book is thoughtful, balanced and witty. Burns does not come from the school of memoir writing in which the author is always the wisest person in the room or constantly offers the most prescient advice. He records his mistakes and misjudgments. “The Back Channel” is strikingly free from self-aggrandizement or score-settling. It is honest, informative and deeply interesting.
It is also timely. The book provides a tour of American diplomacy and foreign policy since the early 1980s, but it also touches on some of the most pressing foreign policy issues of the day, including Syria’s civil war, Asia’s rise, the Iran nuclear deal that Burns helped orchestrate through back channel diplomacy (hence the book’s title) and the erosion of the liberal world order under Donald Trump.
In that sense, the book is a hymn of praise to the diplomatic profession and a stern warning that America’s standing in the world has deteriorated dramatically during Trump’s presidency.
“My goal is not to offer an elegy for American diplomacy but a reminder of its significance, and of the wider value of public service, amid the mistrust and disparagement so willfully sown by so many,” he writes.
“In the age of Trump, America is diminished, the president’s worldview smaller and meaner, the world full of difficult currents. The enlightened self-interest at the heart of seventy years of American foreign policy is disdained, and the zero-sum joys of mercantilism and unilateralism are ascendant. Seen from the Trump White House, the United States has become hostage to the international order it created and liberation is long overdue,” he writes.
Burns has been president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace since 2015. He joined the think tank after a stellar career of more than three decades in the U.S. Foreign Service in which he served in such important positions as deputy secretary of state; undersecretary for political affairs; ambassador to Russia and Jordan; assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs; and principal deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff.
Burns worked with, or at least carefully observed, every secretary of state from Alexander Haig to John Kerry. He describes the working styles of each, focusing on the positive. Burns clearly respects the methodical approach of George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state. Shultz likened diplomacy to gardening in which it is essential to regularly cut back weeds and plant seeds. Shultz viewed diplomacy as an endeavor that usually yields incremental progress. “As I was learning, diplomatic triumphs are almost always at the margins,” Burns writes.
Burns depicts Colin Powell as a strong and charismatic leader who projected confidence and competence. “Straightforward, demanding and well organized, he was also warm, good humored, with a ready smile and easy charm,” Burns writes. Powell began meetings with a clear statement of objectives, focused on an orderly discussion of options, and concluded with a concise summary of conclusions or recommendations.
Burns lavishes his most fulsome praise on James Baker, President George H.W. Bush’s secretary of state and the man who played a central role in helping bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. Baker, according to Burns, was adept at navigating the complex world of international politics.
“He was a superb problem solver and made no pretense of being a national security intellectual or grand strategist. He was cautious by nature, and always attuned to the risks of unforeseen second- and third-order consequences. He was unchained by ideology and open to alternative views and challenges to convention. He was as good a negotiator as I ever saw, always thoroughly prepared, conscious of his leverage, sensitive to the needs and limits of those on the other side of the table, and with a lethal sense of when to close the deal.”
Baker played a major role in assembling the international coalition to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 and then prepared the Madrid Peace Conference to try to forge peace in the Middle East. “Baker was not especially interested in the arcane details of Arab-Israeli issues, or the history and culture of the region,” Burns writes. “He had an enormously retentive mind for what he needed to know to navigate a negotiation and bridge differences, a gift for managing complicated personalities. He lowballed public expectations, always convinced that it was better to underpromise and overdeliver.”
Burns believes that if President George H.W. Bush had won a second term in 1992, Baker might have been able to broker a Syrian-Israeli agreement and perhaps even an Israeli-Palestinian accord.
Burns recalls the Madrid Peace Conference of 1991 as the moment when modern American diplomacy and power reached its apogee. Global and regional leaders attended the meeting less because they expected a peace deal than because of their deep respect for American power and influence. “It marked a time of uncontested American primacy in a world no longer bound by Cold War rivalry — when history seemed to flow inexorably in America’s direction, the power of its ideas driving the rest of the world in a slow but irresistible surge toward democracy and free markets.”
If Madrid marked the zenith of recent American power, the Iraq War in 2003 played a central role in dramatically diminishing American influence.
Burns is sharply critical of President George W. Bush’s administration for rushing into an ill-considered and unnecessary war that significantly damaged American interests.
Burns believes that a robust American response was appropriate after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but it should have been followed by creative diplomacy and an affirmative agenda. However, a faction led by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was convinced that the American military response in Afghanistan was necessary but not sufficient and pressed for a confrontation with Hussein. “It was not the season for nuance, caution, and compromise. It was the season for the risk-tolerant and the ideologically ambitious, bent on inserting ourselves aggressively into the regional contest of ideas, militarizing our policy, and unbuckling our rhetoric,” he writes. “In a Washington that rarely lacked for infighting and policy combat, the road to war in Iraq was distinctive for its intensity and indiscipline.”
According to Burns, senior State Department officials signaled their discomfort with the coming war in a memo but did not “take a hard stand against war altogether, or make a passionate case for containment as a long-term alternative to conflict. In the end, we pulled some punches, persuading ourselves that we’d never get a hearing for our concerns beyond the secretary if we simply threw ourselves on the track. Years later, that remains my biggest professional regret.”
Burns argues that when President Barack Obama came to office, he tried to steer U.S. foreign policy away from the chaos of the Middle East and toward opportunities in Asia. Burns applauds Obama’s strategy but argues that the administration’s tactics were deficient as it struggled with unpredictable events such as the Arab Spring. Burns says that Obama’s long game “made eminent sense. It just turned out to be much harder to execute than Obama expected. The distant promise of the long game was held hostage by the infinite complexities of the short game, by twists and turns that surprised him, and tactical choices and tradeoffs that frustrated all of us.”
Burns writes with deep regret about the civil war in Syria. He doubts that a different U.S. policy could have fundamentally changed the situation but believes the Obama administration failed to properly align its goals with its commitments.
“It’s hard not to see Syria’s agony as an American policy failure. Many see it as the underreaching analog to the disastrous overreach of the Iraq War a decade before. As someone who served through both, and shared in the mistakes we made, I am not persuaded by the analogy,” he writes. “There were times during Syria’s protracted crisis when more decisive American intervention might have made a difference. Like many of my colleagues, I argued for more active support in 2012 for what was then still a relatively moderate, if ragtag, opposition and for responding militarily to Assad’s use of sarin gas in the summer of 2013. Neither step, however, would necessarily have turned the tide.”
He adds: “If you added up all the measures we eventually took in Syria by the end of 2014, including a more ambitious train and equip program for the opposition, and telescoped them into more decisive steps earlier in the conflict, their cumulative impact might have given us more leverage over [Bashar al-] Assad, as well as the Russians and Iranians. They wouldn’t on their own have produced Assad’s downfall, but might have created a better chance for a negotiated solution. It was in many ways another lesson on the risks of incrementalism.”
Burns applauds the Obama administration’s work on the Iran nuclear agreement. He vividly describes his role as the initial back channel to Iran in 2013 and then his efforts to help negotiate the final agreement several years later. “Here was a chance to do what diplomats spend their whole careers trying to do,” he writes. “Here was a chance to apply tough-minded diplomacy, backed up by the economic leverage of sanctions, the political leverage of an international consensus, and the military leverage of the potential use of force. And here was a chance to demonstrate the promise of American diplomacy after a decade of America at war.”
Burns describes the negotiations that resulted in the initial Joint Plan of Action and later the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that was concluded in July 2015. The final agreement was not perfect but was an important achievement, Burns asserts. He is sharply critical of Trump for pulling the United States out of the accord. “Trump’s abrogation was another reminder of how much easier it is to tear down diplomacy than to build it up…. It was exactly the kind of risky, cocky, ill-considered bet that had shredded our influence before, and could easily do so again.”
The most powerful and poignant aspect of this memoir is the author’s reflections on the Iraq War. Burns ponders if he should have done more to register his opposition to the war, including resigning from the State Department. He says he decided not to resign for a mix of practical and personal reasons but finds his rationale for staying “garbled and unsatisfying, even with the benefit of a decade and a half of hindsight.” We know now that a number of senior officials in the administration and Congress had serious reservations about the Iraq War and one is left wondering what would have happened if all had vigorously and publicly opposed the war before it was launched.
Burns says that over the years but particularly after the 9/11 attacks, the military became the main instrument of American power, while diplomacy was relegated to the sidelines. He offers a plea for a renewed emphasis on diplomacy as the tool of “first resort” in U.S. security policy.
“Short of war, diplomacy is the main instrument we employ to manage foreign relations, reduce external risks, and exploit opportunities to advance our security and prosperity,” he writes. “It is among the oldest professions, but is also among the most misunderstood, and the most unsatisfying to describe. It is by nature an unheroic, quiet endeavor, less swaggering than unrelenting, often unfolding in back channels out of sight and out of mind. Its successes are rarely celebrated, its failures almost always scrutinized. Even as visible and accomplished a practitioner as Henry Kissinger has called diplomacy ‘the patient accumulation of partial successes’ — hardly the stuff of bumper stickers.”
Burns concedes that some of the damage to American diplomacy was self-inflicted, as the State Department built layer upon layer of bureaucracy instead of making that bureaucracy more agile and better reflective of the challenges of the 21st century.
However, Trump’s efforts to gut the State Department budget and his refusal to fill key posts significantly contributed to the sense of irrelevancy that has gripped Foggy Bottom.
The president’s go-it-alone, transactional, erratic brand of diplomacy has further demoralized America’s diplomatic corps.
“At precisely the time when diplomacy matters more than ever to American interests — when we are no longer the only country calling the shots — the president is engaged in unilateral diplomatic disarmament: hollowing out the idea of America, retreating from international commitments and disdaining the institutions and practitioners of diplomacy. Not surprisingly, adversaries are taking advantage, allies are hedging and the global order we did so much to shape and defend is teetering,” Burns wrote in a March 8 New York Times op-ed.
This bleak assessment is echoed in “The Back Channel,” which argues that America’s current diplomatic and foreign policy is falling far short of the nation’s best traditions and needs to be rehabilitated and revived.
“Diplomacy is one of our nation’s biggest assets and best-kept secrets,” Burns writes. “However battered and belittled in the age of Trump, it has never been a more necessary tool of first resort for American influence. Its rebirth is crucial to a new strategy for a new century, one that is full of great peril and even greater promise for America.”
About the Author
John T. Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat. He is the author of four books, including “The Ambassador: Inside the Life of a Working Diplomat” and “Rising Star, Setting Sun,” and he is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.