William Burns ranks among the foremost American diplomats of his generation, serving five presidents and 10 secretaries of state. His memoir is a plain-spoken defence of an unfashionable craft. It is also a testament to the perils of wishful thinking in US foreign policy.
“Present at the Destruction” might serve as an alternative title to The Back Channel. Burns seethes at the “active sabotage” of the state department under President Donald Trump. He highlights the hubris of President George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, “the original sin” that sacrificed US influence in the Middle East. He is sympathetic but critical of his successor, Barack Obama, who comes across as cool, thoughtful and inflexible.
“After the recklessness of his predecessor, Obama’s mantra of ‘not doing stupid shit’ was a sensible guidance,” writes Burns. “But there were other scatological realities in foreign policy: shit happened too, and reacting to events outside neat policy boxes would be a persistent challenge.”
Naturally, these criticisms are hedged by obligatory references to incomplete information and a complex world. By and large, however, Burns is refreshingly candid about the use and abuse of US power in the second half of his 30-year career. This is particularly true after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, when the natural urge to retaliate led to open-ended wars at enormous cost in blood and treasure.
“Americans are often tempted to believe that the world revolves around us, our problems and our analysis,” he writes, “As I learned the hard way, other people and other societies have their own realities, which are not always hospitable to ours. That does not mean that we have to accept or indulge those perspectives, but understanding them is the starting point for sensible diplomacy.”
His dilemma, freely acknowledged, is that the diplomatic profession has lost its near monopoly on presence, access, insight and influence. In the age of WikiLeaks and transnational actors, secrecy is porous, information ubiquitous. Those like Burns who have practised statecraft risk being drowned out. Lost in the Twittersphere are the age-old virtues of diplomacy: the ability to convene, communicate and manoeuvre for future gain, especially through alliances.
Burns correctly singles out the elder Bush’s administration as the model. The national security team that managed the end of the cold war was top drawer. James Baker was a shrewd secretary of state who enjoyed the trust of the president. Bush Sr understood the importance of restraint. His decision not to topple Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war looks even wiser given the debacle after the second Gulf war.
But, as Burns recognises, the US stood at the pinnacle of power in 1991. One year later, as Bill Clinton prepared to enter the White House, Burns warned in a prescient memo that victory in the cold war masked more malign developments. The forces of fragmentation were on the rise, with the risk of a retreat into nationalism or religious extremism or a combination of the two.
“Ideological competition was not over — it was simply reshaped,” Burns wrote, “In much of the world . . . Islamic conservatism remains a potent alternative to democracy as an organising principle.”
These warning shots were ignored or lost in the daily churn of events. Other memos from the state department, helpfully declassified, show Burns fretting about premature enlargement of Nato, especially given Baker and Bush’s informal commitments to Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader. The risk was a new stab-in-the-back conspiracy theory gaining ground in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. In fact, maintaining “the lands between” such as Poland in a cordon sanitaire between Europe and Russia was never tenable after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, as Burns admits: “Russia was never ours to lose.”
Burns has few illusions about Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin’s successor was bent on restoring Russian state power and influence. The mistake was to push Nato enlargement to Georgia and Ukraine. Two train wrecks ensued, in 2008 and 2014, when Russia invaded its neighbours. “It was another lesson in the complexities of diplomacy and the risks of wishful thinking,” says Burns, ruefully reflecting on 25 years of intermittently working on US-Russia relations, latterly as ambassador in Moscow.
Burns has a gift for the pithy insight. Putin is “an apostle of payback”. Newly installed President Bashar al-Assad is “pleasant but cocksure”, a study in “the banality of evil”. James Baker was a superb negotiator, “unchained by ideology and open to alternative views and challenges to convention”.
At times, Burns the diplomat is too reasonable. A former US ambassador to Jordan, he glosses over King Hussein’s failure to join the US-led coalition against Saddam Hussein after the invasion of Kuwait (even Assad Sr of Syria signed up). He suggests that a 2011 compact with China significantly reduced cyber-enabled commercial thefts — surely a stretch. He is most vulnerable when defending President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Burns offers a gripping account of the back-channel negotiations with Tehran. Initiated in Oman, the talks offer a case study in diplomacy: how to bridge a gulf of mutual suspicion going back to the fall of the Shah. Yet the result, while notable in curbing Iran’s nuclear programme, was a deal without context. It failed to address Iranian conduct, notably the regime’s sponsorship of terror and Hizbollah-style proxies across the Middle East.
On the Arab spring turned winter, Burns gives credit to Obama for trying to reduce US exposure to the Middle East, pivoting to Asia and the rising powers of India and China. But the speed of events laid waste to the best intentions. Obama’s team stuck doggedly to their “long game”, too often opting for lofty rhetoric rather than concrete action.
Burns admits to “serious mistakes” in Libya, where the US was dragged along into toppling Muammer Gaddafi by a gung-ho David Cameron, UK prime minister, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France. In Egypt, a longtime US ally, Obama wavered and finally acquiesced in the fall of Hosni Mubarak in the name of democracy, only to see him later replaced by the autocratic General Sisi. The failure to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria was a watershed. “We regularly paired maximalist ends with minimalist means,” he concludes.
Watching — rather than shaping — what Obama respectfully labelled the arc of history carried a price: a more assertive China, embodied by President Xi. Left unsaid in the book is that the build-up of problems on trade, intellectual property theft and military expansion in the South China Sea left the incoming Trump administration with much to fix in relations with Beijing.
Burns has no time for Trump’s America First foreign policy, “a nasty brew of belligerent unilateralism, mercantilism and unreconstructed nationalism” characterised by “muscular posturing and fact-free assertions”. He deplores the attacks on career diplomats which are reminiscent of the McCarthy era. Yet he acknowledges the need for reform, not just of the state department bureaucracy but also via a new domestic compact after the “militarisation” of diplomacy in recent years.
This is the precondition for America’s adjustment from hegemon to “pivotal power” status with China. The transition to date has been painful. A new world order demands US engagement. A pity Burns will not be present at the creation.
Lionel Barber is the editor of the FT
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