Illustration by James Ferguson of Bill Burns
© James Ferguson

When President Obama wanted somebody to open secret negotiations with Iran in 2013, he turned to Bill Burns, widely regarded as one of the finest and most discreet US diplomats of his generation. But as I wait for the 59-year-old to arrive at the Covent Garden branch of Hawksmoor, an upmarket chain restaurant in London specialising in steaks, it strikes me that, in another life, Burns might himself have written an entertaining Lunch with the FT.

After thousands of American diplomatic cables were leaked to the international press via WikiLeaks in 2010, Burns found himself an unexpected beneficiary. “A Caucasus Wedding”, a telegram he sent to the US state department in 2006 while he was ambassador to Russia, recounting a raucous three-day Dagestani wedding attended by Chechnya’s president Ramzan Kadyrov, was described as a minor classic of comic writing, its tone very much not what one might expect of a diplomatic cable.

“Cooks seemed to keep whole sheep and whole cows boiling in a cauldron somewhere, day and night, dumping disjointed fragments of the carcass on the tables, whenever someone entered the room,” Burns noted. “The alcohol consumption before, during and after this Muslim wedding was stupendous . . . There was also entertainment, although Gadzi’s main act, a Syrian-born singer named Avraam Russo, could not make it because he was shot a few days before the wedding.”

Burns’s days of writing diplomatic cables are over for now. He retired from the US government last year after a 33-year career that culminated in spells as deputy secretary of state to both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. He is only the second career diplomat in US history to have made it that high up the department. On Burns’s retirement, Kerry likened him to diplomatic legends such as George Kennan — whose own “long telegram” from Moscow in 1946, explaining the behaviour of Stalin’s Soviet Union, is widely seen as defining the beginning of the cold war.

To shield us from boisterous office workers downing red wine as they chomp on T-bones, I ask for a table in the corner. Seated, I study the menu. Burns appears before me a few minutes later. He is tall, a little stooped, with a full head of grey hair and a moustache that gives him a slightly mournful look. He is wearing a white shirt and red tie; large White House cufflinks are the only touches of flamboyance. Although Burns is bang on time, he apologises for being late.

I have always assumed that America is not a culture that rewards the self-effacing. Yet Burns appears to be an exception to this rule. During the course of our lunch, he will apologise to me for being late, for talking too much and for not eating salad. He will also thank me for being generous with my time and suggest that two celebrated diplomatic memorandums attributed to him were, in fact, largely written by his colleagues. “A Caucasus Wedding” was one. The other, entitled the “Perfect Storm”, was co-written by Burns shortly before the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and accurately predicted many of the malign developments that would follow the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

These days, Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the oldest international affairs think-tank in the US. He has been in the job for just 10 months, so I ask him if he is nostalgic for the state department — where he met his wife, Lisa, when they were both trainee diplomats. Burns acknowledges that, after so many years at the centre of events, he misses “the constant stream of things coming into your inbox and just the adrenaline rush”.

Those adrenalin rushes were a fairly regular part of his career. In August 1990, he was working in the policy planning section of the state department when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. The following year, there was an attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union. Memories of those events give Burns a certain perspective on today’s dramas. As he puts it: “I’ve sat in the Situation Room [in the White House] in recent years and heard people say that things have never been more chaotic . . . The truth is that, in that period, there was an awful lot going on.”

The waitress arrives. I go for potted crab to start, followed by a sirloin steak and chips, with a green salad on the side. Burns opts for the less extravagant option of the express menu: a tomato salad followed by a hamburger. Asked how he wants his burger done, he says “medium”. “Pink,” says the waitress. “Yes,” says Burns, apparently unwilling to argue the point.

He turns to me apologetically and says: “Sorry to be a boring American and order the hamburger.” It is the kind of self-deprecating remark that is liable to confirm the worst suspicions of America’s more rabid conservatives, who like to accuse the state department of constantly apologising for America. In the Republican party today, worldly sophisticates such as Burns are suspect figures. He has a doctorate in international relations, gained while studying as a Marshall scholar at Oxford university, and speaks good enough Russian, Arabic and French to be able to give television interviews in all three languages.

Talking to Burns, however, I discover that he is a huge admirer of an earlier generation of internationalist Republican policymakers — in particular Jim Baker and Brent Scowcroft, who as secretary of state and national security adviser helped the first President Bush to navigate the dangers of the end of the cold war.

I tell Burns that many Europeans also mourn the passing of that generation of Republicans and are deeply alarmed by the rise of Donald Trump. Burns evidently sympathises with this Trump-phobia. “If that ever manifested itself in American foreign policy, lots of people ought to be alarmed,” he says, lamenting that in the current contest for the Republican nomination, “the foreign policy debate sometimes seems to come down to who wants to build a bigger wall, and should it be with Mexico or Canada”.

Could Trump get the Republican nomination? Burns looks alarmed and shakes his head. “I have a very hard time imagining that.”

One thing that Burns did manage to imagine was the chaos that followed the US invasion of Iraq. I ask about his “Perfect Storm” memo, written in 2002, which has yet to be fully declassified. Burns says that he and his colleagues “tried to look ahead a little bit at the second and third-order consequences” of invading Iraq and adds — “we got it about half-right, in anticipating the challenges, sectarian and otherwise”.

So did he anticipate the empowerment of Iran that would follow the fall of Hussein? “Yeah, yeah,” he replies wearily. Given all that, I ask why he had not chosen to resign? Burns replies that he has “enormous respect” for the handful of US diplomats, mainly based overseas, who had resigned in protest at the decision to invade Iraq, but adds — “most of my colleagues made a different decision to try as best you could, to be honest within the system about the weaknesses in the argument”. He says that, in retrospect, “The whole notion that you could impose democracy from the outside has been proven to be hollow”.

As the food arrives, we turn to the most pressing problem of today — the continuing chaos in Iraq and Syria. Burns quietly suggests that the Obama administration — of which he was a prominent member until last year — got it wrong. On Syria, he says: “We should have tried harder in early 2012, perhaps with a more serious effort to arm the moderate Syrian opposition.” Before the most recent Russian intervention, Burns had come to believe that the US and its allies should create safe havens with a limited no-fly zone in southern Syria. He still thinks America should step up its military role to help create the conditions for a political solution. “We need to enable diplomacy by building up some leverage. That’s what Putin is doing.”

He has been talking so much that he has barely had time to try his food, so I offer to ask a very long question to give him time to eat. “Sorry,” he says, “I’ve been talking too much.” I am interested to see if years on the diplomatic circuit have trained him to eat a hamburger with a knife and fork (I have even seen British diplomats eat bananas this way). But, no, he picks it up with his hands.

We turn to Vladimir Putin, whom Burns got to observe at close quarters during his stint as US ambassador in Moscow. The experience left him convinced that the Russian leader “tends to be more of an improviser than anything else”. But, I reply, some people reckon that Putin has a master plan to re-create the Soviet Union. Burns rolls his eyes slightly. “My own view is that he wants to restore Russia’s status as a great power . . . but that’s not the same as reconstructing the Soviet Union.” What, I ask, is the Russian leader like personally? “He’s very sharp, he tries to intimidate people in conversations . . . to keep them waiting for long periods,” Burns observes mildly. I say that on my most recent visit to Moscow, I had been struck by the nationalist atmosphere — and at this Burns’s softly spoken tone gives way to something more emphatic. “That does worry me,” he says firmly, “this constant suspicion of fifth columnists, the poisonous atmosphere that created the conditions for the murder of Boris Nemtsov [an opposition politician who was killed last February] 500 metres from the Kremlin wall.”

That poisonous atmosphere has also affected the operations of the Carnegie Endowment, which has long had a high-profile office in Moscow that provided a stream of influential and often critical commentary on modern Russian politics. I ask Burns why some of that office’s most prominent critics of Putin — academics such as Lilia Shevtsova and Masha Lipman — have left Carnegie. “That happened before I arrived,” he notes quickly, adding that he believes that the scholars at Carnegie Moscow are still doing strong, independent work, but that “it is a very complicated atmosphere in which to operate”.

As a diplomat, Burns’s last big assignment was the secret diplomacy with Iran, which laid the foundation for this year’s deal to rein in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme in return for an easing of western sanctions on Iran. The initial talks took place at a military guesthouse in Oman with a succession of secret meetings between March and November of 2013.

“We talked for two or three days at a time . . . It was sometimes 130F outside . . . It became apparent pretty quickly they were serious about attempting to do the deal. It’s surprising in this day and age that we managed to keep it quiet as long as we did.” But did he trust his Iranian counterparts? Apparently, that is the wrong question.

“I never asked if I could trust them . . . It’s a different issue about whether you respect them as professionals and if they could deliver.” So, I suggest, it was like the old Reagan slogan during arms-control negotiations with the Soviets: “Trust, but verify.” “No,” he replies, trust was not the issue — “It’s all about verification.”

Burns has finished his burger — and had generously let me pick at his fries, so I offer him some of my side salad. He declines and apologises again “for my poor eating habits”.

For him, the wider point about the Iran deal was that it restored diplomacy to a central place in US foreign policy. Burns is the son of an army officer who fought in Vietnam and was born in the military town of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, so there is no reason to doubt him when he says: “I have enormous respect for the US military.” He adds, however, that America has too often “tended to put an emphasis on force”, with diplomacy used to clear the way for military action, or to clear up the aftermath.

As Burns sees it, that was the mistake made over the Iraq war. In his view, the emphasis in US foreign policy should be on “diplomacy, with the military in the background as an enabler”. Thus in Syria diplomatic efforts to end the war should be at the forefront of policy, with the threat of military force used as a means of increasing diplomatic leverage.

One diplomatic effort that has not paid off was John Kerry’s frenetic effort in 2013 and 2014 to create peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I put it to Burns that some of his colleagues had always felt that it was quixotic of Kerry to attempt to get an Israeli-Palestinian deal when so many had failed before him. There is a hint of a smile as he replies: “I admired the effort, I really did . . . The only challenge is there are opportunity costs, when you look at the Asia-Pacific rebalance” — a reference to the much-discussed effort to devote more American attention to China.

Our plates are cleared. It is time for coffee. I order a double espresso and Burns follows suit.

While there is just a hint of scepticism in Burns’s remarks about John Kerry, his admiration for Hillary Clinton seems unfeigned. He says that, along with Jim Baker, she was the most professional secretary of state he worked for. “Perhaps it was something to do with them both being lawyers but it was very rare to go into a room with them and find somebody who was better briefed.”

Some speculate that Burns might even return as secretary of state in a Hillary Clinton administration, but he bats the idea away with a shake of the head when I bring it up.

Draining his cup of coffee, he says he is very happy in his new role. The well-worn cliché about “spending more time with his family” actually seems to apply in Burns’s case. “Now I get home at a decent time at night. Or, if I don’t, it’s my own fault. I can’t blame some crisis in the world.”

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

Illustration by James Ferguson

Letter in response to this report

Noteworthy that Burns approved wedding memo / From E Wayne Merry

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