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Ambassador William Burns talks challenges, rewards of American diplomacy

Varun Tandon/The Stanford Daily

Conducting secret talks to convince leaders to “get out of the business of terrorism,” enduring nine-hour meetings with foreign dignitaries as a symbol of bladder and policy persistence, 2 a.m. meetings with world leaders wearing shirts printed with pictures of dead African leaders — these are the highs and lows of American diplomacy, Ambassador William Burns recounts.

Burns discussed his new book, “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal,” in a Tuesday night talk at Encina Hall. Ambassador Michael McFaul ’86 M.A. ’86, Hoover Fellow and Stanford’s director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, led the dynamic discussion with Burns.

Burns and McFaul managed to keep the conversation light-hearted — sprinkling in humorous anecdotes, like their initial meeting on a basketball court in Moscow, and joking self-deprecation — while discussing Burns’ role as a critical player in many of the key foreign policy issues of the last quarter-century.  

Now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns spent more than three decades in a distinguished career with the Foreign Service. His most recent roles include United States ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2005 to 2008, under secretary of political affairs from 2008 to 2011 and deputy secretary of state from 2011 to 2014.

Lauded as a “treasure of American diplomacy” and “one of America’s most accomplished and respected diplomats” by Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, respectively, Burns has often stayed out of the headlines due to the nature of diplomacy as a job that operates in back channels: behind the scenes, with little knowledge or recognition.

For example, Burns was recently recognized for his contributions to the Iranian nuclear negotiations. Burns played a central role in U.S. diplomacy with Iran, from participating in coercive negotiations beginning in President Barack Obama’s first term to instigating direct diplomacy quietly at the start of his second term.

“We tried to address the most serious — or at least, the most imminent — risk that Iranian behavior posed, and that was an unconstrained nuclear program,” said Burns.

McFaul paused the conversation multiple times to highlight Burns’ artful, often amusing prose littered throughout his memoir, cases of which were exemplified in many of Burns’ comments about interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Burns reminisced about going to the Kremlin in 2005 on his first day as the United States ambassador to the Russian Federation. Before he even had a chance to offer his credentials, President Putin warned Burns, “You Americans need to listen more. You can’t have everything your way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms.”

“Putin is a kind of combustible combination of grievance, ambition and insecurity, all wrapped up together,” he said. “That was vintage Putin, in my experience. It was not subtle, it was kind of defiantly charmless, but it … reflected his view that Russia wasn’t going to get pushed around anymore.”

While Burns’ talk carried a lighthearted aura of humility and cheer, he also emphasized several of the more serious challenges of working at the State Department. Many career foreign servants have retired in the past due to disagreements with White House foreign policy decisions, with surges during the Balkan crisis in the mid-1990s and more recent exoduses during the Trump presidency. Burns emphasized his respect for those who felt they couldn’t enact or defend such policies in good conscience.

However, Burns added that there was also honor in continuing to serve within the system as long as officers maintain candor about their concerns, even when such outspoken honesty is inconvenient.

Such honesty is reflected in Burns’ recently declassified 2002 memo, “The Perfect Storm,” which he describes as a “hurried list of horribles” rather than an effective analysis of the consequences of potential war in Iraq.

“We were trying to puncture the recklessly rosy assumptions of the people who were advocates of going to war,” he explained. Burns believes that he could have argued more persuasively against intervention, and noted that in these situations one can inevitably feel like an enabler.

While “The Back Channel” charts the role of the United States in the rapidly-changing — and often intransigent — current global order, Burns’ greater purpose for writing the book is to present diplomacy as the “tool of first resort.”

Burns admitted that it is not unreasonable for Americans to feel disillusioned with the current state of American foreign policy, suggesting that the dysfunction of today’s Washington “is not exactly the best recruiting poster.” However, he was adamant that those seeking to enter the public sphere today would be part of the essential renewal of a sense of public service, in an age in which it is often belittled and demeaned.

“I know this sounds trite, but it’s a genuine opportunity to make a difference in the world at a time when public service — and especially diplomatic service — does matter more than ever,” Burns said.

Contact Emma Smith at esmith11 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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