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Q&A: Former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns talks diplomacy, polarization, optimism for the future

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

William J. Burns’ achievements in his 33-year career in the Foreign Service place him on “a very short list of American diplomatic legends,” according to former Secretary of State John Kerry. Burns holds the rare title of career ambassador — the highest rank in the Foreign Service —  and his previous roles include U.S. 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. Currently the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns sat down with The Daily to discuss his career and the need for a resurgence of American diplomacy.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): You had a 33-year career in the Foreign Service — what motivated you to join the Foreign Service in the first place? Did you think of it as a career-long endeavor?  

William Burns (WB): I wish I could tell you when I joined in the early 1980s that I expected to do it for nearly three and a half decades, but I really didn’t. I was interested in public service. I grew up as an army brat; my dad was a career army officer. I had an experience overseas in Egypt when I was 18 — a friend of mine’s father became the U.S. Ambassador there — so that was my first introduction to diplomacy and diplomatic service. I never expected the State Department to think I was worth taking a chance on, but when I passed the Foreign Service exam I thought it was worth a try. And I was very fortunate over the next three-and-a-half decades.

TSD: I know that there’s not much of a “normal day” in the life of a diplomat, and you’ve inhabited many roles in your career, but is there a day that you can think of that reflects the role of the modern diplomat? I know that’s something you talk about a lot — that a lot of people misunderstand the job.

WB: That is true, because [we do] oftentimes operate in back channels: out of site and out of mind. When I was Ambassador to Jordan, I would usually start the day by reading the intelligence that came in from the night before and diplomatic cable traffic from other embassies. Then I would meet with my senior staff, and then I would spend most of the rest of my day outside of the embassy. I would be seeing the King and senior Jordanian officials, and I traveled a lot. I’m a firm believer that you can’t do your job as a diplomat unless you’re engaging not just with other government individuals, but with societies.

TSD: Do you think the rise of social media and this rapid communication technology has changed the role of diplomats?

WB: Yes, it does. Because of the revolution in information technology, there’s an avalanche of information today; some of it true, some of it not, but all of it coming at you in great volume and speed.

I think there are some people that think that because of that revolution in technology, diplomats and embassies are less important because senior officials can connect without the intermediary. Actually, I think it makes the work of diplomats at least as important as ever. Diplomacy is still a business of human relationships. To really understand how to navigate another country, you need a facility of languages, a sense of history, and you need experience in those societies. And to distill what’s important about that avalanche of information, you still need people on the ground who can make sense of it — who can answer the “so what?” question.

Technology has changed the nature of the role; you have to be more agile, more nimble in some ways. It’s no longer just a business of relations between governments — it’s about connecting societies. It’s not a profession that operates without risk. There are lots of my former colleagues doing hard jobs in a lot of hard places around the world just as we’re speaking now, but it’s a fascinating life, and I enjoyed every minute, or almost every minute, of it.

TSD: What advice would you give to people that are interested in public service, but are maybe disillusioned with the current state of the government?

WB:  I think anybody looking at the current era in Washington, [it’s not surprising that] they feel disillusioned. It’s not exactly the best recruiting poster in the world to look at the dysfunction that is today’s Washington, especially in the Trump era.

It’s a sad reality that after the more than 20 years in which applications to the Foreign Service rose every year, there’s been almost a 50 percent drop in applications over the last two years. I think that can be reversed. I think actually this is an exciting moment for people to consider joining the Foreign Service simply because this isn’t going to go on forever. There’s going to be a moment of renewal and rebuilding of diplomacy, precisely at a moment where it matters more than ever to advancing American interests.

We’re no longer the singular dominant player on the international landscape; the rise of China, the resurgence of Russia, big overarching challenges like climate change (the single existential threat out there), the revolution in technology — diplomacy matters more than ever as our principle tool for navigating that world.

It’s not as if there’s one neat formula that prepares you for that. Obviously, a facility in foreign languages matters a lot, but the average entry age for Foreign Service now is around 30, and they come with a range of experience. This includes oftentimes working overseas, U.S. government experience, military or the Peace Corps, and it’s that combination of things that I think can make you an effective diplomat.

TSD: I know that you’ve talked about past situations in your tenure in which you’ve had different opinions or analyses about events and policy decisions. Some of that was made clear in the Wikileaks leak, and some of that has become apparent with recently declassified documents. I’m wondering if you could talk about how you dealt with situations in which your analysis was not followed but you were, in fact, correct. How do you stick with it?

WB: Those are complicated choices. In any disciplined government service, whether it’s the U.S. military or civilian services like the Foreign Service, there’s an obligation that when the decision gets made, you’ll carry it out to the best of your ability. You’re not going to run out to the press or someone else to complain about it publicly.

Or, you choose to leave. I have enormous respect for my colleagues in mind. There were about 20 in the State Department that left over policy in the Balkans in the early 1990s; there were another three over the Iraq War in 2003 that resigned; there are a number that resigned over the last couple of years in the Trump administration because they just felt in good conscience that they couldn’t defend or carry out the policies of the administration.

I think there is also honor in continuing to serve from within a system, as long as you realize that you have an equal obligation to be honest about your concerns — even when it’s not convenient. That’s the kind of atmosphere that has to be encouraged at a place like the State Department, because you’re inevitably going to make bad policy choices if you’re not going to let people express concerns about a particular policy.

TSD: You’ve served many different administrations, both Democratic and Republican, and so I’m curious how you manage to stay relatively neutral — especially as the country seems to be getting increasingly polarized and partisan?

WB: It’s increasingly a challenge, even compared to when I joined the Foreign Service in the early 1980s when there were bitter disputes between Republicans and Democrats about foreign policy in Central America, for example. So it’s not as if some sort of idyllic era of bipartisanship in foreign policy ever really existed, but it’s gotten much more sharply polarized today.

The only thing I can suggest is that you need to try to be consistent between administrations in the kind of advice you offer. It’s a huge mistake where you find people falling prey to the temptation to tailor their recommendation to suit what they think are the preferences or the inclinations of a new administration.

A memo that I wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in May of 2008 on Iran, and a memo that I wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January 2009 — same subject, they’re pretty similar in terms of what I was arguing. That’s your obligation as a career professional: It’s to offer your best advice, one administration to the next, one party to the next. It’s not like I ever had a monopoly on wisdom; I got lots of things wrong, but I did try to be consistent as best I could.

TSD: You end your book stating that there are “plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the potential of American diplomacy.” Can you elaborate on what these reasons are, and how we can stay optimistic?

WB: I think there’s a real danger today in that we’re digging a hole for ourselves in the U.S. at a moment when the international landscape is in the midst of profound transformation. We’ll stop digging, eventually. My concern is that when we climb back on top of the hole, we’re going to look back at a landscape that’s hardened against our interests, and against the values which aren’t uniquely American, but which we think help create the prospects for a more equitable and stable international order. So the optimist in me believes that even though a lot of corrosive damage has been done today in the Trump era, and even though the task of reversing a lot of that damage is going to be extremely difficult, I still think that if we put our mind to it the United States has a better hand to play than our principal rivals in the world — if we play it wisely.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

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

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