What diplomacy is all about
In his memoir The Back Channel, Bill Burns offers an engaging and honest account of his life in diplomacy. It is a life that is often fascinating and sometimes dreary, filled in equal measure with engaging work, and diplomatic humdrum. Entertaining and admirable characters fly off the page, as do tedious bureaucratic infighters and oddball dictators. Burns has written both a personal history of the later Cold War years and the American unipolar moment, as well as a reckoning with personal failures and triumphs. The result is a burning 512-page defense of international engagement in an aggressive world; of the value of diplomats.
One day in the mid-1970s a bright, young American student with an interest in world politics sat across from his tutor at Oxford University. ‘You Americans’, his tutor remarked, ‘tend to be impatient about the world’s imperfections, and convinced that every problem has a solution’. When asked what was wrong with that, the tutor answered that, although he admired American ingenuity, ‘diplomacy is more often about managing problems than solving them’.1
This was the first lesson Bill Burns learned about diplomacy, and it would stay with him for the rest of his life. In 1979, as the hostage crisis unfolded in Teheran, Burns decided to apply theory to practice and took the Foreign Service exam. He passed the exam, and embarked on a long and impressive career as a diplomat for the US State Department. His tenure there stretched from 1982, when he was first posted to Jordan as a consular official, until 2014, when he retired as Deputy Secretary of State – a rank seldom achieved by career diplomats.
Values and decency
Diplomacy was once described by Henry Kissinger as ‘the patient accumulation of partial successes’. An accurate description, if not a great recruitment slogan. In international relations, quick victories are not easy to come by, and often come at a cost to long-term solutions. There will always be crises, just as there will always be only a limited range of options available to resolve them. That is, if they can be resolved through diplomacy at all.
A career of proximity to power left him with a treasure trove of stories, and some hard-earned lessons
This is enough to make most people passive or cynical, not Burns. His career was guided by the strong conviction that values and decency should be at the heart of America’s foreign relations. During his long tenure at the State Department he served under ten Secretaries of State, and frequently found himself in positions of influence. A career of proximity to power left him with a treasure trove of stories, and some hard-earned lessons. He would frequently rediscover the truth of his tutor’s observation, although as this book attests – he would continue to find it a hard notion to accept.
Close to power
From the early years of his career, Burns often found himself close to power and events. As a junior official in the late 1980s, he was given a leading role in Secretary James Baker’s policy planning department, the desk which provided the Secretary with strategic analysis and advice. Baker leaned heavily on his policy planning staff, which gave them ‘a huge (and daunting) opportunity to shape strategies and decisions’ at a crucial moment in world history.
Not to everyone’s appreciation. Thomas Friedman once described the young staff there as ‘still-wet-behind-the-ears whippersnappers with too much authority for their tender years’.2 It was these youngsters who guided American foreign policy as the Cold War ended, and Burns was at the centre of it. This was to remain a signature quality of his career. He frequently skipped rungs on the career ladder, but seldom appears to have been out of his depth. This dedicated professionalism made him ambassador early in his career, and would continue to carry him upward.
Failures and turbulent years
There were failures, of course. Iraq being the most important one, and Burns does not spare himself. The Iraq invasion, he tells us, was ‘born of hubris, as well as failures of imagination and process’.3 At the time of the invasion, Burns put together a memo highlighting everything that could go wrong, but did not press on with his objections when they went unanswered.
Looking back, he wonders why he did not resign, and still finds his answer ‘garbled and unsatisfying, even with the benefit of a decade and a half of hindsight’. Part of it, he tells us ‘was about loyalty to my friends and colleagues, and to Secretary Powell; part of it was the discipline of the Foreign Service … part of it was selfish and career-centric … and part of it I suppose, was the nagging sense that Saddam was a tyrant who deserved to go’.4
Burns was in the middle of it all
So Burns stayed, and carried on the upwards march through the ranks of the State Department that ultimately made him a senior official in Obama’s administrations. These were the turbulent years of an attempted reset in American relations with Russia, the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, rising tensions between the United States and China and the crisis in Yemen. Burns was in the middle of it all. He sat in the Situation Room during the raid on Bin Laden, and oversaw the talks which led to the Iranian nuclear deal. As a colleague reminded him in the aftermath of Iraq: ‘there’s honor in continuing to serve, so long as you’re honest about your dissent.’
Honorable dissent, it seems, has become more difficult than it used to be. Perhaps it is telling of the current state of American politics that Burns feels the need to open his book with several truisms about diplomacy, explaining that ‘diplomatic engagement is not a favor to an adversary, but a means of reconnaissance and communication’. The current state of debate in the United States has upended many perceived wisdoms, including this one.
Burns points out that the American Army employs more band musicians than the State Department does diplomats
In a telling aside, Burns points out that the American Army employs more band musicians than the State Department does diplomats. It’s an observation that echoes what general Jim Mattis stated before US Congress in 2014: ‘If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.’ Burns’ memoirs hold up a mirror to the American political establishment which shows that the rise of hyper-partisanship has torn apart any remaining consensus on foreign policy.
The value of diplomacy
The Back Channel is about more than the life of a single diplomat or a reappraisal of diplomacy. Ultimately, it is a book about dignity, respect, patience, and the value of public service. Burns’ memoirs are erudite, beautifully written, and inspiring. They shed light on the qualities that diplomats ought to have, and should be read by all who follow international politics.
The reason why is illustrated by one particular episode of Burns’ career. In 2004 he oversaw the talks with colonel Muammar Gaddafi that led to the end of the Libyan nuclear weapons program. It was a slow, difficult, and frustrating process, but the situation proved resolvable. And, in Burns’ words: ‘that’s ultimately what diplomacy is all about – not perfect solutions, but outcomes that cost far less than war and leave everyone better off than they would otherwise have been.’5 Seldom has the value of diplomacy been expressed more clearly.
William J. Burns
The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal
Published by Random House (New York)
ISBN: 978 05 2550 886 1