Conducted by Kaela Cote-Stemmermann (SC ’18), Interview Editor and April Xiaoyi Xu (PO ’18), Editor-in-Chief
Transcribed by Kaela Cote-Stemmermann
Ambassador William J. Burns is a former career Foreign Service Officer with over 30 years of experience. He previously served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2005 to 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 to 2005, and as the Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001. He is also the second serving career diplomat in history to become U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, the State Department’s No. 2 position. Currently, Ambassador Burns serves as the President for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the oldest international affairs think tank in the U.S. CJLPP interviewed Ambassador Burns before his Athenaeum talk titled “America’s Role in a Changing World.”
CJLPP: Ambassador Burns, how do you see both professional diplomacy and, more specifically, the U.S. Foreign Service evolving to meet current global challenges, particularly in the Trump era where there has been less of an emphasis on diplomacy?
Ambassador William J. Burns: I am quite concerned about the kind of dismissive attitude towards diplomacy that we have often seen in the last year and a half under the current administration, especially from the President himself. There has been a lot of corrosive damage done to the State Department: a huge number of senior positions not filled, about 30 percent of our embassies around the world don’t have ambassadors right now. Additionally, there has been about a 75 percent reduction in the number of people coming into the Foreign Service. What is particularly troubling about all this is that it comes at exactly the moment when, considering the wider U.S. foreign policy question, diplomacy matters more than it ever has for the United States. We are no longer the dominant player in the international system that we once were, but we are still a preeminent player. What that means is that diplomacy needs to become the tool of first resort for tending to alliances, mobilizing coalitions, dealing with great power rivalry and big global challenges like climate change, or developing rules of the road for how to deal with new technologies. There is an opportunity to reverse some of those structural, institutional problems in the State Department, but that will also require a change in attitude at the very top about diplomacy and its utility. I am less optimistic about that.
CJLPP: How do you think the firing of Rex Tillerson will affect the direction of the State Department moving forward?
Burns: I am entirely confident that career officers in the Foreign Service and the Civil Service will be prepared to work very hard for to try and help Mike Pompeo. They may not agree with every policy argument, and their obligation is to make their concerns known within the system, but respect also has to go in the other direction. It is not as if career people in the State Department expect that their recommendations are always going to get followed, but they want their expertise to be taken seriously, they want to be a part of the process, they want to feel like they matter. So, there is a big opportunity but it comes against the backdrop of now almost a year and a half of a lot of damage being done.
CJLPP: You have worked with over 10 Secretaries of State. How do they compare, and who are some figures that stand out in your mind?
Burns: I learned a long time ago to not to compare them individually. [Laughter] I was very fortunate because I have worked for 10 Secretaries and five Presidents from both parties over the course of almost 35 years. A large part of this experience is the intersection of people and events. So, if you think about the period, for example, when James Baker was the Secretary of State at the end of the Cold War, or the reunification of Germany, or Operation Desert Storm that pushed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, or the Madrid Peace Conference that came after: those are pretty important examples of how diplomacy can help produce real tangible progress for the United States and for other people around the world. Baker deserves a lot of credit for that too. That is just one example, and I have been lucky to see each Secretary navigate really consequential events with enormous skill and leadership.
CJLPP: Throughout your career you have been instrumental in countless bilateral negotiations. Looking back on all of this, what was the biggest challenge you faced during your time at the State Department and how was it resolved?
Burns: The Iran nuclear negotiations, especially the secret talks, which I led throughout most of 2013, was certainly a big challenge. But that is what you become a diplomat to do—to take on big challenges. The fact that, after 35 years of no sustained contact with the Iranians, we were able to create not just an opening but also an interim agreement, which eventually led to the comprehensive agreement in 2015, was an important illustration of the significance of diplomacy. But there are other moments when you have profound questions about the direction of policy. I ran the Near East Bureau for Colin Powell in the run up to the Iraq War in 2003 and many of my colleagues and I, in various bureaus of the State Department, had profound reservations about the direction in which policy was going. We tried hard to be honest about those concerns, to point out everything that could go wrong on the day after we overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We did not get all of them right, but it was our obligation to try—to make clear our dissent, even when it was not convenient for people. There was something like 20 of my colleagues in the State Department who resigned over Bosnia policy 25 years ago in the early 90s. Another three resigned over the Iraq war in 2003. That is the other choice that people sometimes make when they cannot in good conscience pursue a policy, and I have tremendous respect for people who did that. Those aren’t easy decisions. It is not just an ethical decision, or a professional one; it is a family one too. Particularly if you have invested 15-20 years into a certain profession. As a diplomat you end up wrestling with a lot of difficult issues, but that was probably the hardest one I had to face.
CJLPP: You currently serve as the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. To what extent do top think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment currently impact policy-making, and in what ways do you think that think tanks are moving to increase the scope of their impact?
Burns: The Carnegie Endowment aspires to be a global institution. We have six centers around the world, about half of our scholars are American citizens, half are not. We try not to see problems through the prism of just Washington D.C., or as just an American problem. This is especially important today when power is more fragmented than before. You cannot understand problems and how to deal with them just through the lens of American foreign policy. We try to be strategic in the sense that while it is tempting to just chase after headlines, there is a risk of becoming a type of punditry call center. It is important to be able to comment on breaking news, but also draw attention to some of the longer, more detailed work that we do. In the digital world, you want to take advantage of all tools that you can. But, we try to be strategic, so we look at second- and third-order consequences that might be coming around the corner as well. Finally, we are an independent institution, which is increasingly rare in Washington, D.C. Institutions often get categorized one way or the other; either in terms of political party or because of contributions you get from particular donors. We try very hard to preserve our independence and to put out independent, fact-based analysis and thoughtful recommendations about policy.
CJLPP: Could you comment on how your role in diplomacy has shaped your role at Carnegie?
Burns: When you have a lot of experience practicing diplomacy and foreign policy, it makes you receptive to good ideas from outside of government as well. During my years in government, I knew quite a few scholars at the Carnegie Endowment, and had a lot of respect for them. They were the first people to whom I would turn, outside of my colleagues in government, if I wanted a fresh take on an issue, or to get someone to question the conventional wisdom that builds up in any institution. In that way, practice helps you to understand how best to connect with policy makers, not just in the executive branch––the National Security Council staff, State Department, and the Pentagon––but in Congress as well.
CJLPP: What suggestions do you have for students looking to pursue a career in foreign affairs or international law and policy? Specifically, how would you encourage those who are early in their career to make a real difference in shaping U.S. foreign policy?
Burns: There are a lot more ways to make a difference now than there were when I entered to Foreign Service in the early 1980s, in the sense that there are the traditional routes, such as the Foreign Service or other forms of government service, but you also have NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and international institutions, through which you can make a big difference. It is just a question of building your craft, whether that is learning languages if you want to work overseas, or gaining technology skills, which is going to be a huge challenge going forward. Just like the nuclear challenge 60 or 70 years ago, there aren’t any rules of the road out there for issues like machine learning or biotechnology. One of the big gaps I saw in my last years of government is that, here we would be sitting in the White House situation room and a lot of us at senior jobs were faking it—we didn’t have enough of an appreciation for how the world of technology worked. To be fair, there are a lot of people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere who didn’t have much of a feel for public policy either. There is now a better appreciation on both sides in terms of bridging that gap, but that is a real opportunity for your generation too. What you need to do is create a generation of people sitting around those tables who understand both dimensions of the challenge: the policy and the tech sector.
That is just one example, but there are lots of possibilities. For all of my worries about the State Department and the Foreign Service today, I still strongly encourage people to take the Foreign Service exam or find other ways in which you can enter public service.
CJLPP: From your own experience, how can you balance your personal beliefs with those of an administration you may not always agree with, particularly when you job is to implement and be the go-between on international policy?
Burns: It’s a really interesting question. I would go back to my example of the Iraq War. As a professional, you have at least a couple of obligations. One is to be disciplined, so you can have personal qualms about specific policy issues, or qualms about how it is being carried out, but your obligation is to not go to the New York Times and tell them about your qualms. On the other hand, you have an equally important obligation to be honest within the system. Speak truth to power. And that is hard to do because it is not always career-enhancing for people to do that, but it is enormously important. Good leaders in a place like the State Department create an atmosphere in which people feel that they can do that––the only way to create good policy is to enable people to question and challenge your assumptions and arguments. I used to say that to all the entering Foreign Service classes; it is a really important part of your professional obligation to do that. But sometimes the choices are just really difficult, when you just profoundly feel that you cannot support a particular policy. And that is when sometimes people leave, which, as I said before, is a very tough thing to do.
CJLPP: Finally, as members of a law journal, we are also very keen on getting your advice for students interested in international law to conclude this interview.
Burns: Law as a profession has traditionally been one of the routes that people take to public service or the Foreign Service as well––and it remains an essential area of expertise and skill in any policy work, whether negotiating agreements and treaties or developing new norms and rules of the road for managing emerging technologies. Currently, the average age of someone entering the Foreign Service today is around 30, so you get people with a good deal of experience and training, such as a law degree. I am glad that I didn’t have to compete with them when I came into the Foreign Service. [Laughter]
CJLPP: Thank you for your time and expertise, Ambassador Burns.