Former diplomat William J. Burns describes U.S. approach to foreign policy

Monday, March 18, 2019 - 8:35pm

William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Public Policy Dean Michael Barr discuss the challenges of diplomacy at the "American Diplomacy in a Disordered World" Vandenberg Lecture in Weill Hall Monday.

William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Public Policy Dean Michael Barr discuss the challenges of diplomacy at the "American Diplomacy in a Disordered World" Vandenberg Lecture in Weill Hall Monday. Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily

The Ford School of Public Policy and the Center for Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies hosted former ambassador William J. Burns on Monday afternoon in the Annenberg Auditorium of Weill Hall to detail the inner workings of American international relations. The event was this year’s Vandenburg Lecture, a series of presentations named after former U.S. Sen. Arthur Vandenburg, a U-M alum, and funded by the Meijer Family Foundation. About 35 people from the Ann Arbor community attended the event, entitled “American diplomacy in a disordered world: A conversation with Ambassador William J. Burns.”

Burns has held several high-level positions within the U.S. State Department spanning decades of administrations. He joined the Foreign Service as a career ambassador in 1982. From there, he served as ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001; assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 to 2005; ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008; secretary for political affairs from 2008 to 2011; and deputy secretary of state to under the Obama administration from 2011 to 2014.

Burns is currently the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a foreign policy think tank focused on promoting peaceful policy among government leaders, business leaders and civil society.  

Public Policy Dean Michael Barr facilitated the conversation as a promotional event for Burns’ new book, “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.”

Barr asked Burns to define what diplomacy means to him and Burns started with a preliminary definition.

“Diplomacy is what we do to promote our interests and values abroad, to try and persuade other government to act in ways that are consistent with ours,” Burns said.

Burns attempted to clear up common misunderstandings about how diplomats work.

“(There’s) the notion that diplomacy is just about talking nicely to people, or indulging foreign leadership — something that I think the president himself sometimes is guilty of — but the truth is, diplomacy is hard work, and it’s about that persistence,” Burns said.

Much of the discussion centered around Burns’ reflections on prior administrations and how they handled international relations. He described his work under the Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations within the Middle East, and emphasized that diplomacy can be a dangerous career. According to Burns, more American diplomats have died in the past several decades than military generals.

Burns shared what he observed to be important for a leader to succeed in international relations.

“You’re never going to get very far in effective diplomacy or effective foreign policy if you don’t have a vision, if you don’t a strategy, if you don’t (have) a theory of what’s animating the international landscape, of what your own strengths are, and connecting ends to means,” Burns said. “You need to have that vision, and the best presidents and the best secretaries of state that I’ve seen and worked for have that.”

When discussing the tough decisions a diplomat has to make, Burns expressed regret in his role under then-Secretary of State Colin Powell regarding the choice to overthrow Saddam Hussein.

“Given all the sectarian differences and grievances and anger that that rigid and autocratic regime was sitting on, once you take that lid off, you could imagine some of the sectored and political consequences that would happen,” Burns said. “My greatest professional regret, as I say in the book, is not acting more effectively to underscore those concerns.”

Burns criticized how President Donald Trump’s State Department handles international relations, noting how following a process can seem inefficient at times, but the absence of process is also troublesome.

“My concern in the current era and this administration is that I don’t really see any process,” Burns said. “Policy gets driven from tweet to tweet. I say that because we’ve been fortunate that as we’re almost two and a half years into this administration, and there hasn’t been a prolonged international crisis yet. Those are the moments when you need a process that’s disciplined.”

Barr asked Burns about his views on a variety of prevalent international issues, including the country’s relationship with Russia, the Iran nuclear deal, the Syrian civil war and Saudi Arabia’s conflict with Yemen. Burns shared an anecdote from meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin on his first day as ambassador to the country.

“In your first meeting (as an ambassador), you present your credentials,” Burns said. “Before I can hand him my letter (of credentials), President Putin saunters forward and says, ‘You Americans need to listen more. You can’t have everything your own way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms.’”

Barr concluded the event by opening up the floor to questions from the audience.

Business graduate student Rodion Stolyar said he attended the event because he heard about it from a friend and is interested in diplomacy.

“I thought that the discussion about how the U.S. positions itself when dealing with Russia was really interesting,” Stolyar said. “I also thought the speaker was very diplomatic in his current assessment of how the government is going now. He was not quick to cast any kind of direct blame or direct criticism, but he was very matter-of-factly describing the U.S. government’s current decision-making process when it comes to international relations.”

Stolyar was eager to read Burns’ book. He appreciated the speaker’s in-depth perspective on diplomacy.

“It just reiterated more of the appreciation of how complex and multi-layered these types of decisions and this type of job is,” Stoyler said. “It always seems simple and easy and one-sided on TV, but a lot of times, people forget how deeply complex and how many nuances there are to it.”