One glimpses early on in The Back Channel why William Burns ascended so swiftly to the highest rank attainable by career Foreign Service officers in the State Department, why he was destined to earn a hallowed spot alongside Kennan and Kissinger on the “very short list of American diplomatic legends,” as Secretary of State John Kerry declared on the occasion of Burns’s retirement in 2014.
It was due to something more than a rare combination of analytic brilliance, political savvy, linguistic gifts, deft personal touch, literary grace, and dry humor. In an engrossing autobiography that exceeds 500 pages, Burns chooses to devote to his formative years — his life before college and before the sparking of his interest in international relations — all of three breezy paragraphs, and then only for the narrow purpose, as he tells us, of discerning where along the line “a few useful diplomatic qualities began to emerge.”
Divulged in those three paragraphs is that Burns was an Army brat; his father was a field-artillery officer in Vietnam who later served in high-level diplomatic posts, including as director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Making twelve cross-country moves and attending three high schools forced the young Burns to learn how to adapt rapidly to new environments and cultures; but the “constant bouncing from post to post” also created in the future ambassador to Jordan and Russia, the future under secretary and deputy secretary of state, “a detachment about people and events, . . . a reluctance . . . to get too close or too invested.” Burns allows that the rootlessness of his Catholic family was “sometimes painful” but otherwise tells us nothing about that pain or his Catholicism or about whether either shaped his craft.
The reader is served notice at the outset: Beyond the exciting, often dizzying story of Burns’s public career, the author’s psyche and soul shall remain undisclosed, off limits. Though it is absent from the copious advice he offers aspiring diplomats, Burns nonetheless advertises, through omission, his conviction that at the negotiating table, rewards await those skilled at withholding.
In its recollections of service to six presidents and ten secretaries of state — blending private conversations in the Oval Office, the Situation Room, and overseas palaces with excerpts from newly declassified cables, memoranda, and emails — The Back Channel enlightens and enriches, providing a wild ride through the elite precincts of Washington and foreign capitals. It is an essential volume on modern international relations.
Anyone familiar with Burns’s buttoned-down public persona, that of the quintessential Foreign Service officer, will be little surprised by his encomia to internationalists (George H. W. Bush, Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, the Clintons, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama) and his disdain for unilateralists (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Donald Trump).
The author mounts a sustained attack on Mr. Trump’s “narrow-minded, art-of-the-deal mercantilism” and his “belligerent unilateralism . . . and unreconstructed nationalism” and laments his withdrawals from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Burns acknowledges, though, that the American electorate has for some time shared the president’s wariness of U.S. engagement abroad, his skepticism of the value of multilateral institutions and accords:
Donald Trump’s election and Britain’s decision to exit the European Union both reflected a deep popular unease, a growing anxiety that the dislocations of a globalized economy are not worth the benefits, that globalization not only doesn’t lift all boats, but homogenizes political culture and obscures national identity. . . . Donald Trump didn’t invent all of these trends and troubles, but he has fed them and made them worse. His erratic leadership has left America and its diplomats dangerously adrift, at a moment of profound transformation in the international order.
While President Trump’s bluntness of speech and manner is assuredly not always an asset to him, we are obliged to ask: Would Bill Burns have regarded it as any less malign, would he have seen it as anything other than the “feeding” and “making worse” of the concerns that the author himself acknowledges Americans are justified in harboring about globalization, if some other, more traditional politician, more polished at public communication, had put forward a program of policies, as Mr. Trump has done, that are truly responsive to these sentiments of the electorate? From The Back Channel, one comes away understanding clearly that Burns believes that the American people must be better educated, or simply persuaded by a larger, better-funded cadre of Foreign Service officers, that they are wrong about globalism. The ostensibly benign paternalism of such a view is reminiscent of Henry Kissinger’s exclamation about Chile in 1970: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
One might agree with Burns that the budgetary decimation of the State Department since 2017, accelerating a trend that began at the end of the Cold War, is ill advised and destructive to American interests. But the author is wrong to suggest that President Trump shows no interest in diplomacy, or that his conduct of foreign policy has been devoid of the kind of creativity and imagination, the capacity to reexamine fixed views, that Burns elsewhere prescribes. Mr. Trump’s throwing off decades of conventional wisdom in meeting directly with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un reflected just such daring, and while those talks have stalled, they nonetheless appear, at least temporarily, to have cooled the dangerously high temperatures that afflicted the Korean Peninsula in the Obama era.
Nor should Burns assail President Trump for “disregard for Africa and Latin America.” The administration’s current push to help Venezuelans achieve self-determination in their country — a multifaceted exercise in multilateral diplomacy — hardly bespeaks a lack of interest in Latin America. And where the African continent is concerned, while Mr. Trump has not made it a priority, it is the former deputy secretary of state who relegates the subject, on page 391 of his 512-page memoir, to a single sentence.
One of Burns’s stops along his meteoric rise was the acting directorship of the State Department’s Policy Planning Office, a Foggy Bottom preserve long imbued by U.S. foreign-policy elites with an aura of romanticism. It was there, after all, in 1946, that one of Burns’s predecessors, George Kennan, wrote his legendary 5,500-word “long telegram” outlining the policy of containment toward the Soviet Union that became the blueprint for American diplomacy throughout the Cold War. The ultimate triumph of the Foreign Service analyst! Listen to us — we have the answers! The policy-planning staff functions as a kind of in-house think tank at State, with experts preparing detailed assessments of short-term crises and long-term global trends, often written — am I the next Kennan? — in self-consciously literary style.
Burns’s official communications can make for thrilling reading. In a cable to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, dispatched from St. Petersburg in June 2007, Burns reports having his sharpest exchange ever with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The latter was convinced the U.S. embassy was conspiring with Russian nongovernmental organizations to undermine his reelection. “Outside interference in our elections will not be tolerated,” Putin warned Burns on the sidelines of an economic forum. “We know you have diplomats and people who pretend to be diplomats traveling all over Russia encouraging oppositionists.”
When Burns, summoning “the most even tone I could manage,” countered that the U.S. favored no specific candidates, only free and fair elections, Putin responded with “a tight-lipped smile” and an admonition: “Don’t think we won’t react to outside interference.”
Such anecdotes punctuate a narrative framed by Burns’s stints in Jordan and Russia and the major foreign-policy events of his career: the collapse of the Soviet Union; the reordering of the post–Cold War era; the September 11 attacks; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; the resurgence of an aggrieved Russia and the rise of a confident China; the Arab Spring; the Syrian civil war; and the Iran nuclear deal, in which Burns took the lead.
It was the slender, mustachioed Burns who conducted the first secret talks with the Iranian regime by a U.S. official in decades. And it was Burns who hammered out the first draft of what ultimately became the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action: the accord finalized in July 2015 by Iran and the “P5+1” group (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), which gave Tehran relief from financial sanctions in exchange for mostly temporary limitations on Iran’s nuclear activities.
Facilitated by, and initially held in, Oman, the back-channel negotiations with Iran started in February 2013 and reflected a framework President Obama set for Burns and his colleague in the talks, Jake Sullivan, prior to their first trip. The president “was convinced,” Burns writes, “that we’d never get an agreement with the Iranians without some limited form of domestic enrichment.” Burns agrees:
They had the knowledge to enrich, and there was no way you could bomb, sanction, or wish that away. Maybe we could have gotten to a zero-enrichment outcome a decade earlier, when they were spinning a few dozen centrifuges. That was extremely unlikely to happen in 2013, with the Iranians operating some nineteen thousand centrifuges.
Much is withheld here. There is no reference, for example, to Burns’s admission, 23 pages earlier, that by the last year of the Bush-Cheney administration, Iran was operating 4,000 centrifuges — meaning that roughly 75 percent of the centrifuges that were spinning at Natanz and Fordow when Burns and Sullivan began their back-channel diplomacy, so constrained on the matter of enrichment, were installed on Mr. Obama’s watch.
Nor does Burns wish to be reminded that President Obama’s determination that Iran must not be stripped of its domestic enrichment capability — that U.S. negotiators had to accede to the regime’s insistence on its “right to enrich” — in fact reflected a departure from the president’s previous posture on that critical element of the agreement.
As Fred Fleitz noted on National Review Online the day the deal was announced, Mr. Obama had a lengthy history of arguing against Iran’s right to enrich. “The world must work to stop Iran’s uranium-enrichment program,” Senator Obama told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in March 2007, a month after declaring his candidacy for the presidency. Five and a half years later, seeking reelection as president, Mr. Obama promised, during a debate with Republican nominee Mitt Romney: “Our goal is to get Iran to recognize it needs to give up its nuclear program and abide by the U.N. resolutions that have been in place. . . . But the deal we’ll accept is — they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward.”
Another issue on which Burns’s recollections would be pertinent is the bombshell disclosure by the New York Times, in March 2015, that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had used a private server to send and receive some 60,000 emails, many highly classified. Recall that even FBI director James Comey, as he recommended the following year that Mrs. Clinton not be prosecuted, concluded that she and her top aides at State had been “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” adding, “We assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail account.”
On this, Burns, who extols Secretary Clinton as “smart” and “unfailingly sober and well prepared,” and who emphasizes the need for diplomats to exhibit, above all else, “judgment, balance, and discipline,” remains silent. One wonders: If any of the thousands of diplomats who reported to Bill Burns across his 35 years in government had ever committed the same offense, would he or she have benefited from the same inattentiveness?
Burns is not without criticism for himself and his fellow career Foreign Service officers. At various points along the grand sweep of history recounted in The Back Channel, he remonstrates. His greatest regret remains his failure to do more to try to dissuade President George W. Bush from launching the Iraq War. The author acknowledges that the bureaucracy where he spent his career is bloated and unwieldy; but while Burns vaguely advocates “delayering” a State Department too long encumbered by “too many layers of approval and authority,” he stops short of offering any specific ideas. Since he complains that assistant secretaries are too often marginalized in policymaking, would he advocate the elimination of the under secretary ranks, in which he served?
More inclined here than in his cables from post to provide a happy ending, or something like it, Burns expresses confidence in the American enterprise, and in the prospects for diplomacy to flourish again. He rests his optimism on our core values and continued financial and military might. There is something else at work: The American ideal, which extends beyond civics to popular culture and other realms, endures as a force for global change. On his first diplomatic mission, an ill-fated drive from Amman to Baghdad in 1983, Burns is surprised when one of Saddam Hussein’s policemen privately confesses admiration for Charlie’s Angels. Thirty years later, Burns observes at the dawn of the Arab Spring that the protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square were “fueled by their mounting awareness in a digital world of what others had that they did not.”
This article appears as “Diplomatic Disclosures” in the April 22, 2019, print edition of National Review.