Updated: Dec 7, 2019
A Review of "The Back Channel" by William J. Burns
By Daniel Warner
Where is American diplomacy today? Career diplomats are revolting within the United States State Department against their boss, Mike Pompeo, and defying President Trump by testifying before Congress about Trump’s withholding military funds for Ukraine for his personal political ends. Rudy Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York and Trump’s personal lawyer, appears to be conducting American foreign policy, at least in Ukraine. And where is American leadership in the multilateral system? There has been no United States Ambassador to the UN and other International Organizations in Geneva since Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Besides the Hotel President Wilson and Palais Wilson, what is left of Wilson’s multilateral vision and legacy?
In an extensive memoir, William J. Burns tries to answer questions about diplomacy and America’s current multilateral role. Former Deputy Secretary of State and now President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns’ thirty-three years of diplomatic service for the United States puts him in an ideal position to describe how the “global order that emerged at the end of the Cold War has shifted dramatically.”
"The Value of American leadership is no longer a given."
Who could not be impressed by a diplomatic book praised by former Secretaries of State Clinton, Kissinger, Rice, Kerry, Albright, Schultz and Baker? Who better than Burns to explain how globalization has spurred nationalism and how the “value of American leadership is no longer a given”? While neither directly extolling American exceptionalism nor bemoaning the fading of U.S. predominance, Burns tries to navigate the murky waters of what diplomacy and U.S. foreign policy mean today in a quest to maintain order through diplomacy.
As a career foreign service officer, Burns is tied to order and diplomacy. Despite the current business fad prioritizing creative destruction and Trump’s ad hoc political decision-making, Burns cannot escape the mantra of traditional diplomats. He believes that “the central function of diplomats is to try to manage the world’s inevitable disorders and crises.” What about Greta Thunberg and students marching in the streets? Aren’t they effecting international relations? Certainly not in the traditional sense, but the sixteen-year-old Greta did address the United Nations. What about George Soros, Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates? Aren’t they new actors in international relations, just like CNN, multinational corporations and armed non-state actors?
Burns’ list of successful U.S. interventions such as humanitarian relief in Pakistan and coping with Ebola in Africa as well as promotion of American businesses abroad are all top-down and centralized, reminding the reader of that nostalgic past when people in the U.S. got all their news from the three national channels - NBC, CBS and ABC - and reading the New York Times and the Washington Post. His understanding of diplomacy, in this sense, is more international – between nations – than global, more formal than informal, more institutionalized than spontaneous. How to explain traditional diplomacy to the people in the streets of Hong Kong or the Yellow Vests?
What can we learn from William Burns? While we can certainly agree that “American diplomacy is adrift,” we hesitate to agree with the second part of the sentence “at a moment in history in which it means more than ever to our role as the pivotal power in world affairs.” (italics added)
Certainly, the rise of China and other forces such as technology have weakened post-World War II American dominance. In terms of Geneva and the multilateral system, Burns does have a point. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was instrumental in bringing the League of Nations to Geneva through his adviser Colonel House and the Swiss academic and diplomat William Rappard. International Geneva flourished after the second World War with the assistance of the Rockefeller, Ford and Carnegie Foundations. The 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev Summit in Geneva is part of that tradition.
But that’s the past. Where are we today with American leadership? The United States has withdrawn from the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council. The Conference on Disarmament has had no agenda for over 20 years. Trump’s trade wars with China have undercut the World Trade Organization, which has not concluded the 2001 Doha Round of negotiations.
Is Burns’ recounting of his career an attempt to give hints at how American diplomacy/leadership might revive? First, he gives us considerable details of his three decades career, including the mandatory photos of him with “important” people. But in a world of accelerated time where history is the last thirty seconds on a smartphone screen and when a Commander-in-Chief can change a well-structured military policy in a flash after a quick phone with another leader, do these historical anecdotes matter to us today? When face-to-face diplomacy is being replaced by conference calls, emails and Tweets, and military hardware is being replaced by cyberwarfare, is Burns’ memoir ancient history to be read only by palaeontologists?
In the last chapter, Burns gets down to the questions raised in the preface. For if the initial topic was the state of diplomacy and American leadership therein, Burns points to endemic problems that were exacerbated by Donald Trump’s election. The return of the Cold War rivalry with Russia, China’s growing influence, and continuing Middle East turmoil are among the geopolitical problems presented along traditional power relations lines as well as the incapacity of multilateral institutions like the United Nations to effectively deal with them.
But how to react to a changing environment beyond realpolitik? Burns admits, in a most telling citation of a 1993 memo he wrote about the fluid geopolitical situation:” The resulting chaos is enough to almost make one nostalgic for the familiar discipline and order of the Cold War.”
Reevaluating America's role
According to Burns, the arrival of Donald Trump only weakened America’s global position. While Burns admits that Trump recognized the need to reevaluate America’s role, he criticizes Trump’s policy of America First and the downgrading of traditional diplomacy and the role of the State Department through people like Rudy Giuliani. His hope is that a resilient United States, while no longer “indispensable,” will assume a position as the world’s “pivotal” power in a “post-primacy” world.
Just as Burns calls for a recalibration of America’s dominant post World-War II role from indispensable to pivotal – a distinction without a difference - he also seeks to defend the traditional role of diplomats: “The core roles and qualities of good diplomats are not fundamentally different today from what they were in earlier eras,” he wrote, a clear swipe at the unprecedented number of non-professionals who have important positions in Trump’s State Department. Amidst social media and new technology, Burns stands as firmly on traditional diplomatic interpersonal relations as he does on American exceptionalism.
William J. Burns is a fervent believer in the United States and its leadership in the multilateral diplomatic system. His memoir is full of positive recollections and hopes for the post-Trump era. He concludes by saying: “My faith in our resilience, like my pride in American diplomacy, remains unbounded.” One can ask whether his faith in American resilience is a Kierkegaardian leap of faith beyond the rational, or whether his proposals for reform are merely a last-gasp effort to re-establish a world of order based on American diplomatic leadership. His book is certainly a reminder, however nostalgic, that American diplomacy was foundational to the establishment of the multilateral system and the creation of International Geneva. The question remains whether Burns and others like him can re-establish that order through American diplomatic leadership. My bet, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, is that the global will overwhelm the international, and that people like Greta, Gates and Zuckerberg will have ascending diplomatic importance.
Daniel Warner is a foreign policy expert and a former deputy director of The Graduate Institute in Geneva.