Full disclosure. Bill Burns and I were classmates in the international relations programme at Oxford University. In the early 1980s we embarked on sometimes parallel careers, he as a US diplomat, I as a journalist. Though our relations were cordial, I have seen Burns only three times, and briefly, since leaving university.
Burns was a soft-spoken but articulate, unflappable, intelligent and prematurely wise student. The word at Oxford was that he would be the first to “make ambassador”.
He mastered Arabic and Russian, served as US envoy to Amman and Moscow, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, undersecretary for political affairs and finally as deputy secretary of state. Only one other career diplomat has risen so far.
When he pleaded with Burns to postpone his retirement a second time, then president Barack Obama called him “the ultimate professional”. Burns will likely be remembered as a consummate diplomat, on a par with the legendary George Kennan. His beautifully written book, rich in pen portraits, anecdote and description, is also a meticulous record of three and a half decades of diplomatic history.
A back channel is a secret or unofficial means of communication and the title refers to Burns’s greatest achievement, the July 2015 nuclear accord with Iran, under which the Islamic Republic promised never to develop a nuclear weapon, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
President Donald Trump renounced the accord in May 2018, against the advice of US allies and despite that fact that Iran was in compliance. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani waited one year to announce that Iran would resume its nuclear activities if Europe did not defy Trump’s unilateral ban on trade with Iran.
In an earlier, similar feat, Burns persuaded the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi to compensate the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, renounce terrorism and abandon its nuclear and chemical weapons programmes.
Two quotes summarise a career in damage limitation. Prof Hedley Bull, who supervised Burn’s doctoral thesis at Oxford, told him Americans believe every problem has a solution, “but diplomacy is more often about managing problems than solving them”.
At his oral exam for the foreign service, Burns was asked what was the biggest challenge facing US foreign policy. “I think it’s us,” he replied.
Burns pleaded for reason in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. There was no evidence of Iraqi involvement in the atrocities of 9/11, no regional or international support for a war and “no triggering event”, he argued.
In a memo titled The Perfect Storm, Burns and two colleagues accurately predicted that the fall of Saddam Hussein would lead to widespread looting, the collapse of Iraq’s infrastructure and institutions, sectarian warfare and meddling by regional powers.
“What we did not do… however, was take a hard stand against war altogether, or make a passionate case for containment as a long-term alternative to conflict… That remains my biggest professional regret,” he writes.
Burns asks himself why he did not resign over Iraq. He cites loyalty to friends and colleagues, the discipline of the foreign service “and the conceit that we could still help avoid even worse policy blunders from within the system”.
Burns devoted considerable time and effort to the also futile quest for peace between Israel and Palestinians. When he was ambassador to Amman, his wife Lisa worked in Palestinian refugee camps. His book includes a wrenching description of death and destruction in Jenin after a retaliatory raid by Israel. Burns denounced a draft of a George W Bush speech on Israeli-Palestine as “junk”, called it “patronising and preachy” and warned that “No one… could sell this in the region”.
Though he stops short of blatantly criticising Israel; Burns clearly knows the score.
He came into office with a powerful conviction, untethered to history, that the US had been held hostage by the very order it created; we were Gulliver, and it was past time to break the bonds of the Lilliputians
Trump’s election was a particularly cruel denouement to Burns’s brilliant career. Now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he is frank in his assessment of Trump’s wrecking job on American diplomacy.
Trump has starved the State Department of funds and black-listed diplomats who worked on the Iran nuclear deal. “He came into office with a powerful conviction, untethered to history, that the US had been held hostage by the very order it created; we were Gulliver, and it was past time to break the bonds of the Lilliputians,” Burns writes. “Alliances were millstones, multilateral arrangements were constraints… Trump’s America First sloganeering stirred a nasty brew of belligerent unilateralism, mercantilism, and unreconstructed nationalism.”
In the May/June issue of the influential magazine Foreign Affairs, Burns asks if the State Department can be saved after being “battered, belittled and sabotaged” by Trump. The patriotism, steady nerves and logic-defying optimism that characterised Burns’s career have not left him. It may take a generation, he predicts, but US diplomacy will recover.
Lara Marlowe is Paris correspondent for The Irish Times