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Losing Diplomatic Immunity

Ambassador William Burns worries America is wasting its foreign policy booster.

America’s greatest asset is going to waste and without it, the American-led order crumbles.

That was the main message that Ambassador William Burns had for The Fletcher School in a wide-ranging conversation on the state of global international affairs: America is losing its leadership role on the world stage as a result of its turn away from the diplomacy that got it there in the first place.

Diplomacy matters, Burns said, but the current American leadership doesn’t seem to know it, even as crisis and conflict spread across the globe.

“I’ve never seen a moment when it’s mattered more, and I’ve never seen a moment when it’s been more adrift,” Burns said. “I’m afraid what we’re doing is squandering that asset.”

Burns, who is the president of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and the former Deputy Secretary of State, said he’s concerned about the historic budget cuts to the state department. Calling the current administration’s foreign policy a “diplomacy of narcissism,” Burns noted that foreign service applications have dropped about 50 percent amid the Donald Trump administration’s “contempt for diplomacy.”

Burns, a “career diplomat” holding the highest rank in the Foreign Service, knows the power of good diplomacy. In his 33-year diplomatic career, Burns worked in Iran, Iraq, Russia and other global hot spots and has seen the fruits of skillful diplomacy. It’s not going to solve everything, he said, but when backed by military and economic leverage, diplomacy has helped the United States get a lot of what it wants.

Somehow, America needs to revive that tradition, he said, or it will face consequences.

Burns, who recently published the book "The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal," pointed to Russia as the major current threat to American interests.

“Most of my grey hair comes from serving in Russia,” said Burns, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. “In order to understand the smoldering aggressiveness of Putin’s Russia, you have to understand Yeltsin’s Russia as well.”

Burns said Russia’s post-1989 era was characterized by a mix of hope and humiliation, a period of enormous disorder. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had been a KGB agent in East Berlin when the Berlin Wall fell, feels deeply aggrieved by what he perceives as America taking advantage of Russian weakness after the fall of the Soviet Union. To Putin’s way of thinking, he can draw a straight line from American meddling in NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, through the “color revolutions” in the Balkans in the 2000s, and to Russian popular demonstrations in 2011 and 2012.

When Hillary Clinton, at that time Secretary of State, made statements about those demonstrations, Putin took it personally, Burns said. So, during the 2016 election, when Putin saw a deeply polarized and dysfunctional system, he figured that - at a relatively minor cost - he could take advantage and sew chaos in the American electoral system.

Ambassador Bill Burns speaking

“He put his thumb on the scales, but I think Putin was probably as surprised as Trump was on election night,” Burns said. “The best case was that you have a Trump administration that might seek to end sanctions, but a second best was a United States in chaos, consumed by investigations. Putin is convinced the way to create space [for Russia’s rise] is to chip away at the American-led order.”         

And America is making that easier by wasting its diplomatic strength.

Burns pointed to President Trump’s recent decision to formally recognize Lebanon’s Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War, as official Israeli territory as one example of bad diplomacy. He called it a gift to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad but especially, once again, to Putin.

“You can be sure that one of the first people to point to the decision is Putin,” Burns said, referencing Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. “That erodes the landscape where we’re going to end up in a world as Hobbes envisioned, where its everybody against everybody else. Rules do matter.”

As far as successes go, Burns said the Iranian nuclear deal inked by President Barack Obama should serve as a model for good diplomacy. It was a success of both multilateral international negotiation and direct, secret engagement with the Iranians. And it worked, at least until the Trump administration undid the deal.

“After a decade of work in the Middle East, diplomacy could produce results,” Burns said.

It was one success story in a region where the United States has tallied more losses than wins in recent decades. As the U.S. Stated Department’s Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs from 2001-2005, Burns said he and his colleagues worked to slow the rush to war in Iraq, which he said was his darkest time as a diplomat, and continues to have far-reaching consequences. That war, along with the 2008 financial crisis, brought an end to the “unipolar American moment,” Burns said.

“I’ve been through a lot of dysfunctional periods, but this was by far the most dysfunctional,” he said. “We accelerated the dysfunction. We made it worse.”

If America is to fix the dysfunctional world it’s now living in, it will need to revive its diplomatic tradition, Burns said. The Foreign Service will need to adapt, and diplomats develop new skills. It will need to incorporate greater diversity to serve as a truer reflection of American society.

If it does so, American could once again shape the world environment and head off future problems before they arise, instead of trying to contain them once they do.

“The rise of China is the most consequential challenge on the international landscape,” Burns said. “Containing that rise doesn’t strike me as a sensible approach. A sensible approach is to shape the environment into which China rises.”