Bill Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the oldest international affairs think tank in the United States. Ambassador Burns retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after a thirty-three-year diplomatic career. He holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service, career ambassador, and is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become deputy secretary of state.
Prior to his tenure as deputy secretary, Ambassador Burns served from 2008 to 2011 as under secretary for political affairs. He was ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from 2001 to 2005, and ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001. His other posts in the Foreign Service include: executive secretary of the State Department and special assistant to former secretaries of state Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright; minister-counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Moscow; acting director and principal deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff; and special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council.
Ambassador Burns speaks Russian, Arabic, and French, and he has been the recipient of three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and a number of Department of State awards, including three Secretary’s Distinguished Service Awards, two Distinguished Honor Awards, the 2006 Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Ambassadorial Award for Initiative and Success in Trade Development, the 2005 Robert C. Frasure Memorial Award for Conflict Resolution and Peacemaking, and the James Clement Dunn Award for exemplary performance at the mid-career level. He has also received the highest civilian honors from the Department of Defense and the U.S. intelligence community. In 2013, Foreign Policy named him “Diplomat of the Year”.
Ambassador Burns earned a bachelor’s in history from LaSalle University and master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar. He is a recipient of four honorary doctoral degrees and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Ambassador Burns is the author of Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, 1955-1981 (State University of New York Press, 1985). In 1994, he was named to Time magazine’s list of the “50 Most Promising American Leaders Under Age 40” and to its list of “100 Young Global Leaders.”
He interviewed Jenifer Hanki on April 3rd, 2018.
Since taking office in 2017 President Trump has been taking a hardline, at least rhetorically, on Iran. He has accused the country of directly supporting terrorists. Last week it was announced that former Bush administration official John Bolton (who has been vehemently opposed to the deal from the beginning) would be joining the administration as his third national security advisor. Michael Pompeo, who has been nominated as the new secretary of state, has described the agreement as “deeply flawed.” Does this spell disaster for the Iran nuclear agreement? If the Trump administration tears up the agreement, will this ostracize the United States from its remaining European Allies? What do you expect the response from Russia and China?
The short answer is yes; we would be ostracized. We would ostracize ourselves for sure should the United States’ president walk away from the agreement, and we will walk away alone. There is no question that there would be a split between us and our closest European allies. In a sense we would be doing Putin’s work for him by creating friction between the United States and the allies and the transatlantic alliance. It's hard to predict exactly what the further consequences would be in the short-run, but there's no question that this would be the reality. According to well over a dozen affirmations by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iranians are living up to their side of the bargain just as we are. If we walk away in the face of such evidence of compliance, then it would be extraordinarily difficult and likely impossible to rebuild any economic and political pressure against the Iranians should they choose to restart their nuclear program. Considering the tensions and the fragility of this region, this would yet again add another layer of tensions. I don’t mean to suggest that Iranian behavior in the Middle East doesn't create a lot of challenges for the United States and a lot of our partners. Indeed it has been stoking tensions in places that range from Lebanon and Syria to Yemen. The smart approach begins with embedding the nuclear agreement in a wider strategy that tries to make common cause with our partners to push back against those actions. If we're the party responsible for the blowing up of the Iranian nuclear agreement, it would make it harder not easier to mobilize those countries.
Over the last two decades, power has been shifting from the West to the East. As you’ve mentioned before, you predict that within the coming decade, the four global powers will be “Pacific Powers,” Russia, China, Japan, and the United States. How do you see this new shift affecting U.S. relations with China? Recent trends in U.S.-China relations are not encouraging. Do you believe they are headed for long-term strategic conflict?
What I meant by that is when you look in 10 to 15 years from now, the four big economic powers will likely be China, United States, India, and Japan – all Pacific Powers, though I don’t want to give short shrift to the Europeans since they are still a significant player. History is full of collisions between rising powers like China and established powers like the United States and if we’re being honest with ourselves, there is that possibility if U.S.-China relations don't work out in the next 5 or 10 years. I don't think that it's inevitable The reality is that the China and the United States are entangled far more than the United States and the Soviet Union were in the Cold War. The United States has a lot of assets across the Asia-Pacific in a web of allies and partners, from India where we have built up a strong partnership, to Southeast Asia, and to our closest allies such as South Korea and Japan. If the United States plays its hand well, it seems to me that you could build that stable mix between competition and cooperation, but the U.S.-China relationship is going to be the single most consequential and significant issue I think before American diplomacy as well as before Chinese diplomacy.
Since the invasion of Georgia and occupation of Crimea, Russia has been steadily becoming more aggressive in its foreign policy. With evidence of Russian involvement in American elections, do you think the United States is equipped to respond vigorously to Russia’s international aggressiveness? After the most recent round of diplomatic expulsions, where is the U.S.-Russian relationship headed?
The reality is that the U.S.-Russia relationship is likely to be largely adversarial, certainly with Putin's Russia. That doesn't mean that there won't be some issues where we can work with Russia, such as nuclear arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. There it's important for us to find some common ground. But I think in many other areas the record of the last decade has suggested that we're going to encounter a fair amount of friction. It was encouraging that Trump administration expelled 60 Russian spies in solidarity with the British after the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy in the UK. What was especially encouraging is that the Trump administration worked with our European allies, Australia, Canada and others to deliver a firm collective response to the Russians. The big question is whether this is one-off or the beginning of a long-term strategy. I'd like to think that it is but then you have the president, who suggested in his recent phone conversations with Putin a summit at the White House. So there's incoherence in American policy right now. Putin is very agile tactically and he'll take advantage of such incoherence. It will get harder to mobilize our allies and partners if they’re not sure whether or not cabinet principals in the administration really do reflect what the president is thinking or whether there's a disconnect between the president and the rest of the administration. So until that gets sorted out it'll get harder to have an effective Russia policy.
I think it is really crucial to understand how serious Russia’s influence on our political system was when they meddled with the 2016 elections. Many of the frictions that we've had with Putin’s Russia in the last 10-15 years have been in areas where he probably had more at stake than we did, like Ukraine or Georgia for example. But the stakes are much higher for us and our allies when Russia interfered in our elections and attempted to assassinate a former Russian spy on British territory. That’s why it’s important for us to be firm.
While North Korea has continued building up its nuclear arsenal, president Trump has agreed to meet with Kim Jong Un in May of this year. This development has prompted Xi Jinping to invite Kim to Beijing. Is the United States driving North Korea back into Chinese arms? Does the Trump administration have a coherent strategy in dealing with the threat from North Korea?
On the one hand this administration in the last year-and-a-half that it's been in office has done an effective job in mobilizing economic sanctions pressure against Kim Jong-Un. There are a series of UN Security Council resolutions that have led to firm implementation of sanctions, including by China. That's an important part of a coherent strategy. The summit meeting is, in many ways, a hopeful sign but it's also a risky step in the sense that typically a summit meeting requires buildup – you don't work your way from the top. Most of our efforts in the last 25 years for the North Korean nuclear program haven't succeeded. Maybe there's something that will come of this. After this summit, it's going to be important if you're going to build a coherent strategy to work very closely with our allies, starting in South Korea, and then to have a very good line of communication with the Chinese. One has to be realistic about how you can go about limiting the North Korean nuclear missile program. So working with those who have a lot at stake is vital since my personal view is that it will be quite unlikely that the North Korean regime will denuclearize – at least not at a price worth paying for us. However, there is a lot that you can do to dramatically lock in limitations or build verification and inspection measures to make it harder for the North Koreans to try to expand their program in the future. That's going to require not just a big dramatic summit meeting, but a lot of diplomatic efforts. The president runs the risk of inflating expectations. You could set yourself up for a bigger fall if you're not able to create some progress. On the flip side of the coin is that you can have military tensions rising very quickly. The president has the tendency to “wing it” and this is not a very healthy approach.
The most important asset the U.S. has is its alliance with democratic countries in Europe and Asia. A deep rift appears to have emerged since the arrival of the Trump administration. How has this rift affected the alliance so far? How well do you think America’s traditional allies are coping with the Trump administration?
The large majority of our traditional allies are confused by some of the policies that the president has promoted and the speeches he has made. One of the greatest assets America holds in the world and what sets us apart from lonelier allies such as Russia or China is that we have alliances. The U.S. has the capacity to mobilize other countries and we squander that at a huge cost. It’s clear that the administration so far has sent very mixed messages about the importance of building relationships with our alliances. President Macron is going to visit for his first state visit. Personally, I think Macron has handled our president fairly well on issues that he’s disagreed with, for example, the withdrawal from the Paris Agreements, or being clear on the Iran Nuclear Agreement. He also invited Trump to the Bastille Day celebrations last year and has found ways to play to his desires.
There has been a great deal of turmoil in the Trump administration’s foreign policy team. In particular, the State Department has seen turnover at its highest level and many key positions are unfilled. In particular, with what seems like many gaps that still need to be filled within Trump’s Asia team and forthcoming policy, how has this affected America’s Asia strategy? Given the ongoing chaos in the State Department, what should we expect in terms of Washington’s Asia strategy in the near future?
The State Department has been corroded in two ways. First, there is the dismissiveness of this president towards diplomacy. When the president was asked six months ago about the large number of senior vacancies in the State Department, he said something along the lines of “I’m the only one that matters.” Such dismissiveness of diplomacy is a huge mistake. Second, I’ve never seen anything like the slowness of the pace of filling these senior jobs. There’s no assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, no U.S. ambassador for South Korea, and you have a State Department that is quite demoralized right now. There are six regional assistant secretaries, and there is only one right now who has been permanently confirmed by the Senate. The other five are vacant. Something like 30 percent of our embassies around the world do not have ambassadors, including South Korea. This administration has tried to cut the budget of the State Department. There is a big drop of young people applying to the State Department as well. I don’t mean to recite statistics, but it just shows how bad the damage has gotten. It takes a lot longer to repair the wounds that are self-inflicted than it is to create them. It might take years to repair the damage done. I think, though, Mike Pompeo has an opportunity to begin to reverse some of those trend lines and that will be an interesting test.