‘Never More Adrift’: William J. Burns on Repairing the Damage Trump Has Done
“We are living through a moment in which diplomacy as a tool of promoting American interests … is even more important than ever,” says William J. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former deputy secretary of state. “And yet, over the three and a half decades that I served as a professional diplomat, I’ve never seen a moment when it’s been more adrift.”
Ambassador Burns joined WPR’s Trend Lines podcast this week to discuss the damage President Donald Trump has done to U.S. diplomacy and how to repair it. Over the course of a 45-minute interview, he shared his alarm at the state of America’s diplomatic institutions, but also Trump’s conception of America’s role in the world, which has turned the “notion of enlightened self-interest on its head, so that it’s all about the ‘self’ part and very little about the ‘enlightened’ part.”
That has undermined America’s position in an international landscape that has become all the more challenging with the rise of China and the proliferation of “problems without passports.” Ambassador Burns says that in the event Trump wins reelection in November, “There’s a big difference between four years, and the damage we’ve seen so far, and eight years. I think if you had a second term of President Trump … that’s going to do permanent damage to American interests in the world.”
Listen to the full interview with William J. Burns on WPR’s Trend Lines podcast.
But even if there is a change of leadership after the election, repairing the damage Trump has done will not be as easy as flicking a switch. “We can afford neither the illusion of thinking that we can restore everything that existed before Trump, nor the illusion of retrenchment,” Ambassador Burns warns. “What we need to do is to try to reinvent … America’s role in the international landscape.”
Over the course of his 33-year diplomatic career, Ambassador Burns served as undersecretary for political affairs, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and ambassador to Russia and Jordan, among many other senior positions in Washington and abroad. The following full transcript of his interview has been lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.
World Politics Review: Ambassador Burns, welcome to Trend Lines and thank you so much for accepting our invitation.
William J. Burns: It’s great to be with you. Thanks so much.
WPR: I’d like to start with a look at the damage Trump has done to institutions and process, beginning with the institution of the State Department. In a recent article for Foreign Affairs, you wrote about the personnel attrition, the overwhelming number of political appointees rather than career diplomats in key positions, vacancies among U.S. Ambassadorships. What impact does that have on the conduct of U.S. diplomacy on the ground, but also in Washington?
Amb. Burns: I think the first thing for Americans to understand is that we are operating on an international landscape today that’s challenging for the United States in lots of different ways. We’re no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block anymore, with the rise of China. And there’s also a rise of “problems without passports”—all of those challenges like climate change, like the pandemic, that the United States and so many other countries around the world are struggling through right now, and like the revolution of technology. All of which demand a form of cooperation, notwithstanding the competition that’s going to go on between the United States and China, and the United States and other countries as well.
It’s going to take a lot longer to fix the institutions of American diplomacy than it’s taken to break them.
And I say all that because I think we are living through a moment in which diplomacy as a tool of promoting American interests in that very complicated world is even more important than ever. And yet, over the three and a half decades that I served as a professional diplomat, I’ve never seen a moment when it’s been more adrift, when our institutions, in particular the State Department, are more in danger of being hollowed out by a White House whose view of that landscape is that American power is best served unilaterally. It’s dismissive of alliances, and it’s dismissive of institutions—like the State Department, and like diplomacy as well—at precisely the moment that I think they matter more than ever.
So that’s what’s at stake now: An intersection of that incredibly complicated moment on the international landscape, and an American leadership which is pointed in almost the opposite direction from what I think American interests involve.
WPR: Now with regard to the actual institutional hollowing out of the State Department, how easy will it be to repair that in the aftermath of a Trump administration, assuming that there’s a change in leadership in November? Is it easy to reinstall the people who have left under a future administration? Or is this a permanent loss of expertise in institutional memory at the State Department at this point?
Amb. Burns: I think a lot of the corrosion that we’ve seen take place over the last three and a half years—and in fairness as part of a drift in American diplomacy for decades before that—is going to be very hard to erase anytime soon. It’s going to take a lot longer to fix the institutions of American diplomacy than it’s taken to break them.
And I would add that it’s not as if all of that drift was invented by Donald Trump. For decades before President Trump was elected, you’d seen a tendency to treat diplomacy—sometimes, at least—as a kind of under-resourced afterthought. The federal budget for the State Department and for the Agency for International Development was cut by about 50 percent between 1985 and the year 2000. As the Cold War was ending, it was natural for Americans to look to what was in effect nation-building at home and dealing with all the deep structural problems that we faced at home. But there was that drift in the focus on institutions of diplomacy.
And then of course came the huge jolt to our system that 9/11 represented and an almost understandable tendency to emphasize even more the military and intelligence tools, and invest less in diplomacy. But if that drift had been going on for a while before President Trump was elected, he certainly accelerated it, in my view, and made it significantly worse with the sidelining of career expertise.
If you just look at one statistic today: There are 28 assistant secretary of state positions in the State Department. These are the senior jobs around which the United States organizes its approach to foreign policy and implements it. Of those 28 assistant secretary of state positions, only one today is held by a career officer confirmed by the U.S. Senate. That’s a proportion unseen in modern American diplomatic history. We have a higher percentage of political appointees as U.S. ambassadors overseas than at any time in modern American diplomatic history. And largely as a result of the hollowing out under this administration, you have a dramatic drop in the number of Americans, both young and a little bit older, who are applying to join the U.S. Foreign Service—a drop of something like 40 percent over the last few years. Those all create structural problems which I think will take a generation to reverse and to fix.
WPR: And in the meantime, in terms of diplomatic tradecraft, how does that show up in terms of communicating with foreign governments, in terms of the kind of inputs that the State Department can make to policy discussions in Washington? Is it the sort of thing that is a severe handicap? Is it debilitating? Or is it the sort of thing where workarounds can be found?
Amb. Burns: It’s hard to find effective workarounds at a time when you have a White House that is dismissive and disdainful of career expertise, with its accusations that all of those people who serve from one administration to another, who serve loyally to the best of their ability both Republican and Democratic administrations, are somehow seen as a “deep state” and as suspect.
Of those 28 assistant secretary of state positions, only one today is held by a career officer confirmed by the U.S. Senate. That’s a proportion unseen in modern American diplomatic history.
And what happens is that, if you’re a foreign government and you see these realities in Washington, what incentive do you have to pay attention to career diplomats in an embassy overseas, when it’s crystal clear as a result of the latest Tweet that their advice and expertise is not given much credence at the White House?
And so it creates a real dysfunction in the way in which we operate in the world and the way in which we pursue American interests in a very complicated international landscape.
WPR: Turning a moment toward process. The impeachment proceeding really shined a light on the dysfunctional process in terms of policymaking under the Trump administration, this idea of a personalized foreign policy, politicized, with parallel tracks of diplomacy, a lack of any visible inter agency process. And then again, what you mentioned, the ad hoc and unstable nature of it, where a post on Twitter can basically undo months of work. What effect does that have beyond the obvious ones? When you’re a U.S. diplomat trying to advance America’s interests, how does that affect your day-to-day function and what you can get done?
Amb. Burns: That makes it a lot more complicated, because you’re not going to be taken as seriously as you ought to be by foreign governments or people in foreign societies, because they’re going to doubt whether or not you’re speaking in effect for an elected political leadership in Washington. I think there were a number of aspects of the Ukraine episode, which you just described, that were deeply disturbing.
First and foremost was the politicization of diplomacy—what Fiona Hill, the former senior National Security Council staff person responsible for Russia and for Europe, said was basically using diplomacy to pursue what she termed “domestic, political errands.” That’s something that’s not only deeply wrong, but it’s deeply corrosive to American interests in a very complicated, vulnerable society like Ukraine.
Why should Ukrainian leadership or people of Ukrainian society pay attention to what the United States says about the need to fight corruption, for example, when we’re in a sense mirroring those same kind of practices, the same kind of politicization of the pursuit of the national interest that for years and years we criticized in other countries? So what happens in a place like Ukraine is that we are actually helping to make that society even more vulnerable to manipulation by big, ambitious, autocratic neighbors like Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
WPR: Do you get the sense that the State Department, besides the senior leadership, is actually playing a role in the formation of U.S. foreign policy today, in terms of informing and implementing policy?
Amb. Burns: I think Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a close personal and political relationship with President Trump, probably as strong a relationship as anybody in the current Cabinet. I’m not sure that translates across the board in the State Department, simply because it’s an institution that’s been so badly hollowed out, and where there’s such disdain, as I mentioned before, in the White House for career expertise as well. So it strikes me that there’s a pretty big disconnect sometimes between the close connection at the very top and the effectiveness of diplomats in the field.
WPR: Looking back at previous administrations, obviously there have been examples in the past where administrations have found their own ways of shaping and even distorting the policy process to their own ends. In that sense the Trump administration is doing it in its own way. What’s unique about the way the Trump administration is doing it and about the damage that’s doing to U.S. diplomacy?
Amb. Burns: It’s a really good question. I think that it has everything to do with the ways in which this is done. To look at some specific instances, take the pushback in this administration against predatory trade and investment practices by the Chinese leadership. In many ways, it’s long overdue, but how do you go about doing that? Instead of making common cause with allies and partners who share some of those same concerns, whether it’s Japan or the European Union, and multiplying the influence that we have over Chinese practices, we went about it in a blunt, unilateralist way, and started second- and third-front tariff conflicts with the European Union, or with Japan over other issues.
So how we go about pursuing those interests on a very complicated and fast-changing international landscape is really important. And I think it’s that unilateralist obsession of this administration that is so counterproductive and runs so counter to where I think American diplomacy at its best would point.
President Trump and his administration have turned that notion of enlightened self-interest on its head. So that it’s all about the “self” part and very little about the “enlightened” part.
You see this in other instances too. I think the Trump administration has been right to push some of our European allies, some of our partners in NATO, to invest more in the common defense than they have in the past. President Trump’s not the first U.S. president to push in that direction. But how we go about doing that makes a big difference. If you go about doing that from the premise that alliances really don’t matter so much, and creating real doubts sometimes among some of our closest European allies about our reliability, that hardly offers them much incentive. It doesn’t push them constructively in the direction of investing more for our collective defense.
WPR: Let me follow up by asking you a hypothetical, and a lot about Trump’s temperament and character makes it almost a fantastical hypothetical. But imagine a President Trump in January 2017 who convenes an interagency process. And he says, “Listen. I know very few of you agree with me and with my agenda, yet it’s the agenda that I’ve been elected to implement by the American people. I know we’ve asked our allies to pay more on defense. I want them to start doing it. I know that we’ve had a lot of goals to maybe draw back the U.S. in terms of our military footprint abroad. I want to start doing it.” How could a president elected to effect a radical change have enlisted U.S. diplomatic tools more effectively to do so?
Amb. Burns: Well I think the objectives that you laid out are ones which a lot of Americans I think rightly support: to shift the terms of our engagement in a really complicated part of the world like the Middle East; to end American involvement in military conflicts. It’s a step that’s long overdue I think, whether it’s Afghanistan or Iraq. But then you have to have enough trust, again, in the professionals that any new administration inherits to provide a clearer sense of direction, to listen a little bit to their advice based on their experience about how you mobilize other countries around those same goals.
In Afghanistan, for example, I think President Trump’s instinct to wind down direct American military involvement there is also long overdue. It’s hard to sustain that military involvement. In fact, it doesn’t make sense to after nearly two decades at war. But how you go about doing this does matter a lot. Not just in dealing with the parties in Afghanistan, but engaging with Afghanistan’s neighbors, all of whom to one degree or another share a cold-blooded interest in making sure insecurity and instability in Afghanistan don’t spill outside its borders. And that’s the essence of what smart diplomacy ought to be about.
So how you go about doing things matters enormously, especially at this moment on the international landscape. And where the Trump administration has made some of its sharpest departures has been away from the notion of enlightened self-interest, which in my experience animated American foreign policy and American diplomacy at its best. In other words, the notion that, of course any country is going to want to promote its own interests, the interests of its people, their security, their health, their prosperity first and foremost. But enlightened in the sense that you want to try to make common cause with other countries around the world who share broadly those same kinds of interests.
Instead, I think that President Trump and his administration have turned that notion of enlightened self-interest on its head. So that it’s all about the “self” part and very little about the “enlightened” part. And I think that’s precisely the wrong prescription for this moment on the world stage.
WPR: Now at the same time, one of the biggest impacts that Trump has had despite his grandiose declarations is that he’s introduced a huge amount of uncertainty and doubt about U.S. foreign policy and dependability among allies, but also among adversaries. How does that affect U.S. diplomacy in terms of trying to generate the kinds of coalitions you’re talking about for some of these very complicated and intricate foreign policy challenges?
Amb. Burns: That does very practical damage to our reliability. And I’d be the last person to suggest that we had a pristine record on that over the 35 years that I was a professional diplomat. We made more than our share of mistakes during that period as well. But at least there was a sense on the part of both our allies and partners as well as our adversaries that, from administration to administration, the commitments made in the prior administration would be upheld in the new administration. Or if there was going to be amendments that inevitably have to be made to take into account changing circumstances, that they were going to be made in a straightforward, predictable way as well.
So if you look at the area of arms control right now, where the Trump administration is on the verge of burying what’s left of the old arms control and nonproliferation architecture in the world, having walked away first from the Iran nuclear agreement, which again wasn’t just between the United States and Iran. It was between most of the world community’s most significant powers and Iran. Then most recently walking away from the Open Skies Agreement, which the U.S. and our NATO allies first reached with the Soviet Union and with Russia to allow some greater transparency and monitoring of military developments.
It’s a mistake to think that you can simply flick a switch after a change in administrations, if that happens this year in our presidential election, and restore the state of alliances and the state of America’s role in the world just as it existed.
And now you have the New Start Agreement, which was reached in the Obama administration and which reduced—and helps to verify and monitor—the strategic nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia. It expires at the beginning of 2021, and right now there’s very little evidence of any interest on the part of the Trump White House in trying to extend that agreement, which is something that’s provided for in the treaty.
And I think if you see a collapse of arms control, that can do huge practical damage to American interests. It can restart arms races at precisely the moment when we can least afford it, when we’re dealing with the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression and still wrestling with the terrible pandemic that is affecting almost every society around the world. Now that’s a time when we want to look soberly at the importance of not only preserving smart agreements that really serve our cold-blooded self-interests as well as the self-interests of others, but doing it in a way which is going to deepen, not undermine, our reputation for being reliable in negotiations.
Why should another government want to negotiate in good faith with a U.S. administration, with this U.S. administration, if you can’t be certain that a new administration comes in and is going to overturn anything that was negotiated by its predecessors.
WPR: You mentioned the Iran nuclear deal, and obviously the European Union, Germany, the U.K. and France were all signatories to the deal. And obviously all had major objections to the U.S. withdrawing and tried for a time to keep the deal on life support, but really weren’t able to do it. And so, what about this argument that other countries will complain, but eventually they’ll come around. The U.S. is the strongest country on earth, and if we shift everything to a bilateral and transactional level, we’ll always get what we want. What does that miss or get wrong about America’s power and its interests?
Amb. Burns: Well, several things, it seems to me, that reflect the ways in which the international landscape is changing. For the first quarter-century or so after the end of the Cold War, the United States was indisputably the singular dominant player on the international landscape. And so, even if it wasn’t always smart to do, we could get our own way on many, if not most, issues just through the sheer weight of our influence in the world.
We’ve moved clearly in recent years into a different era in which we’re no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block. And what that means is that, more than in any recent era, this is a time when the United States needs to look to diplomacy, to working with allies and partners, to help us to shape the rules of the road internationally and reshape institutions which are desperately in need of reform and renovation, in our wider self-interest. In other words, to multiply our influence through allies and coalitions and partnerships.
And instead, what I’m afraid we’re doing today is dividing our influence. We have a White House that’s deeply divisive at home, and we’re equally divisive on the international landscape, undermining what ought to be a unique asset for the United States: our ability to invest in alliances, to draw in coalitions of countries. That really is what sets us apart from lonelier powers like China and Russia, which at least up until now haven’t had those assets to draw upon. So that’s one thing. Just looking at shifts in the balance of power among states in the world.
The second is to look honestly at the huge existential challenges which are posed by those “problems without passports,” the global challenges that go beyond the capacity of any one state to deal with—climate change, most obviously, but also the revolution in technology. How do you maximize the benefits of a revolution in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, while minimizing the obvious dislocations as well? How do you prepare to deal more effectively with this pandemic? How do you prepare for the next pandemic?
All of those require a significant degree of international cooperation—again, not altruistically, not as an abstraction, but in the self-interest of Americans and their health, their security and their prosperity. And so in that sense, that unilateralist tendency of the Trump White House pushes us exactly the wrong direction on a landscape that more than any time in recent memory actually requires us to balance what’s going to be real geopolitical competition with China, for example, with cooperation on a range of other issues.
WPR: In the event that he wins reelection in November, what would another four years of Donald Trump mean for America’s diplomatic relationships and for its global role?
Amb. Burns: I think there’s a big difference between four years, and the damage we’ve seen so far, and eight years. I think if you had a second term of President Trump, you have to assume that you’re going to see a continuation of the instincts and the unilateral blustering that you’ve seen over the course of his first term in office. And I think that’s going to do permanent damage to American interests in the world.
I think there’s a very real prospect that you’ll see alliances not just atrophy, but suffer real permanent damage. I think international institutions that we did so much to help shape over the course of the last three quarters of a century, whether it’s the institutions connected to the United Nations or regional institutions, which are admittedly full of flaws and deeply in need of renovation, can start to really falter as well.
Smart, hard-nosed diplomacy is going to look at ways in which we’re going to have to compete, in which we’re going to have frictions, in which our approach is going to be best grounded in working with allies and partners to magnify our influence over China.
And I think what happens in that circumstance is that our allies start to hedge and lose faith in us. Our adversaries and our rivals—whether it’s China or powers that are resurgent but still declining over the long term, like Russia—take advantage.
And so then you’re left with an international landscape which becomes far more anarchic than what we’ve seen before, which creates greater insecurities among states and makes it that much harder for states to work together to deal with those big overarching existential challenges like climate change.
So I really worry about how the damage will be magnified to American interests on the international landscape if you’re talking about eight years as opposed to four years.
WPR: So now turning to the easy part: cleaning up and repairing the damage [Laughter]. Assuming there is a leadership change in 2020, what will that take to repair the damage that Trump has done to U.S. diplomacy and to its relationships with allies, its relationships in terms of international institutions and its global role? What for you are the most urgent priorities that need to be addressed in terms of the damage that’s been done?
Amb. Burns: Well, first, just an honest assessment of the landscape. I think it’s a mistake to think that you can simply flick a switch after a change in administrations, if that happens this year in our presidential election, and restore the state of alliances and the state of America’s role in the world just as it existed for a decade or two before. I think the world is changing fast. We’re going to have to adapt to that. We can afford neither the illusion of thinking that we can restore everything that existed before Trump, nor the illusion of retrenchment, in other words the notion that you can focus simply on nation-building at home and continue the trend in the Trump administration of not paying much attention to alliances.
I think what we need to do is to try to reinvent, in a way, America’s role in the international landscape. And that does mean reinvesting in alliances and partnerships, but building them in different ways. For the trans-Atlantic alliance, which is as important as any to the United States, we’re going to have to shift and rebalance a little bit the way it operates. The United States is going to need to listen a little bit more to our European allies as well. Some of their approaches to challenges, like those posed by China, are not necessarily going to be perfectly identical to America’s approach, but I think there are ways in which they could be strongly complementary as well.
And by the same token, our European allies are going to need to step up more. Not just in terms of what they do for their own defense, for our common defense, but also in their willingness to take initiative as well. I know that’s easier said than done at a time when, on both sides of the Atlantic, we seem to be suffering from political and nervous breakdowns right now. [Laughter]
So it’s a significant challenge. I think we need to invest more in North America and our relationships with Canada and with Mexico. North America ought to be logically the natural strategic home base for the United States. And instead, especially in the Trump administration, we’ve managed that rare feat in diplomacy, which is to piss off the Canadians, which I think is deeply unfortunate. [Laughter] We have a lot more to do to build on what, potentially at least, could be a lot healthier relations, not just with Canada, but with Mexico as well.
And then in Asia, increasingly the geopolitical and the geo-economic center of gravity on the international landscape, we’re fortunate in that, at least today, we have a web of partnerships and alliances from India all the way across to our traditional treaty allies in Japan and South Korea. We have a capacity to help shape rules of the road, whether it’s on trade, or on how we deal with climate challenges, or the other kinds of challenges across Asia that should help us to shape the environment into which China rises. It’s not as if we have the capacity to block China’s rise, but we certainly have the capacity to shape the environment into which China rises. And that means that we have the capacity, if we’re smart about this and take advantage of that web of partnerships and alliances, that we can affect the incentives and disincentives of a Chinese leadership that’s also going to be dealing with some of the really difficult economic consequences of the pandemic as well.
WPR: At the same time, and it started probably even before the 2016 election and it’s been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, we see this emerging bipartisan tough on China consensus. Where even Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate for president is taking a very hard line in terms of the kind of approach he would take on China. We've seen Trump’s hard line, although it’s a little chaotic and quixotic. Does that worry you? This idea that there is an emerging consensus that we have to get tough on China and maybe even contain China’s rise?
Amb. Burns: I think the reality is that the competition between the United States and China is going to be as central a challenge for American foreign policy as any on the international landscape as far into the 21st century as I can see. How you manage that challenge, how you push back in areas where the behavior of this Chinese leadership threatens American interests and the interests of our allies, we’ve got to be quite resolute and honest—especially regarding human rights abuses. Whether it’s against Uighurs in China, whether it’s against people in Hong Kong today, it doesn’t make any sense for the United States to check our values at the door in expressing those kind of concerns.
But when I say manage competition, we also have to keep in mind those areas that, whether we like it or not, our interests are deeply entangled. It’s certainly true with regard to climate change, where without some form of U.S. and Chinese cooperation, it’s going to be very difficult for the international community to begin to come to grips with that huge challenge and what it means for our shared climate.
Economically, I think you hear a lot of people in the debate in the United States today talk about decoupling our economies. It seems to me that, given the deep entanglement of our economies, that’s going to be impossible. That’s what makes the challenge of competition with China so much different than the Cold War competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, where the U.S. and Soviet economies were almost entirely separated.
You need a strong military to back up your diplomacy. You need a healthy economy. You need the power of example of an American society which is in such short supply today.
I do think, however, that it makes sense, not just for the United States, but you see this on the part of a lot of countries around the world today, to look at ways in which they can sensibly diversify supply chains so that they reduce what is today in some ways an overdependence in certain sensitive sectors on supply chains connected to China.
I think a smart, hard-nosed diplomacy is going to look at ways in which we’re going to have to compete, in which we’re going to have frictions, in which our approach is going to be best grounded in working with allies and partners to magnify our influence over China. But we’re also going to have to work harder to preserve space in those areas where it is going to be crucially important for U.S. and Chinese leaderships to try at least to work together.
WPR: You mentioned this idea of retrenchment and state-building at home. There is another movement that seems to be coalescing these days on both the right and the left around the idea of a foreign policy guided by restraint. Just recently there’s the Quincy Institute, which is funded by George Soros and Charles Koch that sort of epitomizes the bipartisan nature of this movement. Now in all fairness it doesn’t renounce the idea of American global leadership, but it really emphasizes the use of diplomacy over military force, and a much lighter footprint in terms of U.S. forward basing and global security guarantees and even alliances. Can you have U.S. global leadership the way we imagine it, in the way it’s been conceived, without the military component and without the global security component that the U.S. military provides in terms of, for instance, East Asia and the challenge of China, but also elsewhere?
Amb. Burns: In my experience you never get very far in American diplomacy unless it’s backed up by our economic leverage, our military leverage, in better times backed up by the power of our example, our capacity to overcome some very real problems at home of race and of inequality—to make strides forward, not toward a perfect union, but at least to deal with some of our imperfections. We’re losing ground I think on many of those fronts today.
But what you want to do, it seems to me, is make diplomacy your first tool for disciplined American leadership in the world. We’ve gotten into bad habits, especially since 9/11, of over-militarizing our diplomacy. That’s certainly been true in the Middle East, for example, the part of the world where pessimists always feel right at home and where dysfunctions are going to continue for some time. So we need a much more disciplined approach to pursuing American interests. We were guilty over the last few decades of a lot of magical thinking about our transformative powers in some very complicated societies, not just in the Arab world, but across the Middle East as well.
And so in that sense, I think, in terms of restraint in the use of U.S. military force—beginning to address the inversion of the tools of American national security policy, which prioritized military and intelligence tools over diplomatic tools—I absolutely agree, and I’ve argued this for the last two years. It’s really important to put greater emphasis on diplomacy. Diplomacy is not always going to fix all problems that the United States faces internationally, but it ought to be our tool of first resort, simply because in those instances where you can make progress, where you can promote our interests short of the use of force, we save enormously in terms of American blood and treasure, and in terms of the damage that’s done to other societies as well. You need a strong military to back up your diplomacy. You need a healthy economy. You need the power of example of an American society which is in such short supply today as we go through so many different difficulties at home in the Trump era.
But I think it is really important to pay attention to the importance of discipline, to matching ends to means, to avoiding the kinds of overreach and over-militarization that has gotten us into a lot of trouble in the past.
WPR: To the extent that Trump is a symptom more than a cause of what we’re seeing in American foreign policy, it seems to me to reflect a certain burden-fatigue on the part of the American people and the American public—partly with regard to the wars in the Middle East, but just in general, this idea that America should have an enlightened self-interest, whereas other countries have a simple self-interest. Do you expect the pandemic and the economic fallout from it to exacerbate that kind of public backlash about America’s global role? Or do you think that it’s something that can survive that? And how do you communicate to the American public in order to regenerate support for that kind of vision in the post-pandemic period?
Amb. Burns: Well I think it’s the role of leaders to be honest about America’s role in the world—honest in the sense that we have overreached in the past, and that we have over-militarized our foreign policy and our approach to diplomacy in many instances. We’ve failed to match ends and means, most obviously and I think most tragically in Iraq in 2003.
So when I talk about enlightened self-interest, I’m not talking about some new and expansive view of America’s role in the world. What I’m talking about is a careful, disciplined assessment of the international landscape, and putting the health of American society—and dealing with all of the huge challenges that we face at home today—as a first priority. There’s a reality that, as people often say, smart foreign policy begins at home in a strong economic and political system. But American leaders need to do a better job than any of us have done in the past of making the case to Americans that smart foreign policy also ends at home too—in healthier economic opportunities and a healthier environment, and better security as well.
It’s the role of leaders to be honest about America’s role in the world—honest in the sense that we have overreached in the past, and that we have over-militarized our foreign policy and our approach to diplomacy.
The essence of employing enlightened self-interest is to see that our interests are going to be best served if we’re disciplined about our engagement overseas; that we can’t retrench entirely, but nor can we restore the role that we held uniquely in that first quarter-century after the end of the Cold War; that we’re going to need, in our own self-interest, to work with allies and partners, and reshape institutions. And that we still, at least as I look at it in the next couple of decades, have a better hand to play than any of our major rivals.
Again, not just because of our military and economic leverage, but—for all the damage we’ve done to ourselves in the course of the mismanagement of this pandemic—because of our capacity to draw on alliances, and invest in coalitions of countries as well. So long as we pay attention to that, then I think it’s possible to use that frame of enlightened self-interest to pursue a more disciplined American leadership role in the world.
In my experience most Americans understand the significance of American engagement in the world, that we can’t cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and defend ourselves or promote the health and the economic possibility of our own society. But that it’s absolutely important for us to be disciplined in how we pursue that. And a lot of Americans today are pretty skeptical about the capacity of people like me, card-carrying members of the Washington establishment, to be disciplined in the ways in which we exercise American power and influence overseas, because they’ve seen too many instances of overreach. And that’s what I think we need to guard against.
WPR: Ambassador Burns, my final question is not really on the topic of foreign policy. It’s something we’ve been doing at WPR on our Friday editorial calls each week since we started working remotely at the beginning of the pandemic, to try and recreate the comradery of working as a team. And each Friday everyone on the team brings something to share, whether it’s a book, a movie, a TV series, music, recipe, anything that’s made social distancing a little more bearable. So if you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to ask you what you would contribute to our list.
Amb. Burns: Oh, sure, I’d be delighted to. I’m a huge basketball fan, and so I really enjoyed the ESPN series “Last Dance” about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls basketball team during the 1990s. It was really well done and fun to watch, and fun to relive my days as a basketball fan watching Jordan and the Bulls. Like a lot of other viewers across this country and around the world, I think it was really enjoyable.
WPR: I haven’t seen it. I’ve read a lot about it. Those were dark days for the New York Knicks, although it’s only gotten darker since then. So maybe it won’t be as painful to watch as the present. [Laughter]
Amb. Burns: I was a big Knicks fan when I lived in New Jersey as a kid, back in their glory days, you know, the championship years in the early Seventies. So I was a big fan of the Knicks in those days. But you’re right, they’ve fallen on a lot harder times since then.
WPR: Most people don’t really realize that there were championship years. [Laughter]
Amb. Burns: I’m dating myself, but there were. And they’ll come again eventually.
WPR: Ambassador Burns, you’ve been very generous with your time and your insights. Thank you so much for being with us.
Amb. Burns: My pleasure, Judah. Thank you.