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A Diplomat Compares the Foreign-Policy Establishment with Donald Trump

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In his new book, “[The Back Channel],”(https://www.amazon.com/Back-Channel-American-Diplomacy-Renewal/dp/0525508864) William J. Burns, a career diplomat and foreign-service officer, makes the case for American diplomacy in a very undiplomatic age. Burns, who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations for three decades, notably as President George W. Bush’s Ambassador to Russia between 2005 and 2008, narrates America’s post-Cold War foreign policy through the lens of his dealings with dictators, Secretaries of State, and Presidents, from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama. The spectre of the current President looms over the book: Burns sees Donald Trump as a force that is destroying American credibility, and diminishing the country’s ability to function effectively in the world.

Burns, who now runs the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, refers to himself as a “card-carrying member of the Washington establishment.” (His book was blurbed by Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, and Henry Kissinger.) But to what degree is Trump’s rise the result of mistakes, such as the war in Iraq, that were made by that very establishment? To discuss that question, I recently spoke by phone with Burns. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we talked about his impressions of Vladimir Putin, the biggest danger of Trump’s foreign policy, and the extent to which the U.S. has historically been interested in human rights.

In the book, you present Putin and the Russians around him as very angry about the way they feel they’ve been treated by the United States in the post-Cold War era. You express a certain sympathy for that view. But when you look back on the last two decades of Putin, do you feel that American behavior could have actually changed him, or do you feel that this is a cover story for his own behavior, even if he was sincerely annoyed?

Certainly, over the course of my three and a half decades as a diplomat, [Americans] often tended to exaggerate our centrality in other countries’ or other leaderships’ considerations. I think there was a certain extent to which it was always going to be difficult for Russians, after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, to accept what was, in effect, junior-partner status to a then singularly dominant United States.

I think they were always going to chafe at that. There was and remains a sense on the part of lots of people in the Russian political élite, not just Putin himself, that the West and the United States took advantage of Russia’s moment of historical weakness in Yeltsin’s Russia in the nineties. None of that is a justification for the aggressiveness that Putin has demonstrated in recent years. None of that is a justification for swallowing up part of the Ukraine. But I do think both of us operated under certain illusions—the Russian illusion that somehow they were going to be accepted, even though the power realities had changed enormously, as a peer, as a full partner, and the American illusion that we could always maneuver over or around Russia. There was bound to be a time when they were going to push back. I’m not a fatalist about history, but I think a certain amount of friction and a certain number of collisions were built into the equation.

What was something specific the United States could have done in the last twenty years that would have changed things in some way for the better?

I think, on the margins, it was a mistake to have, in a sense, remained on autopilot with regard to NATO expansion in 2008, when we pushed open the door for formal NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. I think that fed Putin’s narrative that the United States was out to keep Russia down, to undermine Russia and what he saw to be its entitlement, its sphere of influence. I think it’s not so much that that provided an excuse for what Putin later did in Ukraine. He was perfectly capable of doing that on his own, because Putin’s view of Ukraine, I think, has always been that first prize is a deferential government in Kiev. If you can’t have that, the next best thing is a dysfunctional Ukraine. But I think our efforts in 2008 helped him reinforce his narrative at home. He always used that narrative of “enemies at the gate,” in particular the United States, to justify what is a deeply repressive political system at home.

You’ve met a lot of people who I imagine have somewhat authoritarian personalities.

Yeah.

I’m curious how Putin differs or doesn’t differ from the typical way we imagine an authoritarian personality, because you had many dealings with him.

One theme that runs across all of them, at least in my experience, is a deep mistrust of just about everybody around them. It’s true of lots of other authoritarians I dealt with, including the profoundly weird, like Muammar Gaddafi.

I always saw Putin as a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity, and all those three wrapped up together, in a way. The insecurity part is not something that he likes people to see easily, because he projects this kind of bare-chested persona to the rest of the world and to his own population. But there is, and it has roots in Russian history, this sense of insecurity about threats from the outside and threats from within his own society.

I would argue that history’s judgment is going to be that he’s added to that sense of insecurity. By swallowing up a couple of million Crimeans, he’s insured that there are forty-two million other Ukrainians who never again want to accept a deferential role toward Russia. I think he missed the moment when he could have begun to diversify the economy beyond what comes out of the ground, beyond hydrocarbons, when he was surfing on a-hundred-and-thirty-dollar-a-barrel oil, and he missed because economic diversification took second place to political order. I think that’s going to make it increasingly hard for Russia to compete as a major power in a very competitive twenty-first century.

When you were serving overseas, did you find that the way foreign governments or foreign leaders related to you had more to do with the particular position you held at the time, or with the particular position of America in the world at whatever time it was?

It had a lot to do with their perception of America in the world. I worked with Secretary of State [James] Baker, and that was a moment when the United States really stood as the unrivalled major power in the world. I don’t mean that as a statement of arrogance. It was just a fact at the end of the Cold War. There was a certain respect that came with that simple power reality. But I’ve also thought that, for individual diplomats, whether it’s when I played junior roles or as Ambassador, how you conduct yourself matters, too. I’ve always felt we get a lot further in the world with the power of our example than we do with the power of our preaching. Americans can sometimes, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, be awfully patronizing overseas.

They say things like, “as I’m sure you’ve noticed.

Yeah, exactly.

When you look at the last two years, you could argue that we haven’t had a huge war compared to what we had in previous Administrations, and the world seems to be chugging along. People are angry at us more, but fundamentally things are O.K., and that gives you a certain amount of hope about American foreign policy, even if you have a bad man in the White House. Or you could argue that groundwork has been laid for future problems. How do you view those two options, or am I thinking about it wrong?

I think we’re doing a lot of corrosive damage to ourselves in the world over the last couple of years. I would emphasize that the drift in American diplomacy certainly was not something that was invented by Donald Trump. Throughout the post-Cold War era, I think we oftentimes tended to downplay the importance of diplomacy in the way in which we exercise leadership in the world, despite a number of accomplishments over those years. But I think what we’re doing now is digging a pretty deep hole for ourselves internationally, and what I worry about is that eventually we’ll stop digging, and we’ll climb back to the top of the hole, but we’ll look out at a landscape that has hardened in a number of ways against our interests.

The biggest concern I have is that what Trump has really turned on its head is the notion of enlightened self-interest. And again, we pursued that very imperfectly over the years, and I try to be honest about all the ways in which I got things wrong. But the Administrations of both parties thought we had one thing that sets us apart from lonelier powers like China and Russia, and that’s the capacity to invest in alliances and mobilize other countries, whether it’s to deal with challenges to regional order or big overarching problems like the one existential problem that faces us today, which I’m convinced is climate change.

One thing that has consistently surprised me is that a lot of foreign-policy establishment people from both parties, in the military, the diplomatic core, and the intelligence community, have expressed strong distaste for Trump, and it seems to have had no effect in a way that I think it probably would have forty years ago. Do you think that the lack of trust in the foreign-policy establishment is a result of declining trust in institutions and institutionalists generally, or do you connect it to events like Iraq, where large parts of the foreign-policy community really screwed up?

The honest answer, I think, is both. There are certainly specific unforced errors, certainly none greater than the one that we made in Iraq in 2003. I think there is an increasing angst and a distrust, as you said, of institutions, and you see that not just about American foreign policy. Trump, again, didn’t invent any of that, but he’s ridden it, and in some ways accelerated it, and made the fissures in our society worse. It’s just a long way of saying: I think we have to be honest, whether it’s in Washington or outside of it, about that disconnect in our own society, because one of the big challenges, I think, in the next phase of American foreign policy is trying to begin to reduce that disconnect, or begin to bridge it.

There’s been a visceral reaction in the foreign-policy community to Trump’s embrace of authoritarians and the fact that he genuinely seems to admire them. At the same time, there was the Elliott Abrams issue, which came up several weeks ago, in which the foreign-policy community’s own member was accused of having sympathy for people who were violating human rights. The response from much of the foreign-policy community seemed to be extreme anger and disappointment that he was being attacked, and, I thought, an unwillingness to examine, for example, the Reagan Administration’s policies in Latin America. I was wondering if you think that there’s a certain hypocrisy there and what you thought of that incident.

I think, broadly, I’d be the last person to argue that our record has been pristine in dealing with authoritarian leaders, certainly over the course of the thirty-five years I spent in the foreign service. Most times, in Administrations, we at least wrestled with the trade-offs involved—the trade-offs between our values and our interests in counterterrorism, coöperation, or whatever. Not pristine, because we got that balance wrong a lot of times. Certainly, in hindsight, in dealing with a leader like Hosni Mubarak, in Egypt, it would have made more sense to push harder than we did over the course of decades to begin to open up that society a little bit, because it was becoming more and more rigid, and fewer and fewer people were benefitting from whatever economic growth took place. I think, in that sense, there is a certain amount of hypocrisy. I think that’s fair.

I do think that, in the Trump era, what’s happened is that it’s not so much trade-offs. It’s cavalierly disregarding that there are trade-offs at all and not even recognizing them, and indulging authoritarians or admiring them. Or in the case of the President himself having what seems to be a very pronounced case of autocrat envy. We focus our criticism on Maduro, in Venezuela, who richly deserves it, and then pull punches with Mohammed Bin Salman, in Saudi Arabia.

Again, I’m the last person to argue that perfect consistency is possible in foreign policy. It’s not. But you at least have to be aware of and wrestle with the trade-off, and what I worry today is that we’re not wrestling at all. We’re just disregarding that whole set of issues and checking our values at the door when it comes to authoritarians whom at least this White House sees to be our friends. That’s a mistake morally, but I think it’s also a mistake practically, because not building two-way streets in those kind of relationships over time creates a more brittle partner.

O.K., but, just to be clear, your book has a blurb on the back from Henry Kissinger. I do not need to tell you about Henry Kissinger’s record on human rights in Cambodia or Chile or Bangladesh.

No, I understand. I’m just telling you honestly that, while I’m the last person to argue that we’ve had a pristine record, I think what you’re seeing today is on a scale that goes well beyond, at least, what I experienced, and that it’s the disregard for this whole set of issues entirely that I think is going to come back to haunt us, just as variations on that have in previous eras.

I don’t disagree that what we’re seeing now is sui generis in certain ways. But I also wonder how much the foreign-policy community is actually reckoning with this, when people like Henry Kissinger continue to be respected beacons of wisdom, and so on. It does make me think that we’re not really doing that.

Well, all I can tell you, Isaac, is I do think it’s essential to come to terms with those issues. I wish I had a perfect formula for doing it. What I think we’re seeing unfolding now is usually flawed, and I think we need to learn from the mistakes we’ve made in the past and understand that, when you don’t build those kind of two-way street relationships with authoritarian regimes with whom we happen to share some interests on issues, it oftentimes comes back to haunt you, and that’s what we saw in the Arab Spring.

But you do understand why people may think that you or people in the community are not honestly interested in reckoning with these things seriously when people see a blurb—

No, I understand the skepticism, and, when I was talking about a disconnect, that’s one of the reasons for it. I understand that very clearly.

I know you don’t know the President well, but what do you see in Trump

Never met him.

Sorry to hear that. What do you see in Trump that is similar or not similar to some of the authoritarians that you talked about earlier?

I think it’s almost the distaste for a democratic process, for the back and forthing that can be incredibly messy but is essential to any democratic system, including the American one. I think what you see, beyond the profound case of autocrat envy that we were talking about before, is a tendency toward the sort of triumphalist rhetoric that you hear from lots of authoritarian leaders that you just need to declare something rather than roll up your sleeves and engage in the difficult work of building coalitions within any political system; the tendency, rather than trying to build the sort of bridges that make progress in that system possible, to demonize people, demonize your political enemies.

I think the last thing I’d say is there’s also a real danger—and you see this in the President’s dealing with autocrats around the world—to think that somehow you can endear yourself to them by dumping on your political enemies publicly abroad, and that somehow ingratiating yourself with authoritarian leaders will enable you to have more effective policies and promote American interests. Generally, in my experience, foreign authoritarians, whether it’s Putin or in the Middle East or in other parts of the world, tend to see that as a sign of weakness and as a sign of manipulability.



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Thanks !

Thanks for sharing this, you are awesome !