With this comprehensive memoir of his extraordinary career, Bill Burns has done a great favor to all of us who have undertaken diplomatic service on behalf of the United States. More important, he has highlighted for the broader public the issue of diplomacy as a tool of national power at a time of growing concern about America’s role in the world. As Burns walks us through his career of more than three decades — from a first-tour junior officer in Jordan in the mid-1980s, through his central role in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, i.e., the Iran nuclear deal) — he brings to life the human, personal, political and other dimensions involved in diplomacy and diplomatic life. His painstaking reconstruction of his endeavors provides an impressive compilation of insights, lessons learned, cautionary tales and first principles that define and delineate the practice of diplomacy.
From his entry into the State Department in 1983 to his retirement in 2014, Burns enjoyed the most successful diplomatic career of his generation of foreign service officers (FSOs). Along the way, he found himself involved in many of the key international issues of recent decades: the end of the Cold War, the rise of global extremism and terrorism, Russia’s resurgence under Putin, the Arab Spring and the JCPOA. Burns presents these and other diplomatic tales of his times in nine well-organized chapters, drawing on a prodigious memory along with key documents (many recently declassified, at Burns’s request, for citation in his book), giving the reader a feeling of having almost been present in these historical narratives.
A particular strength of Burns’s account is his ability to ferret out concepts that are essential to comprehending the nature and recent path of U.S. diplomacy. Early on, he addresses attitudes (“The enlightened self-interest at the heart of seventy years of American foreign policy is disdained”) and global developments (“We are no longer the dominant power, but we can be the pivotal power,” p. 9) at the heart of the current U.S. role in the world.
In tracing his own early days in the Foreign Service in the 1980s, Burns educates us on the recent evolution of this often misunderstood (and sometimes criticized as “elitist” or “snobbish”) group. He includes the (now outdated) adage of FSOs as “pale, male and Yale” (in Burns’s case, pale, male and LaSalle, followed by Oxford), noting, “It had only been a decade since married women and women with children were allowed into the service” (p. 22). He also underscores the importance of the host-country nationals employed at U.S. diplomatic missions abroad (p. 25). To those of us who have served at U.S. embassies and consulates, these are largely unsung heroes, with an unwavering dedication to the country on whose behalf they have chosen to work and for which they have, essentially without exception, an admiration and a fondness that would rival the patriotism of most Americans.
Burns’s first foreign posting — Amman, Jordan — brought him to the part of the world that would eventually provide the closing chapter to his diplomatic career, the Middle East. Even in the mid-1980s, he clearly saw the pervasive “deficits” of the region — in governance, education, employment, economic opportunity and, more broadly, in “meeting the demands for dignity and opportunity of the next generation” (p. 29). This theme would come full circle with the eruption of the Arab Spring almost three decades later. In describing the U.S. diplomatic approach to the key regional issues during those years — the Iran-Iraq War, the Arab-Israeli conflict and violence in Lebanon — Burns cites the “formula” of the Near Eastern Affairs (NEA) assistant secretary at the time, Richard Murphy: “persistence and ingenuity, steadily pressing for small practical steps, using American leverage carefully, and always conscious that this was another problem to be managed before it could ever be solved” (p. 31).
Burns next turns to “The Baker Years,” which included the end of the Cold War, the Gulf War, and efforts to bring about Arab-Israeli peace. He outlines in detail the masterful diplomacy of Bush 41’s secretary of state, James Baker, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, noting that the decisive defeat of Iraq by the U.S.-led international coalition “boosted Arab moderates” and “added up to a moment of diplomatic opportunity that was exceedingly rare in the Middle East” (p. 67). Burns also cites Baker’s (in retrospect quite prescient) comment concerning Bush 41’s decision not to pursue Iraqi troops into Iraq after their expulsion from Kuwait: “Sometimes the most important test of leadership is not to do something, even when it looks really damn easy. Overreaching is what gets people in trouble” (p. 65). Burns provides considerable detail on U.S. efforts during this period to push for Arab-Israeli peace and to develop a coherent diplomatic approach to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In the end, both efforts foundered. Tellingly, Burns closes the discussion by citing a memo to Baker that he wrote as acting director of Policy Planning at the State Department: “We need to be mindful of the dangers of hubris and deep suspicions of many governments … about American unilateralism” (p. 80).
Burns cites his rapid advancement during eight years in Washington (he entered the Senior Foreign Service in less than a decade) as motivating him “to refine my craft and get back overseas” (p. 84). So, in 1994, he and his family headed to post-Soviet Russia. Burns describes the internal dynamics (and effects) of Russia’s precipitous decline: massive inflation, a collapsed public-health system, the rise of the oligarchs, and a pervasive sense of national weakness (pp. 90-91). He also discusses at length Russia’s military disaster in Chechnya.
Burns includes a brief aside on Richard Holbrooke’s visit to Moscow in 1995 in the context of peacemaking efforts in the Balkans. Having served as Holbrooke’s press attaché when he was the U.S. ambassador in Bonn, Germany, in the early ‘90s, I could relate to Burns’s experience. He first cites a bit of Foreign Service lore — a telegram announcing Holbrooke’s arrival in a Balkan capital under the title “The Ego Has Landed” — and notes that he (Burns) “was treated to a ‘full Holbrooke’” riding into the embassy from the airport while Holbrooke worked his cell phone (p. 106). The incident reminded me of the farewell gift the Bonn embassy staff gave to Ambassador Holbrooke upon his departure: a melted telephone.
Burns also uses his Moscow posting to weave in some key aspects of diplomatic service — the need at times “to act first, and ask for forgiveness later” (p. 86), the importance of “good mentors” (p. 86), “the leverage that [foreign] assistance gives us” (p. 98), the importance of consular assistance to Americans abroad (p. 101), and the role of a “control officer,” Burns’s assignment for President Clinton during Clinton’s visit to Moscow in 1995 (p. 104). He uses the large size of the Moscow embassy to make the important (and generally unappreciated) point that the “country team” — the senior representatives of the agencies working at an embassy — “is the most effective example of interagency coordination in the U.S. government” (p. 87). Burns’s Russia chapter also treats such post-Cold War initiatives as the enlargement of the G-7 (making it the G-8, with the addition of Russia) and NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. It closes, however, on a cautionary note: it was NATO expansion — which Burns saw as “premature at best, and needlessly provocative at worst” — that “fed the appetite of a future Russian leadership for getting even” (pp. 110-11). We continue to reap the consequences.
After Moscow, Burns returned to the State Department for two years to head the Executive Secretariat, the secretary of state’s direct support staff, serving the first woman secretary in history: Madeleine Albright. Burns notes that “the administration was under heavy pressure to cut costs and streamline the foreign-policy machinery from Senator Jesse Helms.” The “post-Cold War peace dividend” led to a “shrinking [of] the size of the foreign-affairs budget by nearly half over the 1990s.” Burns found himself involved in one of the most consequential institutional changes in the U.S. foreign-affairs apparatus since World War II: “absorbing the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) into the State Department.” Merging ACDA (which his father led in the 1980s), with some 200 staff, into State “was relatively straightforward.” But “USIA was a more difficult proposition” (p. 116).
USIA’s mission was public diplomacy: “to expose other societies to American culture, ideas, and perspectives and make the case for American policy”; that is, to promote mutual understanding in addition to the traditional diplomatic function of policy advocacy. Burns laments the toll of the “Helms-generated cuts and consolidation,” with “intake of new foreign service officers … virtually suspended for four years,” noting, “We paid a price for our shortsightedness” (p. 117).
Burns’s next assignment was his first ambassadorship, in Amman, starting in September 1998, just a few months before Jordan’s King Hussein would succumb to cancer in February 1999 following an almost 50-year reign. Burns provides great detail on royal-family interactions in the transition to King Abdullah II, but he also flags some troubling dynamics that would only intensify in the following years. “More than a decade before the Arab Spring, the social and economic forces building beneath the surface of the region were intensifying,” he wrote in a reporting cable in 2000, arguing that “globalization, technological change and the expanding reach of independent media will only increase pressures on the anachronistic, authoritarian regimes who dominate the Arab world” (p. 135). He also raised another concern: a perception — conveyed to him by King Abdullah II — that I also experienced firsthand while serving at the U.S. embassy in Riyadh in the late 1990s: through our policies towards Iraq at that time, “the United States was helping, not hurting Saddam [Hussein]” (p. 138).
Indeed, during my time in Riyadh, the majority view among Saudis seemed to be that Saddam was actually an agent of the United States, which was keeping him in power in a weakened Iraq at the behest of the Israelis (yes, there really are conspiracy theories in the Middle East). Burns’s citing of King Abdullah’s alternate narrative concerning the perception of U.S. policy by Jordanians is a reminder that, to be effective, U.S. diplomats must seek to understand how U.S. policies are actually viewed by local populations. Burns closes the chapter with a dispiriting account of President Clinton’s failed effort at Arab-Israeli peace at Camp David, following which he alerted Washington that “this region is drifting in a scary direction,” citing Jordanians’ “fury at American policies that are seen to be not just unbalanced but aggressively anti-Arab” (pp. 144-45).
In his Jordan chapter, Burns also introduces a concept familiar to those with Foreign Service experience — “clientitis”: “the tendency to gradually conflate the interests of the country you represent with those of the country in which you serve.” Burns suggests that this can result from “a selective blindness to the country’s flaws, exacerbated by the seductive power of access and apparent influence” (p. 134). Returning to this issue near the end of the book, Burns recounts one of the most well-known anecdotes in the recent annals of U.S. diplomacy: “[Secretary of State] George Shultz used to invite outbound U.S. ambassadors into his office for a farewell chat. He would walk over to a large globe near his desk … and ask each ambassador to point to ‘your country.’ Invariably, the ambassador would put a finger on the country of her or his assignment. Shultz would then gently move their finger across the globe to the United States” (p. 417).
In June 2001, Burns returned to the State Department to lead the Middle East bureau. Three months later, the events of 9/11 upended U.S. foreign policy and ushered in the “Age of Terror: The Inversion of Force and Diplomacy,” as he titles his next chapter (p. 147). Burns describes his involvement in the successful diplomatic effort in 2005 to hold Libyan Leader Muammar Qadhafi accountable for his country’s role in the 1988 downing of Pan Am flight 103. Burns notes, “The Libyan experience proved that diplomacy could accomplish significant changes in the behavior of difficult regimes” if it was “backed up by other forms of leverage — many years of U.S. and multilateral sanctions; a solid international consensus, codified in UN Security Council resolutions; and the credible threat of force” (p. 149). Burns later mentions the “compensation agreement providing $2.7 billion to the families, $10 million for each of the victims” (p. 193). As we have since seen, the settlement’s hundreds of millions of dollars in legal fees had the effect of encouraging creative lawyers to subsequently launch several class-action suits against foreign governments, complicating future U.S. foreign-policy efforts (I saw this firsthand in post-Saddam Iraq), and eventually, with the acquiescence of Congress, eroding the U.S. commitment to the longstanding international concept of sovereign immunity.
Burns then recounts the long, sordid story of the background, execution and aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. A personal element in this fiasco for Burns was the “Perfect Storm” memo he and his NEA colleagues Ryan Crocker and David Pearce prepared for Secretary of State Colin Powell in the lead-up to the invasion. Burns notes that the memo “highlighted the deep sectarian fault lines in Iraq,” “the dangers of civil unrest and looting,” “the likelihood that regional players would be tempted to meddle,” that “Iran could wind up as a major beneficiary,” and that “we’d bear the primary responsibility for post-conflict security, order and recovery” (pp. 168-69). This last point led to Secretary Powell’s famous “Pottery Barn rule: ‘You break it, you own it.’” But Burns also acknowledges that “we did not … take a hard stand against the war altogether,” a fact he cites as his “biggest professional regret” (p. 169).
Burns also goes into some detail about the other major issue he faced during his time as NEA assistant secretary, the Arab-Israeli conflict. His account is largely a description of (to put it politely) disingenuousness on the part of U.S., Israeli and Palestinian leaders. This period included the Roadmap with its implementing body, the Quartet (the United States, the UN, the EU and Russia), and the peace plan offered by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, but the parties proved to be feckless. In Burns’s words, the “fatal flaw was the lack of commitment and political will — in Jerusalem and Ramallah, as well as in Washington” (p. 187).
Burns closes the chapter with a perceptive observation: “What diplomacy is all about — not perfect solutions, but outcomes that cost far less than war and leave everyone better off than they would otherwise have been” (p. 195). He does not, however, mention the downside: It enables misleading and destructive political posturing against such “imperfect” agreements, as we have seen recently with the Iran nuclear deal, the NATO Treaty, NAFTA and other accords. Burns also cites “the discipline of the Foreign Service,” noting the personal dilemma of FSOs (including Burns himself) when faced with poor policies to defend and implement: “You never entirely escape the feeling that you’re also an enabler” (pp. 198-99).
After heading NEA, Burns took up his second ambassadorship, in Moscow, from 2005 through early 2008, his “dream job” (p. 202). He lobbied for the position after being offered (and declining) Israel, citing an ever-more-common Foreign Service affliction, Middle East fatigue (he was “burned out …after four long years in NEA,” p. 203). The next 40-plus pages detail his experience with “a Russia at once cocky, cranky, aggrieved, and insecure” (p. 206), led by a Vladimir Putin empowered (and emboldened) by gushing oil revenues, with a huge chip on his shoulder and revenge on his mind. Perhaps Burns should have chosen the word “nightmare,” rather than “dream,” to characterize this assignment.
In this chapter, Burns includes insights into the practice of U.S. diplomacy, from describing the biographic reporting cable (he penned a detailed account of Putin’s background and personal attributes, p. 206), to an important truism about foreign perceptions of U.S. actions: “Putin gave us more credit than we deserved for careful plotting against Russian interests” (p. 208). Overestimation of American foreign-policy shrewdness is endemic among foreign leaders and publics.
In discussing Russia’s efforts to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), Burns cites an important diplomatic device: using foreign accords to (positively) influence policies and institutions in other countries: “WTO accession would help reinforce the rule of law, and create a model of progress in the economic system that might someday spill over into the political system” (p. 212). The United States also uses such an approach in bilateral free-trade agreements to give “cover” to foreign leaders to implement unpopular changes in economic systems rife with corruption and cronyism.
One of Burns’s Moscow anecdotes highlights the transition diplomatic communication has undergone in the past two decades: email. He describes a message he sent near the end of his tour, “a long personal email to Secretary Rice.” “While formal diplomatic cables still had their uses, classified emails were faster, more direct, and more discreet” (p. 232). Later, Burns also refers to the most well-known communication in U.S. diplomatic history: “The Long Telegram,” “the most famous strategy of the postwar era, Kennan’s containment doctrine” (p. 401). It was sent from Moscow in 1946 by chargé d’affaires George Kennan. Since then, every FSO has dreamed of writing “The Long Telegram 2.0.”
In a final anecdote on Russia, Burns treats the issue of NATO expansion, specifically the idea of admitting Ukraine to the alliance. He quotes Putin: “No Russian leader could stand idly by in the face of steps toward NATO membership for Ukraine. That would be a hostile act towards Russia” (pp. 237-38). But, despite Ukrainian accession to NATO being bad policy, the soon-to-be-ending Bush 43 administration wanted the political legacy of having issued the invitation. After arm twisting some key members, the final communiqué of the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest announced, “We agreed today that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO” (p. 239). Putin was furious.
Upon leaving his post in Russia toward the end of the Bush presidency, Burns assumed the third-ranking position in the State Department, undersecretary for political affairs. As he notes, it is “traditionally the highest position to which a career officer could aspire” (p. 241). He remained in that position after the Obama administration came into office.
Burns begins his treatment of the Obama years with a chapter entitled “Obama’s Long Game.” Why the long game? “Although America’s relative power and influence were diminishing, its myriad strengths seemed to ensure its preeminence for decades to come. The question for Obama was how to make best use of that preeminence to secure American interests and values in a more competitive world” (p. 245). The disastrous experience of Iraq under the previous administration had given Obama “suspicions about the foreign-policy establishment in Washington.” Indeed, in Burns’s words, Obama was “determined to break the chains of U.S. foreign-policy pathologies and shift the terms of America’s engagement in the Middle East” (p. 246).
With the arrival of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Burns found a kindred spirit (as he had with Obama), someone who appreciated the three key tools of U.S. foreign policy: “diplomacy and development alongside defense” (p. 250). Burns includes a particularly telling discussion of the interagency, the cabinet departments and intelligence agencies that develop policy options for the president under the aegis of the National Security Council (NSC). “Having lived through the bureaucratic blood feuds” of previous administrations, Burns welcomed the “congenial and disciplined … interagency atmosphere of the Obama administration” (p. 250). He nonetheless cites several institutional shortcomings, including the fact that “the increasing complexity of issues … bred over-centralization,” with “senior officials sometimes consumed by tactical questions and details of implementation,” and “the steady mushrooming of the NSC staff” (p. 252). The “long game” chapter also contains detailed discussions of Obama’s greatest anti-terrorism achievement, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and of his “pivot to Asia.”
During the Obama administration, Burns received his final “promotion,” becoming deputy secretary of state in July 2011, a position he occupied until his retirement in November 2014. As Burns notes, it is “a little unusual to have a career person in that position,” adding that he saw his elevation as “a vote of confidence in the professional diplomatic service, not just me” (p. 256).
Burns also covers the embarrassing start of the “reset” with Russia (the mistranslation of a symbolic “reset” button) and the ultimate failure of the effort itself. He cites a litany of “causes,” including Russia’s annexation of Crimea, divergent U.S. and Russian views on the Arab Spring, political upheaval in Ukraine, and the fact of WikiLeaks culprit Edward Snowden being granted asylum in Russia. Burns underscores Putin’s personal animosity toward Hillary Clinton, stemming from her criticism of Russia’s December 2011 Duma elections, and the impact of that animosity on the 2016 U.S. presidential election: “Putin had a remarkable capacity for storing up grievances and slights and assembling them to fit his narrative of the West trying to keep Russia down. [Hillary] Clinton’s criticism would rank high in his litany — and generate a personal animus that led directly to his meddling against her candidacy in the 2016 U.S. presidential election” (p. 286).
Burns next turns to the Arab Spring, which swept through several Arab countries starting in early 2011. Burns does not mince words in describing Arab perceptions of the United States at the time:
The Arab order in early 2011 was still one that had the United States as its principal frame of reference. The Arab street despised most aspects of American policy, whether in Iraq or Palestine or elsewhere, and its leaders resented the Bush 43 administration’s crusades and blunders. They were, however, accustomed to America’s centrality in their world, schizophrenic in their simultaneous resentments and expectations of American influence. They continually exaggerated our ability to affect events, and we did the same (p. 297).
Here, Burns hits on a key factor affecting U.S. diplomatic engagement: an inflated belief, particularly among foreign populations, in the ability of the United States to influence events in their countries. This misperception is often accompanied by an unrealistic expectation: that the United States should pursue an idealistic policy abroad, seeking to promote its basic principles — personal freedom, human rights, democracy, rule of law. In fact, prior to the current administration, the United States had done just that. However, this effort has always been leavened with the realism of facts on the ground and the U.S. interest in preserving international stability and maintaining productive bilateral security, commercial and other relationships with partner countries that do not share all of our values.
In setting the background for the Arab Spring, Burns returns to President Obama’s Cairo speech of June 2009, “promis[ing] a ‘new beginning’ … and a realization that jobs, security, opportunity, and dignity were the keys to a better order” (p. 297). He notes, however, that that speech raised unrealistic expectations in the Arab street and was met with selective listening by the region’s autocratic leaders, undermining Obama’s intentions. The February 11, 2011, resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was the watershed event that unleashed turmoil throughout the region. In describing the U.S. response to the upheaval, Burns notes another institutional tendency that often hampers U.S. diplomatic efforts: the “self-injurious instinct to micromanage from Washington and underutilize … embassies abroad” (p. 303), a phenomenon FSOs call “the six-thousand-mile screwdriver.”
Burns walks the reader through the pivotal events that followed: Mohammed Morsi’s election and overthrow in Egypt; Qadhafi’s demise and the eruption of civil war in Libya; Assad’s violence against Syrian demonstrators, leading to civil war; and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. He also cites key U.S.-related developments: the release by WikiLeaks of U.S. diplomatic cables, endangering the lives of American diplomats (p. 314); “the astonishingly cynical, even by the standards of modern Washington,” investigations of the Benghazi attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans (p. 322); and Obama’s vacillation on enforcing his “red line” on chemical-weapons use by the Syrian government (pp. 328-30).
Burns next turns to the diplomatic process that led to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The negotiations with Iran were launched and largely conducted in Oman, and they began during my time as the U.S. ambassador there. The agreement countered the existential threat Iran’s nuclear program posed to the region and the broader international community. As Burns describes the undertaking, “Here was a chance to apply tough-minded diplomacy, backed up by the economic leverage of sanctions, the political leverage of an international consensus, and the military leverage of the potential use of force” (p. 339). Burns includes several considerations affecting the potential success of this effort: the Iranian regime was “deeply conspiratorial and suspicious of American motives, and riven by factions especially eager to undermine one another”; “animus toward the United States was [the regime’s] core organizing principle”; “[we needed] to be always conscious of the anxieties of our friends [read: Israel and some Gulf Arab states], as well as key domestic constituencies [read: the Israeli lobby]” (p. 346-47).
Obama had broken the ice with some early outreach to the Iranian people and the regime. He employed what diplomats call “confidence-building measures” to reduce distrust and convey goodwill, such as using the country’s true name — the Islamic Republic — in a message marking the Persian holiday of Nowruz. He also made clear in communication with Supreme Leader Khamenei that “it was not the policy of his administration to pursue regime change,” and that “Iran was entitled to a peaceful civilian nuclear program” (p. 348). All were departures from the approach of the previous administration.
Obama’s early efforts on Iran were, however, set back by the Green Movement uprising following Iran’s June 2009 elections. Here Burns mentions another constraint (and complication) of U.S. diplomacy, noting that “the message from the Green Movement’s leaders was not to suffocate them with an American embrace” (p. 349). This is a not-uncommon challenge for U.S. policy makers: to avoid delegitimizing foreign groups by appearing to be “too supportive” of them. By heeding the Green Movement request, however, Obama was widely criticized for his restrained response to the Iranian regime’s subsequent violence against the demonstrators.
Burns next proceeds to describe the various undertakings and engagements, with both Iranian emissaries and partners in the global community, to move forward on the diplomatic track to address Iran’s nuclear program. This included the “enormous effort into getting Russia and China on board with what became UN Security Council Resolution 1929, … aimed in part at isolating Iran from the international financial system” (p. 354). Internationalizing support for the diplomatic effort to address Iran’s nuclear program was essential; it united the global community behind the effort of the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
As Burns moves on to “the Omani back channel” that eventually resulted in the Iran nuclear deal, he describes the diplomatic background. Oman had assisted the United States in 2010-11 in securing the release of three Americans who had inadvertently wandered into Iranian territory while hiking in Iraq in July 2009 and were detained and imprisoned. That process unfolded during my time as U.S. ambassador in Oman, and its success ultimately reduced distrust sufficiently to allow the much bigger diplomatic effort to address the Iran nuclear program to get underway. Burns highlights the importance of keeping this “back channel” secret; it offered the Iranians “plausible deniability,” should the effort go nowhere (p. 357). More important, like any bold initiative it had enemies who, if they were aware, would have spared no effort to sabotage the undertaking. However, the price for such secrecy was the withering onslaught against the effort, once it became known, by those who viewed their preferences, such as military confrontation, as being undermined (as Burns notes, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu “saw our back channel as a betrayal,” p. 377).
Burns narrates in considerable detail the diplomatic process that ultimately led to the deal. There were immediate challenges: Iran’s “gaping credibility problem — not just with the United States but with the wider international community,” the fact that “the Iranians were wildly unrealistic in their expectations,” and Iranian insistence that the Non-Proliferation Treaty (to which Iran was a signatory) guaranteed the right to enrich uranium (pp. 365-67). Burns describes the process of using “bracketed language” for disputed points in early drafts of the agreement, and the step-wise resolution of such language over time. Eventually, a preliminary agreement emerged (the Joint Plan of Action) in November 2014. At that point, the diplomatic effort became public, and the final agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — was finalized in July 2015. In his narrative, however, Burns includes a telling exchange with an Iranian interlocutor who questioned “how much [Iran] could count on a commitment by the U.S.,” to which Burns replied: “The best thing we can do is make a solid agreement, and then live up to it scrupulously.” He concludes the passage: “Those words would ring hollow a few years later” (p. 372), a clear reference to the loss of U.S. credibility and reliability that has occurred since.
Burns’s final chapter addresses “Restoring America’s Tool of First Resort” (p. 388). He attributes the decline in the use and upkeep of America’s diplomatic capabilities to the end of the Cold War, America’s subsequent “unipolar moment” and the shock of 9/11. Burns sums up the current state of U.S. engagement in the world as one with “our friends confused, our adversaries emboldened, and the foundation of the international system we built and preserved for seven decades alarmingly fragile” (p. 390).
Burns acknowledges that whoever became president in 2017 would have faced “a complicated set of dilemmas rooted in both a rapidly shifting international environment and a disaffected domestic mood”: “Chinese aspirations”; “the struggles of Europe beset by internal political crises and external pressures”; “Putin … sowing chaos”; and “failing states” and “extremists” in the Middle East (pp. 390-91). Aside from such international challenges, U.S. diplomacy faced two other existential hurdles: the impact of the digital revolution on information availability, sourcing and reliability; and “the militarization of diplomacy…which leads to overuse — or premature use — of force, and under emphasis on nonmilitary tools.“ In Burns’s words: “Even Pentagon and military leaders went out of their way to highlight the perils of the imbalance between force and diplomacy,” citing General Mattis’s well-known admonition that “cutting funding for diplomacy would require him ‘to buy more ammunition’” (p. 394). In fact, since 9/11 we have seen the complete domination of the military-industrial-security complex over America’s resources and the exercise of American power in the world. By the time the Trump administration arrived, notes Burns, “Decades of unbalanced investment in defense and intelligence had taken its toll” (p. 399).
Today, with the decline of America’s reputation and the self-indulgence of our foreign policy, gone is the time when “the power of our example mattered more than of our preaching…. which today has less to do with highlighting human-rights abuses wherever we saw them and more to do with insulting allies and indulging autocrats” (pp. 398-99). One result of the United States having dropped moral values and principles from its foreign policy has been inappropriate behavior by partner countries that would not have dared cross previous U.S. redlines. As for U.S. diplomacy, Burns notes that today this activity is conducted by a State Department that has experienced a “hollowing out,” a department seen as a “realm of the ‘deep state,’” one in which there is the “pernicious … practice of blacklisting individual officers simply because they had worked on controversial issues in the previous administration” (pp. 399-400).
An optimist to the end, Burns devotes the last two dozen pages of his tome to describing the virtues and dedication of America’s “career foreign and civil service officers at State, … almost loyal to a fault” (p. 399), and to outlining his remedies for the current dispiriting state of U.S. foreign policy and the foreign-policy apparatus. Having, like Burns, dedicated several decades of my life to serving as a U.S. diplomat, I welcome his kudos for State Department staff and support his effort to promote a course correction in U.S. foreign policy. And, like probably all who have been in the Foreign Service, I would join Burns in his closing comment: “My faith in our resilience, like my pride in American diplomacy, remains unbounded” (p. 423).