Photo credit: Brigitte Lacombe
Describe your latest book.
The Back Channel
is both a memoir and an argument.
The memoir covers my three and a half decades as an American diplomat. I try to use my experiences to bring to life for readers the profession of diplomacy, at a moment when the United States is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block — when we can’t get everything we want on our own, or by force alone, when diplomacy really does matter more than ever to safeguard American interests and values.
I’ve learned over the years that it can be a little hard to explain diplomacy, let alone enliven it. Diplomacy may be one of the world’s oldest professions, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood. It’s mostly a quiet endeavor, less swaggering than unrelenting, oftentimes operating in back channels, out of sight and out of mind.
I served proudly under administrations of both parties, under five presidents and ten secretaries of state. I played a modest role in an important period in American foreign policy — from the highs of the end of the Cold War to the lows of the Iraq War more than a decade later, from secret talks with the Iranians to the turbulence of the Arab Spring and the return of great power competition. Along the way, I dealt with a kaleidoscope of difficult foreign personalities, from Vladimir Putin to Muammar al-Qaddafi. It was a fascinating life, and I try hard to be honest about what we got right and what we got wrong.
The argument in The Back Channel
is pretty straightforward. We live at a moment of profound transformation on the international landscape — a landscape that’s more crowded, complicated, and contested than at any point in my lifetime. To navigate that landscape, diplomacy ought to be our tool of first resort, backed up by military and economic leverage. Instead, I worry that America and American diplomacy are increasingly and dangerously adrift, with our allies losing faith in us, our adversaries taking advantage, and the international institutions that we built in our own enlightened self-interest beginning to teeter. We need urgently to renew diplomacy, while we still have a better hand to play than our rivals, if we play it wisely.
I should also emphasize what The Back Channel
is not. It’s not a book of DC insider gossip, it’s not about score-settling, it’s not a collection of 10-point plans or intricate policy proposals. And it’s certainly not an elegy for diplomacy. What it is, I hope, is a reminder of the value of diplomacy in this new era, and of the wider significance of public service, at a moment when it is under intense and deeply misguided attack.
When did you know you were a writer?
I always enjoyed writing, certainly compared to other subjects at school, and felt more at home writing an essay than doing algebra or, god forbid, calculus. At La Salle University in Philadelphia, and then as a Marshall Scholar at Oxford, I had a series of wonderful, exacting teachers who demanded clarity of expression.
But it was really as a young political officer in the Foreign Service that I got the writer’s itch. In Jordan in the early 1980s, and then in Russia a decade later, for example, it was my responsibility to report to Washington ground truths about those countries’ domestic politics and foreign policies. I was again fortunate to have extraordinary mentors who took pride in their writing and who understood the power of the pen — whether in translating the world for Washington, or in making the case for one policy course over another.
What does your writing workspace look like?
For most of my career, I wrote my diplomatic cables, memos, and emails in secure facilities inside the White House complex, the State Department, or one of our embassies overseas. Those cramped, often windowless rooms, with their tired, oversize, standard-issue government furniture offered little inspiration. And the time pressures — and various policy stresses — didn’t help.
Of all the writing spaces across my career, the least inspiring was my office at the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration. I remember it well: Room 361 ½ in the Old Executive Office Building right next to the White House. It was a converted women’s bathroom about the size of a walk-in closet, with exposed plumbing on the walls and a scent to match. The feng shui
didn’t get much better as I rose through the ranks, although eventually I graduated to nicer spaces.
I started writing The Back Channel
after I left government and the dreary confines of its writing workspaces. At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, my office looks out onto Dupont Circle and the sea of people and ideas that traverse Massachusetts Avenue. I was also fortunate to have two brief writing fellowships with the very best backdrops that any writer could hope for — one at All Souls College, Oxford, where my study was near those once occupied by Isaiah Berlin and George Kennan, and another at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in northern Italy, where my biggest challenge was not getting too distracted by the breathtaking view of Lake Como out my study window. That was a nice problem to have.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
As a diplomat, your working assumption is that the only people reading your writing are colleagues or spies. So when WikiLeaks published more than 200,000 U.S. diplomatic cables and classified documents in 2010, it was the first time that I ran into people in public who had read what we wrote. This was of course quite disconcerting — especially since releasing those sensitive documents put people with whom we had met in embarrassing positions, or in the case of brave human rights activists, in real danger.
But it also, ironically, showed the broader public that our analysis and insight into foreign governments was often a lot more sophisticated than it was made out to be in public caricature — that we were pretty good at honest analysis of foreign realities and how to navigate them in America’s best interest. That was the silver lining in that challenging episode. And for those of us who were used to writing in anonymity for a fairly inbred readership, it was a pretty novel experience to have our work pulled out of the back channel and into the public sphere.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
In writing The Back Channel
I looked back at documents that I had written throughout my career — both to refresh my memory of events in the distant past and to guard against the habit of convenient, ex-post-facto interpretations of past debates. That was not always a comfortable experience — a bit like listening to one’s own voice on an old audio cassette. In those cables, memos, and emails (many of which are now declassified and available to the public for the first time here
) I ran across plenty of ideas and arguments that didn’t stand the test of time. And I also ran across some unfortunate writing ticks and habits, some of which I realized I continue to suffer from to this day. So, while the research process was an extremely healthy exercise — on policy and writing grounds — it was also a humbling one.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
For 33 years I knew only one profession, only one employer — but my time in the Foreign Service gave me a chance to try my hand at many things. One of the strangest experiences of my career happened during my first assignment in Jordan.
In 1983, I eagerly volunteered for what at the time seemed like a straightforward job: to drive a supply truck from Amman to Baghdad. It all seemed to me like an excellent adventure, a chance to see the thinly populated, rock-strewn desert of eastern Jordan, and visit Iraq, then in the midst of a brutal war with Iran. The senior administrative officer at our embassy assured me that the skids had been greased at the Iraqi border, but then, at the little Iraqi town of Ar-Rutbah, adventure met Saddam Hussein-era reality.
The skids, as it turned out, had not been greased, and I spent a cold sleepless night in the cab of the truck before proceeding to Baghdad the next morning under police escort. With a dour policeman named Abu Ahmed beside me, I began the long drive through the dusty towns of Anbar province that would become all too well known after America’s invasion of Iraq — Ramadi, Fallujah, Abu Ghraib. And it certainly didn’t ease my nerves when my travel partner would idly spin the chamber of his revolver as we drove along the rutted highway.
When we arrived at a large police compound in Baghdad, I was relieved to be greeted by an American colleague; I was less relieved to learn that the Iraqis had refused to accept our customs documents and were confiscating the truck and all of its contents. There was nothing particularly sensitive in the truck, but losing a dozen computers, portable phones, and other office and communication equipment was an expensive proposition for a State Department always strapped for resources. We protested, but got nowhere. As far as I know, neither our truck nor our equipment was ever returned.
So my first diplomatic mission turned out to be an utter failure. It was a valuable early lesson in humility. But it’s also a reminder that even when careers — or writing projects — don’t get off to a rocket-propelled start, the journey can still prove to be a memorable one.
What scares you the most as a writer?
I have two dueling fears, and I’m not sure which is more harrowing. One is that no one will read what I write; the other is that no one will like it.
As a diplomat, I regularly experienced both. Hundreds of dispatches come into Washington every day, covering an almost unimaginable array of issues. There’s simply no way that everyone who should be reading one of your reports actually will. But on those rare occasions when someone does read it, and then takes the time to tell you just exactly why you’ve lost your mind, you almost wish your message had gotten lost in the shuffle.
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
In diplomatic writing, you have to be economical with your use of color; short phrases can help illustrate a broader point in a way that sticks in the mind of a reader pressed for time or attention. I’ve always enjoyed finding writers who could do that effectively.
I remember reading a profile of former Congressman Barney Frank in The New Yorker
, where Jeffrey Toobin remarked on Frank’s “tendency to buy shirts in his aspirational, rather than his actual, size.” I thought that was a wonderful quip, and it reminded me of one of my old bosses, Larry Eagleburger — a man whose brilliance — like Barney Frank’s — simply could not be contained.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I know stuffy diplomats are supposed to come home, put on their smoking jackets, light up their pipes, drink a scotch, and read the Financial Times
's How to Spend It
magazine. But after a long day of butting heads with foreign adversaries, or locked in the Situation Room, I’m not sure there’s anything better than getting cheap takeout, turning on ESPN, and watching a basketball game. That sometimes feels like an indulgence, but it’s the best — and cheapest — therapy I know. A scotch can help too, but I’ve never owned a smoking jacket or smoked a pipe.
My Top 5 Books on Diplomacy and International Relations:
As the author of a new book on American diplomacy, it seems appropriate to list some of the books on diplomacy and international relations that have had the most influence on me throughout my career. This list of five certainly isn’t exhaustive, but I think that it’s a great start for anyone looking to learn more about diplomacy in both theory and practice.
by Henry Kissinger
and Memoirs 1950-1963
by George F. Kennan
The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947
by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan
George F. Kennan: An American Life
by John Lewis Gaddis
The Anarchical Society
by Hedley Bull
÷ ÷ ÷
William J. Burns
is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after a 33-year diplomatic career. He holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service, career ambassador, and is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become deputy secretary of state. Prior to his tenure as deputy secretary, Ambassador Burns served from 2008 to 2011 as undersecretary for political affairs. He was ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs from 2001 to 2005, and ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001. Ambassador Burns earned a bachelor’s degree in history from La Salle University and master’s and doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar. He and his wife, Lisa, have two daughters. The Back Channel
is his first book.