An Interview with William J. Burns, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State

USA Ambassador BurnsWilliam J. Burns holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service, Career Ambassador, and became Deputy Secretary of State in July 2011. He is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become Deputy Secretary. Burns served from 2008 until 2011 as Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005, and Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 until 2001. Since entering the Foreign Service in 1982, Burns has held numerous other posts, including Executive Secretary of the State Department and Special Assistant to Secretaries Christopher and Albright; Acting Director and Principal Deputy Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff; and Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council staff. A graduate of LaSalle University and Oxford University — where he studied as a Marshall Scholar — he is the recipient of three honorary doctoral degrees. Burns is the author of Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, 1955-1981. He has received four Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and a number of Department of State awards, including two Secretary’s Distinguished Service Awards and two Distinguished Honor Awards. In 1994, Burns was named to TIME Magazine’s list of the “50 Most Promising American Leaders Under Age 40,” and to TIME’s list of “100 Young Global Leaders.”

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I have always been a big believer in the Teddy Roosevelt quotation that “one of life’s greatest good fortunes is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing.” My father was an Army officer, so I grew up with a real respect for public service. I became interested at a relatively early age in international affairs and the best combination of the two seemed to be the Foreign Service. When I was in graduate school in England, I took the Foreign Service exam at the embassy in London. I never entered the Foreign Service with the expectation that almost 32 years later I would still be doing it. I have been very fortunate throughout the course of my career, and I’ve certainly never looked back.

The Politic: Do you have any advice for students considering a career in the Foreign Service?

I think it is important to be well rounded both academically and in terms of your life experience. As I look at entering Foreign Service officers now — and I generally speak to each of the new classes of Foreign Service officers — I am very impressed with the range of experiences overseas that they’ve had, which I think contributes to [one’s] ability to be a successful Foreign Service officer. Foreign language capacity is extraordinarily helpful to a successful career in the Foreign Service. And the stronger base that you come into the Foreign Service with, the better off you are. Finally, it is important to be curious and interested in learning new things in the course of your career. And it is also important to be flexible, because you have to be willing to serve in places around the world including some very complicated places these days. It is a fascinating career and I strongly encourage students to consider it because it has been enormously rewarding for me.

The Politic: Throughout the course of your tenure as either Deputy Secretary of State and throughout your entire career, has there been a single most challenging assignment?

I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of challenges; through each of which I have learned a lot. Ten years ago, when I was the Assistant Secretary running the Middle East Bureau, I was very much involved in the negotiations we did with Libya, which was [Muammar] Qaddafi’s Libya at the time, both to reach a fair settlement of the Lockerbie terrorist attack and to ensure that the victims’ families were compensated. The negotiations also led to the dismantling of the nuclear program that the Libyans had at that time. That was quite challenging.

I have also been involved in negotiations over the Iranian nuclear issue, which has been both challenging and fascinating. My last overseas job as Ambassador to Russia came during a particularly challenging time, with lots of ups and downs in the relationship, so I learned a lot during that period from those challenges.

The Politic: You were only the second-ever serving career diplomat in history to become Deputy Secretary. How do you believe you were able to make your way to your current position?

That is a good question. I am sure that there are many people who are shocked to see me get as far as I have gotten. I never underestimate the significance of good fortune in anybody’s career, including in the diplomatic profession. I have been fortunate to work for a number of people for whom I have had great respect — not just the Secretaries of State, but great career officers like Tom Pickering — over the years, and I have learned a lot from them. That has made a big difference.

I also think it is important to stretch yourself across a variety of regions of the world. I have spent most of my overseas career in the Middle East or in Russia — two challenging parts of the world — and I think it helps to have a broad base of experience. Also, in Washington, [it helps] to have a good feel early in your career for the policy process because I think effective diplomats need to be equally adept at navigating overseas assignments and helping to shape and contribute to the policy process in Washington.

The Politic: What is a day like for the Deputy Secretary?

I will just go through today, which is a typically busy schedule. I had breakfast with the Indian National Security Advisor to talk about the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington at the end of September. He is someone I have known and respected for a long time. I participated in a conference call with the President and senior advisors about Egypt, which is one of our big challenges at the moment. I had the Malaysian Ambassador come in to see me to talk about some issues both related to our relationship with Malaysia and the President’s trip there in the fall. I went to a meeting of the Deputies — my Deputy Secretary level colleagues from the other parts of the U.S. government — to talk about Syria. I chaired a meeting of a small group of senior officials in the State Department to make recommendations to the Secretary about ambassadorial assignments for next summer. I had a meeting with the senior State Department budget officer,  as we look ahead at what is going to be a very complicated resource landscape. I have had calls so far today from my Turkish and British counterparts, as well, where we talked about a variety of subjects. That is kind of the way most days unfold.

The Politic: Well, I am flattered that I can be fit into that schedule. Could you talk about what your working relationship with Secretary of State John Kerry looks like on a day-to-day basis?

Typically, the Secretary has a busy travel schedule, but when he is in Washington, we have a meeting at 8:30 every morning with a few of the other senior officials in the State Department. We talk not only about the immediate challenges of the day, but also to try to take a step back to make sure that those immediate actions are connected to a broader strategy. Typically, throughout the course of the day, I will see him when he is in Washington. When he is traveling, I will talk to him on the phone a number of times just to check signals, and to make sure that he is well informed about other issues that are going on in Washington and to get his guidance. I have great respect for Secretary Kerry, and I very much enjoy working for him.

The Politic: Thinking of diplomacy, one often conjures the image of boardroom negotiations discussing high-stakes security issues such as the crisis in Syria. Could you talk about what portion of the Foreign Service truly deals with these high-profile security-political issues and what portion deals with the softer side of diplomacy, including educational and cultural outreach?

It has always been a mix throughout the three decades that I have been in the Foreign Service. But I think that over the course of those three decades, I have seen a pretty important shift. Diplomacy and encouraging healthy relationships between countries is now increasingly seen not just as a matter of relationships between governments, but also relations between societies. It [is important to] recognize the way in which the world has changed during that period, especially beyond the Cold War. The information technology revolution has knitted people together and blurred national boundaries on lots of important issues, whether it is food security or the environment or energy or human rights issues. Increasingly, my colleagues — whether they are ambassadors overseas or more junior officers — spend time on important classical, diplomatic issues, from negotiations over a trade agreement to a civilian-nuclear cooperation agreement. But they also invest a lot of time — and here is where language capabilities are very important — in reaching out to groups beyond government to speak to school groups or connect with groups involved in education or economic development, or through cultural exchanges.

One of the things that I have always enjoyed most about my experiences overseas has been helping to connect people in those kinds of areas. During the Cold War, they were often seen as softer areas of diplomacy. But in truth, they are elements of American national power that are extremely important; we not only try to navigate through a lot of misconceptions and sometimes hostility towards the United States, but also to build connections between people and societies. Those connections oftentimes are nearly as important as the nature of relations between governments and the progress you make on high policy or high profile security-political issues.

The Politic: Throughout your career in the Foreign Service, has there been a single person or event that has had the most influence on either your career or style of diplomacy?

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, left, meets with Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in Cairo
William Burns, left, meets with Egyptian Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in Cairo

I have been very fortunate. I have admired and enjoyed working for each of the Secretaries that I have served. Going back to very early in my career, I had wonderful role models like Tom Pickering and John Negroponte,  terrific career Foreign Service officers who  taught all of us a great deal. I think the period that probably shaped my thinking about diplomacy as much as any was when I worked as the Principal Deputy Director and Acting Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.  That was during Secretary [of State James] Baker’s time. This was a period from 1989 to the beginning of 1993 in which there were some truly historic developments in the international system. There was the end of the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, and the first Gulf War. Then came the Madrid Peace Conference, which was a significant step twenty years ago toward progress on Arab-Israeli peace and Palestinian-Israeli peace.

I have great admiration for Secretary Baker, for President George H.W. Bush and for Brent Scowcroft. It was one of those times when you had a confluence of really important historical challenges and opportunities in international affairs as well as a set of leaders like President Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and Colin Powell, who was then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. I learned a great deal about statesmanship and vision from navigating through all of those challenges in a way that served American values and interests very well. That is a period during which I certainly learned a lot and take some pride in.

The Politic: Given your two recent trips to Egypt, I hope that we may talk about the situation there. Since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak back in 2011, the United States has treaded rather cautiously with regards to its rhetoric of support within Egypt. Could you talk about what message the American government is trying to convey to Egypt and its citizens today?

The President put it very clearly [on August 15, 2013], and the statement he made strongly condemned the violence that we’d seen over the course of the [previous] day or two. [The violence] has been really horrific… My first trip to Egypt was as an 18-year old in 1974, when I spent the summer there; that was really my introduction to the Middle East. I have had a great deal of both respect and affection for Egyptians since then, so it pains me to see what is unfolding now.

Our message, as the President was emphasizing yesterday, has been a very straightforward one. We recognize Egypt’s significance in the Arab World.  We have invested a great deal in that relationship over the years. We also recognize the promise of Egypt’s revolution, which began in January of 2011. Like any revolution and post-revolutionary transition in history, there is bound to be lots of ups and downs. We have to be sober about the reality that it is going to take a generation or more for that transition to play out. It is deeply in our interests to do everything we can to be supportive of the aspirations that Egyptians made so clear during the Revolution — aspirations for dignity, for political participation, for economic opportunity, and for a political system that respects the individual rights of Egyptians across the political spectrum, respects the rights of women, and respects the rights of religious minorities.

We have made it clear that is not our business to support particular political parties or movements or personalities. That is the business of Egyptians. However, what we will do is to be as strongly supportive as we can of those principles that I just described.  As the President made clear [on August 15], we share a deep international concern about the horrific violence that has occurred. We have taken a couple of actions so far, including the cancellation of a big military exercise that we generally conduct every two years. The President has asked the administration to take a careful look at other elements of the relationship to see what more might be necessary at this stage.

As you understand very well from your own time in Egypt this summer, this is a really important crossroads for Egypt. The violence of recent days has set back the prospects that Egyptians can realize what is in effect a second chance to make a success of the revolutionary transition. It is a very polarized political atmosphere right now. A polarized political atmosphere undermines the chances for economic revival, and it is extremely important that Egyptians exercise leadership and move back toward the political roadmap that has been laid out. As difficult as it is right now in the wake of all the violence, [we must support] moves toward a genuine and inclusive process for political reconciliation. That is very hard to do and I don’t underestimate the obstacles on the path ahead. But I think that is deeply in the self-interest of Egyptians right now.

The Politic: Transitioning from Egypt, I was hoping that we could discuss the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Countless administrations in the past, arguably as far back as the birth of the state of Israel, have attempted to unravel this Gordian Knot. What gives you and Secretary Kerry hope that substantive progress can be made with these latest rounds of negotiations?

It’s the easiest thing in the world to be skeptical about the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, because if you are skeptical, you are almost always right. I don’t for a moment underestimate the challenges ahead — nor does Secretary Kerry or President Obama — but I think that this is an issue central to hopes for stability, security and a better future for people across the region, not just Palestinians and Israelis. I have always thought that the Arab Awakening — which is still very much in motion and is going to continue to have its ups and downs for years to come — is about people’s sense of dignity. And nothing cuts closer to the core of people’s sense of indignity across the Arab World than the lack of progress towards a two-state solution, which both Palestinians and Israelis deserve. Nothing cuts closer to the core of an insecure future for Israel than the lack of progress towards a two-state solution. As difficult as it is, I think it is important for the United States to exercise leadership and do what we can to help create circumstances under which Palestinians and Israelis — and more broadly Arabs and Israelis — can make progress. The peace process has had lots of moments of frustration as well as promise over the course of recent decades, and I’ve lived through a number of them. I think it has been important that Secretary Kerry has invested heavily in his first six months as Secretary of State in this issue; I know his commitment and President Obama’s commitment are going to continue.

The Politic: Moving on to Israeli-Iranian relations, I am curious how you have seen Iran’s rhetoric change — if at all — since the recent presidential elections. Similarly, do you believe that President [Hassan] Rouhani can warm relations and bring a more moderate voice to the nuclear dialogue, or, in the words of Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu, does the State Department fear that this new tone from Tehran may only be that of a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

We will see. President Obama has made clear the continuing commitment of the United States to working with our international partners and to trying to achieve a diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. The U.S. is committed to a resolution that reassures the international community about the exclusively peaceful purposes of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We recognize the obvious difficulties; progress requires not just words, but actions. We recognize that it is going to take a serious good-faith effort on the part of the Iranian government as well as the international community.

The United States must be prepared to engage very actively, but we will do so with a real sense of urgency as well. The failure of Iran to live up to its international responsibilities to provide the kind of reassurances that I have just described remains a huge source of concern. Sanctions have never been an end in and of themselves. They have been designed to try to produce an opportunity for serious diplomacy. As deep as our concern is about the risks involved in Iran’s nuclear programs, we are also very strongly committed to doing everything that we can to achieve [a] diplomatic resolution. We will see what the next few months bring, but there will certainly be no lack of commitment or effort on the U.S. side as we approach that diplomacy.

Deputy Secretary Burns speaking with Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama
Deputy Secretary Burns speaking with Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama

The Politic: You have previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia; however, since the conclusion of your tenure, we have seen several alarming events with regards to Russian-American relations. We have seen gridlock on the U.N. Security Council over the situation in Syria and rhetorical clashes over both human rights and political freedoms in Russia. Most recently, we have seen the controversy in Moscow surrounding the granting of asylum to Edward Snowden. Do you believe that these events can be described as a cooling of relations between these two nations? 

Yes, there has been a cooling of relations and that was certainly reflected in President Obama’s recent decision to not go ahead with the bilateral summit that had been planned in Moscow before the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg in early September. That decision was a clear reflection of a lack of substantive progress toward a meeting between the two presidents that is in the interest of both countries. It is a relationship that we will keep working at. It has always been a mix of competition and cooperation, in which there has been no shortage of differences between us. Particularly in the first two or three years of the Obama administration, we made a fair deal of tangible progress in areas of mutual interest like cooperation in Afghanistan, and UN Security Council Resolution 1929 on Iran. We cooperated effectively on Iran and North Korea; we also concluded the New START agreement on strategic nuclear weapons reductions, a civil nuclear agreement, and helped achieve Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. I think all of those were in the mutual interests of the United States and Russia.

But we have had lots of differences, too, over Syria and, more recently, the Snowden affair, as you mentioned. We have had quite obvious differences over human rights issues in Russia, where we have been plainspoken and not shy about expressing our concerns. As we look toward the future, we recognize the significance of Russia and its role in the world. Russia is still a permanent member of the Security Council, is still the world’s biggest producer of hydrocarbons, and — along with the United States — controls somewhere around 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. That gives the two of us not only particular capabilities, but also particular responsibilities. I hope we can find ways to build upon those areas of mutual interest while continuing to deal honestly and candidly with the significant areas of differences between us.

The Politic: How do you believe that America is perceived abroad, and what efforts can be taken to further improve the American image in the eyes of the international community? 

I think the image of the United States is one that varies around the world. There are large parts of the Middle East — as you saw in Egypt — where there is a fair amount of frustration and anger about American policies, or at least what is perceived to be American policy. In terms of international relations, we are not engaged in a popularity contest. Given our particular capabilities in the world, we are always, to some extent, going to be an object of suspicion from some people around the world. But I also firmly believe that there is a great deal we can do in terms of dealing with our own domestic challenges to project a positive example to the rest of the world. I have always thought that the power of our example matters a lot more than the power of our preaching.

When people see us fixing political, economic, and social problems in this country in a democratic way and in a way that takes into account all of the rights of our citizens, it has a positive impact. We are not always perfect at that, but when they see us making that sustained effort and succeeding in some areas, I think that sends a positive message about what America represents to the world. A lot of times, our policies drive views of the United States more than the packaging or the public diplomacy. That doesn’t mean that you need to indulge people overseas in terms of how we shape our policies. Our policies are going to be shaped by what serves American interests and what we see to be universal values, but I do think that we do have to understand other people’s perceptions of the United States. I have always found that understanding those perspectives is the starting point for sensible policy.


The United States Department of State:

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Published by Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster, from Baltimore, Maryland, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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