BOOK REVIEW: The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal

William J. Burns entered government service with the US Department of State in 1982, eventually serving under five presidents and rising to the highest level a career foreign service official has ever attained, being named Deputy Secretary of State under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Now head of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, he has written perhaps the most elegant takedown of Donald Trump’s foreign policy so far, hardly mentioning Trump by name until the last chapter of the book.

He did so not by attacking Trump or his secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, but by recording the enormous, careful spadework that state department officials put into every major decision in which he took part during his 33 years of service. It is spadework that has simply been ignored by the current administration, and that has resulted in damage to the American image overseas that will take decades to rectify, if ever.

In Asia, at least, the damage may be permanent with the president’s negation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 16-nation trade agreement that was designed for US advantage vis-à-vis China. In virtually every single decision the Trump administration has made about Asian economic, political or military affairs, including his nonsensical one-on-one negotiations with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, or his ruinous trade war with China, the other party has come out winner.

None of that is the subject of Burns’ book, titled “The Back Channel.” Diplomatic engagement, he writes, Is “not a favor to an adversary but a means of reconnaissance and communication. It is a way to better understand trends, assess motivations, convey determination, and avoid inadvertent collisions. It is a method of maneuvering for future gain, a means of gaining wider support by demonstrating our willingness to engage and exposing the intransigence of rivals or foes. The central function of diplomats is to try to manage the world’s inevitable disorders and crises.”

Burns rose steadily through the ranks to ambassadorial posts in Jordan and Moscow as well as service in a long series of Washington jobs that took him to the very top of the policy-making apparatus, making him arguably the most influential policy professional since the legendary George F. Kennan. The diplomatic endeavors in which he played a role are too numerous to mention here. He played a major role, along with CIA Director George Tenet, in implementing the sadly brief Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire under President Bill Clinton as well as the intensive negotiations that created the equally short-lived pact between Iran and the so-called P5+1 nations that President Trump voided, a decision that right now the world looks likely to pay for with the death, by American drone, of Iran’s top military official, who might well have deserved it but appears a drastic misstep by the Trump administration.

Along the way, as he describes in the book, he played a major role in persuading Muammar Qaddafi to give up nuclear weapons, worked with Russia in deemphasizing nuclear weapons after the end of the Cold War and worked to strengthen the Obama administration’s strategic partnership with India. He seems to have been utterly nonpartisan, working with Republican and Democratic administration alike in steering US foreign policy. However, it is clear that his admiration for the administration President George HW Bush is considerable although not nearly so much for his son George W Bush, whose disastrous invasion of the Iraq is still being paid for in blood. Hillary Clinton comes off as a far more capable secretary of state than the public perception. So does Condoleezza Rice, George W Bush’s second secretary of state.

The painstaking intricacy of diplomacy is on view here in a memoir that should be required reading not only for every prospective state department professional but for every politician who sits in Washington, belittling an agency of 75,000 employees whose job it is to present and protect American interests overseas. Seven ambassadors have died in the line of duty, along with scores of state department officials.

One of the most important features of Burns’ memoirs is his willingness to take a candid look at the failures of diplomacy as well as its rather modest triumphs, given the effort that has gone into them. Looking back at the dramatic end of the Cold War, he writes: “America’s unipolar moment was, by definition, temporary. Inevitably our relative power would diminish as other players became wealthier, stronger and more assertive. In the midst of these dramatic geopolitical shifts, some of which we accelerated with our own mistakes, we also lost our way in diplomacy. At first lulled by the experience of post-Cold War dominance, and then shocked by 9/11, we gradually devalued diplomatic tools. All too often, we overrelied on American hard power to achieve policy aims and ambitions, hastening the end of American dominance, deepening the desire and capacity of adversaries to upend the America-led international order, and disillusioning the American public.

The last chapter of the book is perhaps most compelling, titled “Pivotal Power: Restoring America’s Tool of First Resort.” it is where Burns delivers his thoughts of the presidency of Donald Trump.

“The image of possibility and respect for human dignity that attracted so many around the world, despite all of our flaws, grew more and more tattered,” he writes. “Many years of representing the United States abroad taught me that the power of our example mattered more than that of our preaching. Now our example was increasingly one of incivility, division and dysfunction, and our preaching had less to do with highlighting human rights abuses abroad whenever we saw them and more with insulting our allies and indulging autocrats.”

The president’s suspicion of the State Department as a deep state of Obama and Clinton supporters bent on resisting the new administration, he writes, was a “major, if convenient misapprehension. If anything, career foreign and civil service officers at State are almost loyal to a fault, eager for the opportunity to deliver for a new administration, and hopeful that their expertise will be valued, if not always heeded.”

Rebuilding American diplomacy involves at least three major imperatives: “reinforcing the core roles and qualities that continue to sustain successful diplomacy; adapting diplomatic tradecraft to manage new challenges; and revitalizing a compact with an American public less certain of the purpose and importance of American leadership.

“The Back Channel” is an idealist’s book. It is stylishly written and its thesis, once this administration is gone, is that those imperatives can be met. It insults nobody, including the current president, but appraises his reign judiciously. When diplomacy succeeds, he says, it is usually “because of an appreciation of its limits, rather than stretching beyond them. Durable arguments are rooted in mutual self-interest, not one-sided expressions of will, and that frequently carry the baggage and imperfections of compromise, the inevitable consequences of the give-and-take of even the most fruitful negotiations.”