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In a wide-ranging talk on foreign policy, former U.S. ambassador William J. Burns shared insights Tuesday on Russia, the Middle East and the need for more young people to consider careers in foreign service.

Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, told the Duke audience that the United States’ advantage over its adversaries is not so much military or economics, but a capacity to invest in alliances and mobilize coalitions when facing some of today’s biggest policy issues. 

Still, he worries that we are corroding this asset. 

Burns said the Trump administration did not invent the drift away from American diplomacy as a vital tool in international relations.  Since the end of the Cold War, he said the U.S. has a history of treating diplomacy as an under-resourced afterthought, instead favoring our natural tendency to rely on our military power and intelligence.

“We live in an era where all too often public service is denigrated and belittled, but I think it is enormously important for the future of our country,” Burns said. “I hope very much that we can renew the sense of dignity that ought to be connected to public service at its best.”

Encouraging young people to revisit careers in foreign service, Burns advised that diplomacy matters more in the current world system where the U.S. is no longer the only “big power.” Today, he said, the U.S. needs to navigate a much more competitive environment and a balance of power among many states.   

The former deputy secretary of state spoke with Bruce Jentleson, William Preston Few Professor of Public Policy, at the Sanford School.  Burns’ visit was part of the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy’s hallmark speaker series, which brings distinguished scholars and practitioners to campus to discuss topics in national security and America’s role in the world.

Burns 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. 

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.

Burns’ reflections on this decades-long career,  “The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal,” was released earlier this year.

Reflecting on the policy decisions made surrounding the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Burns said, “I think we got it half-right.” He pointed out that as a result of the policy decisions made related to the Iraq invasion, numerous U.S. officials resigned. 

Resonant of current tensions between the Trump administration and some in foreign service, Burns said he admired both those who resigned and those who exercised disciplined service, staying without publicly airing disagreements. Burns stressed the responsibility of honesty from officials and institutions that foster an environment of honest discourse. 

He also shared anecdotes about his experiences with world leaders, referring to former Libyan dictator  Muammar Gaddafi as “by far the weirdest guy I’ve ever dealt with” and remembering 3 a.m. meetings in the middle of the Libyan Desert with the leader wearing “what can only be described as yellow pajamas with dead African dictators on them.” 

The ambassador spoke fondly of his work with King Hussein of Jordan and what the leader was able to accomplish for the Jordanian people against “extraordinary odds.” 

Burns referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity.” Burns recalled one of his first meetings as the U.S. ambassador to Russia at the Kremlin, where Putin delivered a blunt and charmless message that the “United States must listen more; you can’t have everything on your terms.”

 “It is a pretty rough moment … the starting point for sensible strategy is always to accurately diagnose the landscape. … Today in relations with Putin’s Russia, we are going to be operating in a pretty narrow band of possibilities.”  

Regardless, it is vital to continue to focus on common interest such as regulating and reducing our nuclear arsenals, Burns said.  He noted that although Russia is a declining power, it still holds the potential to be disruptive. “You can’t take Russia for granted.”

Added Burns: “I’m a huge believer on supporting a healthy and sovereign Ukraine.  I think that is vital to a healthy Europe and the evolution of Russia.” He explained the reasoning offered in his memoir for not supporting Ukraine’s entry into NATO in 2008.  “(Putin) used it to feed his narrative that the U.S. is against us,” he said. The Russian leader later used this narrative to invade Ukraine in 2014.

Burns also spoke on relations with Iran. 

“In my view, the only more tightly kept secret was the Bin Laden raid,” Burns commented on his participation in the Iran nuclear deal, formerly known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.  “It is not without controversy; it is not a perfect agreement … but I think it was the best of the available alternatives for preventing the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons.  It was meant to be the beginning of diplomacy, not the end of it.” 

The ambassador President Trump’s instinct to make a deal with Iran’s president is healthy, but he is not convinced that the players on either side are ready for it. 

“The risk now is that we continue to talk past each other until we collide, and the last thing we need right now is for more insecurity in the Middle East.”

The Duke Center for International and Global Studies also supported the event.

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