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welcome to hardtalk, i'm stephen sackur. the united states of america is still the most powerful nation on earth, but the way it's perceived by friends and rivals has changed radically in a generation. at the end of the cold war, american supremacy was
unchallenged, and washington's commitment to multilateral global engagement unquestioned. well now, we live in a very different era. my guest is william burns, who served as a top ranked us diplomat for three decades, serving five presidents. is the us losing its capacity to lead 7
william burns, welcome to hardtalk. it's great to be with you. you have retired, you were a top—ranked diplomat for more than three decades. do you think your career encompassed the period when diplomacy came to matter much less? i think at some ways it did, you're right. i began the book with a scene that was set in the george h w bush administration when i worked for secretary of
state james baker at the madrid—middle east peace conference. and that really was the point at which american power and diplomacy was at their peak. but then, over the course of the following three decades, part of it was sort of the natural evolution of events, as other powers rose in the world. part of it had to do with unforced errors, particularly in iraq in 2003 on the part of american
administrations. but part of it also reflected a drift in the priority that american administrations attached to american diplomacy as a tool of pursuing our interests in the world. i think after the end of the cold war, there was a sense of complacency. we went through a period of significant budget cuts driven by congress. then came the huge shock to our system in 9/11, and a further emphasis on military and intelligence tools of foreign policy, with diplomacy often times treated as an under—resourced afterthought. it seems to me there is a structural thing here. when you set out in the early 1990s, you were laboriously writing long reports back to washington, putting them in a pouch and it would take days for your masters in washington to get them and read them. now in the environment of 24/7 news, social media streams, electronic surveillance, frankly the diplomat,
your entire life devoted to it, that role is sort of gone? i don't think it's gone, but it certainly has changed significantly. and professional diplomats need to adapt. we are slow to adapt because self—criticism is sometimes in order, and the state department is full of people who, as individuals, can be very courageous and entrepreneurial. as an institution, the state department has rarely been accused of being too agile or too full of initiative. so the pace and volume of information today, as journalists and diplomats have to contend with, means there is still an enormous value in smart diplomacy, but it is in distilling that avalanche of information. let's talk about how smart diplomacy has been in your lifetime. you've written a very thick tome, which is a very interesting, detailed account of all the different diplomatic activities you've been involved with, primarily focused on the middle east
and russia, which were your two real specialisms. your contention is that america over the years has seen some really very effective diplomats in charge, from james baker, who you admired a great deal, through figures like colin powell to barack obama himself in more recent times. i would put it to you that actually, your account really represents how many mistakes and missteps were made during your professional lifetime. i tried to be honest about things i got right and things i got wrong. i tried to ground it not — as often is the case in memoirs, in writing what i wish i'd said or recommended, but rather what i was saying and thinking at the time, so i was able to get about 120 documents declassified, some of which are at the end of the book. so i try to present warts and all my successes and failures as a diplomat. i guess what's interesting
is the degree to which you, and let's start with russia, could see that the us was probably getting wrong the structural relationship with post—soviet russia in the 1990s, getting it wrong because of the enthusiasm for the rapid nato expansion towards russia's border. you advised against that rapid expansion, and nobody appeared to be listening. why? i think if you look at the first waves of the expansion of nato in the late 1990s, you could understand. i was sitting in moscow trying to offer myjudgement on what the russian reaction would be. but from the point of view of a poll with an historic sense of insecurity, you can understand the attraction... but we aren't talking about what the polls were thinking, but the conclusions drawn in washington, dc in what was ultimately in america's national interest. and i'm focusing in on it because it matters so much today because of what we now see in the relationship
between vladimir putin and the united states. i think in terms of nato expansion, as i point out in the book, the big mistake that i believe we made was in the spring of 2008 at the end of the george w bush administration, when we pushed quite hard for the opening of the door to formal membership for ukraine and georgia. and that's an issue that wasn't unique to putin, it runs across the russian political elite. and i think we had gotten into the habit of putting nato expansion on autopilot, and into the habit born of our experience in the 1990s where it seemed to us we could manoeuvre over or around any objection from moscow. already in this interview, you've used a word that seems to me quite important, complacency. there was, and you inherited it because long before you came to the state department, there was this notion of a pre—eminent america. do you think that notion of pre—eminence led to a form of complacency which has been
corrosive in the last 20 years? i think it was that sense, which was the reality at the end of the cold war, the us was the single dominant player on the international landscape. and that bred a certain complacency, and that intersected with another deeply felt emotion, which was the shock to the system of 9/11, and the sense that the united states needed to ensure that an attack like that never happened again. and the bias then was towards prevention, towards acting, a form of muscular unilateralism that caused us to pay less attention to multilateralism. 0ne specific point that strikes me as interesting in russia, you met vladimir putin several times. now donald trump, who currently of course is guiding a very different approach to russia, at least on the face of it is different, because he wants to reach out to putin. he admires him, we know that, and he seems to believe that one—on—one personal diplomacy, as we've seen in those
extraordinary summit meetings, like the one in helsinki recently, trump seems to believe that by being with putin, spending time with him and establishing a relationship, that can have a structural impact on the moscow—washington relationship. do you as a diplomat believe that can and does matter? personal relationships certainly matter, they matter with autocrats in particular, because of their singular domination of another political system. they are necessary but not sufficient, and the concern i have about donald trump's approach to his relationships with autocrats like putin is that in his effort to curry favour, to almost indulge in ingratiating himself with leaders like that, that's perceived by putin and kimjong—un as a sign of weakness and manipulability. so the focus on personal relationships is important, certainly george hw bush
and james baker understood that well, but it must be coupled with a hard—nosed business of diplomacy, which means building leverage and trusting professional diplomats and others to help carry through policies, as well. without that, i think diplomacy becomes narcissism. it's not a diplomacy of institutions. let me switch from russia, which you are a russian speaker, that was one of your specialists, the other was the middle east because you're an arabic speaker, as well, and you spend a lot of time in the middle east. you were involved in different capacities right through the 9/11 period, the invasion of iraq, all the way through to barack 0bama's policymaking on syria, bringing it right forward to 2011 onwards. again, it looks like a tale of missteps, mistakes, and frankly, of strategic lack of direction.
are you apart of it? i was. i think we got some things right, certainly going back to the madrid peace conference just after the end of the cold war. i think the iranian nuclear agreement, which sadly we've abandoned in the last couple of years, was a significant step forward for american diplomacy. so there were other moments where we got things right. you have written about the iraq invasion of 2003, you've described how you wrote memos laying out all the potential problems that you saw with the toppling of saddam hussein. you stayed, despite the fact that the administration clearly did not listen to your advice. one has to say, you were something of an enabler? that's true, i had a conversation that i write about in the book with a senior colleague in the state department. where we talked about that, and almost inevitably, that's the role that you fall into sometimes. how important is it, if a senior figure like yourself truly feels a policy to be deeply
misguided and damaging to the national interest — how important is it to draw a line and say, "if that line is crossed, i'm out of here, i'm i have enormous respect for those of my colleagues, there were three over the iraq war in 2003 who resigned from the foreign service. there were 20 over policy in the balkans in the early 1990s. i have enormous respect for that decision. however, i also think that continuing to do the best you can and being honest about your concerns inside a discipline profession is also important. whether i got that balance right or not, i'm not sure to this day. but we did try in the run—up to the iraq war to be honest about our concerns. two colleagues of mine and i had the most depressing brainstorming session of my career in the summer of 2002, where we tried to puncture some of what we believed were the recklessly rosy assumptions about what the day after saddam hussein's overthrow would look like in iraq. and it was more a hurried
list of horrible is than a coherent analysis. but we tried to list all the things we thought could go wrong. we entitled that memorandum "the perfect storm". in reading it in hindsight, we got it about half right and half wrong. but it was an honest effort to express oui’ concerns, and that's an obligation i think for professionals. what do you think, if one adds up all of the us‘s middle east strategic key policies of the last 25 years, from israel and palestine attempting to be the peacemaker but utterly failing, one must conclude — iraq, the invasion and removal of saddam hussein, but the leaving behind of such a mess that it spilt over into syria and arguably was the cornerstone of the creation of is and the jihadist movement. syria, the greatest humanitarian tragedy in the middle east of recent times... at the end of all that, it looks like the involvement of yourself has to conclude that
you and many others oversaw a catastrophic damage to us credibility in the region and the world. well, we got a lot of things wrong. as i said, we got some things right during that period. i think american diplomacy has its limits, and i think one of the things we learned over those three decades is the limits of our agency in the middle east. and i think all too often, both leaderships and peoples in the middle east, as well as americans, got accustomed to seeing american decisions as central to their future. the arab spring was a reminder that people in that region have agency of their own. so i would be the last person to argue we have a pristine record in the middle east, we did not, through administrations of both parties. but i think we need to learn the lessons of that experience, the limits of our agency, but also learn where we can focus constructively. let's now talk about donald trump.
and i don't wish to make it sound like i'm simply focused on all the negatives and i'm using hindsight in a very easy way for a journalist to do. i've discovered i've gotten a lot smarter since i got out of government. the fact is that donald trump ran a campaign in 2016 when, as he addressed foreign policy issues, he told the american public that they've been failed by the foreign policy establishment for the last generation. "they've given you a set of received ideas, a status quo mentality "which has not worked in america's national interest, and he would be "which has not worked in america's national interest, and i will be different, shaking things up". as we've discussed things in this interview, it seems to me that donald trump had a point. i think anyone who got elected president of the united states in 2016 was going to have to reckon with a landscape on which our record was pretty mixed. it was also going to have to reckon with a pretty big disconnect within american society
between people like me, card—carrying members of the washington establishment, and lots of american citizens who, when we preach the virtues of disciplined american leadership in the world, in my experience most americans don't need to be convinced of the value of american engagement in the world. but they do need to be convinced if frankly, your exercise of your experience and insight has failed. and if donald trump is telling them "the state department is full of people who are elitist and don't understand america's real interest", and the intelligence agencies as well, because he included them, "and i will do things very differently and get rid of all these elitists," operating his own foreign policy and intelligence gathering in a different way. that's what he said, and in a sense that's what he's doing, and we talk about his russia policy, his confrontation with china over
trade, we could talk about his different approach to north korea and iran. he's shaken up all of the received ideas that you practised and which didn't work. i think some of those ideas worked, and some didn't. but the point i was trying to make before is that most americans don't need to be persuaded of the value of american leadership in the world. what they are sceptical about, and what trump took advantage of, is the disciplined part of that. they see indiscipline, and the way in which american administrations and professionals have made choices over time. so in a sense, trump was asking the right questions, i just think he's supplying the wrong answers. because if you look at the public servants of the united states today, the state department in the intelligence community in the military, they are deeply patriotic, committed, they have enormous amounts of expertise that you need to draw on, not disdain. and when donald trump was asked last year about whether he was concerned of the number of senior vacancies in the state department, his response was, "not so much, because i'm the only one who matters". that is not a prescription for playing an effective american role in the world.
so those were the right questions, any elected president would have had to address them. but i think what he's supplying are the wrong answers. we are hollowing out our ability to compete effectively on a landscape which is far more competitive and contested today than it was when ijoined the foreign service. let's talk about that new landscape, it seems to me the one challenge we haven't talked about, the one that matters more arguably than the others, is china. that's certainly true. do you think it's time to confront, co—operate with, or contain china? i think the notion of containing china doesn't make much sense. what i think american policy ought to do, working with partners and allies around the world, is try to shape the environment into which china rises. and there are lots of countries across asia today that are concerned that china's rise comes not at the expense of their prosperity and security. so the us naturally has an opportunity not so much
to contain china, although we do need to push back against predatory chinese trade and investment practises. president trump is right to do that, but you need to couple that with affirmative vision of what is the kind of asia you want to see? i think we have lots of assets on which to draw, to try and create not only that vision... but do you think the foreign policy machine was very late to see just how important front and centre china needed to be? i'm just quoting here a colleague of yours from the obama administration, kurt campbell who said very recently, "as the assumptions driving us—china policy have started looking increasingly tenuous and the gap between american expectations in chinese realities has grown, washington has unfortunately been largely focused elsewhere". i think since 9/11, a huge preoccupation was the middle east. so to that extent, what kurt said is right.
but again, i think addressing the question of pushing back against certain chinese practises is only one part of a sensible strategy. the other part is to make common cause with other countries who share some of those concerns, and to create an architecture in which you create incentives and disincentives for china, as well. that would've the virtue to the transpacific partnership, knitting together a0%. .. which donald trump chose to walk away from. what we see in china today is grand ambition. president xi said he wants china to be a global leader in terms of comprehensive national strength and international influence. we see the belton road policy, we see the 5g and hi—tech commitment which is making china a world leader, which worries the us more than any other nation. what we don't see is america responding with a similar outward looking global tech driven vision. where's the american belton road?
the challenge here, and this would've been what the transpacific partnership would have in part supplied, is that sense of an affirmative american view shared by lots of other countries. the same is true in pushing back against chinese trade practises. rather than start second and third—front trade conflicts with the european union and japan over steel and aluminium, over steel and aluminum, it would make more sense to make common cause with them, as well. so i think china has a lot of its own challenges to deal with domestically, as well. so our relationship with china, the single most consequential on the international landscape today, will be a combination of those areas where cold—bloodedly, we need to work together, and also there's areas where we need to compete. this is what the chinese seem to think of america today, there's a very interesting quote from an international relations professor in shanghai. he says, "america does not want to lead at this time when china clearly does want to lead".
did he get that right? i hope that's not the case, but i think that's the perception at some times when the chinese leadership looks at the erratic and uncertain leadership of the current administration. so i think the united states has a huge capacity to lead, a lot of assets on which to draw, but we just need to have the vision and drive to be able to accomplish that. the vision and drive — i want to bring it back to the personal as we come toward the end. we talked about your own career in diplomacy. you retired before donald trump came into the white house. what would you have done if you were still a top—ranking serving diplomat, and donald trump came into the white house with his approach, his philosophy to foreign policymaking ? would you have quit? it would've been really hard to continue to serve, and a number of my colleagues from my generation, who were still serving during the transition of administrations,
made that choice. i encourage my colleagues who are still serving in government to continue to serve and do the best they can, because i think american interests require that greater profession. never mind the discussion we had about enabling, the degree to which you need to have redlines which you can't cross. in terms of your values, what you think america represents. especially as a senior official, when you have to publicly go out and defend policies, i would've found it very difficult. and finally, in terms of the values that we talk about, do you think that is still the most important advantage america has over nations like china, with their big ambitions? the american values have something to them which chinese interests and values do not? i don't think they're so much american values as they are a set of values widely shared in the world, the value of open political and economic systems. in my experience...
in the era of limited democracies and authoritarianism ? in my experience, we get a large farther through the power of our preaching. we don't set a good example on either side of the atlantic today where we seem to be having simultaneous nervous breakdowns. but i do believe in the value of those virtues of the way in which we look at organising our own societies, and how societies should interact with one another. but we must do a betterjob of demonstrating that we can actually live by those values at home. william burns, thank you very much. my pleasure. thanks so much.
hello there, good morning. sunshine really did make a big difference to the temperature yesterday. we had 20 degrees for the first time in a long time. that was recorded in east anglia in the sunshine. further north in the north—east of england, it was a very different look to the weather. the mist and fog and low cloud rolling in from the north sea and temperatures about 7 degrees. now, we should get sunshine in the north—east of england on tuesday but our air is getting colder. 0ur air is coming all the way from scandinavia over the cold north sea so we are going to find temperatures dropping. that mild and warmer windier weather is staying out in the atlantic and it wasn't very warm in mid wales on monday with thick cloud, some showery rain too. we should get some sunshine here i think on tuesday because the rain is still probably a bit further south through rush—hour, so affecting south wales, southern england, perhaps into the south midlands. move further north, very much quieter, bit of a chillier start
perhaps one or two mist and fog patches but sunshine in most areas and very light winds as well a much sunnier day for the north—east of england. we will still have this showery rain mind you and it is moving very, very slowly its way southwards. it could induce a few more thundery downpours in the south west of england during the afternoon. away from here though, a lot of dry weather with sunshine continuing through the day. easterly breezes mind you. colder around the north sea coast, significant drop in temperature across east anglia as you can see as well as some western parts of scotland which was quite warm on monday. it gets chillier as the sun goes down, mind you. and we should see the showers moving down going further south out towards the english channel overnight. clear skies, maybe one or two mist orfog patches but a chillier night, northern parts of the uk, as you see we have a touch of blue on there. there could be a touch of frost around as well. now we are going to find any showers squeezed way to the south by this
developing area of high pressure that is extending its way into the uk and it's keeping all these weather fronts at bay from the atlantic. so, a lot of quiet and dry weather through the rest of the week. chilly start as i say from wednesday. any showers are more likely to be across the english channel. it should be a dry day for the most part, maybe a little bit more cloud coming in, more of a breeze across east anglia and the south—east of england with some chilly breezes as well. those temperatures not changing an awful lot. 9—13 degrees if you are lucky, a bit below par for this time of year. and with that high pressure still around, essentially it is dry. there will be some cloud around, some sunshine at times. the winds probably picking up a bit later on in the week and still feeling chilly for this time of the year. goodbye.