tv William Burns The Back Channel CSPAN April 25, 2019 10:55pm-12:00am EDT
lead very inspiring lives. [inaudible conversations] . >> good evening we have a packed house with a lot of ground to cover i am co-owner of politics and prose on behalf of everybody here. welcome. thank you for coming. we are feeling great to have with us a man in his 33 years with us foreign service
compiling one of the most impressive records of any career diplomat. working under five presidents serving as ambassador to jordan and russia assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs plus was only the second serving career diplomat in history to become the deck in the secretary of state. not bad for an army brat with the military family coast to coast with a dozen names and three high schools. said diplomatic career spans from obama that got him to stay on after he intended to leave and the specialty of the most challenging middle east and russia. his memoir which is declassified material with an
inside look at american diplomacy at the end of the cold war to the iraq war the arab spring and the iran nuclear deal and russia's reemergence as a global power player. in the situation room where the navy seals killed osama bin laden going back to washington with the remains of chris stevens or on multiple occasions with vladimir putin and then to engage in secret back channel talks with iran on the nuclear issue. these are just a few of the noteworthy moments from the exemplary career. from the entire service with the car loan - - carnegie endowment for international peace with the rns on - - science and are in detail and by doing so makes a powerful argument for why diplomacy
still matters. it is a timely reminder of what can be achieved of quiet power. it also shows what is required with a sense of history and strategic insight, good judgment and intelligence dedication and diligence the review of the new york journal of books is much like the author himself measured and articulate and above all diplomatic. to bn conversation experience of both foreign and domestic affairs and with "the chicago tribune" in the middle east moving to china switching to "the new yorker" leading to ambition which had the national book award and was a
finalist for the pulitzer. and then to be based here in dc covering politics and foreign affairs. please join me to welcome our guest. [applause] . >> when they ask you to interview bill burns about diplomacy like interviewing elvis about the guitar. [laughter] and as some of you know, or a lot of you know, that bill has a fan club in the world of foreign affairs. not only for the reasons of what i described his depth of
priceless art collection and in a moment of triumph not a knock a ballerina off the desk onto the floor and mercifully it was carpeted, his career continue and marches on. when bill was finally allowed to retire after threatening and pleading the president talked it and when he finally was allowed i think it is worth mentioning secretary terry compared to build george kennan and jeff mullen said he was an american diplomatic legend. president obama hailed him as a consummate diplomat and to public service. indeed that is the case. please join me in welcoming bill burns. [applause]
one of the things we do that is most interesting about this book is that you described the mechanics and the power of diplomacy and how it actually works. you have at one point a line where it is an unheroic quiet and never less swaggering and unrelenting thanks to all of you for coming. when i worked for secretary of state it is a theme that the majority peace conference in the fall of 1991 they have the same
negotiating framework, and i mention that because it was the moment when i really did see american power and diplomacy at their peak the difference between spider and the kind of rhetoric that you would associate with that pretty politics than it does in the foreign-policy and they embodied at least in my experience head down, unrelenting ghostly private approach to advancing america's interests in the wor world. they are diplomacy wasn't about the football on top of the berlin wall of the cold war. it is about applying the american power.
on the willpower and skill and persistence as much as anything else is filled entirely with cartoons from the times of which were deeply cynical about what he was trying to do. they like to use text as expression which is hard the arabic language one of them is don't let me leave a dead cat at your doorstep. [laughter]
he would drink every cup of tea that got handed to him. rushing out of the room and printing about an urgent phone call. it's about the reunification and peaceful management in the end of the cold war. they danced in the amazon and you remember the story of the famous coach of the green bay packers football team once told where one of his young
touchdowns got so excited with a little dance in the end zone and vince lombardi called him over and said next time act like you've been there before. i'm guessing the ambassador that left have some exciting new opportunities. it comes up a number of times a. what does that mean and why is it important for the practice of diplomacy? >> simply because it creates opportunities for adversaries for lots of countries.
for the last seven decades it has fallen to the united states for much of the period the single dominant player of the system to mobilize other countries to deal with it one of the dangers today i think had the united states received that specific responsibilities it disconnects between people like me and they work against the interesinterests and values ande
from budgets from 1985 until 2000. it was cut by almost 50% gradually over the period and the last part of the 1990s because of the congressional budget pressures we took him no diplomats and then of course came 9/11 the deep shock to the system and after that a further and desist on the military and intelligence committee and relatively less emphasis on diplomacy. so, i think those realities are to highlight the fact as much concern as they have about applying policy and the lack of commitment from this administration donald trump didn't invent anyone of that. he has however accelerated it and made it infinitely worse.
it's a mistake of who lost russia it isn't ours to lose and we underplay the domestic scene. is there a scenario that we encounter today the country that is on a collision course with us for our international institutions can choose another path? not only mean that other me buts have struggled since the end of the cold war first you ask the question within a narrow band of possibilities from the sharply competitive to be adversarial and that is just the reality. to understand how that came about first in the early 19 '90s you have to understand
the kind of combination of hope and humiliation and the disorder of boris yeltsin's russia to understand the aggressiveness of vladimir putin's russia because putin emerged with the sense that along with others in a political lead with the united states have taken advantage of the historical weakness and that is exaggerated in my view. it wasn't easy and they were not comfortable being the junior partner of the united states. it was during the first war with russia and the winter 1994 to 1995. see that is to understand that sense of humiliation here's the red army that in the cold war is supposed to ge give to the englh
channel in 48 hours. it looks more like a street gang within a military professional. they are having a hard time suppressing the most brutal fashion in an isolated part of russia. i vividly remember my first meeting is the newly arrived in american ambassador in 2005 you had been presenting their credentials you bring the letter from the american president presented to russia and you do this in the kremlin which as many of you know is built on a scale that is meant to intimidate whether it is visitors or new ambassadors for you come to the kremlin and walk through these corridors and finally come to the end of one hall. there are these two-story doors
and you are waiting for it to sink in then eventually they crack open and out walks a lot of putin who despite his persona isn't physically that imposing. he's about five or six and carries himself with a lot of self-assurance and needless to say so here i am the newly intimidated american ambassador. i have my letter to hand him and before i can get a word out of my mouth, president putin says you need to listen more. you can't have your own way anymore. we have effective relations but not just on your terms and that was vintage putin in my experience. a chip on his shoulder and kind of defying a defiantly he reacted in the only way that he knew how to which was
aggressively and vladimir putin who tried to take advantage of this in our own elections in 2016 sow chaos succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. i think that he was as surprised about who one. but i say that as a backdrop to the point where we as a country are not to give in to putin and we ought not give up on the russia that lies beyond. a little class that is increasingly about the fact to the standards othatstandards oft improving today and the slew of russian that are going to prove as junior partner so without being unrealistic or pollyanna -ish as you look at this over the next five to ten years,
there are other opportunities for the american diplomacy with russia and in the meantime, establishing and maintaining some guard rails and the relationship of important. we are about to see the collapse of what is left of the architecture between the united states and russia. that is a very dangerous thing. the treaty on nuclear forces is about to fall and i think of even greater importance is that you start agreement that regulates the strategic arms that expire in 2021 unless we extend it and what i fear is we are going to watch this last one called laps and we have a much more combustible situation. when we look at russia we have a ten and seek to minimiz c. to ms importance and we declare it a regional power and then of course we go the other way and say it's 100 feet tall. help us calibrate our instruments a little bit. how important should russia be?
>> this won't surprise you somewhere in between they have a huge demographic problem as you know about 30 million russians living east in a vast swath of the earth that covers siberia and the far east looking across a large portrait of billy and chinese so they feel insecure sometimes. one of the criticisms i think is going to be bad when he was serving 130-dollar-barrel oil that has been could have diversify the economy. he didn't because the main priority which is political control. but then again i think that leaves them in a weak position to continue to the 21st century. but we are also not to underestimate.
from the enormous regard they commented it is a regional power and my response to that is that it was a pretty big region. whatever his strategic fault he demonstrated up just in ukraine but in other places that's why i ought not underestimate the threat either. >> you mentioned china and if we put them together for a moment, it is tempting for us to look and say we see this moment for authoritarianism freedom house had a report recently to show the decline in the democratic publication of the world coming into the same time you look at what's happening and it may feel as if perhaps the populist moment is peaking. maybe we are moving past it. can you help us gauge the democracy around the world right
now? >> unfortunately, i don't think the populist authoritarian teacher has broken yet and i don't think the united states is being very effective in all of that right now either. our example is such that in many ways we are feeding that in britain at this very complicated moment for the british. i do think that democracy has clearly been in recession after a couple of decades after the end of the cold war when it seemed like every event in history was running against democracy when we were in the period of globalization and euphoria when the american dominance was questioned. i remember one of the things i mentioned in the book is a memo that i wrote for the incoming secretary at the beginning of 1993.
working for the state department of the you could add it to the positive current challenges ahead. i mean, we pointed out that it wasn't impossible to imagine the authoritarian russia or islamic authoritarianism gainin gain evn greater ground across the middle east. so, you could already see challenges to the united states and other democratic systems were going to see. and at its core the democratic recession has been about a crisis in governance. i also pointed out in the memo it isn't as if the democracy was going to be self-sustaining. they had delivered things for people and had to show these leaders could govern effectively and the truth is we haven't
always done that and it's our dysfunction today is an established democracy on the other side of the atlantic and we have picked the worst time to have breakdowns on the sides of the atlantic but it's also much more fragile developing democracies now been running into the same problems of governance which is at the core of the spring. it's not good news isn't the right term, but the same crisis and the challenge of governance will affect authoritarian systems. as you know better than anyone, china isn't a contradiction in that system russia as i mentioned before faces huge challenges with the leadership in delivering things for people and you will see a repetition of the spring unless the leadership's and societies can meet people's basic opportunities and dignities and those are just realities they
are going to run into the same problems. >> i want to talk about iran for a second. if you have an idea how to reset where we are now is it possible for us to get back into this nuclear deal is there a deal for us to get back into. i promise i will get to the question because iran is a challenge for the service that
the embassy in london they had taken hostage so in a way it sounds very self absorbed but in a way it's kind of hung over my career as a diplomat. at any rate came the terrible bombings it created a minefield in washington and tehran and nobody had a good map so when i got the more senior positions in
the government like when i came back to moscow as the ambassador i wrote a memo a couple weeks after i got in there which basically made the argument that we were missing an opportunity to turn the tables. we have refused to join our international partners in the negotiations to set up a table and they were using this to say we are not the problem. it's the americans that refuse to engage and i always felt to test how serious they were for them as it turned out they were not capable of making the kind of compromises that need to be made to make progress and giving other countries even those like russia and china to understand that the best alternative is to join the increasing leverage and
if so it took a few steps at the end of the bush 43 administration and went and joined the members of the security council plus the germans in a session with the iranians so we broke up ice and essentially wrote the same memo for hillary clinton in january of 2009 to show the professional diplomats capable of offering the same advice to the administration but as we had the notion of containment in dealing with the soviet union which meant we had no illusions about the system but we also i'm a stud the system for its own eventual collapse and it's not like the theocratic regime in tehran has answers to many of the cancer. 70% of which is under the age of 30 suppressed forward and
that we unilaterally can build enough pressure to cause them to implode or capitulate and in the process we can do long-term damage where the official that already exists between us and our closest allies over the long-term the utility of sanctions because the sanctions were most effective with iran when they were internationally and we had lots of partners to set the stage for the serious negotiation so a lot depends on whether the nuclear agreement survives in the next couple of years the inclination of the regime is to try to sustain it but there are very few economic benefits to point to right now. the oversold their nuclear agreement to the population and i think the coalitions in the middle east between us and the
iranians and friends and part is that it can escalate very quickly i don't have enormous confidence in the capacity of the current u.s. administration to manage the crisis like that it would be removed by then so it would be essential to try to engage them seriously on what do you do to address some of the criticisms. is this the kind of damage that has been done that takes two years to fix, ten years to fix,
a generation because you lost incoming clien point officers? help us understand how serious the situation is it's an institution dialogue and in a steady 35 yearstate of 35 yearse only profession i knew for most of my adult life. it's filled with deeply committed talented petri of the people and i mean that word sincerely to see the way in which that kind of public service is to stand today. it comes at a huge cost to american interests in the world. as i said before, i do not mean to suggest all of the problems in the state department grew up in the last two years. there are a lot of individual american diplomats who are incredibly innovative and entrepreneurial, but as an institution in my experience accused of being too agile if
they are honest about ourselves, with our souls is more that needs to be done to strip away the layers of bureaucracy and the state department that is the best way to make the argument we have to help them to understand that. i think the circumstances now are very difficult. it pains me when i talk about some of the most capable not just senior officers mid-level and junior officers that i know that where he about whether they can continue to serve. they take the exam and wonder if this is really the profession for them. it's easier to make the argument
and in some ways to young people because it isn't going to go on forever. there's going to be a moment of renewal and they could play a fascinating role in doing that as well. it's hard for my foreign colleagues in senior positions because they were put in that circumstance of having to defend policies which they understand our flawed. >> and a couple of minutes we were both about questions but before we do, i want to talk about america's place in the world where we go from here. you have a line where you say we are no longer the dominant power that we can be the pivotal power for many years to come. talk to us about but that seems to be the pivotal power. >> my long-term optimism about the role in the international landscape it is true in my view anyway we are no longer the single dominant player we were after the end of the cold war that wasn't going to last
forever and anyway but we accelerated that moment with some of the decisions we made like in iraq in 2003 in the same kind of hubris which contributed to the global financial crisis in 2008 the economy is the biggest and most innovative in the world today and democracy if we could get immigration reform is right out to be a certain strength that sets us apart from competitors that are older. energy with increased advances but also technology which has enabled us to export gas in ways we could have imagined te couldr 15 years ago and i would argue diplomacy with sets us apart
under the competitive landscape with the power is more diffuse among the states but it's also more than beyond a state with a big challenge of climate or those that will be fought for the rules of the road to maximize its benefits and you know that gives the united states a real opportunity if we play that hand twice and what i fear is we are not because we are at the window before us and we have to adapt to the different international landscape, but it's a window in
within which the next few decades we can help shape and adapt international order in a way that is going to this sustain our interest and values working with other countries and managing adversarial relationships as well as the u.s. russia relationship with the problem ithatthe problem iso stay open forever and if we don't take advantage of it this way to get shapes for us. >> i told you i would've been up for questions but i'm selfish. i have one as it relates to china the struggle on how to accommodate ordeal with china is on such matters should we permit the idea that we will be superpowers of clicks to stand on what matters should we say no the global order as it exists right now and we will hold the
line. i don't expect there is an easyy answer but how should we think about that? >> there is a school of thought as it is often the case the pendulum moves quickly from one end to another that the american policy doing duty for dealing with the consequential challenge we are going to face with the next few decades which is to rise the purpose of the american policy ought to be to contain china. i think that is a flawed idea. it seems the purpose of the policy ought to be not so much to contain but should the environment into which it arises because we have a lot of assets. there is a whole wealth of carved debate co- partners and countries from india, southeast asia, northeast asia that show our concerns the rise isn't at
the expense of this activity and passivity. so, we have the opportunity to build a kind of network of alliances and partnerships and institutions and provide a full set of incentives and disincentives. i think the administration is right to push back against predatory investment practices. that is actually overdue. but where we have serious misgivings as how that is being done because we want to make a common cause with other countries, japan, the countries of the european union who share many of those concerns and are doing what we are doing and we
have an opportunity to create a framework that reflects that and that is what the transpacific partnership, the big new trade agreement in asia and the obama administration negotiated between the two that are 40% of the global economy that helps shape the incentives in this incentives and why it was a big mistake to throw that out the window. i never met the perfect trade agreement for diplomatic agreement but in my experience is better than to ditch it altogether. >> anyone can you not retire? [applause] we have a microphone over here and people please go rather than
from your seat it will be picked up and if i can please ask a question rather than deliver a comment or an op-ed. thank you for being here today. i am a college student here in the washington, d.c. area. as i started reading the book one thing that i was wondering is if you ever have the opportunity to meet or speak with george kennan? >> i didn't and it's one of my regrets. there were no more on russia and george kennan and i also love the way that he writes to. i never had the opportunity sadly.
>> in the back channel diplomacy, what was the most difficult moment was a wonderful lawyer in the state department for gears we were involved in a different back channel negotiations first to get the libyans to accept responsibility for the attack and to get out of the business of terrorism and ultimately to give up the nuclear program. i never had a weirder experience
in my three and a half decades as a diplomat band meeting qaddafi. he had a strange habit i never forgot the blood that was on his hands with a strange habit especially if it's one-on-one just the two of you which is a little eerie to start with staring up at the ceiling for three or four minutes. and also there is one meeting it was like 3:00 in the morning he was wearing what could only be described as a pajama top with a photograph of dictators. [laughter] that was an experience.
>> aren't you glad you didn't wear the same -- >> what should we do now? it would be interesting to know what we should have done because people talk about the red line and it could have been that even if obama has done a surgical strike it wouldn't have made a difference, so what should we do now? in terms of the tragedy themselves but also the spillover effect you know that's what happens in vegas stays in vegas you had spillover within the middle east but also in europe it destabilized it with our european allies as well.
i think that it's very limited right now. the regime is filling in votes right now in the most brutal way. they are quite determined to maintain their position and i think what we can do is try to ensure against the dangers of further escalation. there are dangers right now that either the forces in syria or the variety of other places could at one point or another so it's not beyond the scope of imagination with diplomacy to try to build breaks against the. i think over the longer term we could use what little leverage we have and some of the tested the possibilitit has to dowith f
reconstruction assistance to try to keep the door open to some political openness in syria. i am realistic but al-assad isn't going to leave unless he's carried out on a board that i do think it is possible to use that over time. it may be possible to drive a wedge between those whose interest is and perfectly identical. they ought to be realistic at this stage but in practical terms because you don't address this kind of confirms you are just sowing the seeds of sensitivity and disorder sadly not just in syria itself lots of neighboring countries as well.
you have given some comments on the agreement you've made some comments about leaving the short-range nuclear agreement and agreeing with a lot of rain old those cases it seems like you feel there is still a role for diplomacy. i'm wondering about leaving the climate agreement however is it possible for there to be any role in absence of any further policy change in the way that we manage review bitmap dot if you go into an additional climate related think lacks >> it's a hugely important issue as i said before the united
states and the rest of the globe that is the one i was at the top of the list and that's why i think it was profound and there's lots of room for diplomacy and the united states advocates on these issues even though there's lots of other countries around the world who are trying to address those concerns i think if you don't have an american administration that is prepared to support energetic diplomacy to push in those directions we are operating with more than one hand behind our back and we are encouraging other countries to advocate for themselves and we are all going to be a poorer and more insecure for that. the short answer is i'm just not optimistic in the next year or two if you are going to see any
political willpower behind the. >> i would like to focus for a moment on how we move forward with russia. it seems to m me their introduction into the political system is truly unprecedented and that essentially we have conveyed to them that this is a line they cannot cross so we can detour the future misconduct and at the same time i think it's important that we be able to deal with russia just as they deal with the soviet union on the worst days of that relationship on issues like nuclear control and cooling of regional conflicts and that seems to me to be an incredibly
difficult needle to thread and i would like your thoughts on how we can credit. >> you've described with the challenge of diplomacy is. that's what diplomacy is all about especially in managing relations with adversaries were rivals. it's navigating the area between peace and war and sharp differences and areas where whether we like it or not we need to try to work together and that is certainly true of russia. of course it is a declining power but putin continues to demonstrate they can be as disruptive as the rising covers set to push back firmly on the electoral interference, i think the smartest way to do that is to try to work with other countries especially in europe that share many of the same concerns but also exposed so sanctions with russia are much more effective when they are not
just unilateral. that's part of it there are vulnerabilities especially in terms of corruption and illicit finance and money for overseas that you could exploit as well if you really want to detour russia at th but at the same tii absolutely agree on the arms control issues important for the sake of our countries but also for the rest of the globe to manage what are still the two nuclear powers of the world. the inf treaty that they mentioned before was in large part because of the violations but i think that it would be a huge mistake for us to abandon altogether this if you can does not just talking to the russians about these issues but trying to develop some basic rules of the road and especially in the era in which nuclear weapons are increasingly entangled with
news, cyber instruments, conventional weapons and we are really not engaging with them in any serious strategic conversation about how to manage those new threats and their intersections so we have to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. it's not impossible. we've demonstrated to ourselves that we can do that that is what i feel we are drifting away from. >> it's a wonderful book, wonderfully written. a question for you about afghanistan. do you think there's much hope we could get a deal with the taliban and that won't start a new civil war or a setback for women and that will also deprive the militants of having a place to attack? >> i guess i will start by saying we are almost at the end
of the two decades of the military engagement in the conflict in afghanistan so i don't think we can sustain a indefinitely. i applaud the efforts of engaging the taliban to set the stage for the afghan government i think the missing piece right now there are leaderships that the current administration doesn't want to engage with iran, russia, pakistan, china, india, countries that have a stake in what's going on and the capacity to make it worse if they want to but also i would think trying to ensure it
doesn't spill over and that's the piece i think energetic diplomacy would wan but won't fs well. so, i agree. i think the gold to be realistic which is to ensure that afghanistan never becomes a platform again for the export of terrorism against the homeland. like you, i would love to see a set of circumstances in which for education and lots of other areas are preserved and i think we should pay attention to that, but i am realist about the leverage that we have. so, the trick, the diplomatic challenge is going to be if we accept we have to start winding down our military involved and to do that in a way that preserves some leverage as we try to take on the negotiating challenges as well. it is important for us to deal with the neighbors otherwise we are kidding ourselves that we
are going to help produce and enduring settlement of. >> this is our last question. >> congratulations on your new book and thank you for the introduction. i have two questions you mentioned about the functions on iran. a part from the unilateral function by a certain country there are many under the united nation so there is one question.
the second is about china. there is a theme that right now the diplomacy becomes more and more. what do you think about the diplomacy? >> i will get quick answers to both questions. on the sanctions, in my experience they are far more effective than when they are unilateral. the recent sanctions against
iran were effective in producing the players at the negotiating table was because they were a combination of the basis in the security council and un sanctions and on top of that, the additional sanctions in european union sanctions which the international partners and d gloves that were willing to go along with, that's what have an impact and the concern is reverting to an almost exclusively dependent case on the national u.s. sanctions the utility of the sanctions because already a few months ago you had the foreign ministers of germany one of our closest allies standing up and saying we need to think about ways that we can reduce our vulnerability to the american financial system. it's not going to have an overnight but please make a play
for ten years from now and the dollar on the u.s. financial system will no longer have the clout that it is today. the question of the diplomacy i'm genuinely impressed by the caliber of the chinese diplomat but i've dealt with over the years. i think it is admirable from the differences with different aspects of the policy that at the time when they are retreating forgetfulness and resources on it is year-by-year expanding. i remember leaving the obligation which is where the summit was taking place and here i was all pumped up as the head of delegation and i arrived with a dozen people from government. hu jintao came to the head of the delegation which most another 500 they don't travel light.
they built the new headquarters of the african union and it showed properly resourced. i think it is a smart investment for china that is clearly expanding its ambitions around the world. >> we are going to wrap up the second. bill is going to be signing books and christmas is coming, graduation gifts. thank you all for coming and please join me in thanking. [applause]