Though the art and practice of American diplomacy began deteriorating soon after the Cold War, the Trump administration has – in its posture and through some of its policies – accelerated diplomacy’s decline, according to career diplomat and former U.S. deputy secretary of state William Burns.
Burns, now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the United States appeared to be stepping back from the world stage just when its engagement was needed most.
“President Trump didn’t invent some of the drift in American diplomacy,” Burns said. “[W]e were lulled a little bit after the end of the Cold War, a moment when the United States was the singular dominant player. It didn’t seem as if diplomacy mattered so much. So resources suffered. Focus suffered.”
“I think after 9/11 and that terrible shock to our system we tended to invert the roles of force and diplomacy,” Burns continued.”I think what President Trump and the current administration has done is to vastly accelerate and make infinitely worse a lot of those trend lines – and in some ways has hollowed out American diplomacy at a moment when…diplomacy ought to matter more than ever for the United States in the world.”
President Trump’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal, released this week, proposed a 23 percent cut to foreign aid and diplomacy programs at the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, though that level of reduction is unlikely to be backed by Congress.
Overall, Burns said, the U.S. foreign affairs budget for the State Department and development assistance dropped by nearly 50 percent from 1985 to 2000.
“I think diplomacy may be one of the world’s oldest professionals, but it’s also one of the most misunderstood,” he said. “It oftentimes is a quiet endeavor. It operates in back channels, out of sight and out of mind.”
In an interview with Intelligence Matters host and CBS News senior national security contributor Michael Morell, Burns, who spent more than three decades in the U.S. Foreign Service, argued that some of the most pressing geopolitical challenges the United States faces today – from China, Russia and North Korea – could be better addressed through increased diplomatic engagement with allies and competitors alike.
With China, which a number of U.S. national security officials have stressed poses the most significant long-term strategic threat to the United States, Burns said the Trump administration has “a lot of cards to play.”
“There are lots of players, our friends, allies, and partners across Asia who share a concern about China’s rise,” Burns told Morell. “[W]hat I think we’re lacking right now is that wider sense of building coalitions of countries who basically share our concerns and around whom we can build an environment.”
“The issue is not so much containing China’s rise; it’s shaping the environment into which it rises in Asia. And we have a lot of capacity to do that,” he said.
Also among the relevant players to engage, Burns said, is Russia. “[W]hile it’s really important not to give in to Putin’s Russia, it’s also important not to give up on the Russia that lies beyond Putin – especially when you look at the reality some time over the next decade Russian and Chinese interests are going to bang into each other,” he said. Burns was ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008.
“Russians, in my experience, are going to chafe just as much at being China’s junior partner as they did at being America’s junior partner after the Cold War,” he told Morell.
Burns said the U.S. had missed important opportunities to convey strong and principled messages to its allies, too. He said the Trump administration should have been “much more direct” with Saudi Arabia about its concerns related to thelast year.
“Now that’s not the same thing as throwing the U.S.-Saudi relationship overboard,” he said. “But it just seems to me that we should’ve used that horrific opportunity to push the Saudi leadership, and in particular Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince, much harder than it seems to me we have so far, to do some other things that are not a favor to the United States, but very much in Saudi Arabia’s self-interest – like stop the war in Yemen […]”
“I think we also should have pushed harder in the direction of easing political repression in Saudi Arabia and releasing some of the people, including young women, who had been detained there over the course of recent years,” Burns said.
Mr. Trump’s own messages to public servants within the United States have also been misguided, Burns said.
“I think in the Trump administration there’s been a really disturbing tendency to lump public servants together as members of a deep state,” he said. “And the truth, in my long experience…is exactly the opposite.”
“People in the State Department, for example, are almost loyal to a fault. They want to be led. They want their expertise to be taken into account,” Burns stressed. “But what you see today I’m afraid, especially with regard to the State Department, is a situation where not only are budgets being cut and senior, really talented senior and mid-level people are leaving, but you also have the really pernicious practice of singling out individual public servants, career civil service and foreign service, just because they worked on controversial issues in the last administration.”
“[W]e’re doing a lot of damage to ourselves,” he said. “There’s so many people who are making huge sacrifices in the interest of our country– and that needs to be respected, not disparaged.”
For much more from Michael Morell’s conversation with William Burns – who also shared anecdotes from his new memoir, Back Channel – you can listen to the new episode and subscribe to Intelligence Matters here.