William J. Burns, now the head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington, D.C. is one of America’s most experienced and esteemed diplomats. During his three-decade career in the Foreign Service, he was the United States ambassador to Russia under George W. Bush and a deputy secretary of state under Barack Obama—only the second serving career diplomat ever to hold that position. He has also been the ambassador to Jordan, and lead negotiator in secret nuclear talks with Iran. In addition to English, he speaks Arabic, Russian, and French.
His new book, The Back Channel, is a memoir of diplomatic history that makes a case for the often-disdained practice of diplomacy itself. In an article in the April issue of The Atlantic, he offers a firsthand view of why America’s relations with Russia have gone bad, and whether any better outcome could have been possible. Shortly before his book’s publication, he talked with me about how Vladimir Putin assesses Donald Trump, and America’s prospects under Trump’s leadership. Burns also emphasizes how Putin’s relentless eye for weakness—in his own country’s long-term strategic position, among his potential rivals within Russia, and in the foreign leaders he negotiates with, including Trump—is a crucial factor in understanding his decisions and the likely course of his dealings with the United States.
The transcript of our conversation has been condensed, but is otherwise unedited.
James Fallows: Back when Mitt Romney was running against Barack Obama in 2012, he was widely ridiculed for saying that the No. 1 strategic challenge for the United States was Russia—rather than, say, China, or international terrorism. Was he right then? Has he become right, now?
Bill Burns: As usual, the picture is more complicated than whether this or that threat is “No 1.”
I think Putin has given ample evidence that Russia can be threatening in lots of different ways that matter to us, and to our friends and allies, and to the international order. President Obama, for whom I have very high regard, kind of dismissively observed that Russia is just a regional power. Well, it’s a pretty goddamn big region, across 11 time zones. And even as a declining power Russia can exert a fair amount of influence, often negative influence, on the landscape.
So it’s a mistake to be dismissive of that, and of course also a mistake to exaggerate it. And clearly, we have to take extremely seriously what Putin did in 2016.
Fallows: How exactly would you describe “what Putin did in 2016”?
Burns: I think he set out to do several things. The first was to sow chaos in the American political system. It was a target-rich environment for him, because our own dysfunction created lots of opportunities. While I would never understate the seriousness of the threat or of his actions, the truth is he was able to act like the good judo expert, which he is. He was able to use leverage over a stronger opponent—and that leverage was the polarization and dysfunction in our own system. He set out quite deliberately to sow further dysfunction, sow chaos.
Second, he loves exposing what he believes to be the hypocrisy of democratic systems. Anything that he could bring to light that would expose the seamier side of American politics was all to the good, from his point of view. And third, he wanted to put his thumb on the scale against Hillary Clinton—who, I think he assumed, like lots of Americans, was likely to win the election. I think on Election Night he was as surprised as Donald Trump was by Trump’s victory. But he clearly set out to put his thumb on the scale against Clinton, and also for Trump—even if he didn’t think Trump was going to win. Now, what else may have lain behind that, in terms of what Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating, we’ll see.
Fallows: In the two-plus years since the election, as events have unfolded under Trump, is Putin happy with the results? Or has he gotten more than he bargained for?
Burns: The chaos in foreign policy—which has only accelerated in terms of the predictability of America’s role in the world—is from the Russian perspective a double-edged thing.
To some degree, chaos serves Putin’s interest. International uncertainty, and a situation where our allies are hedging and our rivals like China are taking advantage, and where the international institutions we’ve built in our own enlightened self-interest are beginning to teeter—those all serve Russia’s and Putin’s interests. They provide more space for him.
I don’t know whether Putin ever expected that a Trump victory would produce a neat path toward the end of sanctions. Because Putin is the ultimate cynic, he knows that there is a huge gap between Trump and his own administration [on Russia policy], let alone with Congress. But [if he can’t get sanctions removed] second best for him is a chaotic American political system. Polarization here undermines the American example for the rest of the world.
Again, he still has a relatively weak hand to play. He’s burdened by demographic challenges, by the fact that he’s invested in a one-dimensional economy which is based on what comes out of the ground rather than what comes out of people’s heads. I think one of the deepest historical criticisms of Putin will be that when he was surfing $120-a-barrel oil—this is when I was ambassador in Moscow, a decade ago—he could have started to diversify the economy. He didn’t do that. He quite consciously didn’t do it, because that would have come at the expense of what mattered more to him, which was political order. Even on issues like the invasion of eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, which was seen tactically as an example of his agility, these will cost him in the long term. You swallow up two and a half million Crimeans, but the other 42 million Ukrainians are never again going to accept a deferential role to Russia. I think that will be a pretty profound historical critique of the Putin years.
Fallows: To extend this idea that a leader conscious of his own decline is deliberately trying to generate chaos elsewhere, how do you view Russia’s role in the chaos of Brexit? Has this been beneficial from Russia’s point of view?
Burns: Sure! I mean, anything that sows fissures within the European Union is positive—and an added bonus for him is the extent to which Trump has been egging on the Brexiteers, too.
Putin is keenly aware of the fissures within the European Union right now—between some central- and eastern-European states and the more traditional powers in Western Europe. Anything he can do to sow chaos both within Western systems—the U.K. is the most dramatic, but he’s tried elsewhere—and among countries suits him. The more chaotic and divisive the picture in the West, the more space he thinks he has, and the less effective Western pushback against Russian aggression there is likely to be.
Fallows: Let me ask about this comparison with China. My impression is that China’s leaders are mainly interested in what’s good for China—and that while they’re suspicious of U.S. intentions, they don’t necessarily go out of their way to think about what’s bad for the U.S. “Win-Win” is a slogan, but they seem to view it as a theoretical possibility. Whereas Putin seems actively to be thinking about ways he could damage the U.S. A win-lose, zero-sum approach. Is that right, or not?
Burns: I basically think that’s right. I’d put it this way, about contrasting views of the international order: I think the Chinese are less focused on undermining that order than on adapting it to fit a change in power realities. China has benefited over the last 40 years from an international order that the U.S. has largely shaped. Maybe China has taken advantage of it. I think some of the things Trump has done to push back on trade and investment practices are overdue.
Putin’s view is much more that of the disrupter, in a sense akin to Trump’s. That is why there’s a kind of weird marriage of convenience between the two of them, in trying to disrupt the current order.
I think there’s real danger in that. Lord knows it’s an order and a system that is overdue for adaptation. The unipolar moment of the first 20 years after the Cold War has been over for a while, and that is hard for Americans to adapt to. But the time to adapt to it is now, while we’re still playing a better hand than our rivals—and are likely to be for a couple of generations, if we play it wisely. And that’s the big if right now.
Fallows: You’ve heard all the historical analogies about the way “rising” and “declining” powers deal with each other, and may come into conflict. They’re all imperfect, but some could be useful. What’s the most useful historical model for thinking about this current age?
Burns: I don’t think there is any neat historical analogy. I do, however, think that Putin recognizes the relative weakness of his hand. He is profoundly a realist, so he understands that.
But what he sees on the international landscape is a world of opportunities. Partly because of the increasing rivalry between the United States and China, which allows him space. Partly because of profound uncertainty about American leadership, especially in the Trump era. So there’s not a perfect historical analogy I can think of, but it does underscore the point that you can underestimate the capacity of declining powers to affect the international landscape, at a moment when that landscape is in pretty significant transition.
Fallows: Everyone who is not an expert has this question for Russia experts like you. Why does Donald Trump never criticize Putin, ever? Or cross him in any way? How can this be?
Burns: Whatever may lie beneath the surface of what Mueller is investigating, I don’t know. It’s important for us to find out, and I think we’re going to find out a lot more than we know now.
But even at this stage, what’s obvious is the case of Putin envy that Trump has. I think he’s attracted to the way autocrats lead. Maybe that’s how he led the Trump Organization, I don’t know. But there’s this very transactional kind of muscular unilateralism which Putin has come to embody, at least in the imaginations of a lot of people. And Trump is clearly enamored of that. So those are clearly two factors, and what the balance is between them, I just don’t know.
There’s a profoundly mistaken view that in dealing with an autocrat like Putin, what you want to do is just curry his favor and get along, and your amiable personal relationship is going to translate into the promotion of American interests. I think there’s little evidence in the history of dealing with Putin in the last 20 years that that pays off.
Fallows: Have you seen them interact in person?
Burns: I have seen Putin lots of times over the years. I watched [on TV] their event in Helsinki. I said publicly it was the single most embarrassing performance by an American president on the international stage I’ve ever seen. And that goes back a long ways! You had Trump standing alongside Putin, throwing 17 U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement agencies under the bus—all in an apparent effort to get along with Putin. Which is totally at variance with what diplomacy is all about. It’s not about getting along with people. It’s about promoting your interests.
Fallows: What was Putin thinking then?
Burns: Oh, you could almost see it crossing his face: What an easy mark. It’s true of a lot of autocrats, that he sees that effort to ingratiate as a sign of weakness, and as opening the door to manipulation.
That doesn’t mean you have to pound the podium and throw things at him. But what he appreciates are firmness and consistency, and what he saw was anything but that.
Fallows: There’s a famous picture you may have seen, or even been present for. It’s when Obama is meeting Putin, looking at him with this death-stare expression, and glaring down as he stood about six inches taller than Putin. Were you there when this happened?
Burns: I was not there for that encounter. But I talk in the book about another episode in Putin’s dacha where Condi Rice met him in the fall of 2006, wearing her heels. She also towered over Putin, and they’re both standing up in front of this roaring fire. And the conversation turned to Georgia and got quite heated. But you could see that Putin’s disposition was not improved much by the fact that he had to look up at Condi Rice.
He prides himself, partly because of his professional training, on his ability to manipulate people and his ability to sense people’s weaknesses and how to take advantage. You can see him sizing people up in a room. The problem is the longer he’s been running Russia, the less respect he has for most of the people he deals with. He gets kind of bored. And so there are very few world leaders over time for whom he has genuine respect.
Fallows: It’s evident to me how the Chinese leadership thinks of approaching Donald Trump, or, say, a Southeast Asian or African leader. They plan just to cut him into the deal. They make “friends” by giving people a slice of the pie. How would you contrast that with Putin’s approach to Trump?
Burns: Well, first, Putin doesn’t have that much of a pie to offer. So that’s a sharp contrast with Xi Jinping’s approach.
Second, I think Putin is more the counterpuncher. He’s more looking for weaknesses that he can exploit, which, again, as a trained judo specialist is how you deal with situations in which you’re the weaker player. And so I think Putin has a smorgasbord of weaknesses to try to take advantage of. He’s a keen observer of the distance between President Trump and much of his administration, and Congress, and everybody else. He’ll try to play his limited cards to take advantage of those weaknesses, which is I think a contrast to Xi’s approach. The Chinese will certainly try to take advantage of weakness. But they have more to offer as well.
Fallows: New topic: the Iran deal, in which you were directly involved. How should Americans feel about the current state of those negotiations?
Burns: First, I think it was a serious mistake to have abandoned the deal. I think it left us less capable of pushing back against Iranian behavior in the region, which we want to push back against. I think it did some collateral damage even beyond Iran, in doing Putin’s work for him, in further dissension between the United States and our closest European allies.
Also, I think it will have an effect that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. In the long term, it will reduce the effectiveness of our unilateral sanctions. We’re going to wake up five or 10 years from now and find a lot of people—even the German foreign minister has talked publicly about this—looking for ways to reduce their vulnerability to the American financial system.
I think the Iranians right now are trying to wait out the Trump administration. They are under a lot of economic pressure—in part because of the U.S. re-imposition of sanctions, in part because they just have a terribly managed economy. But it is a regime that has a practiced habit of repressing people. And they’re still pretty good at it.
I am the last person who needs to be convinced of the threatening nature of lots of Iranian actions in the Middle East. I just think there’s a smart way and a dumb way to push back. I thought that the nuclear agreement was part of a smart way; of course, I’m not objective. I led the secret talks with the Iranians through 2013. But I believe that removing one layer of insecurity, and the threat of an unconstrained nuclear program, or worse yet a nuclear-armed Iran, puts you in a better position to push back against other Iranian behavior.
But I worry [about] what seems to be the approach of this administration. It’s less about getting a better deal, and more about producing a capitulation or the implosion of this Iranian government. That can lead us down the road of inadvertent collisions, which can escalate very fast. I worry there are echoes of Iraq 2003 in some of the assumptions the administration seems to have about how quickly and how effectively it can use maximum pressure to cause the collapse of this regime. And a lot of wishful thinking about what would come next, egged on by some of our friends in the region, too.
Fallows: You say that the Iran deal helped by removing one layer of insecurity—about its nuclear program—to make it easier to deal with other areas of disagreement with Iran. Of course, critics of the deal make just the opposite point: Because of all the other areas of disagreement, we shouldn’t work with Iran on this front. How do you assess that argument—and whether the real goal is just to collapse or implode the Iranian regime?
Burns: I think it depends probably on who you are talking about. [National Security Adviser] John Bolton has never made any secret of his interest in bringing about regime change. I think the president himself is not a military interventionist in the Middle East, so I doubt very much, for all his bellicose and blustery rhetoric about Iran, that he’s looking for a military confrontation. But as I said, my concern is that you’re creating a stew in which inadvertent results oftentimes happen. And I’m not that confident of our abilities, especially with Secretary [of Defense Jim] Mattis’s departure, to manage those kind of situations. What gets underestimated sometimes is the difficulty of managing those situations and the extent to which you need to rely on smart, seasoned people like Jim Mattis.
Fallows: Which leads to what I wanted to ask about next: the presence, or absence, in the administration of figures like former Defense Secretary Mattis. How much does the departure of the so-called adults in the room matter?
Burns: I think that the principal source of worry is the erratic outlook and actions of the president himself. And the extent to which American foreign policy now is driven from tweet to tweet.
Fallows: But while former National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster and Jim Mattis were inside the system, the conventional wisdom was that they served as a brake on these impulses. Was that correct at the time? And what now?
Burns: I didn’t work there, so I was an outside observer. I’ve known and worked with Jim Mattis for years, from when he was a colonel and I was a mid-level foreign-service officer. I have enormous regard for him, and I do believe he was able to help temper the worst instincts that were coming out of the Oval Office. I think it’s deeply unfortunate when you don’t have that brake.
I don’t have as good a sense for H. R. McMaster. I have a lot of respect for him, but I just don’t know enough about how that worked.
I never envied either of them, because their job was keeping up with the whims of someone who doesn’t really have a strategy. I think President Trump has a worldview, but it’s a very transactional, unilateralist view of the world, which just doesn’t fit what American interests require at this point.
So, yeah, their departure leaves us all much more exposed. And it’s not only at the top—where you have an acting secretary of defense. There are six regional bureaus in the State Department. I believe there’s only three that are filled with confirmed appointees. And this is more than two years in. That creates real problems in the best of times. But if you’re faced with a prolonged international crisis—which thankfully for all of us this administration has not yet faced—that’s when you need a bench. You need people who’ve been through this before.
Fallows: Is this a thought-experiment style hypothetical worry for you? Or a real concern?
Burns: Oh, no, it’s a very real worry, in my view.
I don’t know President Trump, but my impression is he’s not an interventionist. But because he is a narcissist, you could get into a crisis situation with Iran, and you end up with what becomes a sort of fast-moving test of manhood. You can end up with collisions that may be inadvertent at their outset but can escalate quite rapidly. There can be that temptation to just assert a muscular American response—which sometimes makes perfect sense, but if it’s not carefully harnessed can lead in some dangerous directions. Especially at a time when we’ve sowed such unease among our allies. That’s when adversaries are most likely to test.
Fallows: One more question about this era in U.S. relations with the world. Trump’s essential argument is that everybody has been screwing us. What’s the comparably visceral answer to that?
Burns: The truth is some people have been screwing us. Anybody who got elected in 2016 would have had to work hard to try to change the terms of engagement with allies like NATO and change the terms of engagement with rivals like China in terms of trade, and investment practices as well.
But in making that argument that everybody has been screwing us, the current president is just about punching back against people bilaterally and unilaterally. And not recognizing that what sets us apart from lonelier powers like China and Russia is our alliances, and our capacity to build coalitions. It’s our capacity to adapt the rules of existing institutions and develop rules of the road. It’s understanding that set of strengths.
I think this administration, and this president, have demonstrated almost willful ignorance of that set of strengths for the United States. Especially at this moment on the international landscape, that matters more than ever.
That’s the great risk.
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