US ambassador William J. Burns recently retired from his 33 years in office at the Department of State. After being one of the top US diplomats for decades, he recently became the president of the prestigious think tank The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. William Burns is only the second career diplomat to rise to the position of Deputy-Secretary at the Department of State. Secretary Kerry compared William Burns to George F. Kennan and Charles E. Bohlen, and claimed that M. Burns has “earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.” Thanks to his new position, Amb. Burns enjoys, as he mentioned, his newly acquired freedom of opinion and discussed his view of the state of the world with Tom Gjelten, guest host at the Diane Rehm Show, in an excellent hour long interview (listen here the interview).
The tour of horizon was broad, complete and nicely framed. Starting with a comparison of the state of the world from three decades ago to today, he affirms that the world may be as complex like never before but remains as lethal as during the Cold War. The core distinction is, as he argues, that power is much more diffuse than ever before. He certainly admits that the complexity of the state of the world is due to several aspects:
- From bipolar to multipolar world order – the rise of new powers like China and India has affected the global dynamics and forces. The balance of power is not as clear as once during the Cold War between two superpowers locked against one another with their large nuclear arsenals;
- new security threats – during the Cold War, the threats were nuclear proliferation and destruction as well as other traditional geopolitical tensions (proxy wars). Today states face other types of threats such as terrorism (principally radical islamism), cyberthreats, environmental problems and so forth;
- the range of actors – the Cold War was about states and their ideologies at least two of them. The world was divided between two nuclear superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, followed by mid-sized powers. Today states ought to deal with more actors than ever before like international organizations and non-state actors ranging from benign ones – NGOs and Transnational Corporations – to malign non-state actors like radical islamist groups – Boko Haram, Islamic State (IS) – and others.
Unfortunately, the discussion was mainly centered around the recent international events, namely the nuclear negotiations with Iran (which he led secretly back in 2013 telling his Iranian counterpart that the US could accept a deal seeing Iran maintaining nuclear power for civilian and peaceful purpose); the threat of the IS and combating it through filling the regional void and implementing a political solution to solving IS; Russia (as he was Ambassador from 2005 to 2008); the opening of US policy towards Cuba; and the role of diplomacy in American foreign policy. On the making of American diplomacy, William J. Burns indicates the complexity in balancing american power in order to advance American interests. Certainly, American power is too often being perceived based on its hard power – military power and economic sanctions -, rather than its soft power.
One dimension that was missing in the discussion was the relationship with American allies and partners. Such missing element is representative of the American debate on foreign policy. Partnership and cooperation with allies seem to always be on the second row for Americans. There are two reasons for such rational: first, American hard power is the most predominant in world affairs – for example the US is the only country with 10 aircraft carriers in service followed by Italy and India with two active carriers – allowing autonomous action throughout the world; second, a large dimension of American foreign policy is informed on the premise of american exceptionalism (this does not appear in Burns’ narratives). In Europe, cooperation and multilateralism are core component of European foreign policy. The EU for instance is always seeking for deepening its strategic partnerships with relevant powers. As opposed to the US, the EU and its Member States see the role of international organizations, like the UN and NATO, as vital dimension of their making of foreign policy.
As the ninth president of The Carnegie, William J. Burns is not stepping down as he will continue to promote American power and interests and shape the debates in American foreign policy.