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Former deputy secretary of state on ‘a deep hole’ for American diplomacy

William Burns, former deputy secretary of state and ambassador to Russia, may have spent more time with Vladimir Putin than other American diplomat. In his book, “The Back Channel,” Burns discusses how a “sense of grievance” underlies Putin's interactions with the U.S. Judy Woodruff talks to Burns about a "failure of imagination" on Syria and the current state of American diplomacy.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    No other American diplomat has spent more time with Russian President Vladimir Putin than William Burns.

    And in a candid conversation with Judy Woodruff about his new memoir, "The Back Channel," the former deputy secretary of state under President Obama, who earlier served as ambassador to Russia, didn't hold back in his criticism of the Russian leader or of President Donald Trump.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Bill Burns, thank you very much for joining us.

  • William Burns:

    It's great to be with you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The book, "The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal," you are cheerleading for reconstructing something that you say in the book is largely invisible.

    You say it's an unheroic, quiet endeavor unfolding in back channels, out of sight and out of mind.

    If that's the case, in this noisy 24/7 world we live in, why do we need to restore it? What happened to it?

  • William Burns:

    Well, I think there has been a drift, to be honest, that predates the current administration, going back through the post-Cold War period.

    After the end of the Cold War, when we were the singular dominant player on the landscape, I think we became a little complacent. Diplomacy didn't seem quite as important. Then came 9/11, a huge shock to our system, and an even greater emphasis on the military and relatively less emphasis on diplomacy.

    What I would argue President Trump has done is taken that drift and accelerated it and made it infinitely worse.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You write about the U.S. having a diminished role in the world. How much of it was outside events — events out of our control and how much of it was what the United States did?

  • William Burns:

    It was a combination.

    I think, in the natural order of things, China's rise — it's hard to predict the pace of that — was bound to happen. I think Russia's resurgence, again, we may not have gotten a sense of the pace of it right, but it was coming, but also there were unforced errors on our part.

    I mean, I think the most obvious of them was the war in Iraq in 2003, where we kind of accelerated that shifting landscape a little bit.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You did mention President Trump a minute ago, and people talk about how he is somebody with strong opinions. He makes decisions very quickly.

    And people compare him with President Obama, who was seen as cerebral, deliberative, sometimes too deliberative.

  • William Burns:

    I have very high regard for President Obama, and I thought his very careful and thoughtful style made a lot of sense and continues to make a lot of sense for the United States.

    I think, you know, what you see in President Trump is a tendency to see diplomacy more as an exercise in narcissism than the kind of hard work and reliance on institutions that his predecessors, in different ways, I think, all appreciated as well.

    President Trump was asked a little more than a year ago about the number of senior vacancies in the State Department, and he said I don't really care about that. I'm the only one who matters.

    And I don't — I think that's a very ineffective way of looking at the way in which the United States promotes its interests in the world.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You write a lot in the book about Vladimir Putin, about Russia and about Vladimir Putin. I think you spent more time with him than any other American diplomat. You first started dealing with him, what, in the early 2000s?

  • William Burns:

    Yes, I was ambassador from 2005 to 2008, and so spent a lot of time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you write, among other things, that you think you saw the seeds of what would go on to happen in 2016, when the Russians interfered in our presidential election.

    What did you see early on in him?

  • William Burns:

    Well, I will never forget my first meeting as ambassador with President Putin, when I went to present my credentials, which any new ambassador does.

    And the Kremlin, which is where this ceremony happened, is built on a scale that's meant to intimidate foreigners, and particularly new ambassadors. And before I could even hand over my letter of credentials or get a word out of my mouth, President Putin said "You Americans need to listen more. You can't have everything your own way anymore. We can have effective relations, but not just on your terms."

    That was vintage Putin, in my experience, unsubtle, a chip on his shoulder, and defiantly charmless.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do we know about him that should inform how we think about Russia going forward?

  • William Burns:

    Well, he has a sense of grievance.

    I mean, his world view is that, at Russia's moment of historical weakness in the 1990s, the West, and in particular the United States, took advantage of that weakness.

    Now, that's his view. I think it's largely unjustified in terms of how history actually unfolded. But he is an apostle of payback, and so he was determined, as he was surfing on $130-a-barrel oil and Russia's economy returned, to push back.

    And he did that at a number of different instances. But I think he was also convinced — he drew a straight line from the Color Revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004 to what he saw to be our own efforts to undermine him and undermine his regime.

    And so, when he saw an opportunity in 2016 to sow chaos amidst the polarization of our own political system, he took advantage of it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Middle East. Still questions persist today about what happened during the Obama administration, when President Obama made the decision not to go into Syria when the Syrian leader had used chemical weapons.

    And people are asking today still, was there sufficient awareness then of what a destabilized Syria would mean?

  • William Burns:

    I think honest answer is, none of us anticipated the scale of the human catastrophe or the geopolitical tragedy that the civil war in Syria would become.

    So, the honest answer is, it was, I think, a failure of imagination on all of our parts. I did believe personally at the time, and I continue to believe, that we should have responded militarily when Assad, after we had set a red line, used chemical weapons and killed more than 1,000 innocent Syrian civilians.

    I think that was one place where we could have avoided any slippery slope, because Assad had crossed such a very clear international red line with regard to the use of chemical weapons.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have referred several times to President Trump. You talk about his erratic leadership leaving America and its diplomats dangerously adrift.

    Can that be fixed?

  • William Burns:

    I think we're digging a deep hole for ourselves today.

    And my concern is, when we stop digging, which we eventually will — the sooner, the better, I hope — we're going to climb back to the surface and look out over a landscape that I think in some ways will have hardened against our interests and our values, because adversaries are taking advantage, rivals are taking advantage.

    I think many of our closest allies are beginning to lose faith and beginning to hedge a little bit. And the institutions that we worked so hard to shape, in our own enlightened self-interest over the last seven decades, are beginning to teeter.

    So what I worry about is the long-term corrosive damage we're doing to ourselves. You know, if we understand the significance of diplomacy, we can certainly repair a lot of the damage, but I just worry that some of that corrosion is going to endure for a long time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ambassador Bill Burns.

    The book is "The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal,"

    Thank you.

  • William Burns:

    Thank you so much.

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