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Transcript: William Burns talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - BILL BURNS

INTERVIEWER: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:00:59;24 Bill, welcome.

BILL BURNS:

00:01:01;15 Pleasure.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:01:01;29 Great to have you on the show. And it's great to see you.

BILL BURNS:

00:01:04;26 It's really good to see you, Michael.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:01:06;16 I don't want to embarrass you, but I worked with a lot of people in government. And I don't think I ever worked with anyone who had your combination of experience, professionalism-- and just plain good judgment and human decency. So it's wonderful to have you.

BILL BURNS:

00:01:24;02 Feeling's entirely mutual.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:01:26;21 So Bill, your book-- The Back Channel: a Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal -- hit the book stores yesterday, hot off the presses. It is terrific. It's a great read-- and a great education for anyone interested in the State Department, in diplomacy and its future and in the history of the significant issues-- that you lived through and worked on. So I think it's a must-read for anybody in the Intelligence Matters crowd. So go out and get it. Bill, you tell a tale in the book your first diplomatic mission. Didn't suggest great things ahead for Bill Burns. What happened?

BILL BURNS:

00:02:10;08 Well, my career didn't get off to a rocket-propelled start. I was a very junior officer, my first posting at the U.S. embassy in Amman, Jordan, and I volunteered for what I thought was going to be a really interesting adventure, to drive a supply truck from the embassy in Amman to our diplomatic facility in Baghdad.

00:02:28;01 This was a point in the early-1980s when Iraq and Iran were in the midst of a bitter war. It just seemed like an interesting adventure to drive across the desert or Jordan, you know, and all the way to Baghdad. I had never been to Iraq but--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:02:39;18 How far is that?

BILL BURNS:

00:02:40;22 Oh, gosh. It's a long ways. I mean, it's about--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:02:43;07 It's a two-hour flight, so it must be--

BILL BURNS:

00:02:44;21 Yeah, it's, like, a 14, 15-hour drive all the way. And in a truck you're not going too quickly. And the roads in those days weren't that good. So anyway, the administrative officer at the embassy in Amman, who was this grizzled, old veteran, had assured me that the skids were all greased at the border, paperwork's all in shape.

00:03:00;22 Turned out the skids weren't greased. I got to the border, an Iraqi security official on the Iraqi side of the border -- who bore a striking resemblance to Saddam Hussein -- confiscated the truck, the paperwork, and everything else. And so I was driven under police escort, I drove with a police escort to Baghdad.

00:03:20;26 To make a long story short, the truck was confiscated, all of its contents, which were unclassified equipment-- to best of my knowledge neither the truck nor the contents were ever recovered. (LAUGH) So I spent the next three and a half decades in dread fear that my salary was going to get docked--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:03:36;06 Was gonna get docked for this equipment--

BILL BURNS:

00:03:36;26 --for the cost of this. So as I always told more junior diplomats in the succeeding years, you know, "Even if your career starts with a failure-- there's hope."

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:03:47;12 So that was your first mission, to drive a truck. Your last mission was Iran-related, which was actually a backchannel-- actually secret talks with the Iranians. Tell us about that.

BILL BURNS:

00:03:59;03 Well, you have to remember-- Michael, you and I both worked this issue hard over many years. By the beginning of 2013, the beginning of the second term of President Obama's administration, you know, we had gone for 35 years without direct sustained diplomatic contact with the Iranians. We faced a huge problem.

00:04:19;02 We knew the Iranians were expanding their nuclear program. And we wanted to test the proposition, President Obama did, that you could use diplomacy backed up by economic, political, and military leverage to get them to stop moving in the direction of a nuclear weapon.

00:04:36;03 And so we spent the first term of President Obama's administration building up that leverage. It was no coincidence that, you know, Iran's oil exports had dropped by 50%, the value of its currency had dropped by 50% by the beginning of 2013. So we had their attention. And the time had come to test whether direct--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:04:54;02 And a key point is this is not only the U.S. putting this leverage on, right--

BILL BURNS:

00:04:57;18 It's not.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:04:58;13 This is the entire world--

BILL BURNS:

00:04:59;26 Absolutely--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:05:00;02 --including Russia and China.

BILL BURNS:

00:05:01;11 Absolutely. And, you know, in some ways, especially with Russia and China, quite grudgingly in this period too. And a number of our allies had to make sacrifices to curtail their imports of Iranian energy. So this was very much an international effort. Purely unilateral U.S. sanctions would not have had near the impact that that international coalition did.

00:05:23;20 But we got their attention. The one missing piece in the effort was a direct sustained dialogue between us and the Iranians. So that's what President Obama asked us to do through most of 2013. We met in a variety of places with the Iranians in Oman-- most often but also in Europe as well as on the west side of Manhattan, which is one of the few places where, you know, the Iranian delegation, five guys with no ties and their shirts buttoned all the way up, could blend.

00:05:53;15 And, you know, these were very complicated negotiations-- enormous amount of suspicion and mistrust on both sides. But we were able to get to the point where we constructed the framework for an interim deal, which froze and rolled back Iran's nuclear program and imposed some quite intrusive verification measures. And that set the stage then for the multilateral deal, which we and our international partners concluded late in 2013 with the Iranians.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:06:24;22 So why did those initial discussions with the Iranians have to be secret?

BILL BURNS:

00:06:42;17 I think it was a tough call. And I remember, as I'm sure you do, President Obama weighing this very carefully. I think there was so much baggage on both sides, so much mistrust, that to have tried to carry out these direct discussions in the glare of publicity, with all the expectations that that would bring, would have made it a lot more difficult to make progress.

00:07:05;24 We knew that we weren't going to keep these discussions secret or quiet forever. In fact, it surprised me that we were able to keep them quiet as long as we did. But I don't think we would've made the progress we did as quickly as we did had we not begun at least with those quiet discussions--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:07:21;06 Because people in both countries and in other places would've been shooting at it and undercutting it--

BILL BURNS:

00:07:25;25 Sure. The domestic political climate in Washington as well as in Tehran was really charged with lots of people who were looking for reasons to make it impossible to make diplomatic progress. And so I think that was the way to test the proposition that serious diplomacy was possible. It wasn't going to end in quiet talks. We had to do this with our partners. And this was very much-- a way, as we saw it, to kind of jumpstart that process. It wasn't a substitute for it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:07:55;20 So the nuclear deal itself-- you had left government by the time it was finalized.

BILL BURNS:

00:07:59;28 Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:08:00;12 But I presume you supported it.

BILL BURNS:

00:08:03;19 Absolutely--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:08:04;06 That it made sense to you.

BILL BURNS:

00:08:05;04 Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:08:06;05 What do you say to those who argue two things. There's basically two arguments against it, right? One is, "We should've gotten more on the nuclear side. We should've asked for more and gotten more." And then, "We should've also dealt with their regional misbehavior at the same time. We should've done a package." What's your response to those two critiques?

BILL BURNS:

00:08:26;29 Both-- first, both fair concerns. You know, my view is that the comprehensive agreement that was reached in the summer of 2015 was the best of the available alternatives for preventing the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons. And I think in that sense it was quite a good deal. It was not a perfect deal.

00:08:44;29 In my experience as a diplomat over many years perfect is rarely on the menu. But it was a good deal in the sense that it applied sharp constraints on Iran's nuclear program over a long period of time. And it imposed the most intrusive verification monitoring procedures ever developed.

00:09:05;02 The second concern about Iran's regional behavior is a very valid one. I mean, as you know as well as anyone, you know, we've dealt with threatening Iranian behavior, threatening to our interests, the interests of our friends, for many years. The nuclear agreement had to be embedded in a wider strategy for pushing back against that behavior, reassuring our friends and partners and working with them.

00:09:25;18 I just think that by jettisoning the nuclear deal as the Trump administration has done we actually put ourselves in a weaker rather than stronger position for pushing back. I think we could've gotten the Europeans, had we stuck with the deal, to take firmer measures against everything from Iran's missile proliferation to, you know, the other ways in which it tries to subvert our friends in the Middle East.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:09:49;04 Yeah. I also think that had you gone for the whole enchilada there's no way you would have had the Russians and Chinese with you on the sanctions to begin with.

BILL BURNS:

00:09:59;16 We would have on the sanctions in the first place, on wider regional behavior, and probably even on the missile issue as well. That didn't mean that Iran's actions weren't threatening. Of course they were. And we all realized we had to embed this in a wider strategy. I just think that being able to remove one layer of risk, in other words, an unconstrained Iranian nuclear program from the picture, put us in a better rather than worse position for dealing with that.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:10:46;21 Bill, you spend time in the book talking about what it means to be a diplomat. And I actually think that's really important because I think most Americans have a decent idea of what a soldier does or a pretty decent idea of what a spy does, but I don't think they have a good idea of what a diplomat does. So walk us through what it means to be a diplomat.

BILL BURNS:

00:11:10;18 Well, the first thing is I absolutely agree with you. I think diplomacy may be one of the world's oldest professionals, but it's also one of the most misunderstood. It oftentimes is a quiet endeavor. It operates in back channels, out of sight and out of mind. But the argument in the book is that at this-- in this era, when the United States is no longer he big kid on the geopolitical block, diplomacy matters more than ever as our tool of first resort.

00:11:36;16 What diplomacy is, essentially, is a way to promote American interests and values in the world short of war, short of the use of force. Diplomacy never gets very far unless it's backed up by all other kinds of leverage, whether it's military, economic, intelligence, development, the power of America's example, which also gets us, a long ways in the world if it's a positive one.

00:12:01;11 And so what diplomats do is a form of reconnaissance. It's trying to understand foreign landscapes. Understanding doesn't mean that you have to accept or indulge the perspectives of other governments or other leaders, but you have to understand them. That's the starting point for good policy.

00:12:18;07 Second, you have to understand your own country's priorities as well. Oftentimes I think diplomats don't spend as much time making sure they understand their own society and making sure that Americans understand that smart foreign policy doesn't just begin at home in a strong economic and political system, but it ends there too, in better jobs and, you know, more security and a healthier environment as well.

00:12:43;18 There aren't that many American diplomats in the world. There's only about 8,500 foreign service officers in the world. You know, former secretary of defense Bob Gates, one of our old colleagues used to say that, "There were more members of U.S. military bands than there were American diplomats." I have nothing against military music, but, you know, it shows I think sometimes--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:13:04;29 Tells you something.

BILL BURNS:

00:13:05;22 It does, that there's an imbalance sometimes and, you know, in the way in which we both resource and support the different tools of American foreign policy in the world.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:13:15;13 And there's been an erosion in the resources granted to diplomacy over the years, hasn't there?

BILL BURNS:

00:13:25;26 There has been. I mean, I think we were lulled at the end of the Cold War, at a moment when America really was the singular dominant player in the world. So as a result, the U.S. foreign affairs budget, both for the State Department and for development assistance, dropped by almost 50% from 1985 until 2000.

00:13:45;11 You know, there have been different efforts and successive secretaries of state have worked hard to make the case for more resources for the State Department. But in general that's been a tough case to make. You know, there are relatively few diplomats serving overseas. You know, we don't have military industries in the United States that congressmen can see is in their self-interest. So-- but none of that is a defeatist argument. It just means that we need to work harder to make that case to Americans.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:14:14;24 Bill, one of the many interesting things you say in the book-- this really caught my attention, is that there are two kinds of speeches in foreign policy: frameworks for action and substitutes or action. What do you mean by that? And can you give us a couple of examples?

BILL BURNS:

00:14:33;04 Yeah. Well, the one example I cite in the book was a speech that one of our old bosses, President George W. Bush, gave I think in June of 2002 about the Palestinian/Israeli issue too. And that was a moment when I think-- the administration was increasingly focused on Iraq and the developments that led up to the war in Iraq in 2003.

00:14:56;24 And so, my impression at that time was the speech was less a framework for serious, immediate action on the Palestinian/Israeli issue and more a kind of substitute, a way to sort of buy some time on that issue while the administration focused on what it saw to be the higher priority, which was Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:15:17;00 And your argument would be that we should have more of the former, frameworks for action, and then fewer of the substitutes for action.

BILL BURNS:

00:15:24;15 Yeah. I mean, ideally I think, especially when a secretary of state or a president is making a speech it's to help people understand the case for, you know, for taking serious action as opposed to just as a way of buying time.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:15:38;09 Bill, you acknowledge in your book the doubts among American citizens about, I guess, both American leadership in the world and the value of diplomacy. How do you think about those views on the part of a really not insignificant number of Americans? And how do we go about starting to change those views because we're not really going to get anywhere unless we do that--

BILL BURNS:

00:16:12;28 No. And it's a really important question. And I think, you know, it's ironic in a way, given the difference in their worldviews, that both President Obama in 2009 and President Trump in 2017 were asking a lot of the same questions. I mean, they understood there was a disconnect between lots of American citizens and all of us in the Washington establishment. It wasn't so much, in my experience anyway, that most of our fellow citizens need to be convinced of the importance of disciplined American engagement in the world.

00:16:43;21 Their question is whether we, in Washington, are capable of disciplined leadership. And there're just too many examples, Iraq in 2003 I think is the classic example, but examples in administrations of both parties. And so I think it's really important to recognize that disconnect exists and then try to make the case in lots of different ways.

00:17:03;28 The State Department, just to be self-critical about my own institution, never has done as a good of job as we could have when we help facilitate a big business deal overseas, you know, a big sale of aircraft that contributes directly to the creation of jobs in, you know, important parts of the United States, to help draw that connection for people in our own society.

00:17:26;05 And the same is true in lots of other ways, whether it's in terms of the physical security of the United States, environmental security, and lots of other ways. And so it's not just the State Department, it's obviously the elected political leadership in any administration. It's members of Congress too. State Department, also to be self-critical, you know, over the years has never done as good a job as we should have at working the Congress, by comparison to the intelligence committee to the Pentagon who are, I think, much more active--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:17:51;19 But I think the critique is-- I mean, you're focused on the State Department, but the critique is really about the American foreign policy establishment. And we have not spoken to American people about why this is important and how it should be done and why it is in their interest that we do it.

BILL BURNS:

00:18:09;07 Yeah, I think you're right Michael. And I think we tend sometimes to be patronizing about it too. You know, the argument is, "Well, trust us. You know, we know better how to navigate the world." And the truth is there've just been too many examples where many Americans have seen indiscipline rather than discipline in the way in which we match ends to means. And I've always felt that whether you're the president or a secretary or senior intelligence official or a senior diplomat, if you can't explain a policy to people then there's generally a flaw in it.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:18:38;11 Bill, the Middle East, you spent a good chunk of your career there. What ails it and what can we do about it?

BILL BURNS:

00:18:45;07 Well, I think the, you know, the dysfunctions in the Middle East are going to be with us for a long time to come. And by that I mean in lots of societies in the Middle East, in particular in the Arab world, a sense that lots of people have of indignity, that they are deprived of political and economic opportunities, that their leaderships take advantage of that as well.

00:19:06;07 And so it creates really fertile ground, that crisis of governance at the core-- creates really fertile ground for extremists. And whether the acronym is ISIS or a new acronym in the future, you know people will take advantage of that as well.

00:19:23;04 On top of that you've got a whole series of unresolved regional conflicts, you know, whether it's between Iranians and Saudis or Arabs and Israelis, and you've got a bunch of predatory external players as well, who try to take advantage of the fragilities and the dysfunction of the region. So you have to be pretty clear-eyed, I think, about all of those kind of fundamental structural problems.

MICHAEL MORELL:

The Israelis/Palestinian issue. How important to getting the region right is getting that right? And what would you like to see the Trump administration roll out when it rolls out its plan?

BILL BURNS:

00:20:36;10 Well, I think it's an issue that still matters-- both to American interests and to the future of the Middle East. I would be last person to argue that it's right at the core of all of the fragilities of the Middle East. As I said before, I think there's a crisis of governance. There's all sorts of other conflicts that enter into this. But it does matter.

00:20:54;18 It matters to Palestinians, in terms of their legitimate aspirations for a state. And it matters to Israelis because I think what's at stake is the future of a healthy Jewish Democratic state because if you look at the reality that sometime in the next decade, in the areas that Israel controls, from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, Arabs are likely to be in a majority. It becomes increasingly difficult to sustain that kind of a Jewish Democratic state without a two-state solution.

00:21:21;24 And, you know, lots of people predict the demise of the two-state solution. I don't know whether that's occurred yet, but it's certainly coming much closer. So I think it deserves the attention of any American administration. I think it's a good thing that the Trump administration, you know, has focused on this issue.

00:21:38;18 I think the concerns I have are first, the approach seems to be based on the assumption that you can just deal with one party. There's no real dialogue with Palestinians. It seems to be based on the assumption that you can, in a sense, negotiate over the heads of the Palestinians and build on what is a common interest between lots of Sunni Arab states and Israel with regard to the threat posed by Iran.

00:22:01;10 I think that's a useful thing, but it's not a substitute for Palestinians and Israelis negotiating. There's another flawed assumption, I think, that somehow you can use the lure of economic opportunities to get people-- basically to neglect what have been, you know, long-term political aspirations. And so for all those reasons, you know, I'm a little bit skeptical of what I hear about this approach. But I do think there's a sense of urgency to dealing with it. Again, it's not the central issue in the Middle East, but it does matter.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:22:30;03 And I'm also really interested in what your view is, Bill, of how we should have handled the Khashoggi incident.

BILL BURNS:

00:22:38;24 Well, I mean, I think that the murder of Jamal Khashoggi-- especially a murder carried out in a Saudi diplomatic facility, clearly, at least, in my view-- on the authority of the highest levels of the Saudi leadership, is an awful thing. And it seems to me that we, as a government, ought to have been much more direct than it seems to me that we were, not only in public but in private as well, about the depth of our concern.

00:23:05;29 Now that's not the same thing as throwing the U.S./Saudi relationship overboard. It's a relationship that matters cold-bloodedly for both of us. But it just seems to me that we should've used that horrific opportunity to push the Saudi leadership, and in particular Mohammad 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, which I think is creating opportunities for the Iranians-- rather than reducing them. I think we should use it push much harder-- to end what has become a kind of pointless conflict, political conflict, with Qatar, last person to, you know, defend every Qatar reaction.

00:23:49;29 But this has distracted from concerns about Iran and other regional issues. And 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.

00:24:07;10 Our message, it seems to me, to the Saudi leadership should be, "Of course we'll have your backs against legitimate external threats, whether it's from the Iranians anyone else. Of course we'll, you know, support Vision 2030, Mohammad Bin Salman's very ambitious program at social and economic innovation. But we want a two-way street in the relationship. And we're going be quite honest about our concerns about overreach, whether it's in the region or domestically."

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:24:34;07 Bill, in your book you talk about Libya, about Gaddafi's decision to rid his country of weapons of mass destruction. You talk about it from the point of view of, "Here's an example of diplomacy actually working."

00:24:54;17 Which is kind of interesting in respect to what's going on with North Korea, right? And I'm wondering how you think about this nontraditional approach to diplomacy that the President has taken with this wickedly hard problem.

BILL BURNS:

00:25:11;07 Well, you're right. It's a wickedly hard problem. Both of us have butted our heads against that wall. And I'd be the last person to argue on North Korea that we have a pristine record of accomplishment, you know, over the last quarter century or more.

00:25:24;08 So I've never taken issue with-- what seems to be unique about the President's style, in other words dealing directly at the highest level with Kim Jong-un. My concern has not been about talking directly to one another, it's about talking past one another. And diplomacy as, you know, events of recent weeks has made clear, is hard work. And you just have to be very careful that when you're offering up something that Kim Jong-un has wanted so much for so many years, and that is the stature that comes with dealing directly with an American president not once but twice-- that you're getting something for it-- and that you're cold-bloodedly looking for ways in which you can begin to freeze and roll back North Korea's missile and nuclear programs.

00:26:12;12 In one of life's ironies, especially with this administration, if you could get a deal with North Korea that resembles the interim deal that we got with Iran at the end of 2013, which froze and rolled back their program, I would argue at least, that's a significant step forward.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:26:27;23 Isn't that ironic.(LAUGH)

BILL BURNS:

00:26:28;28 It is. Yeah. But diplomacy's full of ironies. (LAUGH)

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:26:33;19 The subtitle of your book I found really interesting-- particularly the last part of it. So it's a memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for its Renewal. And it's that word 'renewal' that I found interesting. What were you trying to get at there?

BILL BURNS:

00:26:48;28 Well, I think-- lots of us, you and I can point to examples in administrations we worked in of real diplomatic accomplishment, of talented, politically elected leaders and secretaries of states and diplomats and intelligence officials who produced good things for the United States--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:27:05;20 The Libya example we just talked about--

BILL BURNS:

00:27:06;13 --terms of our interest. Libya example--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:27:08;03 Bosnia.

BILL BURNS:

00:27:08;24 Lots of other things over the years--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:27:10;12 Lots of stuff.

BILL BURNS:

00:27:11;22 I do think, however, that President Trump didn't invent some of the drift in American diplomacy, that we 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.

00:27:30;15 I think after 9-11 and that terrible shock to our system we tended to invert the roles of force and diplomacy. 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, as I try to argue in the book, diplomacy ought to matter more than ever for the United States in the world.

00:27:56;01 So that's what I meant about renewal. We have experience of what's worked in diplomacy. And what we need to do is understand what's at stake on the current international landscape, understand the significance of diplomacy as a practical tool. And then, give it, I think, the priority that it deserves.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:28:14;06 So you think we were too quick on the military side post-9-11. I mean, setting aside Iraq.

BILL BURNS:

00:28:21;25 Yeah. Well, I think-- first, you never get very far in diplomacy without the leverage that comes with the American military, the American intelligence community. There was no way in which you were going to use diplomacy to deal with the problem posed by Al-Qaeda or terrorists across the Middle East.

00:28:39;27 So there was no substitute for a very forceful reaction to that too. What I think, however, is that -- and Iraq 2003 is the classic example of this -- that, you know, we tended to think that, you know, force was going to produce outcomes, and diplomacy, you know, tended to become the kind of under-resourced afterthought in that episode and in some others--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:29:00;27 But even on terrorism, right-- there is only one way to deal with a terrorist who already exists who's trying to kill you, right?

BILL BURNS:

00:29:09;22 Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:29:10;08 But there is the issue of stopping the creation of terrorists in the first place--

BILL BURNS:

00:29:12;10 Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:29:13;15 Which is a hard problem. And we can't do it alone. But we really never invested, I thought--

BILL BURNS:

00:29:20;05 Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:29:20;10 --enough in it.

BILL BURNS:

00:29:21;13 No, I think--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:29:21;22 And that's diplomacy.

BILL BURNS:

00:29:22;21 I think that's right. And that's the business of prevention, in a sense. And, you know, the truth is the surgical triumphs that, you know, the American military can be justly proud of, the surgical triumphs even of the intelligence community and the military, like Bin Laden's, you know, finally bringing Bin Laden to-- bringing a measure of justice to 9-11.

00:29:43;11 You know, those are the kind of triumphs that people can see and understand. Prevention, it's kind of like dentistry. It takes a lot longer. It's less visible as well. But that's what we have to engage in. We have some successes. You look at the experience of Colombia, for example, in the last two decades. Administrations of both parties invested over the long term in creating a much greater sense of stability and working with smart, courageous local leaders. And so there's not-- every instance is not going to yield those kind of results. But I do absolutely agree with you. We need to focus more on the prevention side of the challenges that we face.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:30:37;10 Bill, two final issues I want to talk to you about. The first is Russia. You served as ambassador to Russia, ambassador in Moscow. Tell us about Vladimir Putin. What makes him tick? How does he see the world? How does that drive him? How do you think about that?

BILL BURNS:

00:30:57;23 Well, I've always thought that Vladimir Putin, in my experience over the years, is a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity. Grievance in a sense born, and this is not unique to Putin, you find lots of people in the Russian political elite who have this view of an acute awareness of a Russia that was flat on its back in the 1990s, a sense that the West, and particularly the United States, took advantage of that.

00:31:21;10 Again, this is their perspective. I'm not trying to justify it. And that therefore, once Russia began to rebound, surfing on high hydrocarbon prices during Putin's first two terms as president, that it was in a position where it could push back. It was no longer the 98-pound weakling on the beach. And Putin has been determined over, now, almost two decades leading Russia to do two things.

00:31:46;21 One is to restore the power of the Russian state, because he's deeply mistrustful of his own citizens and his own political elite, and to restore Russia to the table of great powers in the world. He's smart enough to know he's playing a relatively weak hand, especially compared to the United States, but he's tactically very agile.

00:32:04;15 And so he'll take advantage of opportunities. And he's grown increasingly self-assured over time. I remember when I presented my credentials as ambassador, end of the summer of 2005 in the Kremlin, and, you know, the Kremlin is meant to intimidate foreigners in a sense. So you come into these great halls in the Kremlin with massive ceilings.

00:32:24;09 You walk down a very long corridor. These two-story bronze doors and you're waiting to present your credentials as ambassador for Vladimir Putin to walk out. And Putin himself is not a particularly imposing figure. He's about 5'6, I think. But this is meant to shock and awe, you know, new diplomats. And it actually succeeds.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:32:43;22 It actually works.

BILL BURNS:

00:32:44;13 But I remember-- I stuck out my hand to shake his hand and present my credentials. And before I had gotten a word out, he said, looking me straight in the eye, you know, "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." And that was Putin, unsubtle, defiantly charmless.

00:33:07;25 And that's what we're dealing with. And I think the last thing I'd say about Putin is he's convinced himself that the best way to create space for Russia as a major power in the world is to chip away at an American-led order. And it's also convenient for him because he can justify repression at home by pointing to an enemy at the gate. And so for all those reasons I think we're going to be operating, at least with Putin's Russia, within a pretty narrow band of possibilities--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:33:34;23 So how do we deal with him?

BILL BURNS:

00:33:37;01 Well, as I said, first is to understand clearly and without illusions that we are operating within a pretty narrow band of possibilities. I would argue from the sharply competitive to the nastily adversarial. So I think we have to push back against, you know, aggressive Russian behavior, whether it's in Ukraine, whether it's in other parts of the world.

00:33:56;12 But at the same time we have to do something that's characteristic of managing great power relations. And that is make sure we have some guardrails in the relationship so that our militaries are talking to one another, diplomats are talking to one another. We don't let collapse what's left of the arms control architecture built up since the late-Soviet period. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty reached 20 years ago seems about to collapse.

00:34:21;21 But it would be a huge mistake, in my view, to let the new START agreement, which deals with strategic nuclear weapons to expire in 2021 as well. It's cold-bloodedly in our interests to make sure there are some guardrails there. And then there are also going to be some issues for all of our profound differences, like Afghanistan, like Syria today when it's in our own self-interest to deal with the Russians and see if we can't at least carve out some small areas of common ground.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:34:49;24 You know, we have to remember that even during the darkest days of the Cold War we were talking to them.

BILL BURNS:

00:34:54;22 Yep.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:34:55;02 And we were actually making deals with them.

BILL BURNS:

00:34:56;22 We were. And we were also, I think-- we approached it from a position of confidence, as we should today. Russia under Putin is not ten-feet tall. They've got huge demographic problems. You know, they've got a one-dimensional economy because one of Putin's historical failures, in my view, is that he never diversified the economy beyond what's in the ground. He's never really taken advantage of what's in people's minds-- a very well-educated Russian population.

00:35:23;22 So, you know, Russia has some pretty serious structural flaws to address over time. We have a pretty good hand to play if we play it wisely with Putin. And I think the last thing I'd add on Putin and Russia is that while 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. 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.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:36:00;23 Bill, and then we have China. So let me read you something from your book. And I quote, "As I neared the end of my diplomatic career it was clearer than ever that nothing mattered more in American foreign policy than management of the U.S./China relationship." End quote. How are we doing at managing that?

BILL BURNS:

00:36:28;21 Oh, I think it's going to be a long haul. I think what President Trump is trying to do in terms of changing the balance of our trade and investment relationship is right and probably overdue, to push back against what had been predatory Chinese practices on trade, on the forcible transfer of U.S. technology.

00:36:50;27 You know, this is the strategic competition of our age. Again, we have a lot of cards to play on this. There are lots of players, our friends, allies, and partners across Asia who share a concern about China's rise. They're not looking to contain China or they're not looking to be forced to choose right now, but they do want to try to ensure that China's rise doesn't come at the expense of everyone else's security and prosperity.

00:37:18;28 That gives us a lot to work for. But what it seems to me we have to do is not just defense. It's not just what the administration is doing on pushing back against trade practices, as important as that is, it's also affirmative, to lay out a vision and a framework across Asia about the kind of Asia we want to see.

00:37:35;24 That's what I thought in economic terms the Transpacific Partnership would have done, which is why I think it was a big mistake for this administration to pull out of that because, you know, it's hard to fight something without a framework in which you can--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:37:50;12 In my view, the biggest mis--

BILL BURNS:

00:37:51;19 --mobilize others--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:37:52;06 --biggest strategic mistakes it's made so far, in my view.

BILL BURNS:

00:37:55;09 I think if you accept, as I think we both do, that it's U.S./China strategic competition as the central issue, this was a really important tool. And we need to invest in partnerships across the region. The U.S./India partnership, which has grown up over the last three American administrations--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:38:11;04 Maybe we could have a Trump Transpacific Partnership. That, I mean, that--

BILL BURNS:

00:38:15;20 That seems to work. 

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:38:16;25 That would do it. So where do you think we're headed with China on the current trajectory if we don't make the adjustment that you're talking about?

BILL BURNS:

00:38:25;15 Well, I think China-- it seems to me anyway that China's aims are pretty clear. It wants to restore itself to what it sees to be its accustomed place as the dominant player in Asia. And it wants to be a global economic peer of the United States. And it's well on its way toward the latter, and the former is not an impossibility either.

00:38:44;18 As I said, we have lots of, I think, very valuable cards to play right now. But the question is, you know, are we gonna play them effectively. So I think on the trade side, we're headed towards some form of an interim understanding with the Chinese, which is not going to solve all the structural problems but, you know, at least begins to address so of them.

00:39:05;01 But what 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, so 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.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:39:26;12 Bill, you've been great to share your time. I just have one more question. You wrote in your book that the goal of the book is to remind people of the importance of diplomacy and the value of public service. Amid what you said is "The distress and disparagement so willfully sown by so many." What did you mean by that?

BILL BURNS:

00:39:47;05 Well, I think in the Trump administration there's been a really disturbing tendency to lump public servants together as members of a deep state, as kind of deep state recalcitrance. And the truth, in my long experience, and I'm sure is yours, is exactly the opposite--

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:40:05;23 Exactly.

BILL BURNS:

00:40:06;11 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. They know it's not always going to be heeded. 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.

00:40:39;10 You see, you know, we were making painfully slow progress-- to create a foreign service that resembled a little bit more the society we represent on gender and diversity issues. That's been put into reverse now too. So we're doing a lot of damage to ourselves. And I also think, you know, the image of public service in a sense is being so deeply unfairly tarnished right now. There's so many people who are making huge sacrifices in the interest of our country-- and that needs to be respected not disparaged.

MICHAEL MORELL:

00:41:11;28 Bill, it has been an honor to talk with you. The book is The Back Channel. The author is Bill Burns. You will want to read it. Bill, thanks.

BILL BURNS:

00:41:20;04 Michael, thanks very much.

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