Interpreting India

Diplomacy in a Disordered World with William J. Burns

Episode Summary

Srinath Raghavan and William J. Burns highlight the importance of diplomacy in an increasingly tumultuous world and evolving India-US relations.

Episode Notes

Srinath Raghavan and William J. Burns highlight the importance of diplomacy in an increasingly tumultuous world and evolving India-US relations.

References:

  1. The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal by William J. Burns
  2. The Most Dangerous Place: A History of the United States in South Asia by Srinath Raghavan
  3. George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis
  4. The Naked Diplomat: Understanding Power and Politics in the Digital Age by Tom Fletcher 

 

Episode Transcription

(Intro) Srinath Raghavan: Hello and welcome to Interpreting India! I’m Srinath Raghavan and this is a podcast presented by Carnegie India. Every two weeks, we bring to you voices from India and around the world as we unpack the role of technology, the economy and foreign policy in shaping India’s relationship with the world.

The 2016 US presidential election marked a turning point in American politics and more so in American foreign policy. Observers of world politics have been proclaiming the end of America’s unipolar moment for some years now, but the Trump Administration’s foreign policy has seriously called into question America’s role as a systemic great power. The announcement of the troop withdrawal from a volatile Syria, America’s bellicose rhetoric with countries that are long considered its allies, Washington’s exit from major international agreements ranging from the one on climate change to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran – all of these have raised concerns about the nature of American diplomacy in today’s world. 

What purpose does diplomacy serve? What role did it play in America’s rise as a superpower shaping today’s world order? And What place does it have in Trump’s America? To discuss these issues and more, we have with us Ambassador William J. Burns, President of Carnegie Endowment of International Peace. Ambassador Burns retired from the US foreign service in 2014 after a 33-year diplomatic career. He holds the highest rank in the foreign service: Career Ambassador and is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become Deputy Secretary of State. Bill’s latest book, The Back Channel, is a memoir of American diplomacy, tracing his time in the foreign service from the years leading up to the end of the Cold War, America’s relations with Russia, it’s policies in the Middle East, the nuclear talks with Iran and of course the US-India nuclear deal. Bill, Welcome to Interpreting India!

William Burns: It's great to be with you Srinath, and great to be back in India!


Srinath: You began your diplomatic career in 1983. That was a long time ago, and it was also time of great flux in world politics. Very different from what it is now, but still a kind of a very important time in which to start off your career. So, looking back at all those years and the years since you've been in service, what do you think are the major shifts that have happened in world politics beyond the end of the Cold War and such like things?


Bill Burns: Yeah, well I think there have been some enormous shifts. You know, it's now, three and a half decades, you know, since I first became an American diplomat. I joined the foreign service at the height of the Cold War, not imagining that within the first decade of my professional service, the Cold War would be over - the Soviet Union would have collapsed. So, the international landscape obviously has changed enormously in the immediate post- Cold War period. The United States, and I don't mean this as a statement of American arrogance, but the United States really was, the singular uncontested dominant player on the international system. The world's obviously a lot different today in the sense that you have an intersection really of major shifts in the balance of power with the rise of China, the emergence of India as a global power, the resurgence of Russia, and intersecting with, you know, as set of hugely important political, economic, technological and environmental transformations as well.


Alongside that are some pretty fundamental shifts in the nature of diplomatic tradecraft as well. Not least the fact that information today moves in far greater volume, at far greater speed and far more directly than it did when I was a very young diplomat. So, the temptation is to assume that somehow diplomats, ambassadors, and embassies don't matter so much anymore because it's so easy for senior officials in one government to connect directly by video connection, you know, with their counterparts and other governments. I think diplomacy, whether it's in America or elsewhere in the world, obviously has to adapt, you need to develop new expertise on issues like how do you begin to set workable international rules so the road on technology issues, expertise in environmental and climate change issues. All of those are enormously important to be able to make use of information technology and social media is enormously important for today's diplomats. But you have to build that on a foundation, which in some ways is much more traditional because diplomacy is still a business of human interactions. And so, knowledge of history, of culture, of how to navigate other societies and the promotion of your own country's interests, language facility remain enormously important and they're kind of irreducible minimum I think for successful diplomats today.


Srinath: So, one of the signature features apparently of the world in which we live in is the rise of what is referred to as populism. Now you know, there are many definitions of populism, there is this whole debate, but at least two common features seem to re-occur in these various institutional dimensions in which it happens. The first seems to be a desire for some kind of an unmediated relationship between the top leadership and the so-called people, whichever way you've defined them. And the second and related, is a kind of a distrust of established institutions, expertise, knowledge producing bodies, mediating bodies within societies and an attempt to portray them as some kind of a discredited elite against which the people have to be mobilized. Now in this kind of political context of how does diplomacy, which is, and has always been seen as part of this kind of an elite institution in more societies, really play out?


Bill Burns: Well, it's a powerful phenomenon and it's certainly not unique to the United States. Just as you said, Srinath, that it affects societies, you know, across much of the globe today as well. And I think the first thing we have to do, again and I say this as a recovering diplomat, is to be honest about the challenge because the truth is, here just speaking about the United States, there is a big and growing disconnect between people like me, card carrying members of the Washington establishment and lots of American citizens, who when we preach the virtues of disciplined American leadership in the world don't really need to be persuaded so much about the importance of American engagement in the world to promote our own prosperity and security. I'm better a lot more skeptical about the discipline part because they've seen too much of it in administration's run by both Republicans and Democrats of indiscipline in how we've matched ends to means.


So the Iraq war in 2003 was an obvious and tragic illustration of that, but also the global financial crisis, you know, a few years later and the kind of hubris in American financial policies that contributed to that as well. So, you have to be honest about the importance of beginning to reduce that disconnect. And so, for American citizens at least, to be able to convey the message that as we always tell ourselves, you know, smart diplomacy, effective diplomacy begins at home with, you know, an effective and coherent political and economic system. But we have to be able to argue better that it ends there too in more prosperity and more security and a healthier environment as well. So, we have our work cut out for us I think in dealing with that reality. I do, however, and this won't surprise you, again, having spent so many years as a diplomat, I think there's a hugely important role for professional diplomacy, for expertise in general.


If we're a little bit humble about that disconnect that I mentioned before, and I think in one of life's ironies, what we're about to see over the coming weeks, you know, the testimony of professional diplomats before the US Congress, the current impeachment inquiry, will actually bring diplomacy to life for a lot of American citizens to associate what is kind of an abstract profession, a misunderstood profession with real live human beings who weren't part of some deep state, but they're doing their jobs. You know, they're upholding their oath, not to a particular person, but to the US constitution. And they're telling the truth to their Congress when they're asked to do it and they're doing it with their heads held high. So my hope actually, as difficult as this period is for the United States, that it's going to help to animate and illustrate in real live human terms, you know, the value in the significance, not just of diplomatic service but of public service more generally in my own country at a time when it's far too often belittled and degraded.


Srinath: You've had the opportunity to work with so many different administrations. You've been at such pivotal moments in the United States' geopolitics, does the current moment strike you as somewhat different from everything that has gone past? You know, we know that under President Donald Trump, the United States seems to have a somewhat different view of what its role as a global leader really should be. Whether the United States should bear those kinds of burdens is a question that president Trump seems to ask, and asks for others to share some of the tab. But do you really think that the United States is now in a very different position as far as world politics is concerned and perhaps this moment is reflective of that, not just domestically in terms of what's happening, but what its consequences will be on the international stage as well?


Bill Burns: Yeah, I mean, I began my book, The Back Channel with a scene taken from, you know, my experience in working in the first Bush administration, president George H W Bush, and I worked directly for secretary Baker in that era. And you know, that was for me, as I look back over my checkered career, you know, I served five presidents and 10 Secretaries of State who somehow survived, you know, my professional experience. But that was in many ways the high point because it was an intersection of a set of truly transformational international developments with a group of American statesman in president Bush senior, in Jim Baker, the secretary of state, Brent Scowcroft, then the national security advisor, who worked remarkably well together and who understood that this moment of American predominance in the international system wasn't going to last forever and employed a sense of enlightened self-interest. In other words, the notion that of course any government is going to put its own interests first, but that American interests in that era, in any era are best promoted when you make common cause with lots of other players who share broadly the same interests. What I worry about today at another kind of plastic moment, 30 years later, plastic in the sense of so much transformation on the international landscape, a moment when the United States is no longer the singular dominant player, but I would argue still has a better hand to play than any of our major rivals, if we play it well.


Playing it well in my view, means adopting that same sense of enlightened self-interest. Instead, I think what you see today is turning that on its head much more about the self part than the enlightened part. A sense of, kind of muscular unilateralism, which sometimes identifies real problems. I mean, I think President Trump has been right to push back, for example, against predatory Chinese trade and investment practices. Where I think he's been wrong though, is that unilateralist impulse in other words, rather than making common cause with lots of other players and countries, whether it's the European Union or Japan or India who share some of those same concerns, we've embarked on second and third front trade conflicts with a number of those. And so, I think that becomes almost self-defeating and it dismantles a lot of the leverage that the United States still has at this moment on the international landscape, and so that's my fundamental concern. It's not a misdiagnosis of some of the problems, it's the prescription, the unilateralist prescription that I think gets wrongly applied in an era. You know, we're actually working with others and effective diplomacy matters more than it ever has for the United States in the world.


Srinath: So what do you agree then that the United States' current set of issues that they're facing with China, particularly on trade and technology is a broader symptom of how to cope with the rise of China and previous attempts such as trying to integrate China into the international system have perhaps had some negative downside consequences, which would not be foreseen at the point?


Bill Burns: I mean I think it's a fair criticism Srinath of us as Americans and people like me who served in US government over the last 30 or 35 years, that there was a kind of lazy fatalism sometimes on the benefits of engagement with China.


I think what we have to be careful about though is not letting that same lazy fatalism cause us to assume too much about the wisdom of containment of China's rise or the workability of decoupling our economies. You know, there are people in Washington today who argue that containment in the old Cold War sense of trying to contain the Soviet Union ought to be the sort of dominant theme in approaching China. I actually think that that's an analogy that doesn't work very well. I think the old Soviet system is much different than, you know, then the Chinese communist system today. I do however think that, you know, the theme that seems to me anyway to be most effective, is not so much containing China's rise as shaping the environment into which it rises. Because there we again, looking parochially at the United States have a lot of assets to bring to bear.


We have partnerships with big important emerging global powers like India, we have formal alliances with Japan and South Korea, you know, we have the capacity at least to help set high end standards on trade and investment, on environmental issues to work to deepen security relationships, you know, across Asia. Again, not so much explicitly aimed at containing China's rise. It's shaping an environment in which lots of countries like the United States and India share an interest in ensuring that China's rise doesn't come at the expense of our security or our prosperity. And so, you know, I'm actually an optimist about how we could employ, you know, all of those sources of leverage over the coming decades because I am convinced that, you know, nothing is going to matter more to the future of international order than how well or how poorly the United States and China manage, you know, what is oftentimes going to be a very competitive relationship and sometimes an adversarial relationship as well.


Srinath: Yeah. We'll come back to US-India relations in just a little while. You talked about the resurgence of Russia that at the time when you were serving in the George H W Bush administration, was this something that you ever thought would be a problem that you would confront once again, a resurgent Russia as a major Eurasian power, which is capable of challenging the United States and its allies at least in somewhat localized theaters?


Bill Burns: Yeah, no, I mean I think, I wish I could say that I had the foresight to have to have seen, you know, 30 years ago. I first served in Russia in the, in the early 1990s as well. The pace with which, you know, Russia could recover at least a portion of the leverage that it had had during the Cold War. And also, you know, I think all of us underestimated the extent to which Russians, the Russian leadership, especially Vladimir Putin's leadership would be driven by animated by, you know, a sense of payback. Because in some ways I think Vladimir Putin and my experience over the years is kind of an apostle of payback. You know, the sense that, you know, Russia had its moment of historical weakness in the 1990s was taken advantage of by the West, by the United States.


I'm not arguing the legitimacy of that argument, that perception, but it's felt, you know, across much of the Russian political lead and across much of Russian citizenry as well. And it has been a lot of what's driven Vladimir Putin over now almost 20 years as Russia's leader. I vividly remember my first meeting with Putin as the newly arrived US ambassador in Moscow in August of 2005. You know, this first meeting took place in the Kremlin, which, you know, as many of your listeners know, is built on a scale that's meant to intimidate visitors, especially newly arrived American ambassadors. So, you go into the Kremlin, you walk through these down long corridors, through these huge ornate halls. You come up at the end of one big ornate hall and there are these two-story bronze doors. You're kept waiting there for a few minutes just to let all this sink in.


Then the door opens a crack outcomes president now Vladimir Putin, who despite his bare chested persona is not that intimidating in the flesh, but he carries himself with great self-assurance. So he comes walking through the door before I got a word out of my mouth, he says, in Russian, 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. In my experience with Putin, that was vintage Vladimir Putin. It was not subtle; it was almost defiantly charmless. But the message very clear, this is a different Russia. You know, Putin at that point was surfing on $120 a barrel oil and it was a Russia that was going to push back when it felt its interests were at risk or it saw opportunities as well. And I think we as you know, American officials were a little bit slow to understand that phenomenon.


Srinath: And do you think the Trump administration has done a reasonably good job of keeping allies onboard in dealing with Russia?


Bill Burns: No. I mean, I think one of the concerns I have is that, you know, you look at the transatlantic relationship today, an enormously important relationship between the United States and Europe in some ways as you look at this new era on the international landscape, as important as ever, if you think about, you know, a common concern about China's rise, if you think about the more limited challenge of managing Russia's resurgence, and yet I really worry that, you know, because of President Trump's attitude toward the NATO Alliance, towards the significance of alliances in general, that, you know, we're corroding, you know, that asset, the transatlantic relationship. And of course, Europeans are, you know, themselves doing a lot of damage to that too. I was in London about a month ago and I have to say it's the one capital today that makes Washington look like a fine-tuned machine because you know, people are wrestling there with some really complicated issues over Brexit as well.


But you see, you know, some of our closest European allies, not just in the United Kingdom, but in Germany and France who are in a way turned in on themselves and preoccupied with some of the same problems that you were describing before of populism and fragmentation. The United States doesn't get a vote in how the European Union organizes itself, but we do have an interest as a friend in a strong transatlantic partnership, not just in dealing with Russia, but as I said before, and looking at the hugely important phenomenon of China's rise. And I think we need to be more conscious of that and invest more in that set of alliances, than in this administration we’re doing.


Srinath: Another issue which seems to be a running thread through most of your career, particularly from 1983 which is an interesting date to start, is nuclear weapons and obviously you began at a time when the US-Soviet nuclear competition and strategic competition used to overshadow everything else. But today we are living in a very different world, right? There are other kinds of nuclear challenges. You've dealt with the Iran while an office, it's an issue which has become live again, there was North Korea, which was also under-active sort of negotiations and discussions are happening. How do you see the threat of nuclear weapons and the kinds of challenges they pose to international security today?


Bill Burns: Well, I think it's a hugely important and oftentimes underestimated challenge today. I think on the one hand you see the old edifice, you know, built up in the US-Soviet period and then more recently in US-Russia relations of arms control - that's on the verge of collapse. There's only one treaty relationship that exists today, the New START agreement that's due to expire in about a year's time. There's no effort underway today to negotiate an extension of that agreement. So that's one set of challenges. And that matters because you know, for the United States and Russia, that despite all the other disparities and our relative influence and weight and power in the world, we're still the world's two remaining nuclear superpowers. The example we set to the rest of the world on non-proliferation issues really matters. And so, we'll be doing a disservice to that example if we don't try to extend the New START Agreement.


Then there's a range of non-proliferation challenges, you know, I worked, I spent a lot of time working on the Iranian nuclear negotiations in throughout all of 2013 - I led the secret talks with the Iranians that helped, you know, produce the, eventually the comprehensive nuclear agreement, between not just the United States, but a group of powers in the international community and Iran. I would be the first to admit that it wasn't a perfect agreement, but in my experience, perfect is rarely on the menu in diplomacy. It was, I'm convinced today, as I was convinced then, the best of the available alternatives short of the use of force. And the Middle East to seem far too much use of force to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. I think it was a foolish mistake for the Trump administration to unilaterally withdraw from that agreement a little more than a year ago. And then to employ a policy of so-called maximum pressure against Iran.


The problem though is that that maximum pressure, while it can do and has done enormous damage to the Iranian economy, if it's not tethered to realistic aims becomes a dead end or worse, it begins to breed collisions of one kind or another because the Iranians get a vote in this too. And you know, while they see their economy being damaged, they're demonstrating that they can also impose costs as well, whether it's attacks on Saudi oil facilities or in other ways as well. So, you know, I think what the Trump administration has done is embarked on a, I embarked on a version of coercive diplomacy, which is all about coercion and not at all about diplomacy, and that creates real problems. It also, I think, you know, in many ways sort of erodes the whole concept of a serious approach to non-proliferation policy. It makes it harder to work with other governments.


I think it actually undermines the efficacy of economic sanctions as an instrument of American policy. Looking at this narrowly, because what we're doing by unilaterally reimposing sanctions over the objections of not just our European allies or partners in the agreement, but over Russia, China and India, which is paid, you know, an economic price for this as well. We're going to erode the efficacy of sanctions over the long-term as an instrument of American policy. Now, we haven't always employed that instrument effectively in the past, but by abusing it and overusing it, we're going to wake up, not tomorrow, not next year, but four or five years from now, and find that other governments are trying to reduce their vulnerability to the US financial system. You had, even the foreign minister of Germany a year ago, stand up publicly and say, you know, all of us need to reduce our vulnerability to the US financial system.


So, I just think it's a very short-sighted policy. And I think it's a good thing, you mentioned North Korea that President Trump has engaged directly with Kim Jong un, the leader of North Korea. But I think we're kidding ourselves if we think that in the foreseeable future that North Korean leadership is interested in fully denuclearized, because I think Kim Jong un has concluded that his nuclear arsenal today is too central to his security, his survival, his stature. So, the practical question is, you know, what can you do even if you preserve as we should full denuclearization as an aspirational goal, what can you do in the meantime to reduce the risks and reduce the dangers? If you set aside the irony of them of what I'm about to say, given the Trump administration's view of the Iranian nuclear agreement, you might actually take a page out of that experience.


When we first did an interim agreement with Iran, reduced and rolled back their nuclear program and posed very tight verification and monitoring procedures all in return for very modest sanctions relief. We preserved the bulk of our leverage for the later comprehensive talks. So I don't think that's very likely, but it just seems to me that of the available alternatives, that's the kind of approach on non-proliferation that, you know, might make some modest progress.


Srinath: And nuclear issues were also very central to your own engagement with India in the mid 2000s when you are at the center of the discussions over the US-Indian Civilian Nuclear Agreement. Could you tell us a little bit about, was like, because it was so transformative for the relationship as a whole.


It was, and I, you know, I played a very active part in the culmination of the negotiations over the Civil Nuclear Agreement, especially in 2008. Much of the grey hair that I have today comes from negotiating with Indian partners and friends who are formidable diplomats and tough negotiators. But I thought then, and I think today that president George W. Bush made the right long-term strategic bet. This was not an easy choice, either for the American or the Indian leaderships to make it involved, compromises on both sides. But I think it was a bet not only on, you know, India as a responsible nuclear power, which is a fair bet, but also on India's emergence as a significant global player over time. And so, you know, there've been disappointments in the decades since then, in terms of the implementation of the agreement. Disappointments on the part of, you know, the United States with a very slow progress - it's kind of like an Indian Epic tale, you know, long torturous journeys to, you know, seeing economic benefits from the nuclear deal.


And those are, those are really important, but I think at its heart, it was a strategic bet, a recognition that for the first time in the history of US-India relations, you know, we both have a significant stake in each other's success. And that, that marked a really important moment, I think for both of us. And in many ways the Civil Nuclear Agreement embodied, you know, that sense of optimism. Now that doesn't mean, and I think we, you know, we run the risk of this sort of tyranny of inflated expectations, you know, the expectation that every two or three years you're going to have another grand breakthrough like the Civil Nuclear Agreement. Diplomacy in my experience, relations between major powers doesn't work that way - there are rare moments when you have those kinds of breakthroughs. But you know, what it does mean is that you got to work very hard at that day in, day out management of a very important partnership. Recognizing they're going to be irritants, they're going to be differences, but over the long-term you share a broad strategic vision as two democratic countries, as two countries which share a whole range of geopolitical and economic interests over time. But you also have to recognize that managing and making progress in big important relationships is a little bit like riding a bicycle. If you're not pedaling forward, you tend to fall over. And so that's why I think ours is a relationship, a partnership, that requires a lot of very high-level attention in steady day in, day in, day out at work.


Srinath: And the larger geopolitical context that you've painted upfront, about the rise of China and what it means for Asia, for the United States as a whole, do you think that provides a certain opportunities for India to position itself both economically, geopolitically and to craft a relationship with the United States, which could perhaps be more forward looking instead as you're saying, you know, wallowing in this bit of a nostalgia about saying, well where does the next big thing?


Bill Burns: I do. I mean I think again, taking a step back and looking at this subjectively, I think there, there are some important convergences of interests - start with economic opportunities. The reality is no matter who gets elected in the United States in 2020, US-China economic competition is going to be with us for a long time to come. Now we can manage that well, we can manage it poorly. I don't think trade conflicts or necessarily bilateral trade conflicts are the best way to manage it, but that's going to be a reality. That objectively creates opportunities for India in the sense that you're already seeing some businesses, US businesses that were looking to invest in China, that are relocating production facilities. You're not going to be able to relocate all of them to Vietnam or Malaysia, as important as those economies are, so that creates opportunities for an India, you know, that's making its own reform choices and creating attractive opportunities over time as well.


You look at it in terms of the environment, the challenge of climate change, which is very real for all of us. You know, that's an area where the United States and India obviously have a common interest in security terms. Again, even if our explicit goal is not containing China's rise, we obviously have an increasing interest in defense cooperation, not just military exercises but defense acquisitions - that's a part of our relationship that's grown in recent years and grown steadily. But we also have a quiet interest in cooperating, you know, more actively with other players in the region. Whether it's Japan or Australia, who share that same broad interest in ensuring that there are some very basic rules of the road that apply across Asia and the Pacific, across the Indo-Pacific that help ensure everything from the protection of global commons to freedom of navigation and other issues that doesn't necessarily put us at odds with China but certainly reflects abroad common interest as well. So, I think in all of those areas, if you focus on that medium-term set of possibilities, it helps you deal with some of the short term irritants, whether it's the, you know, predictable, bilateral irritants over dairy products and everything else. I mean those are real and I don't mean to minimize the domestic pressures on both sides, but if you keep your eye on what's possible over time, I think that'll help us deal with some of those shorter-term issues.


Srinath: Your book is a wonderful guide towards thinking not just about what are the possibilities for future, but also the role of diplomacy in this and we will link in the show notes to the book, but could you suggest any other book that you've read lately? To our listeners, which might help them make sense of this remarkably swiftly changing world in which we live.

31:26
Yeah. Well first I'll make a shameless advertisement for your most recent book Srinath in 2018, Most Dangerous Place, which you know, which talks about the United States experience in South Asia, but US-India relations, I think in a very thoughtful way. And if you want to look at diplomacy in general and how it's changing, first you can look at that, you know, sort of the traditional experience or diplomacy. There's a wonderful American diplomat of the cold war era named George Kennan. He was probably the best known professional American diplomat of the last, you know, 70 or 80 years. So beautiful biography of him written by a Yale historian named John Lewis Gaddis, which is, is extremely well done. And then if you want to look at the challenge of diplomacy in the digital age, there's a book written by a much younger British diplomat used to be the British ambassador in Lebanon named Tom Fletcher called The Naked Diplomat. And it's really not about, you know, diplomats running around naked but it's about, you know, how diplomats in the age of social media can be effective and can function as well. So you know those, those are books that I've enjoyed recently.


Srinath: That sounds great! And we'll link them to the show notes here as well. Bill thanks so much for being on Interpreting India!


Bill Burns: My pleasure Srinath! Great to be with you!

(Outro) Srinath Raghavan: Thank you for listening to this episode of interpreting India. A podcast presented every two weeks by Carnegie India. I'm Srinath Raghavan. For more information about the podcast and the production team, you can follow us on social media and visit our webpage.