As one of America's foremost diplomats hangs up his spurs, lessons from 33 years at the State Department.
- By William J. BurnsWilliam J. Burns is deputy secretary of state.
Diplomacy is not quite the world’s oldest profession, but it remains one of the most misunderstood. It’s a predictable and recurring habit to question its relevance and dismiss its practitioners, especially at moments like this, when international affairs are rocked by powerful and tumultuous transitions.
It is true that the world today is far different from the one that I encountered as a new foreign service officer in 1982. Today’s international landscape is far more crowded. New global powers are rising, hundreds of millions of people around the world are climbing into the middle class, hyper-empowered individuals with the capacity to do great good and huge harm are multiplying, and more information is flowing more rapidly than ever before.
These realities pose some real challenges and difficult questions for professional diplomats. How can we add value in a world of instant and nearly universal access to information? How important are foreign ministries in an age of citizen awakenings? And who needs foreign assistance from governments when they can get it from private foundations and mega-philanthropists?
These are fair questions, but none of them foretells the imminent demise of our profession. The ability of American diplomats to help interpret and navigate a bewildering world still matters. After more than a decade dominated by two costly conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and the worst financial crisis of our lifetime, the United States needs a core of professional diplomats with the skills and experience to pursue American interests abroad — by measures short of war.
The real question is not whether the State Department is still relevant but how we can sustain, strengthen, and adapt the tradecraft for a new century unfolding before us. As I look back across nearly 33 years as a career diplomat — and ahead to the demands on American leadership — I offer 10 modest observations for my colleagues, and for all those who share a stake in effective American diplomacy.
1. Know where you come from.
When I was a junior diplomat, a story circulated that then Secretary of State George Shultz used to invite new ambassadors for a farewell chat. He would walk over to a large globe near his desk and ask the ambassador to point to “your country.” Invariably, the ambassador would put a finger on the country of his or her assignment. Shultz would then gently move their finger across the globe to the United States, making the not-so-subtle point that diplomats should always remember whom they represent and where they come from.
We cannot afford to forget where we come from, whom we serve, and whom we represent. While we still have a long way to go, the foreign service today is far more representative of the richness and diversity of American society than when I entered. The white, male, East Coast, elitist caricature has faded. Today’s officers come from across the country and from every social background. The percentage of women and minorities has doubled. New officers bring proficiency in difficult languages and a range of work experience that I would have envied 30 years ago. This diversity is a huge asset overseas, where the power of our example often matters more than the power of our preaching — especially when we ask others to respect pluralism, tolerance, and universal human rights.
2. It’s not always about us.
Americans are often tempted to believe the world revolves around us, our problems, and our analysis. The recent revolutions that swept the Middle East remind us that this is not always the case. These revolutions were, at their core, about dignity and the profound humiliation of people denied economic opportunity, a political voice, and solutions to the problems that mattered most to them. Yet these revolutions still matter a great deal to the United States, and we have a central role to play in helping shape their trajectory.
The fact remains that other governments and people look to the United States to help make sense of a chaotic world and to build coalitions to deal with it. That is true in the fight against the Islamic State, just as it is true in the effort to stem the spread of Ebola. Other people and societies have their own realities, not always hospitable to ours. That does not mean that we need to accept those perspectives, or indulge them, but understanding them is the key to sensible diplomacy.
3. Master the fundamentals.
One perverse side effect of WikiLeaks’ release of State Department cables was to show that American diplomats are pretty good at honest analysis of foreign realities and how to navigate them in America’s best interest. This kind of effectiveness requires a nuanced grasp of history and culture, mastery of foreign languages, facility in negotiations, and the ability to translate American interests in ways that other governments can see as consistent with their own — or at least in ways that drive home the costs of alternative courses. If we let these basic diplomatic skills atrophy, our relevance will inevitably decline.
In today’s world of digital and virtual relationships, there is still no alternative to old-fashioned human interactions — not in business, romance, or diplomacy. More than a half-century ago, Edward R. Murrow, the CBS News great who joined the State Department, gave advice to incoming diplomats that still resonates: “The really critical link in the international communications chain is the last three feet, which is best bridged by personal contact — one person talking to another.” Diplomats provide that critical link, whether in managing relationships with foreign leaders, ensuring the safety and well-being of Americans abroad, or promoting commercial, cultural, and educational exchanges.
4. Stay ahead of the curve.
While the fundamentals are essential, they are not enough. American diplomats have to stay ahead of the curve — ready to adapt to new challenges and innovations and ready to lead in emerging arenas of competition and cooperation. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the need to deepen the partnership between diplomacy and development to address the underlying drivers of instability around the world. The historic President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), launched during George W. Bush’s administration, is an exceptional example of American leadership in global health. The Obama administration’s food and water security programs have been just as transformational.
Energy, climate, gender issues, and cyberspace are all growing priorities for American diplomats, and each requires us to develop new expertise and master new tools and technologies. My generation of diplomats spent a good portion of their careers learning about nuclear proliferation and global oil politics. This generation will have to learn about the shale gas revolution and its impact on global energy markets, about cyber-norms and their impact on our security and our privacy, and about the Arctic, which may become as vital a maritime passageway in the coming years as the Suez and Panama canals.
5. Promote economic renewal.
Nothing demonstrates diplomacy’s relevance more than its ability to contribute to America’s economic renewal. And nothing will support strong American diplomacy abroad better than a strong and vibrant American economy. Since 95 percent of the world’s consumers live outside the United States, Americans have a big stake in the role diplomats play in opening markets abroad, strengthening the economic rules of the road, ensuring a level playing field for U.S. companies, attracting foreign investment, and advocating on behalf of U.S. businesses. Renewed focus on economic statecraft in recent years helped generate $150 billion in trade supporting more than 11 million U.S. jobs.
There is no better diplomatic investment in the years ahead than the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreements, which would bring higher standards of free market rules to two-thirds of the global economy and strengthen American prosperity for decades to come. Secretary of State John Kerry continually reminds our diplomats that “foreign policy is economic policy.” I could not agree more.
6. Connect leverage to strategy.
Successful diplomacy has to begin with strategic vision, a concept for shaping international order in the service of American interests. Effective strategy requires leverage, connecting concepts and goals to available instruments of national power, including military power. The “rebalance” of U.S. priorities toward the Asia-Pacific region is one clear example, integrating efforts to manage China’s rise and build healthy relations with Beijing while strengthening ties to key allies, expanding links to ASEAN, and investing in the strategic partnership with India. Economic and political leverage, along with a genuine offer of engagement, opened the door to back-channel talks with Iran that ended more than 35 years without sustained diplomatic contact and helped produce a first nuclear agreement. Progress toward a comprehensive accord remains difficult and uncertain, but carefully testing the possibilities of diplomacy is very much in our interest.
7. Don’t just admire the problem — offer a solution.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson once complained that senior diplomats tended to be “cautious rather than imaginative.” Most of his successors have harbored similar concerns, some more openly than others. It is true that career officers sometimes seem to take particular relish in telling a new administration why its big new idea is not so new or why it won’t work. It is also true that the revolution in communications technology and the increasing role of both the National Security Council staff and other agencies over successive administrations have tended to bring out the more passive (or sometimes passive-aggressive) side of the State Department.
Most ambassadors, however, realize that they have an enormous opportunity to make a difference in policymaking and get things done on the ground. They don’t just report about the challenges they face — they try to shape the policy response. Tom Pickering, one of the best career diplomats I have ever known, never wanted to get an instruction from Washington that he had not shaped himself. He understood that he was the president’s representative, which carried a responsibility to offer his best judgment on how to fix a problem — not just serve as a postman for Washington decisions.
8. Speak truth to power.
I have great admiration for colleagues who in recent decades decided that they could no longer serve policies in which they did not believe. More than a dozen foreign service colleagues resigned over the United States’ nonintervention in the Balkans in the early 1990s, and several others left over the Iraq War a decade ago. Short of resignation, however, officers are obliged to exercise discipline and avoid public dissent. But they also have a parallel obligation to express their concerns internally and offer their best policy advice, even if the truths they perceive are inconvenient. In the run-up to the Iraq War in 2003, several of my colleagues and I wrote a lengthy memo at Secretary of State Colin Powell’s request on what we thought could go wrong. We titled it: “The Perfect Storm.” In hindsight, we got some things right and missed others, but it was the sort of effort to offer an honest professional judgment that should be encouraged.
9. Accept risk.
We live and work in a dangerous world. Demanding zero security risk means achieving zero diplomatic results. We take every prudent precaution, and we learn and apply the painful lessons of terrible tragedies like the loss of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other colleagues in Benghazi, Libya, two years ago. But we cannot hole up behind embassy walls. Every American diplomat was filled with pride when we watched Ryan Crocker excel in a succession of dangerous and important posts from Beirut to Kabul — and when Robert Ford, as ambassador to Syria, visited areas where peaceful protesters had just been attacked by the regime. In less dramatic moments, diplomats serving in hard jobs in hard places take calculated risks every day. I wish that we could ensure zero risk, but we cannot.
10. Remain optimistic.
Teddy Roosevelt said life’s greatest good fortune is to work hard at work worth doing. By that standard, American diplomats have reason to feel fortunate. Yes, the world is getting more complicated and the political paralysis and partisanship in Washington don’t make it any easier. It is hard to convince people overseas that we can build coalitions when they prove so elusive at home, when the most popular thing any congressman can do is cut our budget, and when members of U.S. military bands outnumber members of the foreign service. But there are many reasons to be optimistic.
We have a remarkable military and an economy still bigger, more innovative, and more resilient than anyone else’s. Our system of government and values remains — warts and all — a magnet for people around the world. We possess a transformational energy potential and a diverse and mobile population that is the envy of our competitors. And we have a diplomatic service that still attracts the best young people from across our society to a career of significance.
As I prepare to retire, I have never been more proud of America’s diplomats and I have never been more confident in their ability to help renew American leadership in the world. It is hard work, but it has never been more important or more worthwhile.