Under Burns, the CIA Gets a New Focus

Biden’s pick for the agency’s director shows that diplomacy is back.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

William Burns, the then-undersecretary of state for political affairs, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on March 17, 2011.
William Burns, the then-undersecretary of state for political affairs, testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on March 17, 2011. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This week, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden nominated the veteran State Department diplomat William Burns to be director of the CIA. The announcement marked the last nomination to fill out Biden’s foreign policy and national security team, but it was perhaps the most emblematic of where Biden is headed when it comes to how he intends to conduct foreign policy.

Burns, with whom both of us have worked for decades, is the first career foreign service officer to be nominated to run the CIA in the agency’s 73-year history. Previous directors have come from the military, Congress, the ranks of the CIA, and the political class. Diplomats have been excluded, perhaps not surprisingly given the agency’s focus on clandestine operations—the antithesis of aboveground diplomacy—as well as its tightly bound clubby and insular culture, a version of which foreign service officers share.

Biden’s choice of Burns, among the finest diplomats of his generation—he was only the second career foreign service office to be appointed deputy secretary, and his government service has included ambassadorships and senior roles at the National Security Council over a 33-year period—certainly reflects the president-elect’s commitment to serious diplomacy, and it is a morale booster for diplomats. Not since the era of Joseph McCarthy have American diplomats been as mistreated, maligned, and ignored as they’ve been under the Trump administration. But the choice of Burns goes deeper than that.

Burns will be a useful complement to Biden’s picks for secretary of state and national security advisor as they reinvigorate diplomacy as a critical tool of national power. Under Burns, the intelligence community can be expected to devote more attention to its mission of “intelligence in the service of diplomacy,” which will help U.S. diplomats deal with problems before they become crises and help them manage crises that do arise.

Although that mission has been long-standing—and as important as the intelligence community’s actionable intelligence in support of the military has been—it has devoted far too few resources to the requirements of diplomacy. In our careers, we have witnessed how vital intelligence was (and could have been) in dealing with diplomatic problems.

In the 1994 nuclear negotiations with North Korea, a top-notch U.S. intelligence analyst drew on decades of studying the opaque North Korean system to provide invaluable, real-time advice to U.S. negotiators. The 1995 breakthrough in the Balkans peace process derived as much from understanding the ways in which a stalemate harmed all parties as from the diplomatic magic of U.S. negotiators. And understanding what leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are thinking and the political constraints they face is as important to U.S. policymakers as counting Russian aggression or Iranian missiles.

Even if only a small additional increment of the intelligence effort is diverted to trying to answer diplomatic questions—how stable an adversary’s regime is; what are the best avenues for influence; what possibilities exist for diplomacy to deal with a protracted conflict; what do we need to know about climate change, water availability, or food security—the potential payoff for U.S. interests could be enormous. And Burns understands from his extensive experience what policymakers need to know in order to help them make smart foreign-policy decisions.

The selection of Burns—and of Biden’s entire national security team in general—also shows the value that the president-elect attaches to public service, experience, and expertise. His choices mark the return of a committed cadre of talented, selfless public servants who believe in the national interest untethered from domestic politics, vanities, the personal interests of a single individual, or the views of any one party. Burns has worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations. And he has been admired as much by James Baker as he was by Hillary Clinton. That record of bipartisanship is infused in both Biden’s and Burns’s political DNA.

In that way, Burns’s appointment—and that of Avril Haines as the Director of National Intelligence—also reflects Biden’s determination to detoxify and depoliticize an intelligence community so corrupted during the Trump administration and to ensure that professionals dominate. This theme figured prominently in the president-elect’s nomination announcement: “He shares my profound belief that intelligence must be apolitical.” Indeed, as observers scramble to comment on what Burns’s appointment means for this or that issue, what is most certain is that Burns will not cherry-pick intelligence to support one policy or another. CIA assessments will be untethered from such agendas.

In short, the Biden national security team now has all the key players it needs—experienced, balanced, moderate, and rational practitioners of diplomacy like Burns­—to offer up the honest intelligence and value-added analysis that the president-elect will require.

Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author, most recently, of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

Daniel C. Kurtzer is a professor of Middle East policy studies at Princeton University and former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel.