February 28, 2018

Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Discusses Foreign Policy Challenges

FOREIGN POLICY CHALLENGES: Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns spoke to a capacity crowd in Princeton University’s Arthur Lewis Auditorium on Monday, warning of difficulties and dangers ahead in U.S. international relations. He focused his remarks on Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

By Donald Gilpin

With both deep worries and occasional doses of optimism as he focused on daunting challenges in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns offered a rich overview of “American Foreign Policy in an Era of Turbulence and Trump,” to a packed audience of about 200 in Princeton University’s Arthur Lewis Auditorium on Monday afternoon.

A career ambassador with 33 years in diplomacy and currently “a recovering diplomat” serving as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns described a turbulent global landscape “against the backdrop of the Trump administration, which has its own turbulence.”

Claiming that the world is moving into a new era marked by the rise of China and India, the resurgence of Russia, serious challenges in the Middle East, climate change, and a revolution in technology, he stated, “We’re facing the kind of profound changes to the international order you see only once or twice a century.”

He mentioned “the intersection of two important phenomena that make this moment in history distinctive: the fragmentation of power on the international landscape and a whole set of transformations taking place along with uncertainty about the role of the U.S. in the world.”

The U.S., he argued, is not the dominant player it once was, but “we’re still the preeminent player. We can help shape an international order before it gets shaped for us over the next two or three decades.”

Burns pointed to the U.S.’s “commitment to enlightened self-interest, a focus on open trade, and an open political system that benefits us and benefits other countries as well,” but he warned, “What I fear we’re seeing today with the Trump administration is much more emphasis on the ‘self’ part of that equation rather than on the ‘enlightened’ part.”

Speaking about the American idea and what that represents in the world, Burns stated, “I’ve always thought that the power of our example matters a lot more than the power of our preaching,” but he described “a nasty brew of bilateralism and nativism with a personal blend of narcissism and impulsiveness.” He warned of the consequences of “reckless detachment by the U.S.” in pulling out of the climate agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and in the possible termination of the Iran nuclear deal and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

An important part of the troubling backdrop described by Burns was his report on the erosion of the State Department, an invaluable tool for addressing the numerous crises in the world. “The State Department is in the process of being dismantled,” Burns said. “I don’t exaggerate when I say that.”

Citing roughly 30 percent budget cuts for two years in a row, numerous key positions unfilled, and intake into the foreign service cut by 70 percent over the past year, Burns noted “a kind of unilateral diplomatic disarmament which will cause significant long-term damage.”

In referring to Russia, where he served as minister-counselor at the U.S. embassy, then as U.S. ambassador (2005-2008), as “a long lesson in humility,” Burns told of a meeting with Vladimir Putin, with whom he was summoned to talk in 2008.

Burns noted that the Russian president’s opening comment was indicative of the challenges in conducting diplomacy with Russia. “Putin was never one for small talk,” Burns said. “The first words out of his mouth were, ‘Don’t think we don’t know what you’re doing.’”

Burns suggested that Putin would remain in power for the foreseeable future and that relations between the U.S. and Russia would remain adversarial. “There’s a reason Russia feels vulnerable and insecure,” he said, and he went on to describe Putin’s efforts to reestablish Russia as a world power. “He has spoken about trying to chip away at an American-led international order, and he justifies political oppression at home by pointing to threats from the U.S. in particular.”

Burns suggested that Putin, even in his wildest dreams, did not expect Trump to win the presidency, but that “Putin’s purpose was to sow chaos in the American political system. It was tactical. It was to reveal hypocrisies in the American system. He thought Hillary Clinton would be elected president, but he would try to weaken her as much as he could.”

Other focal points of Burns’ discussion included China, which he described as an increasingly formidable rising power, “part of a wider phenomenon of movement of the center of gravity from West to East”; North Korea, “the single biggest test for U.S. diplomacy in the coming years,” with the U.S. having limited options in seeking to contain North Korea’s nuclear development; Europe, “facing the toughest set of challenges at any time since the end of the Cold War”; and the Middle East, where “pessimists are hardly ever wrong.”

“Our role is not to solve these problems [in the Middle East],” he said. “But we have a role in trying to temper the worst impulses of that region within the bounds of our resources and our influence.”

Burns warned that if the U.S. drops out of the nuclear agreement with Iran “there will be a big rift between us and our closest European partners. We’ll be doing Putin’s work for him.”

Closing his remarks on a more optimistic note, Burns stated, “I’m a big believer in resilience.” He cited the millions of people raised out of poverty and into the middle class and improvements in human health and life expectancy, and he expressed optimism “that we’ll find a way to maximize the benefits and mitigate the problems of technology.”