Grading candidates for Biden’s foreign policy team: William Burns

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Nov 22 2020

Background: Burns, a career diplomat who has served as ambassador to Russia and as deputy secretary of state, gets particularly high marks for cognitive empathy—understanding the perspectives and motivations of international actors.

For our grading criteria, click here.

Military restraint (B)

Few if any contenders for foreign policy positions in the Biden administration surpass Burns when it comes to appreciating one tenet of progressive realism: military interventions have a way of leading to bad things. In a ten-page memo Burns wrote to Secretary of State Colin Powell, then his boss, during the runup to the Iraq War, he laid out a cornucopia of possible unintended consequences, including some that became all too real. (Like: Iran feels threatened and acts accordingly.) 

Even highly surgical uses of violence, Burns recognizes, can have blowback. Last year he wrote that, during the Obama administration, as “drone strikes and special operations grew exponentially,” they were “often highly successful in narrow military terms” but at the cost of “complicating political relationships and inadvertently causing civilian casualties and fueling terrorist recruitment.”

So it’s not surprising that Burns has often pushed for non-military solutions to foreign policy problems. Still, he has supported dubious interventions—such as America’s joining allies in arming Syrian rebels, a policy hatched while Burns was deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration. 

In retrospect, it’s not shocking that this policy only succeeded in amplifying the killing and chaos, given the conflicting agendas of our allies and the divergent aims of the various rebel groups—not to mention the aforementioned inherent unpredictability of military action. Yet, even with years of hindsight, Burns confined his criticism of this proxy intervention to matters of timing and execution. In his 2019 book The Back Channel, he said we should have given more aid to the rebels earlier. But Burns does, at least, get credit for considering Obama’s public demand for regime change (“Assad must go”) unwise, and for having initially hoped for more open-ended negotiations than that demand permitted. 

Cognitive empathy (A) 

Burns is adept at seeing the perspectives of international actors, as demonstrated in particular by his views on Russia. He has a history of dealing effectively with the country, and he takes Moscow’s interests seriously. Unlike many in the foreign policy establishment, Burns doubts the wisdom of NATO expansion—including its early phases but especially its later ones. When the US “pushed open the door for formal NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia,” he has said, “I think that fed Putin’s narrative that the United States was out to keep Russia down, to undermine Russia and what he saw to be its entitlement, its sphere of influence.” 

Burns believes that, though Putin clearly sees the US as an adversary, he doesn’t see the US-Russia relationship in purely zero-sum terms; Putin is capable of seeing “those few areas where we might be able to work together. He is capable of juggling apparent contradictions.” 

Burns is very aware—as many US officials over the years have not been—that hectoring foreign countries about how they should behave can be counterproductive. “I’ve always felt we get a lot further in the world with the power of our example than we do with the power of our preaching,” he said in a New Yorker interview. “Americans can sometimes... be awfully patronizing overseas.”  

Respect for international law (B)

Burns is generally a strong advocate of international law. And in the course of his career he has often had occasion to invoke it—as when, in 2014, he said disputes over islands in the South China Sea should be resolved via adjudicatory mechanisms outlined in the Law of the Sea Convention. (Had he not been speaking for the US government, he might have added that, regrettably, America itself has not ratified that  convention.) 

Unfortunately, Burns seems to have adopted the habit, widespread in the foreign policy establishment, of being more fastidious in applying international law to adversaries than to the US. In The Back Channel he offers some practical criticisms of America’s 2011 intervention in Libya, but he doesn’t note that when the mission shifted from defending imperiled civilian populations to overthrowing the regime, it arguably violated the letter of the authorizing UN resolution and certainly violated its spirit. Similarly, his discussion in that book of Obama’s arming of Syrian rebels evinces no concern about the fact that this intervention, according to common legal reckoning, violated the UN Charter.

Support for international governance (A)

Burns certainly supports international governance of a progressive sort—agreements and institutions that address climate change and arms control, for example, and the inclusion of labor and environmental provisions in trade agreements. And he has been deeply involved in multilateral problem solving, such as the Iran nuclear deal. 

But what sets Burns apart from your typical progressive supporter of international governance is his understanding of the need to expand it beyond these traditional areas. He recognizes, for example, that if work in artificial intelligence and genetic engineering proceeds without restraint in a context of intense international competition, bad things could happen. So he wants to “create workable international rules of the road” in these areas, and he wants the US State Department to “take the lead—just as it did during the nuclear age—building legal and normative frameworks.”

Universal engagement (A-)

As a quintessential diplomat, Burns believes that the U.S. should be open to relations with any country willing to talk. He is especially emphatic about the importance of maintaining diplomatic and economic engagement with China; he criticizes those who “assume too much about the feasibility of decoupling and containment—and about the inevitability of confrontation. Our tendency, as it was during the height of the Cold War, is to overhype the threat, over-prove our hawkish bona fides, over-militarize our approach, and reduce the political and diplomatic space required to manage great-power competition.” And Burns recognizes one of the biggest payoffs of engagement with China: to “preserve space for cooperation on global challenges.”  

Burns eschews a Cold War not just with China but with authoritarian states more broadly. He is refreshingly skeptical of proposals—fashionable in neoconservative and some liberal circles—to form a “league” or “concert” of democracies that would fight “techno-authoritarianism.”  

Burns doesn’t seem to have expressed the degree of skepticism about America’s promiscuous use of economic sanctions that a progressive realist might like. But he gets points for at least recognizing the inconsistency of their application. “We focus our criticism on Maduro, in Venezuela, who richly deserves it, and then pull punches with Mohammed bin Salman, in Saudi Arabia,” he said in a New Yorker interview.

Burns also recognizes that the foreign policy establishment’s obsession with Iran is, well, obsessive. Tehran has “an outsized hold on our imagination,” he says. Yes, he believes, Iran poses threats to American friends and interests, but those threats are manageable, in part because, contrary to a common American view, Iran is “not 10 feet tall.”


(1) After leaving the government, Burns became president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That’s a highly and rightly respected position. But it should be noted—since any good progressive realist wants to root out the influence of the military industrial complex—that Carnegie has taken money from Northrup Grumman (as well as from such foreign countries as Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates and from NATO). 

(2) Burns deserves credit for seeing that the foreign policy establishment, confronted by Trump’s jarringly disruptive policies, is in danger of mindlessly retreating to pre-Trump policies that in fact need sharp revision. Recounting (and embracing) the bipartisan opposition to Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of military support for Kurds in Syria, he adds, “If all this episode engenders, however, is a bipartisan dip in the warm waters of self-righteous criticism, it will be a tragedy… We have to come to grips with the deeper and more consequential betrayal of common sense—the notion that the only antidote to Trump’s fumbling attempts to disentangle the United States from the region is a retreat to the magical thinking that has animated so much of America’s moment in the Middle East since the end of the Cold War.” This magical thinking, he continues, involves “the persistent tendency to assume too much about our influence and too little about the obstacles in our path and the agency of other actors.” 

Overall grade: A-

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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