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Former Deputy Secretary Of State Bill Burns On What He Calls An Assault On Diplomacy


So as Turkey, Russia and Syria rush to fill the vacuum left by the U.S., where does that leave the U.S. role? Our next conversation is with a former U.S. diplomat who's sounding the alarm about the way America is projecting power or not in the Middle East and beyond.

Bill Burns served as deputy secretary of state. Before that, he was U.S. ambassador to Moscow. Over his career, Burns served five presidents from both parties, and he writes in a blistering new essay in Foreign Affairs that he has, quote, "never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging to both the State Department as an institution and our international influence as the one now underway." He says we are now in a more dangerous moment than even a few months ago.

BILL BURNS: There are tangible measures for that, as well as intangible ones. The tangible ones, if you look at the State Department and diplomacy, are pretty straightforward. It's not just, you know, the efforts of the White House to severely cut the budget for diplomacy and development, a combined budget which is now 19 times less than the budget for the Pentagon, but I think even more damaging than that is the sidelining of career expertise. There are 28 so-called assistant secretary of state positions in the State Department. Those are the senior jobs around which American diplomacy organizes itself. Of those 28 positions, only one today is held by a career officer confirmed by the U.S. Senate. So those are the tangible measures.

The intangible ones, I think, are no less serious. It's the president's own contempt for expertise. You know, when he was asked a little more than a year ago whether he was concerned about the number of senior vacancies in the State Department, he said, not really because I'm the only one who matters. That, in my view at least, is diplomacy as an exercise in narcissism, not the diplomacy that I learned many years ago as a young diplomat working for presidents like George H.W. Bush or secretaries of state like James Baker.

KELLY: I need to note here you were among the more than 300 former officials who signed a letter at the end of September calling the president's actions concerning Ukraine a profound national security concern and supporting the impeachment inquiry. You've been on the record doing that. Situate what is happening with the impeachment inquiry and specifically, since we're speaking about diplomats, the treatment of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was until recently the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

BURNS: Well, Ambassador Yovanovitch, with whom I've worked in the past, is a first-rate public servant - decent, full of integrity, an extraordinarily capable professional and apolitical. You know, I think her contemptible mistreatment, as I wrote in the essay that you mentioned, is a really bad reflection of what's happening to professional American diplomacy today.

KELLY: And how so? What makes you describe it as contemptible mistreatment?

BURNS: She was doing her job. She was pushing hard against corruption, which is a huge problem in Ukraine, has been for some years. But I think she was seen by people like the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others who were trying to use the leverage of the presidency to persuade the Ukrainians to pursue the personal political goals of the president. And that's not only wrong morally, but I think it's a huge mistake because it exposes Ukraine even more to the problem of corruption, to the problem of aggressiveness from Putin's Russia. And in a sense, it does Putin's work for him.

KELLY: Take everything we've been talking about and apply it to the other huge story unfolding right now. Is there any upside from the U.S. perspective to what is happening in Syria?

BURNS: No. I mean, I think the beneficiaries here - the parties that have gained are a pretty difficult foursome. I mean, it's ISIS, and then you have three other beneficiaries. It's the Assad regime, which is moving its forces into that part of Syria. You have Putin's Russia, which, you know, has reinserted itself as that kind of diplomatic center of attention in the Middle East. And then you have the Iranians as well. So it's hard to see an upside in any of that.

KELLY: Well, that connects us back to where we began and the case you are making for the value of U.S. diplomacy, U.S. engagement. How do you make that case to a commander in chief who openly questions the value of U.S. leadership in the world? He was tweeting over the weekend, among other things, whoever wants to protect the Kurds is good with him, whether it's Russia, whether it's China, whether it's Napoleon Bonaparte. He said, we're 7,000 miles away.

BURNS: In my experience, what animates American foreign policy at our best has been a sense of enlightened self-interest - in other words, the view that our self-interest as a country, which we always are going to put first, is best served by making common cause. I think what President Trump has done is turned that on its head, so enlightened self-interest is a lot more about the self part than the enlightened part.

And I think that at a moment on the international landscape when we're no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block, diplomacy matters more than ever in the sense of investing in alliances, mobilizing coalitions of countries. That's what sets us apart from lonelier powers like China or Russia, and what I worry about is that we're squandering that asset today and we're also corroding the main tool that we should be employing to take advantage of that asset, which is smart diplomacy.

KELLY: That's Bill Burns. He's president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as U.S. deputy secretary of state. Ambassador Burns, thanks for your time.

BURNS: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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