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The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal

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From America's "secret diplomatic weapon" (The Atlantic), comes a memoir of service for five Presidents and ten Secretaries of State, an impassioned argument for renewing diplomacy as the tool of first resort in American statecraft. Ambassador William J. Burns is the most distinguished and admired American diplomat of his generation. Over the course of four decades, he play From America's "secret diplomatic weapon" (The Atlantic), comes a memoir of service for five Presidents and ten Secretaries of State, an impassioned argument for renewing diplomacy as the tool of first resort in American statecraft. Ambassador William J. Burns is the most distinguished and admired American diplomat of his generation. Over the course of four decades, he played a central role in the most consequential diplomatic episodes of his time--from the bloodless end of the Cold War to post-Cold War relations with Putin's Russia, from post-9/11 tumult in the Middle East to the secret nuclear talks with Iran. Upon his retirement, Secretary John Kerry said Burns belonged on "the short list of American diplomatic legends, alongside George Kennan." In The Back Channel, Burns recounts with vivid detail and incisive analysis some of the seminal moments of his career. He draws on a trove of newly declassified cables and memos to give readers a rare, inside look at American diplomacy in action. His dispatches from war-torn Chechnya and Qadhafi's camp in the deserts of Libya and his searing memos warning of the "Perfect Storm" unleashed by the Iraq War will reshape our understanding of history and the policy debates of the future. Burns sketches the contours of effective American leadership in a world that resembles neither the zero-sum Cold War contest of his early years as a diplomat, nor the "unipolar moment" of American primacy that followed. Ultimately, The Back Channel is an eloquent, deeply informed, and timely story of a life spent in service of American interests abroad, as well as a powerful reminder, in a time of great turmoil, of the importance of diplomacy.


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From America's "secret diplomatic weapon" (The Atlantic), comes a memoir of service for five Presidents and ten Secretaries of State, an impassioned argument for renewing diplomacy as the tool of first resort in American statecraft. Ambassador William J. Burns is the most distinguished and admired American diplomat of his generation. Over the course of four decades, he play From America's "secret diplomatic weapon" (The Atlantic), comes a memoir of service for five Presidents and ten Secretaries of State, an impassioned argument for renewing diplomacy as the tool of first resort in American statecraft. Ambassador William J. Burns is the most distinguished and admired American diplomat of his generation. Over the course of four decades, he played a central role in the most consequential diplomatic episodes of his time--from the bloodless end of the Cold War to post-Cold War relations with Putin's Russia, from post-9/11 tumult in the Middle East to the secret nuclear talks with Iran. Upon his retirement, Secretary John Kerry said Burns belonged on "the short list of American diplomatic legends, alongside George Kennan." In The Back Channel, Burns recounts with vivid detail and incisive analysis some of the seminal moments of his career. He draws on a trove of newly declassified cables and memos to give readers a rare, inside look at American diplomacy in action. His dispatches from war-torn Chechnya and Qadhafi's camp in the deserts of Libya and his searing memos warning of the "Perfect Storm" unleashed by the Iraq War will reshape our understanding of history and the policy debates of the future. Burns sketches the contours of effective American leadership in a world that resembles neither the zero-sum Cold War contest of his early years as a diplomat, nor the "unipolar moment" of American primacy that followed. Ultimately, The Back Channel is an eloquent, deeply informed, and timely story of a life spent in service of American interests abroad, as well as a powerful reminder, in a time of great turmoil, of the importance of diplomacy.

30 review for The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    Burns has had a long career as a diplomat. The book covers the period from Regan to the current time. Burns tells about his long career in the State Department. He has held all types of positions from Deputy Secretary of State to Ambassador. He explains about the role of diplomacy and what is happening as we forgo the importance of diplomacy. The book is well written. I found the last chapter the most interesting where he discussed the rebuilding of foreign policy and the State Department. He gav Burns has had a long career as a diplomat. The book covers the period from Regan to the current time. Burns tells about his long career in the State Department. He has held all types of positions from Deputy Secretary of State to Ambassador. He explains about the role of diplomacy and what is happening as we forgo the importance of diplomacy. The book is well written. I found the last chapter the most interesting where he discussed the rebuilding of foreign policy and the State Department. He gave suggestions on how the State Department should be reorganized. I enjoyed his evaluation of the various Secretaries of States he served under. I found the book to be enlightening and upbeat. It is easy to read and understand. I highly recommend the book. I read this as an audiobook downloaded from Audible. The book is seventeen hours and five minutes. Mark Bramhall does a good job narrating the book. Bramhall is an actor and audiobook narrator. He has won the prestigious Audie Award as well as thirty Audiofile Earphone Awards. He is also the Publisher’s Weekly’s “Best Voice of the Year”.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Alissa

    The definitive, clear-eyed, first person accounting of the highs and lows of American foreign policy and diplomacy in recent decades. Written by one of the great negotiators of our time, a rebuke that statesmanship can be reduced to any art of one deal. Reading this book revived great pride within me for my complicated chosen profession. From the last chapter: "The good news is that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the potential of American diplomacy. As I hope the pages of thi The definitive, clear-eyed, first person accounting of the highs and lows of American foreign policy and diplomacy in recent decades. Written by one of the great negotiators of our time, a rebuke that statesmanship can be reduced to any art of one deal. Reading this book revived great pride within me for my complicated chosen profession. From the last chapter: "The good news is that there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the potential of American diplomacy. As I hope the pages of this book have helped to illustrate, it is an honorable profession, filled with good people and strong purpose. Another of Teddy Roosevelt’s well-known sayings was that “life’s greatest good fortune is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” By that standard, my long experience as an American diplomat was incredibly fortunate. While it may sometimes not seem so apparent in the age of Trump, the experience of the next generation of diplomats holds just as much promise. The image and value of public service is scarred and dented right now, but the diplomatic profession has never mattered more, or been more consequential for our interests at home and abroad." Read this book to understand how we as a nation stand in this world now, and who we can be again.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    A wonderful memoir about William J. Bush's time in the State Department, through the Reagan presidency to Obama's. The title doesn't indicate how well written and charming this book is. Burns is an enlightening and engrossing writer, talking about Soviet Union, Russia, Egypt, and Iran among other countries. A great book I highly recommend.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Eric Lin

    On the one hand, the number of people who could have written this book is vanishingly small. On the other hand, there isn't much here that wasn't available to the public if you read between the lines in the news. Putin's dismissal of America's worldview, the Middle East's skepticism about America's ability to successfully handle the Iraq situation during GW Bush's administration, and the realities of the Iran nuclear deal are all given a bit more color, but his descriptions of his personal invol On the one hand, the number of people who could have written this book is vanishingly small. On the other hand, there isn't much here that wasn't available to the public if you read between the lines in the news. Putin's dismissal of America's worldview, the Middle East's skepticism about America's ability to successfully handle the Iraq situation during GW Bush's administration, and the realities of the Iran nuclear deal are all given a bit more color, but his descriptions of his personal involvement usually amounted to lots of descriptions of meetings that took place, with a few fairly safe anecdotes sprinkled in. Biggest surprise from reading this book: finding out how secret talks with Iran led to the Iran nuclear deal. Grown men snuck around New York City to meet in secret, using the UN General Assembly as cover? Wild. Biggest disappointment: his case for why American leadership in diplomacy has a lot of assumptions baked in that I would have loved to hear him justify (why it's ok for the US to essentially meddle in the politics of other countries, why we naively believe that we can keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of all but a handful of countries, despite the vast amount of leverage possessing one of these weapons provides, and why we need to be the 'world police', despite the immense cost of doing so). Near the end of the book, the author provides a list of policy positions that the Trump administration has walked back, such as pulling out of the Paris accords, various trade deals, reneging on the Iran nuclear deal, and changing course on the TPP. His point about why these are hard to sell to the American public is a convincing one - that these are always the product of compromise, which often produce agreements that are somewhat unpalatable to all parties involved. I don't think it's tough for him to sell the narrative that Trump has tanked the stock on American reliability, but the political climate that got Trump elected barely gets discussed. The last two chapters or so are what I wanted out of this book. In these chapters, Burns uses his several decades of diplomatic experience to describe how we got to where we are today. One story - that overreach during Bush 43's terms, paired with an overuse of military force eroded the American public's faith in the diplomatic process is fairly compelling, but I wanted him to spend more time laying this out. As he says, the politics at home, and geopolitics are often intertwined, but throughout his account of dinners with the King of Jordan, or that time Putin's delegation tried to drink the American delegation under the table, we don't hear much about the how things are at home. If you want to read an insider's account of the past 40 years of American diplomacy, this is likely the most detailed, candid, and non-partisan account you will be able to find. But it could have been so much better.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Sherri Holliday-Sklar

    This very readable book gives the reader a good overview of the critical foreign policy events over the past three decades. If you're considering a career in the U.S. foreign service, you can get a sense of the kind of work we do. I enjoyed this book.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Ted Haussman

    Have always had an interest in American foreign policy and diplomacy since the days of a wonderful course I took in college. This wonderful book explains takes you from the Reagan days in the Middle East and bombings of Beirut through the Iran nuclear deal in 2014 which sadly a misguided Trump has withdrawn from. Burns does a yeoman's job comparing and contrasting approaches across administrations, gives you a good feel for major world leaders, and overall takes you under the hood to see the inn Have always had an interest in American foreign policy and diplomacy since the days of a wonderful course I took in college. This wonderful book explains takes you from the Reagan days in the Middle East and bombings of Beirut through the Iran nuclear deal in 2014 which sadly a misguided Trump has withdrawn from. Burns does a yeoman's job comparing and contrasting approaches across administrations, gives you a good feel for major world leaders, and overall takes you under the hood to see the inner workings of key diplomatic milestones at work. He tells his story -- his memoir of diplomacy for 25 or so years -- with candor, explaining where the US got it right and how it also made horrible mistakes. While not quite a benediction, he offers hope for renewed diplomacy in a post-Trump age where it will be sorely needed. Fantastic book!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Kaitlin Oujo

    Anyone with an interest in foreign affairs and U.S. foreign policy should read this account by a senior ranking diplomat who served in many critical government roles.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Burk

    Very disappointing. Repeated apologies for a system that he was a part of for decades. It did not suddenly become dysfunctional only when Trump took over. And he terribly conflates our national interests with American corporate interests.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Robert D

    Will do review after a little more thought. One of the most important that I have read in at least recent history! After ore thought, I must say that this is such a solid example of why we need very wise people that are engaged in our diplomacy. There is little that scares me, but the current administrations almost complete lack of understanding of what it is all about almost guarantees that we will makes errors that lead to war!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Theodore

    I really enjoyed "The Back Channel" . The most positive aspect of the book was the authors authentic voice and passionate belief in the nobility of his chosen profession. While I agree with his editorial comments about the future of diplomacy in the main, the writing in these parts of the book was less engaging when compared with the experiences discussed in the narrative sections. All in all, an excellent read.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Leo

    Burns shares his experience of more than three decades as an American diplomat that touches on a large portion of the biggest foreign policy issues of the day. A great memoir that doesn't get bogged down in the details and reads like serial.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Patrick Powers

    Inspiring and illuminating at times, but I worry that any insight and analysis loses its edge to nostalgia and civility. The even-handed treatment of different officials as individual people is admirable, but it seems like it overshadows any critique of the policy decisions being made. There’s no real or meaningful challenge to the post-9/11 militarization of foreign policy, or at least no real attempt to wrestle with it. The “renewal” in question seems to be more about the accelerated erosion o Inspiring and illuminating at times, but I worry that any insight and analysis loses its edge to nostalgia and civility. The even-handed treatment of different officials as individual people is admirable, but it seems like it overshadows any critique of the policy decisions being made. There’s no real or meaningful challenge to the post-9/11 militarization of foreign policy, or at least no real attempt to wrestle with it. The “renewal” in question seems to be more about the accelerated erosion of diplomacy under Trump than the greater shift away from diplomacy and towards militarization that has taken place throughout the 21st century and has been perpetuated by Liberal leaders across the Western political spectrum. Critiques aside, the book is well-written and as someone interested in foreign policy it’s always inspiring to hear the stories of influential people in that world.

  13. 4 out of 5

    M.J.

    Ambassador Burns had a very interesting career over quite a span in our nation's recent history. I enjoyed reading about his time overseas...especially a funeral he had attended in Jordan that drew in quite a cast of characters then in the same room that would be totally unimaginable today. I also appreciated his insight on the Washington internal policymaking process. I liked his humble attitude and approach. Overall I gave this 3.5 stars because I would have liked to read more about how he bal Ambassador Burns had a very interesting career over quite a span in our nation's recent history. I enjoyed reading about his time overseas...especially a funeral he had attended in Jordan that drew in quite a cast of characters then in the same room that would be totally unimaginable today. I also appreciated his insight on the Washington internal policymaking process. I liked his humble attitude and approach. Overall I gave this 3.5 stars because I would have liked to read more about how he balanced family and his career as well as his wife's own career as a diplomat.

  14. 5 out of 5

    KT

    Kinda dry but a good view into the last 40 years of international diplomacy.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bianca

    The Back Channel is a first person account by William J.Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and career Foreign Service officer, detailing the highs and lows of American foreign policy and diplomacy in recent decades. In short, it provides a strong defense of American diplomacy and the need for negotiation. The stories are fascinating, delving into issues relating to numerous foreign powers, and particularly Russia. Part memoir, part recent history, and perhaps most importantly, a lesson in The Back Channel is a first person account by William J.Burns, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia and career Foreign Service officer, detailing the highs and lows of American foreign policy and diplomacy in recent decades. In short, it provides a strong defense of American diplomacy and the need for negotiation. The stories are fascinating, delving into issues relating to numerous foreign powers, and particularly Russia. Part memoir, part recent history, and perhaps most importantly, a lesson in the nature of diplomacy. A very timely important & informative read. I received this as a Goodreads Giveaway in exchange for an honest review but it took me a few months due to a delay in my actually receiving this book. I'm happy to giveaway to any of my local (Sonoma County CA) Goodreads friends so they too can read & review it!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Kali

    3.5 stars William J Burns' The Back Channel recounts the author's 33 years in the State Department. Moving from a junior Foreign Service Officer to the senior ranks in a few short years is impressive, while being justified with Burns' insight and ability to think critically about a situation. While every author uses a memoir to explain their motivations behind a decision (that is, after all, the sole purpose of a memoir), I found passages that I thought were both surprising, and problematic. Star 3.5 stars William J Burns' The Back Channel recounts the author's 33 years in the State Department. Moving from a junior Foreign Service Officer to the senior ranks in a few short years is impressive, while being justified with Burns' insight and ability to think critically about a situation. While every author uses a memoir to explain their motivations behind a decision (that is, after all, the sole purpose of a memoir), I found passages that I thought were both surprising, and problematic. Starting with the surprising passages (by this I mean, in neither a good nor bad way, merely neutral), relates to a conversation between then-Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and Vladimir Putin. Putin attempts to physically intimidate Rice, with the Secretary not letting Putin get under her skin, simply giving his own behavior right back to him. While I don't agree with everything Rice did in her career, this was a real girl power moment, and a prime example of showing backbone. While reading, I began noticing some important details about then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton; while her actions in some respects are impressive and acknowledged by both the author and myself, I couldn't help noticing in several passages, Burns mentions times when Hilary Clinton was incapable of performing certain parts of her duties (testifying in front of Congress, being in a meeting, etc.) because she'd either fallen and broken a bone, or fallen and suffered a concussion (I myself have had a concussion, so I understand exactly why she wouldn't be able to do her duty in that sense). The reason I paid a bit more attention to this once I noticed it, is because of recent election history. Specifically, when Clinton supposedly fell while getting into a car because she suffered from pneumonia (another nasty illness I've had). At the time this particular event happened, most of the media portrayals of this made it seem like a crisis that would inhibit her from being an effective president. While I certainly don't agree with Clinton in many respects, at the time I sort of rolled my eyes at this, given the fact that not a single male candidate (or any male politician in general) would ever be subjected to this kind of scrutiny, it would simply be stated as a fact to be forgotten a few days later. I still think that was mostly the case at the time, but given that the two falls mentioned by Burns resulted in pretty severe injuries, I can't help but begrudgingly think there was a small degree of truth to that (of course, the context of these two falls wasn't given, probably because the author wasn't privy to them, but it's still relevant). Another problematic passage relating to Clinton had to do with a meeting between herself and Vladimir Putin (Burns was present for the entirety of it). Clinton and Putin meet at his residence, where the Russian leader spontaneously leads Clinton to the basement after she brings up Putin's efforts at environmental conservation. Putin shows Clinton a map used to by himself to track polar bears, then asks Clinton if she and her husband (this last part is important for the reasons behind my problem) if they'd like to join him next summer in tracking polar bears. Clinton politely accepts without accepting, then in the car ride back to wherever they were staying, Clinton turns to Burns and states that she and Bill aren't going to spend their summer tracking polar bears. This whole passage is problematic because, a few years ago, Clinton herself went on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert and shared this same story. However, the version she shared is quite different; Clinton claims that, after showing her this map of polar bear tracking, Putin asked Clinton if her husband would like to help him with tracking (NOT both her and Bill). Clinton claimed she responded by saying something along the lines of "well, Bill's a bit busy, but I'll go." Honestly, I feel like she lied about this part just to please the audience, trying to help her image. It's a pretty stupid thing to lie about, but given Clinton's recent comments in the news, it unfortunately doesn't seem far-fetched that she'd lie about it. Burns details his perspective of the run-up to the first Gulf War, pushing Saddam out of Kuwait. The author, while acknowledging that diplomacy couldn't do anything to persuade Saddam out of taking violent action, Burns also describes American invasion of the Middle East, causing many to flee their homes and become even more unsafe, as a success. Burns even goes so far as to say that diplomacy didn't fail simply because we ended up resulting to military force! Another issue towards the Middle East I had in this book was how the author and State viewed the region. From the way the author describes the events and reasoning behind several actions and policy approaches to the region, the Middle East seems to be viewed by State and the White House as one country, not as several countries, each with their own histories and individual developments. As someone who studies the Middle East (and who knows better than to treat anything/one like a monolith in general) I had a big problem with this. In fact, several of the actions taken by previous administrations (including Obama's) were nearly identical to one another, with Burns even admitting Obama's Middle East policy was the same as Bush 43's. This type of outlook is always frustrating for several reasons; first, we know they'd never truly think of Europe in this sense (maybe with the exception of Eastern Europe, but even then, we haven't invaded that area over and over as we have with the Middle East). Second, treating the Middle East as one country oversimplifies any and all issues, a practice that I argue is a remnant of Orientalism (treating non-white countries/regions as simple, monolithic areas that white people need to step up to protect because all the dumb non-white people can't do it themselves). Third, treating regions and countries in this way dooms everyone to repeat the same actions over and over again across countries (I can't emphasize enough that that's exactly what happened here, and the author essentially admits that!). While I understood Burns' desire to give his own viewpoint of why and how certain actions were taken by himself, other diplomats and politicians (again, the whole point of a memoir is to do exactly that), I found it quite problematic that the author attempts to justify certain military actions by the U.S. overseas (namely the Gulf War, and Afghanistan invasion), at the end of the book, he calls for doing the exact opposite of what he did. While part of this would most definitely be explained simply with hindsight, the author also emphasizes a diplomat needs judgement; the ability to question the status quo; and different perspectives from others, Burns seems to attempt justifying doing the exact opposite. Another problematic pattern/passage I found was when Burns, rightly so, slams any decision to invade Iraq as a huge mistake. However, the problem is not with this statement, rather, it's with Burns' admiration for individuals at the decision-making level to justify the illegal, unnecessary invasion. I found this a bit ridiculous: while the action to use 9/11 as an excuse to invade a country that had nothing to do with it is unacceptable and unjustified, the so-called "masterful" way to excuse the actions is. Another issue pertaining to this is how, even though Burns was against the War in Iraq, he doesn't do the same with wanting to invade Syria, the Gulf War, or most other times the U.S. has stuck their nose into things we have no business being in. As I said before, Burns tends to contradict what he says, as well as not apply analysis as evenly as he ought to (namely, when he states the War in Iraq was a giant mistake, even though he wanted to have military intervention in Syria for the same reasons we went into Iraq). The final chapter in the book also seems to contradict quite a few of the actions Burns himself took, while also making valid critiques of the inner workings of the State Department. Overall, I think the book is a great insight into how diplomacy on the ground and behind the scenes works. If anyone aspires to be a diplomat, and wants a diplomat's perspective on the industry (such as myself), I think this book is a great introduction, so long as the reader is able to maintain a healthy level of critical thinking and skepticism.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jennie

    I very much wanted to read this book but found that it was just not for me. I can usually only read memoirs and bios for people I am very familiar with but I was intrigued enough to give this one a try. This ended up being the case of someone I would definitely go see speak because I very much want to hear what he has to say, I just could not be drawn in by the book itself. I was able to get through the first quarter of the book and there are no issues with the content or the writing it just did I very much wanted to read this book but found that it was just not for me. I can usually only read memoirs and bios for people I am very familiar with but I was intrigued enough to give this one a try. This ended up being the case of someone I would definitely go see speak because I very much want to hear what he has to say, I just could not be drawn in by the book itself. I was able to get through the first quarter of the book and there are no issues with the content or the writing it just did not hold my attention enough to enjoy and get through. If you are a government buff or you love biographies and memoirs please do pick this up.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ann

    The Back Channel is a masterful portrait of how U.S. diplomacy has worked and not worked over the past three decades. The author was a career diplomat from 1982 until his retirement in 2014. He held top positions at the State Department, serving loyally under Democratic and Republican presidents. He had a ringside seat to our changing relationship with Russia as well as our involvement in Middle Eastern wars and coups. The book is more than a memoir of tumultuous events. It is an argument for dip The Back Channel is a masterful portrait of how U.S. diplomacy has worked and not worked over the past three decades. The author was a career diplomat from 1982 until his retirement in 2014. He held top positions at the State Department, serving loyally under Democratic and Republican presidents. He had a ringside seat to our changing relationship with Russia as well as our involvement in Middle Eastern wars and coups. The book is more than a memoir of tumultuous events. It is an argument for diplomacy to be returned to the place it served so well until the militarization of our foreign policy. One of the hardest passages in the book is Burns’ lament that he felt he didn’t do enough to stop the second Iraq war, following the terrorist attacks of 9/ll and the invasion of Afghanistan. He writes: “The Iraq invasion was the original sin. It was born of hubris, as well as failures of imagination and process. For neoconservative proponents, it was the key tool in the disruption of the Middle East—the heady, irresponsible, and historically unmoored notion that shaking things up violently would produce better outcomes.” Instead, unintended consequences, fragilities and dysfunctions resulted. As ambassador to Russia, Burns was an early observer of Vladmir Putin’s growing paranoia that the U.S. was out to undermine his country. Putin threatened retaliation. Burns wrote: “The rich irony of Putin’s threat is not lost on me more than a decade later, after Russia’s brazen interference in the 2016 American election.” Burns believes our over reliance on hard power not only gave our adversaries a new desire to thwart our goals but also led to the disillusionment of the American people with foreign engagement. Ultimately, Burns reminds us, it isn’t our preaching but our example that inspires.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Anthony Nelson

    A must-read for anyone interested in American foreign policy, Burns narrates his thirty years in the state department, mostly focused on the Middle East and Russia at some of the most critical times for those relationships. He outlines the successes and failures of every administration since Reagan with a critical but fair eye, noting the limits of what can be achieved from the state department, and makes some suggestions for what course should be taken next. Very readable for what it is, anyone A must-read for anyone interested in American foreign policy, Burns narrates his thirty years in the state department, mostly focused on the Middle East and Russia at some of the most critical times for those relationships. He outlines the successes and failures of every administration since Reagan with a critical but fair eye, noting the limits of what can be achieved from the state department, and makes some suggestions for what course should be taken next. Very readable for what it is, anyone interested in the inside story of how some of the most critical decision in America's foreign relations were made should pick this up.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Farook

    Burns had an interesting career and experiences, though it seems that he was thoroughly institutionalized by State. At one point, he notes that the military recommends using a disproportionate amount force, in the same way a person with a hammer sees everything as a nail. The same could be said for Burns. While he states up front that he doesn't believe diplomacy is a panacea, he does seem to believe that diplomatic solutions could have been found for nearly every problem that the United States Burns had an interesting career and experiences, though it seems that he was thoroughly institutionalized by State. At one point, he notes that the military recommends using a disproportionate amount force, in the same way a person with a hammer sees everything as a nail. The same could be said for Burns. While he states up front that he doesn't believe diplomacy is a panacea, he does seem to believe that diplomatic solutions could have been found for nearly every problem that the United States has confronted.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Nick

    Burns memoirs provide excellent insight into the importance of diplomacy. I think that Burns could have been more introspective on the failures of policy and diplomacy and the responsibility of diplomats when they disagree with policy choices by elected officials, but this does not take away from his overall narrative.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    I found William Burns discussion on diplomacy insightful. He has been on the cutting edge of so many important diplomatic relations over his career it's astounding. My first criticism of his work is that he waited so long to draw any conclusions that I felt lost in the details. It was in the final moments of the book that he began to string together his thoughts on what had taken place and his interpretation of those events. I would have preferred a more even-handed discussion of matters of stat I found William Burns discussion on diplomacy insightful. He has been on the cutting edge of so many important diplomatic relations over his career it's astounding. My first criticism of his work is that he waited so long to draw any conclusions that I felt lost in the details. It was in the final moments of the book that he began to string together his thoughts on what had taken place and his interpretation of those events. I would have preferred a more even-handed discussion of matters of state and how he felt about them throughout the book. It would have kept my interest and helped me understand the myriad details he related that only a person from the state department could fully comprehend. Second, I understood at the beginning of the book like Burns' central theme was to discredit the Trump administration for their lack of diplomatic acumen. I would like to have had Burns outline his thinking in the beginning, so I could be looking for details throughout the book that would support his conclusion. It would have helped me understand better what he was saying. In the end, it was no surprise that Burns castigates Trump as an inept diplomat. I can neither confirm nor deny what Burns suggests are his reasons for his conclusions, because of my lack of experience with diplomacy. I can only take his word at face value and conclude that William Burns dislikes Trump immensely. That's fair. I would like to have heard a counter response from the Trump administration as to why the president has done what he has done with regards to Iran in particular. It's easy to conclude that Burns is discrediting Trump's efforts because they countered his work he spent a lifetime to build. But his criticism does seem focused on the goals of diplomacy as he knows them and suggests Trump does not seek to reach those goals. Besides these conclusions I cannot comment on the strength of Burns' arguments, except to say he has 40 years of diplomatic experience. That ought to give him some weight. I'm grateful to have read the book. It's opened my eyes to a world I know nothing about. As for my primary goal of finding some kernel of truth, some principle I could apply in my life, I was not disappointed. One of the important realizations from international diplomacy was the change in the American perspective from "we are here to solve problems" to "we are here to help better manage them." American diplomats made the false assumption that with their "superior understanding " they could provide solutions to every problem. Diplomats realized the divide between cultural differences made some problems impossible at present to solve. Instead, they learned they could improve conditions and help manage problems. I think this conclusion is similar to something Phil Knight (Shoe Dog) learned trying to bless lives in foreign countries by opening factories in foreign lands. He felt if he could build manufacturing plants in foreign countries he could infuse their economy with US dollars, thus raising their standard of living. In one country he was told by local government officials he had to stop paying his employees so much money because they, working in a shoe factory, were making more money than a doctor in their society. The official then said in so many words, "You're ruining our economy." This seems like backwards thinking from an outsider. In fact, Knight "took it in the shorts" from locals scrutiny in the States. People accused him of using sweet shop labor to manufacture his shoes. His critics, however, seemed to know little about the economic implications of paying foreign laborers wages expected by Americans. This seems to be an example of cultural blindness and insensitivity by well-meaning but uninformed people. As a parent I find this insight helpful. Obviously, there are problems we need to solve for our children, but more often for the sake of a child's growth we need to learn to better manage their problems then solve them. What I mean by that is, like the authors of Parenting with Love and Logic, we want children to experience the natural consequence of their choices. However, there are times when those natural consequences exceed what is reasonable to allow a child to experience. By managing the situation we can limit the choices our children have, but still allow them to make real life choices that could lead to real life consequences and learn lessons. In this way, we don't solve their problems but we manage them. This thought was very helpful and supportive of a belief I've long held.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Fraser Kinnear

    In the apex of his career, Burns ran the Bureau of Near-Eastern affairs for G.W. Bush, was US Ambassador to Russia under Obama's first term, and then filled out the highest possible position for a career diplomat under Obama's second term, covering policy decisions across the planet. As a result, this memoir hosts fascinating, first hand accounts of: the continuous stream of mistakes and abuses that constituted Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Chechen-Russian conflicts, relations with Putin's Russia In the apex of his career, Burns ran the Bureau of Near-Eastern affairs for G.W. Bush, was US Ambassador to Russia under Obama's first term, and then filled out the highest possible position for a career diplomat under Obama's second term, covering policy decisions across the planet. As a result, this memoir hosts fascinating, first hand accounts of: the continuous stream of mistakes and abuses that constituted Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Chechen-Russian conflicts, relations with Putin's Russia under Bush and Obama, the Arab spring and mistakes of the Syrian civil war, Israel/Palestine, Obama's Iranian Nuclear Treaty, and the evolving relations with various Near- and Middle-East players. I had just finished the fabulous Holbrooke biography, "Our Man", and was constantly comparing the two as I read. There isn't much overlap in scope (Holbrooke is roughly a generation older than Burns), and the writing is wildly different in temperment, reflecting the obvious differences in personality of the books' subjects. In fact, one of the rare mentions in Burns's book of Holbrooke is a great anecdote about Holbrooke: When he arrived in Bosnia to lead peace negotiations during that conflict, Holbrooke announced his arrival with a diplomatic cable entitled "The Ego Has Landed". One valuable lesson I took from the Holbrooke biography - that of the effectiveness trap - was on full display in Burns's memoir. Burns had a position of real authority on Middle East policy during Bush 43, and deeply regrets the Bush Administration's decision to invade Iraq. He's surprisingly candid, for someone who clearly bears some responsibility for what happened: The Iraq invasion was the original sin. It was born of hubris, as well as failures of imagination and process. For Neoconservative proponents, it was the key tool in the disruption of the Middle East, the heady, irresponsible, and historically unmoored notion that shaking things up violently would produce better outcomes. In a region where unintended consequences were rarely uplifting, the topping of Saddam set off a chain reaction of troubles. Soon after that passage, Burns reflects on his own failure to convince GW to change course in the 18 months between 9-11 and the start of our invasion: Why didn't I got to the mat in my opposition, or quit? These are hard decisions, filled with professional, moral, and family considerations. I still find my own answer garbled and unsatisfying, even with the benefit of a decade and a half of hindsight. Part of it was about loyalty to my friends and colleagues, and to Secretary Powell, part of it was the discipline of the foreign service, and the conceit that we could still help avoid even worse policy blunders from within the system than from outside it, part of it was selfish and career-centric, the unease of foregoing a profession that I genuinely loved and had invested 20 years. And part of it, I suppose, was the nagging sense that Saddam was a tyrant who deserved to go, and maybe we could navigate his demise more adeptly than I feared. In the end, I stayed, and my efforts to limit the damage had little effect. Burns obviously has an ax to grind, he's terrified of US foreign policy's steady bend towards force and unilateralism, and the hollowing out of the diplomatic corps recently under Tillerson. He hopes to explain - as Kissinger put it - diplomacy's patient accumulation of partial successes, and why they matter. I don't expect that message to reach a very wide audience - this is still a 500 page memoir - but as a good summary of the warts-and-all decision making process of recent Administrations, I wonder if there's much better.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Wynne

    Wonderfully insightful memoir by career diplomat William Burns, a two-time ambassador (Moscow and Amman), and who served on S/Policy Planning, NSC #Middle East, as Assistant Secretary for NEA, as P, and finally as D (typically a political appointee). Burns won a Marshall, and completed a PhD in international relations focused on middle Eastern politics. He brought an already nuanced worldview, together with a keen language capacity (Arabic and later Russian), to his service at State. Originally Wonderfully insightful memoir by career diplomat William Burns, a two-time ambassador (Moscow and Amman), and who served on S/Policy Planning, NSC #Middle East, as Assistant Secretary for NEA, as P, and finally as D (typically a political appointee). Burns won a Marshall, and completed a PhD in international relations focused on middle Eastern politics. He brought an already nuanced worldview, together with a keen language capacity (Arabic and later Russian), to his service at State. Originally a tandem couple, Burns and his wife were assigned to postings during key inflection points in local or global affairs. Just for example, he served in Jordan just as King Hussein died, was Asst Secretary for NEA Bureau on 9/11, and as D led the Iranian nuclear talks. Burns appreciates that the great successes of diplomacy come through small wins over long periods. He believes diplomacy is served by good long-term planning, keeping open channels (back channels too) with our adversaries as well as friends, but shows that flexibility to win at the short game accounts for turning the tide in dicey affairs. Burns writes from the perspective of the places he served, which is appropriate for a memoir. Until he was close to 30 years in service, he had rotated only between the Middle East, Russia, and Washington. While many Foreign Service Officers do sprinkle in "hardship" posts early in their careers when they cannot choose their first assignments, or later on to be able to "bid" for a better post, there are those, like Burns, who manage to occupy some choice assignments throughout. For Burns this was no doubt a reflection of his intellect, gift for diplomacy, and clear integrity. It does make me wonder, however, whether those who continue to rise to the top of the State Department are those who primarily seek out the most visible postings, rather than the most difficult. Some would say the most visible are often the most difficult. Nonetheless, it's notable that he only mentions Asia as the Undersecretary for Political Affairs (P), a portfolio with global mandate, and Deputy Secretary of State (D), positions he held during the Obama administration's pivot to Asia. He only mentions South America and Africa (my own wheelhouse) in passing, which struck me as indicative that the Global South really does only occupy a sliver of national foreign relations attention at the highest levels, regardless of administration. Burns makes a compelling case for how and why good diplomacy matters, why diplomacy is an acquired skill requiring deep knowledge of cultures, interests, and history especially, and is not suitable for just any dilettante with the right domestic/administration political connections to pursue. Evidence the failure of recent presidential advisors with no prior experience to make any headway in the Middle East. I would hope that those who read this book understand why more resources should be spent on developing a robust foreign service that is well-educated, appropriately staffed, and provided the trust of any administration to work long, hard matters over time that forestall war, build American prosperity, and posture the United States to influence the world with our principles of liberal democracy. Lastly, Burns notes that the FS of his time was really too Yale, pale, and male. I would hope the State Department can take his acknowledgment of that shortcoming to build the diverse workforce which would in reality demonstrate our country's commitment to the founding principle concerning the equality of all people.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Harinder

    This is a fascinating and timely book. William Burns was one of the few career diplomats in US history to rise to becoming Deputy Secretary of State - a position usually held by political appointees. He spent his career largely in the Middle East and in the former Soviet Union, at key times in recent history. He witnessed the fall of the USSR and was a player in the period after this when, for a few short years, US power was at its height. It was relatively unchallenged as a global power. This i This is a fascinating and timely book. William Burns was one of the few career diplomats in US history to rise to becoming Deputy Secretary of State - a position usually held by political appointees. He spent his career largely in the Middle East and in the former Soviet Union, at key times in recent history. He witnessed the fall of the USSR and was a player in the period after this when, for a few short years, US power was at its height. It was relatively unchallenged as a global power. This is a unique vantage point from which he reflects on the relative state of US global power today and the diminished role (and influence) of diplomacy.I've read a great deal on international relations in recent years, but I have yet to read such a good analysis of the role and importance of diplomacy. Through a combination of recounting his personal experience (eg in conducting back channel negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal) and his reflections on the profession of diplomacy, Burns gives us some terrific insights. The final chapter is where he really digs in to analyse the role of diplomacy. He talks about how, post 9/11, the US (and other countries too) had moved to rely more on hard power - the "militarisation of diplomacy" as he names it. What will stay with me, though, is his analysis of what diplomacy is all about and why it is as important as ever now: ...diplomacy is most often about quiet power, the largely invisible work of tending alliances, twisting arms, tempering disputes and making long-term investments in relationships and societies...Its benefits are hard to appreciate. Crises averted are less captivating than military victories...In the new era of disorder before us, however, the quiet power of American diplomacy has never mattered more. Lots of food for thought there. Really worth a read if you are interested in this topic.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Matt Bennett

    I had a hard time rating this book. On the one hand, Burns gets five stars for offering a smart, ethical, deeply patriotic vision of what it means to be an American diplomat. His Zelig-like career put him in the room for some truly incredible events. And he tells the story mostly very well, with enough detail to be insidery, yet not a travel-log or a recitation of 30 years of his daily calendars. I docked him a star, perhaps unfairly, because the whole thing left me just a little cold. Maybe dipl I had a hard time rating this book. On the one hand, Burns gets five stars for offering a smart, ethical, deeply patriotic vision of what it means to be an American diplomat. His Zelig-like career put him in the room for some truly incredible events. And he tells the story mostly very well, with enough detail to be insidery, yet not a travel-log or a recitation of 30 years of his daily calendars. I docked him a star, perhaps unfairly, because the whole thing left me just a little cold. Maybe diplomatic memoirs are inevitably going to do that. There isn't much in the way of plot-movers in the life of a career foreign service officer, even one who spent a LOT of time in the Oval and the Situation Room. I found his account of the secret negotiations with the Iranians that led to the nuclear deal sort of interesting, but only sort of. And in the end, that's pretty much the point of this book. Diplomacy isn't sexy, but it's super important, and now the Trump administration is doing irreparable damage to our ability to conduct foreign policy now and in the future. I care about that deeply, so I should get over my need to have every book on foreign affairs read like Smiley's People. Anyway, do read this book. Burns was a remarkable public servant (he's left government; he's not dead), and his experiences and insights are worthy of your time.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mark

    The Back Channel is a rather wonky and super informative memoir of William Burns's long tenure at the State Department. It gives some excellent insights into how statecraft works, but this is definitely a book for people (like me) who already have an interest in the subject. Burns is clearly a diplomat as he has nice things to say about almost everyone he has worked with, and even when his advice is not taken he is able to sympathetically explain the rationales behind the eventual decisions. The The Back Channel is a rather wonky and super informative memoir of William Burns's long tenure at the State Department. It gives some excellent insights into how statecraft works, but this is definitely a book for people (like me) who already have an interest in the subject. Burns is clearly a diplomat as he has nice things to say about almost everyone he has worked with, and even when his advice is not taken he is able to sympathetically explain the rationales behind the eventual decisions. The one exception is the decision making that led to the Iraq War, where his frustration with Rumsfeld's, Cheney's and others' contempt for state department advice is pretty clear. Highlights of the book include an embassy stint in Yeltsin's Russia, ambassadorshipd in Jordan and Putin's Moscow, and negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal. There's probably a whole second book that could be drawn out of Burns's experiences, but the focus on Russia and the Middle East helps keep the narrative fairly coherent. The final chapter discusses the Trump administration's impact on diplomacy (it's not positive) and the possible futures for American diplomacy. If you've been watching the impeachment hearings and want to know how diplomacy is supposed to work, this book isn't a bad place to start.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Sid Groeneman

    The subtitle is an apt description of Back Channel. Beyond being a personal memoir and an appeal for the urgency of reinvigorating American diplomacy, the book provides an excellent review of the last three and one-half decades of U.S. foreign policy. Burns, who served under four presidents, writes from his direct involvement in the key chapters of recent U.S. diplomacy--the dissolution of the Soviet Union and subsequent rise of Vladimir Putin, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, t The subtitle is an apt description of Back Channel. Beyond being a personal memoir and an appeal for the urgency of reinvigorating American diplomacy, the book provides an excellent review of the last three and one-half decades of U.S. foreign policy. Burns, who served under four presidents, writes from his direct involvement in the key chapters of recent U.S. diplomacy--the dissolution of the Soviet Union and subsequent rise of Vladimir Putin, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, the Benghazi affair in Libya, the nuclear treaty with Iran, the invasion of Iraq that lead to the downfall of Saddam Hussein, and President Obama's pivot toward Asia. As such, it offers a detailed though balanced insider's account of that history. The final chapter describes how the State Department's already degraded influence resulting from the rise of electronic intelligence gathering, growing presidential reliance on the National Security Council, and its own bureaucratic inefficiencies--to say nothing of the country's historic preference for military power over "softer" diplomacy--has been made much worse under Trump's belligerent nationalism and distrust of professional expertise. Back Channel provides multiple compelling examples of how unheralded and often painstaking diplomacy matters in shaping outcomes benefitting the nation and its ideals.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Beth

    This book was worth every single one of its 423 pages. It is not a "gottcha" book, although it name-drops on every page. The author wrote as you would expect a high level diplomat to write, with candor, introspection and discipline. Through this book, we learn again the importance of diplomacy as a first resort and what happens when politicians stop listening to the diplomats who have spent their lives studying, building relationships and understanding challenges in context. The author is also bl This book was worth every single one of its 423 pages. It is not a "gottcha" book, although it name-drops on every page. The author wrote as you would expect a high level diplomat to write, with candor, introspection and discipline. Through this book, we learn again the importance of diplomacy as a first resort and what happens when politicians stop listening to the diplomats who have spent their lives studying, building relationships and understanding challenges in context. The author is also blunt about the limits of diplomacy and why it is important to acknowledge those limits. I have learned, again, how very personal leadership is. Our leaders are people first, with their own personalities, character strengths and flaws, and world views, and that person is at the heart of making decisions that effect all of us around the globe. That fact is why it is so vital for leaders to surround themselves with good people and listen to other's wisdoms when making decisions. Diplomats play, or should play, a large role in that circle. The book ends by recognizing the harm we have done to ourselves recently on the world stage. But it also lays out how we can heal ourselves if we choose. Ultimately, the author says he stills believes in America. I hope his beliefs are sound.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Jack

    This was a fascinating book by long-time State Department diplomat, Bill Burns. Granted, it's written about him, and it's about him, so he comes off pretty awesome in the book. But there's a humility there too. He worked with presidents of both parties and has plenty of complements for many of them. He REALLY loved George HW Bush and Jim Baker, and he seems to have worked well with Obama's team. But he had criticisms for Obama as well. And he really thought the Iraq War was a massive blunder (as This was a fascinating book by long-time State Department diplomat, Bill Burns. Granted, it's written about him, and it's about him, so he comes off pretty awesome in the book. But there's a humility there too. He worked with presidents of both parties and has plenty of complements for many of them. He REALLY loved George HW Bush and Jim Baker, and he seems to have worked well with Obama's team. But he had criticisms for Obama as well. And he really thought the Iraq War was a massive blunder (as history now makes clear it was). Of course, he's no fan of Donald Trump, but left the State Department before Trump became president. Leaders would do well to listen to his careful argument in defense of diplomacy and the fine and complicated art of getting other countries to do what the US wants. It's not easy, and it's often hard to win, but not engaging is a clear route to losing. I think Burns's chapter on the Iran nuclear deal was most interesting because he was there, in the thick of it, and provided insights that got lost in the partisan arguments over it.

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