Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns speaking at New America Foundation/American Strategy Program Salon Dinner, 2 July 2007 (photo credit: Samuel Sherraden)
R. Nicholas “Nick” Burns is a stunningly effective diplomat. There is Dean Acheson DNA in the kind of work he does — but also a little John Foster Dulles. He is part Kennan and Scowcroft and also has the moral integrity of a Cyrus Vance. Henry Kissinger and Paul Nitze would be comfortable with Burns’ methods of achieving the country’s national security objectives. He is both realist and idealist, a hybrid — and he is one of the few who may have saved this country from another self-destructive war in the Middle East.
I happened to be on the US Airways shuttle flying back from New York to DC a while back — and Nick Burns was on the plane. He had literally just finished the negotiations with the UN Permanent-5 on what the requirements would be for a third round of toughened economic sanctions against Iran. He had succeeded in securing an agreement on an Iran track with China and Russia — but at a substantial price. They insisted that the IAEA and European efforts then underway, and seeming to have new vigor, with Iran play out before a new sanctions drafting effort. Beneath his affable facade, I could see he was exhausted. But what he fixed with a P-5 was a win for him — and he intimated to me — that this “gives us more time.”
I am not exactly sure what he meant about wanting “more time” — but my best hunch is that what Nick Burns meant is that it gave Condi Rice, John Negroponte, Mike McConnell, Bob Gates, Mike Hayden and him more time to maneuver the environment around Iran to compel it to suspend enrichment and negotiate in good faith — before Cheney’s wing of the national security establishment succeeded in convincing Bush to launch a strike.
I had just written a somewhat high profile Salon article outlining why Bush would not strike Iran, and I told Burns my throw away line in the piece was that Ahmadinejad was Iran’s Dick Cheney. Nick Burns stiffened up — and in a friendly way — admonished me for saying such a think. He said “Cheney is no Ahmadinejad. No. No way.”
Burns is respectful and serious — and he was right on Cheney, and I was a bit too full of myself. But this is a small peek into the world in which Burns worked. Vice President Cheney’s team did all it could to undermine Secretary of State Rice and her effective globe-trotting Under Secretary for Political Affairs in the diplomatic efforts to prevent yet another war from breaking out in the Middle East, while simultaneously addressing Chinese and Russian ambitions in the world, trying to maneuver North Korea into a more collaborative place, trying to strike a historic new partnership with India, dealing with tensions inside NATO regarding Afghanistan deployments and objectives, and helping out in the effort to move Israeli-Palestinian peace forward.
On nearly all of these subjects, except perhaps Afghanistan, Nick Burns and Co. have been on one side of constructive efforts to stabilize global affairs and push forward positive “American global engagement” — and Cheney’s acolytes have been on another.
John Bolton — who is actively marketing a revived recipe of Jesse Helms-concocted pugnacious nationalism and contempt for international engagement — sought to undermine Burns and the internationalists at every turn during Bolton’s tenure at the UN.
For two years, Nick Burns was the anti-John Bolton to Bolton’s Bolton.
Bolton lost Condoleezza Rice’s confidence — and she stopped using him for any of the serious and delicate negotiations with Russia and China at the UN. Burns successfully for the most part blunted the worst damage that Bolton was doing to not only America’s prestige but to its interests and objectives in the international organization.
As one person close to Burns and who knows Bolton well told me this morning, “Nick Burns wanted to achieve some degree of UN Reform, wanted a Human Rights Council that would be worthy of the name, wanted the UN to operate more effectively towards the goals that the major powers had outlined and committed themselves to. But John Bolton sought to undermine the United Nations and its legitimacy and worked ‘over-time’ to make sure that the Human Rights Council effort failed.”
Bolton did do real damage at the UN — but for the most part, R. Nicholas Burns contained the worst damage — and in the end it was Bolton who never got a vote supporting his nomination in the Senate and it was Bolton who had to leave government only to fire away then at the President he served, the Secretary of State to whom he reported, and to others like Nick Burns who far outclassed, outperformed, and outflanked Bolton on any measure of diplomatic effectiveness.
Bolton’s gruffness and irritability — his manhandling of young analysts — his brinksmanship against rivals in government would all be assets in my book if he achieved results. On the whole, Bolton didn’t — although dispassionate observers give Bolton credit or blocking the “Zionism is Racism” resolution at the UN and for at least not getting in the way (though he took far too much credit) for the Proliferation Security Initiative — something his successor at the State Department International Security and Arms Control perch Robert Joseph probably deserves the lion’s share of credit for.
R. Nicholas Burns is reportedly leaving his position because he has three daughters about to begin college, all of whom requiring private tuition payments, and he simply needs to shore up his family’s financial position which he can’t do in his current spot.
Burns was previously Ambassador to Greece and to NATO, served as State Department Spokesman, was on the National Security Council staff of both Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and was picked by Condoleezza Rice to help manage an extraordinarily complex set of diplomatic challenges in Northeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Burns legacy — and perhaps a legacy shared with Rice, John Bellinger, John Negroponte, and other of his colleagues at the State Department — is that he prevented John Bolton from resurrecting Jesse Helmsian disdain for the world as the defining feature of the Bush administration and showed that shrewd diplomacy — carrots and sticks and rationality — could achieve results with North Korea, India, and hopefully Iran.
Nick Burns gave a talk recently at a New America Foundation salon dinner and emphasized that America needed to be an effective global power and needed to lead persuasively in addressing challenges that faced not just the US but many other nations around the world. Burns constantly pushed principled American engagement in global affairs as the key dominant feature of US foreign policy; he rejected unilateralism — and he spoke out strongly against any in the administration who flirted with unilateralism as strength. Burns correctly pointed out that unilateralism — particularly when there were better choices and partners — was a sign of weakness.
A quick tally showed that despite the Bush administration’s stewardship of a national security portfolio that has eroded dramatically — Burns has helped achieve far closer relationship with European allies than was the case three years ago. Some close to Burns tell me that the Europeans are going to stick with the U.S. on Iran — and that Burns is actually working right now in drafting the third round of economic sanctions to impose on Iran for failing to suspend nuclear enrichment.
Most think that the once-thought dead US-India nuclear deal will now survive and be ratified in both countries. The deal, according to its supporters, will help regional democracy promotion, help foster regional peace in South Asia, establish a new partnership to help stabilize Afghanistan, and will forge a new, vital strategic partnership between the United States and one of the world’s most important emerging powers, India.
Burns will continue to serve in his current role until March and will remain with the Department through the end of May to help oversee the successful ratification of the US-India Nuclear Deal by both countries.
Also Burns will get credit for American recognition of Kosovo which will happen virtually any day now. To some degree, Burns and Rice have outflanked Russia by taking the Kosovo independence effort out of the UN and not allowing the Russians a veto. Kosovo, in the next few days or weeks, will declare independence and be recognized by the United States. What remains to be seen is whether Russian anger about these Balkan developments will drive Putin to thwart American interests in other areas. Dimitri Simes and Anatol Lieven have written persuasively about Russia’s next moves, and this should be considered when calculating wins and potential losses.
I am on the Advisory Board of the Clarke Forum at Dickinson College — and recently Nick Burns gave a commencement address at Dickinson. In his speech, he said that America cannot afford to be isolationist and can’t be unilateralist. He said America needed to resist these temptations that been part of America’s political culture for more than 230 years. He said that America is great when it is engaged globally, and when it pays attention to alliances and to its friends.
Here is a clip from R. Nicholas Burns’ important address or (watch it here):
In a globalized and interdependent world, Americans have been given the baton of leadership. We need to maximize the promise of the positive forces at work in the world and minimize the dark side.
And, to be an effective global leader, we also need to reject the twin illusions of isolationism and unilateralism.
For much of our national history, we have swung wildly between periods of isolation from the world and intense bursts of engagement in it. Well, those days are over. If 9/11 taught us anything, it is that America can never again isolate itself from the great challenges of the day or avoid the mantle of leadership. We Americans now know that we cannot live apart from the world or turn away from its challenges or pull the covers over our heads on stormy mornings.
But, we also need to reject isolationism’s twin evil — unilateralism. There are some in our county who still believe that we can go it alone in the world. I fear that theirs is a one-way road to failure for our foreign policy. We should not want to be the lone global cop. Our soldiers should not do all the fighting. Our taxpayers should not foot the entire bill for the world’s troubles. We should not and cannot go it alone in the world.
Instead of turning away from the world as the isolationists want to do or go it alone as unilateralists wish, we need to commit ourselves, as our government is doing, to a stronger and wiser policy of rebuilding the united nations, nato and other international organizations to help America succeed in the world.
The United States must also demonstrate a concern for all the world’s problems. If we communicate to the rest of the world that we don’t really care about its problems, then it won’t believe in our leadership. Simply put, our global gameplan can’t just be about us — it has to be about the rest of the world too.
That means that those of us who live lives of wealth and luxury relative to the rest of the world — and that is nearly all of us here today — must identify with those less fortunate and build bridges to them.
We can’t be satisfied with the status quo when 700 million Indians live at poverty levels, or millions languish in despair in the slums of Brazil and Haiti. Or when the health care we enjoy here in America is non-existent in most of the rest of the world.
If your generation of Americans is to provide global leadership that is convincing to the rest of the world, then we need to speak out forcefully for the most deeply felt human dreams — to end poverty and injustice and end war. We need to see over the horizon to reach for these goals.
I couldn’t agree more with him. Burns will leave a void in America’s diplomatic team at a fragile time.
Some tell me that Burns and his collaborators successfully fought against the unilateralists in the administration who wanted to strike Iran. While things are in balance now — and not likely to change with Burns’ departure — the shrewd calculation is that while there is not likely to be military action against Iran, there is not likely to be any breakthrough as well.
US Ambasador to Russia William Burns — former Assistant Secretary for the Middle East — is probably the best single choice to fill Nick Burns’s shoes — and no, they are not related.
Burns was allegedly involved in secret efforts to get Syria on a Libya-like track out of the international dog house, something that would have been a huge achievement but which may have been undermined by not only some recalcitrant Syrian players — but John Bolton. He’s a realist in Middle East issues and doesn’t believe in false choices between our alliances and interests with Israel and Arab states. He has also seen how Russia is flexing its strength and new oil wealth and “attitude” in global affairs.
And perhaps most importantly, Bill Burns is disliked by John Bolton just about as intensely as Bolton feels about Nick Burns. And that’s a major plus for the new nominee for Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs in my book.
Best of luck to Nick Burns who we all owe a great deal to for doing as much as he did to get this country off of the precipice of a truly serious foreign policy debacle. We still aren’t out of the woods — but we are far from the very worst of situations due to Nick Burns’ diplomatic fortitude and vision.
— Steve Clemons