The Back Channel by William J. Burns

The Back Channel by William J Burns.jpg

William Burns spent thirty-three years in the US Foreign Service, retiring as a career ambassador after a stint as Deputy Secretary of State from 2011 to 2014, and as he writes in his important new volume, The Back Channel, he’s seen history being made:

Long before Trump’s election, my diplomatic apprenticeship exposed me to the best - and worst - of American statecraft and its practitioners, from the early rituals of my first overseas tour to a junior role in a Reagan White House recovering from the self-inflicted wound of the Iran-Contra affair. I saw adept American diplomacy under Bush and Baker and marveled at the skill with which they harnessed America’s extraordinary leverage to shape a post-Cold War order. In Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, I learned the limits of American agency when it is arrayed against the powerful forces of history. As ambassador in Jordan, I was reminded that American leadership could make a profound difference, especially to a partner undergoing a precarious and consequential transition.

Right to the end of his long years of service, Burns was deeply involved in pivotal diplomatic events, including most notably the controversial Iran nuclear deal he labored to construct under the leadership of John Kerry and President Obama. And the mention of that deal naturally goes hand-in-hand with the mention of Donald Trump. A diplomat of Burns’ standing would probably have been tempted to write a memoir even under the placid administration of a President Clinton or a President Sanders, but in light of the Trump administration’s “profoundly self-destructive shock and awe campaign against professional diplomacy,” the inclination becomes a duty. The bulk of The Back Channel details the dramatic high points of Burns’ long career, but the clear animating force of the book is the author’s worry that all the behind-the-scenes labors of his friends and colleagues over the years have been summarily invalidated by an idiot in the Oval Office. “American diplomacy is adrift at a moment in history in which it means more than ever to our role as the pivotal power in world affairs,” he writes. “It will take a generation to reverse the underinvestment, overreach, and strategic operational flailing of recent decades, not to mention the active sabotage of recent years under President Trump.”

“Active sabotage” is strong stuff, particularly coming from a former ambassador. More so than any other federal government employees, Foreign Service veterans traditionally have been very careful with language; in tense negotiations, even a single poorly-chosen word can have outsized consequences. The stark nature of the warnings Burns issues about the Trump administration are the alarm-bells ringing in the background of an otherwise calm and personable memoir.

—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is