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A 'Weak State' Threatens Democracy, William Burns Writes In 'The Atlantic'


When U.S. diplomats and other officials testified during an impeachment inquiry, people saw different things. Supporters and critics of the president, for example, offered their own interpretations. What William Burns saw was courage.

WILLIAM BURNS: Here were disciplined professionals who were fulfilling their oath to the Constitution. They were speaking the truth when they were asked to by the Congress, however inconvenient it may be for an administration, at however much risk to themselves or to their own careers.

INSKEEP: William Burns was, for many years, one of the top U.S. diplomats whose many posts around the world included a stint as ambassador to Russia. Now Burns is out of the diplomatic service, running a Washington think tank. The impeachment story gets Burns thinking of how the United States is showing its face to the world. In The Atlantic, he argues that the president is degrading diplomats the U.S. needs to face complicated problems around the world, from Ukraine to Russia to China.

BURNS: I think what we've seen over the last three years is an acceleration of a longer-term trend in which we're hollowing out the institution of diplomacy. What we've seen is a kind of bureaucratic arson, where you're sidelining career expertise. Not surprisingly, we've had the lowest number of young people applying to join the foreign service in 2019 than at any time in more than two decades. So we need smart, effective diplomacy more than ever. And yet at this point, we're really hollowing it out. And you see that as a pattern. I mean, some of the - you know, the most recent incidents involving the U.S. Navy as well.

INSKEEP: We should mention, when you refer to the Navy, you're talking about a Navy SEAL who was accused of war crimes and convicted of one of them and was supposed to face discipline. And the president said, that's not going to happen, and ultimately, the secretary of the Navy had to resign for disagreeing with the president.

BURNS: That's right.

INSKEEP: And this fits in with the pattern you see with diplomats?

BURNS: It's a pattern of not sabotage from within; it's sabotage from above. Essentially, it's narcissism that's driving policy. It's the vanity of an easily manipulated president. When you accuse people of disloyalty, deeply unfairly in an institution like the State Department, in a way that I don't think we've seen since the McCarthy era, you know, more than 60 years ago, I think you create real problems for the United States.

INSKEEP: How does the dismissal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine, one of the impeachment witnesses, fit the pattern you just described?

BURNS: Ambassador Yovanovitch rightly was pushing against corruption across Ukrainian society, not trying to focus it on that one domestic political issue as well. And I think that, at its core, was the reason that she was quite unfairly removed from her position.

INSKEEP: And we should note that she was removed after a campaign alleging that she was against the president. There appears to be no evidence for that.

BURNS: None at all.

INSKEEP: But Republicans have pushed back and said, listen - the president got rid of Ambassador Yovanovitch but replaced her with William Taylor, another highly qualified professional U.S. diplomat. What's the harm in that?

BURNS: Well, Bill Taylor is also a very accomplished professional as well. I think the harm is that he raised similar kinds of concerns based on what he saw once he got to Kyiv, and you had an abdication of leadership in the State Department. No one stood up for him, just as no one stood up for Ambassador Yovanovitch before him.

INSKEEP: So if a current U.S. diplomat were to come to you, which seems quite plausible, and say, listen - ambassador, I've admired you for years, and I agree with you on these points, and I'm still inside the government; should I stay in and try to make a difference where I can or get out of here? What would you tell that diplomat?

BURNS: I urge people to try to stay in and do the best they can. I urge them to be honest about their concerns because any institution that beats that sense of honesty out of career people is going to become a more and more hollow institution. It's an honorable profession. It's more important than ever to American interests in the world. And I urge young people to consider a career in the foreign service.

INSKEEP: I think there may be some people who would belittle the diplomats we've been hearing from the left. They're critics of President Trump, and they can't believe that anybody would be in there trying to clean up the president's foreign policy, which is what these diplomats appear to have been doing.

BURNS: Yeah, but that's part of the discipline of public service, of career diplomatic service as well, is you do your best to implement policies and choices that are made by an elected leadership. But you have an equally important obligation, it seems to me, to be honest about your concerns within the discipline of that system. And that's - in any era, but particularly in this one, that's what's really important.

INSKEEP: Is the president in a stronger position to do what he wants now than he was three years ago, do you think?

BURNS: I think in one sense, he's surrounded himself largely, I think, with people who are going to do his bidding, who aren't going to question the wisdom of some of the choices that he's making in the way that I think former Secretary of Defense Mattis did. But, you know, at the same time, I think you look at the realities of what's happening on the international landscape, and in some ways, that's limiting on our options over time because what's happening is we're digging a pretty deep hole for ourselves at a time when other players on the international landscape, they're not going to sit still and wait for us to get our act together.

So we will eventually stop digging, and we'll climb up to the top of that hole. But my fear is we're going to look out on a landscape that's hardened against our interests in a lot of important ways.

INSKEEP: Are you saying that the president is in some ways disarming the United States, even disarming himself, by getting rid of diplomatic weapons that were available to him a couple of years?

BURNS: I absolutely believe that. And I think what's especially disappointing about this - that it comes on a moment on the international landscape when actually that tool of diplomacy matters more than ever. You know, there was a time right after the end of the Cold War where we were the singular dominant player in the world. And so, you know, for a lot of people, it didn't seem that diplomacy mattered so much because we could get our own way on lots of different issues because of our sheer geopolitical weight.

We still have a better hand to play than any of our major rivals, but diplomacy becomes an increasingly important tool. And when we, in a sense, corrode that tool, we're putting ourselves at a real disadvantage, as you look out over the next five or 10 years.

INSKEEP: It's funny - if you think about China and the United States, there may come a time, sooner than we think, when China has a larger economy than the United States does. But if it was the United States plus Europe plus Japan...

BURNS: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Plus other allies, China never catches up to that.

BURNS: Yeah. And I think the reality is, President Trump is right to push back against predatory Chinese trade practices. But that's where diplomacy matters. It matters in investing in alliances and mobilizing coalitions of countries. That's what sets us apart today from lonelier powers like China and Russia. But that's going to be a wasting asset unless we invest in it, appreciate its significance and take advantage of it.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Burns, always a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

BURNS: Thanks so much.

INSKEEP: William Burns was a longtime U.S. diplomat, is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is author of a memoir on diplomacy called "The Back Channel."