- The SAIS Review Interviews Nicholas BurnsJune 10, 2020
Would you be able to provide a brief summary of your background as it relates to diplomacy? What made you want to pursue a career in diplomacy?
I was an American diplomat for twenty-seven years and I wouldn’t trade a day of that career for anything. It was an extraordinary experience to serve our country and to live overseas with my family in five different diplomatic posts.
I felt compelled to join the Foreign Service when I was at SAIS, way back in ancient times, between 1978 and 1980. I was 17 when the Vietnam War ended in 1973, and that war had a major impact on me. It got me thinking about America’s role in the world, about our obligation to lead honorably, which we had not done in Vietnam.
I became interested in international politics from my experience living as an exchange student in Europe, both in high school and in college, and I wanted to contribute to a restoration of wise and effective American leadership in the world. And boy, it’s interesting to think about that in this interview! When I think about where we are today, we need another restoration of American decency, American engagement, American leadership. I’m sorry that we’re handing the baton to your generation when the world is in such rough shape, but your [End Page 163] generation will carry us forward. You’ll account for our mistakes. We will return to reason as a country. But it’s interesting; your question makes me come full circle between my days at SAIS and where we are right now. It’s really an extraordinary coincidence.
You have had a long career serving in both Republican and Democratic governments. You started your career in the Reagan administration and worked through both Bush administrations and on the National Security Council for President Clinton. Did you see much change in the perception of the role of diplomacy in foreign policy between parties? Do you think that more recently, diplomacy has become more partisan? How would you characterize US diplomacy in the frame of partisanship?
Well first of all, I actually began my career as an intern during my days at SAIS, in the Carter administration. In my second year, I interned for nine months at the Department of Commerce at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service! Then I went to Mauritania as an intern at the State Department just after I graduated in 1980.
America has never been perfectly bipartisan. But for that generation of congressional leaders and American presidents from Ford to H.W. Bush, there was a consensus in both political parties that American engagement in the world mattered, that it was in our interest, that we had obligations and that we should fulfill them, and that our alliances mattered. I later became, during the George W. Bush administration, ambassador to NATO, and saw up close the importance of our allies, Canada, first and foremost, as well as our European allies, and then our big East Asian allies, Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
That generation understood what President Trump has forgotten, or maybe never learned. The great power differential between the United States and Russia, between the United States and China, is that we have these extraordinary allies, and they have none. President Trump has forsaken our alliances, particularly NATO. He’s tried to diminish our relationships with Canada and Mexico here in North America. Our alliances distinguished American foreign policy for the past 75 years, and Republicans and Democrats agreed, the American people agreed, and the American people still agree! Public opinion polls show that the American people believe that we need to be working [End Page 164] with our allies and working in coalitions on issues like climate change or the pandemic. But during the Trump presidency, we’ve devolved into a unilateralist funk. We are busy withdrawing from most of the critical organizations or issues that should be at the center point in American foreign policy.
My earliest mentors...