THE BACK CHANNEL by William J. Burns
Kirkus Star


A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal
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A former U.S. ambassador to Russia and career Foreign Service officer delivers a resounding defense of American diplomacy and the need for negotiation in a non–zero-sum world.

Diplomacy involves considerable skills that seem little in evidence in the current White House, requiring of its practitioners “smart policy judgment, language skills, and a sure feel for the foreign landscapes in which they serve and the domestic priorities they represent.” There is also the matter of what Burns, now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls “strategic adaptation,” the ability to read the winds and adjust course to accommodate the tack one’s interlocutor is taking. Consider Vladimir Putin, a man who leaves Burns unimpressed. By the author’s account, Putin was none too happy when the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, and part of his program seems to be to get both up and running again. At the same time, for all his wiles, Putin is capable of misreading situations, as he certainly did after 9/11, when the Bush administration proved “indifferent to Putin’s calculus, and generally disinclined to concede or pay much attention to a power in strategic decline.” Some of the most newsworthy elements of this book, in fact, involve how the State Department crafted a response to 9/11, if one that largely went ignored. One might understand how Putin might feel inclined to angle for an American leader who would serve his interests. Enter Donald Trump. If Burns is evenhanded and careful, glad to praise Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Hillary Clinton alike for their successes in service, he clearly reckons Trump to be a disaster for American foreign policy. Still, he persists: Burns believes that “diplomacy is one of our nation’s biggest assets and best-kept secrets. However battered and belittled in the age of Trump, it has never been a more necessary tool of first resort for a new century.”

Excellent reading for students of contemporary geopolitics and recent American history.

Pub Date: March 12th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-525-50886-1
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Random House
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2019


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