One glimpses early on in The Back Channel why William Burns ascended so swiftly to the highest rank attainable by career Foreign Service officers in the State Department, why he was destined to earn a hallowed spot alongside Kennan and Kissinger on the “very short list of American diplomatic legends,” as Secretary of State John Kerry declared on the occasion of Burns's retirement in 2014.
It was due to something more than a rare combination of analytic brilliance, political savvy, linguistic gifts, deft personal touch, literary grace, and dry humor. In an engrossing autobiography that exceeds 500 pages, Burns chooses to devote to his formative years — his life before college and before the sparking of his interest in international relations — all of three breezy paragraphs, and then only for the narrow purpose, as he tells us, of discerning where along the line “a few useful diplomatic qualities began to emerge.”
Divulged in those three paragraphs is that Burns was an Army brat; his father was a field-artillery officer in Vietnam who later served in high-level diplomatic posts, including as director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Making twelve cross-country moves and attending three high schools forced the young Burns to learn how to adapt rapidly to new environments and cultures; but the “constant bouncing from post to post” also created in the future ambassador to Jordan and Russia, the future under secretary and deputy secretary of state, “a detachment about people and events, . . . a reluctance . . . to get too close or too invested.” Burns allows that the rootlessness of his Catholic family was “sometimes painful” but otherwise tells us nothing about that pain or his Catholicism or about whether either shaped his craft.
The reader is served notice at the outset: Beyond the exciting, often dizzying story of Burns's public career, the author's psyche and soul shall remain undisclosed, off limits. Though it is absent from the copious advice he offers aspiring diplomats, Burns nonetheless advertises, through omission, his conviction that at the negotiating table, rewards await those skilled at withholding.
In its recollections of service to six presidents and ten secretaries of state — blending private conversations in the Oval Office, the Situation Room, and overseas palaces with excerpts from newly declassified cables, memoranda, and emails — The Back Channel enlightens and enriches, providing a wild ride through the elite precincts of Washington and foreign capitals. It is an essential volume on modern international relations.
Anyone familiar with Burns's buttoned-down public persona, that of the quintessential Foreign Service officer, will be little surprised by his encomia to internationalists (George H. W. Bush, Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, the Clintons, Angela Merkel, Barack Obama) and his disdain for unilateralists (George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith, Donald Trump).