In The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal, William Joseph Burns writes about his life and times in the hope that his reflections—and regrets—will be helpful to the next generation of diplomats. Diplomacy “is by nature an unheroic, quiet endeavor,” as the author puts it, “less swaggering than unrelenting, often unfolding in back channels out of sight and out of mind.” (10) As he was taught early in his career, diplomacy is about managing problems, not solving them.
With the Trump administration debating whether to certify that Iran is complying with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), colloquially known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, this Roundtable on the tortuous path to its conclusion is timely. Our reviewers bring special expertise to the task. Robert Gallucci was the lead negotiator for the 1994 Agreed Framework that sought to end the North Korean nuclear weapons program and is a longtime student and practitioner of nonproliferation policy; Richard Nephew served in both the Bush and the Obama administrations, working on sanctions policies, and is cited in Parsi’s book; Gary Sick was on the Carter National Security Council staff and has continued to study Iran ever since; Mike Singh worked on Iran policy in the Bush administration. From their biographies, one can guess that they will not agree in their evaluations of Parsi’s history of the negotiations with Iran.
With a nihilistic wild man in the White House, it is time for America’s diplomats to embrace their historic rebelliousness.
Donald Trump has only been president for a few months, but he has already done more to debase United States foreign policy than any chief executive in memory. He has gutted the State Department, purging its senior leadership and vowing to slash its budget by over one-third. He has scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, condemned the North American Free Trade Agreement, called the North Atlantic Treaty Organization ‘obsolete,’ and threatened to defund the United Nations. He has harangued or otherwise insulted U.S. allies like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while cozying up to dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. He has flip-flopped on such crucial matters as the ‘one China policy’ and the ‘two-state formula’ for Israeli-Palestinian peace. He has ratcheted up tensions with North Korea, approved an ill-thought-out mission to Yemen, and launched massive but ultimately meaningless assaults in Afghanistan and Syria. Worst of all, he has issued two executive orders banning refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, a move that has gravely damaged America’s image abroad and inflamed anti-American sentiment across wide swaths of the globe. When almost one thousand U.S. diplomats signed a “dissent memo” protesting the travel ban, White House spokesman Sean Spicer responded with an ultimatum redolent of his boss’s petulance, intolerance, and authoritarianism: “Either get with the program or get out.”
In 1993, the Czechoslovakian poet-and-playwright-turned-president Václav Havel declared that “the fate of the so-called West is today being decided in the so-called East.” Havel warned that “if the West does not find the key to us…or to those somewhere far away who have extricated themselves from communist domination, it will ultimately lose the key to itself. If, for instance, it looks on passively at “Eastern” or Balkan nationalism, it will give the green light to its own potentially destructive nationalisms, which it was able to deal with so magnanimously in the era of the communist threat.”