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Former U.S. diplomat, ambassador to Russia speaks at Dartmouth

  • This Jan. 21, 2014 file-pool photo shows Deputy Secretary of State William Burns talking in Seoul, South Korea. Obama administration officials say Burns, the second-highest ranking American diplomat intends to retire this fall. The officials said Friday that Burns plans to step down in October, following a 32-year career in the foreign service that included stints as U.S. ambassador to Russia and Jordan, top Middle East hand and leader of a team that held secret talks with Iran. (AP Photo/Kim Hong-Ji, File-Pool) AP file photograph

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 4/25/2019 10:03:45 PM
Modified: 4/25/2019 10:24:50 PM

HANOVER — When William Burns visited the Kremlin in the summer of 2005 to present his credentials as the U.S.’s new ambassador to Russia, he was met by an aggressive Vladimir Putin who was eager to convey a message: The U.S. had taken advantage of Russian weakness, and now Russia was going to push back.

“Putin is a combustible combination of grievance and ambition and insecurity, all wrapped up together,” Burns said of the Russian leader.

Burns discussed his three-plus decades of diplomatic experience at Dartmouth College on Thursday in a conversation with Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding, before an audience of more than 125 people.

While Burns noted the Russian leader’s combustibility, the former U.S. deputy secretary of state said it’s a mistake to be dismissive of the country. Though the Russia may be in decline economically, it remains a major nuclear power that spans 11 time zones.

“Russia matters whether we like it or not,” said Burns, who is now the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Dartmouth’s Class of 1950 helped sponsor the event, and Burns also signed copies of his new book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.

Burns didn’t offer much hope for improved Russian relations in the short term, but he’s not ready to give up on the rest of Russia, which he explored extensively during his time there. The country’s middle class isn’t doing well economically and, after Putin’s reign ends, might be open to U.S. advances.

In the meantime, “it’s really important not to give in to Putin’s aggressiveness,” he said.

Later, Benjamin asked Burns about “The Perfect Storm” memo, in which Burns tried to persuade the George W. Bush administration not to invade Iraq after 9/11. Not all of his fears came to pass, but enough did that the impacts are still reverberating across the region.

“I just thought there was a different way to use that power,” Burns said of the missed opportunity.

Burns contrasted the invasion of Iraq with the first Bush administration’s liberation of Kuwait and their refusal to topple Saddam Hussein. They didn’t want to lose the coalition of nations they’d built up, and they worried about what would happen the day after Hussein was gone.

“At a moment of unchallenged American power, that restraint taught you a lot about smart diplomacy,” Burns said.

Looking ahead, Burns worried about a shrinking diplomatic corps, our ability to deal with technology and environmental crises, and diminished American influence around the world.

President Trump has pulled the U.S. out of international agreements addressing trade, nuclear security and climate change, and Burns said a second Trump term could do irreversible damage to America’s standing in the world — even with close allies.

“It takes a particularly artful kind of diplomacy to piss off the Canadians,” he said with a laugh.

But Burns remains an optimist, noting that the U.S. still has allies and the ability to build diplomatic bridges in a way that rivals Russia and China cannot.

“We still have a really good hand to play,” Burns said.

Matt Golec can be reached at

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