Foreign Policy Digital

The Long Rise and Sudden Fall of American Diplomacy

One of Washington's most accomplished diplomats has traced how U.S. foreign policy went astray over decades—and how it can get back on track.

On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, one of America’s most experienced diplomats, William Burns, sat in the deserted U.S. State Department compound, five blocks from the evacuated White House, contemplating the future of American foreign policy. The department’s computer systems were down, so he reverted to writing longhand. Burns, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, composed four pages that he later handed to Secretary of State Colin Powell, outlining ideas for the “imaginative and hard-nosed diplomacy” necessary to drain the Middle East of the terrorism that had now reached the United States. Burns’s advice was prescient; its rejection by the White House, Congress, and much of the American public reveals the debilitating “militarization of diplomacy”—the subject of Burns’s compelling memoir, The Back Channel.

“What was unfolding,” Burns writes, “was less a clash of civilizations than a clash within a civilization, a deeply battered Islamic world in the midst of a desperate ideological struggle. There were limits to what we could do directly to shape that debate. What we could do, however, was to help create a sense of geopolitical order that would deprive extremists

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