The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal

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Random House Publishing Group, 2019 - Biography & Autobiography - 512 pages
From America's "secret diplomatic weapon" (The Atlantic)--a man who served five presidents and ten secretaries of state--comes an impassioned argument for the enduring value of diplomacy in an increasingly volatile world.

Over the course of more than three decades as an American diplomat, William J. Burns played a central role in the most consequential diplomatic episodes of his time--from the bloodless end of the Cold War to the collapse of post-Cold War relations with Putin's Russia, from post-9/11 tumult in the Middle East to the secret nuclear talks with Iran. Burns is widely regarded as one of the most distinguished and admired American statesmen of the last half century. Upon his retirement in 2014, Secretary John Kerry said Burns belonged on "a very short list of American diplomatic legends," alongside George Kennan.

In The Back Channel, Burns recounts, with novelistic detail and incisive analysis, some of the seminal moments of his career. Drawing on a trove of newly declassified cables and memos, he gives readers a rare inside look at American diplomacy in action. His dispatches from war-torn Chechnya and Qaddafi's bizarre camp in the Libyan desert and his warnings of the "Perfect Storm" that would be unleashed by the Iraq War will reshape our understanding of history--and inform the policy debates of the future. Burns sketches the contours of effective American leadership in a world that resembles neither the zero-sum Cold War contest of his early years as a diplomat nor the "unipolar moment" of American primacy that followed. Ultimately, The Back Channel is an eloquent, deeply informed, and timely story of a life spent in service of American interests abroad. It is also a powerful reminder, in a time of great turmoil, of the enduring importance of diplomacy.

Advance praise for The Back Channel

"Bill Burns is simply one of the finest U.S. diplomats of the last half century. The Back Channel demonstrates his rare and precious combination of strategic insight and policy action. It is full of riveting historical detail but also, more important, shrewd insights into how we can advance our interests and values in a world where U.S. leadership remains the linchpin of international order."--James A. Baker III

"Bill Burns is a stellar exemplar of the grand tradition of wise Americans who made our country the indispensable nation in this world. The Back Channel shows how diplomacy works, why it matters, and why its recent demise is so tragic."--Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo da Vinci

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User Review  - Brumby18 - LibraryThing

Excellent advocacy and insight to the USA dilema in diplomatic intervention .... or not! a good case for removal and/or sustenance. well worth the read Read full review

The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal

User Review  - Publishers Weekly

In this highly relevant work, Burns, who retired in 2014 as the deputy secretary of state, takes a fascinating look at his career and outlines ways in which American diplomacy can be strengthened ... Read full review


The Education of a Diplomat
Shaping Order
The Limits of Agency
The Inversion of Force and Diplomacy
Managing Great
Bets Pivots and Resets
When the Short Game Intercedes
The Secret Talks
Restoring Americas Tool

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About the author (2019)

William J. Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after a thirty-three-year diplomatic career. He holds the highest rank in the Foreign Service, career ambassador, and is only the second serving career diplomat in history to become deputy secretary of state. Prior to his tenure as deputy secretary, Ambassador Burns served from 2008 to 2011 as undersecretary for political affairs. He was ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs from 2001 to 2005, and ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001. Ambassador Burns earned a bachelor's degree in history from La Salle University and master's and doctoral degrees in international relations from Oxford University, where he studied as a Marshall Scholar. He and his wife, Lisa, have two daughters.

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