A reflection on William Burns’ remarks on Russia and China

William J. Burns is a high-ranking career diplomat for more than two decades and well-educated professional in his current job of analyzing intelligence.

William J. Burns is a high-ranking career diplomat for more than two decades and well-educated professional in his current job of analyzing intelligence. As he argues in his latest piece on espionage that “For as long as countries have kept secrets from one another, espionage has been and will remain an integral part of statecraft”. Accordingly, “Stay informed” refers to that he and his team have worked steadily to deliver “in-depth” analysis of foreign intelligence from all over the world to the establishments in Washington D.C. There is no question that the CIA is one of the most efficient intelligence-collecting agencies equipped with the super facilities in the world, however, the doubts also have been cast on its reliability and smartness.

It is fair to say that Burns is a qualified bureaucrat in terms of diplomacy and intelligence which are closely intertwined in foreign affairs since states interact with one another in constant struggling for power and prestige. He frankly admitted that to be an effective twenty-first century intelligence service, “the CIA must blend a mastery of emerging technologies with the people-to-people skills and individual daring that have always been at the heart of our profession.” His strong career sense equally makes him to be aware of the necessity of equipping operations officers with the tools and tradecraft to conduct espionage in a world of constant technological surveillance—and equipping analysts with sophisticated artificial intelligence models that can digest mammoth amounts of open-source and clandestinely acquired information so that they can make their best human judgments. Given in an era of historic challenges for geopolitical and technological shifts posing as big a test as the U.S. has ever faced, success will depend on blending traditional human intelligence with emerging technologies in creative ways.

As the former ambassador to Russia (2005-08), Burns is confident to expose his view on Russia and particularly the ongoing “special military operation” in Ukraine, formally termed by the West as “Putin’s war in Ukraine”. He pretentiously opined that all the reasons for Putin’s unbound internationally was due to the combustible combination of grievance, ambition, and insecurity of the Russian people that President Putin embodies. On the one hand, Burns spoke the cliché that it is always a mistake to underestimate Putin’s fixation on controlling Ukraine and its choices. Psychologically and geopolitically, without that control, Russia sees it impossible to be a great power. On the other hand, he argued that tragic and brutish fixation has already led to an overall failure for Russia on many levels. Obviously, his Oxford-trained scholarship in international relations has failed Burns to read the treaties signed between the U.S.-led NATO and Russia (as well as the USSR) from 1975 to 1999, such as The Helsinki Accord 1975, The Charter of Paris for a New Europe 1990, The Founding Act 1997 and The Charter for European Security 1999, not to mention their promise of no more eastward expansion since then.

Intellectually speaking, Henry Kissinger once warned that no sound foreign policy could be possible without a fair understanding of history of modern states system in Europe. In addition, the study of international relations without a solid training in public law has been proved a farce to recreate a balanced and sustainable world order. Burns, though a dedicated career diplomat, has rarely shown his sincere learning of European diplomacy which is based on overall awareness of world history, international politics and public law. Moreover, it is plain that as a senior executive of intelligence agency, Burns has never read what Stephen Walt opines of “the geopolitics of empathy”, referring to “the ability to see problems from another person’s (or country’s) perspective.” It is argued that “The geopolitics of empathy” does not require agreeing with others’ view; it is about grasping how they see a situation and understanding why they are acting as they are. This is the core of realpolitik where it is truly hard to persuade a rival to alter its behavior if you don’t understand its origins. On the issue of the war in Ukraine, it is fast held by the decent academic community that the U.S.-led West has pursued prior unilateral hegemony in the world while ignoring the legitimate security concerns of Russia and then coercing Russia to be a second-rate power in the world affairs.

Here is worth noting that William Burns like many other U.S. elite in foreign affairs often speak concisely and directly. He admits that the United States faces one of those rare moments today, as consequential as the dawn of the Cold War or the post-9/11 period. Now China’s rise and Russia’s revanchism have posed daunting geopolitical challenges in a world of intense strategic competition in which the U.S. no longer enjoys uncontested primacy. But, to sustain Pax Americana in this century and beyond, the United State needs to make all earnest efforts along with its global allies and partners to wear down Russia and contain the rise of China since they are the strongest powers in Eurasia. To the scholars of geopolitics, the United States is seen an island off the shores of the large landmass of Eurasia where natural and human resources far exceed those of the United States. Since Eurasia is the key to its global hegemony, the U.S. has asserted that “any domination by a single power of either of Eurasia’s two principal spheres—Europe or Asia—remains a good definition of a structural threat to America’s primacy in the world. Due to this, the U.S. has steadily and systemically increasingly rejected the legitimate interests and security concerns of many countries in Eurasia, including Russia, China and Iran, all of which are the major member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which covers the entire central Asia as well.

In Burns’ eyes, although Russia poses an immediate threat to the U.S.-led West, China has steadily become the only U.S. rival with both the intent to reshape the international order and the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do so. Accordingly, the West can only accept a prosperous China which is a good global market but never a strong Chinese nation in the world affairs. In an anarchic world, the issue is not China’s rise in itself but the potential use of that power to reinforce and revitalize the international system that enables it to be peer to the United States. Burns reasons that in foreign affairs, China has advanced its “no limits” partnership with Russia while expanding its leverage around the world through the Belt-Road Initiative. However, competition with China has taken place against the backdrop of economic interdependence and commercial ties between China and the United States.

Over the past decades, close connections have served China that is the largest developing country and the United States that is the largest developed country in the world. Yet, now U.S. policy-making elite fast holds that it is sensible to “de-risk” and diversify for the sake of securing the U.S. supply chains, protecting its technological edge, and investing in its industrial capacity at home. Meanwhile, the U.S. is also aware of the reality that the weight of the “hedging middle” is growing. China has accordingly cultivated its overall relations with the countries across the global South. Due to this, Burns warns that Washington ought to be attentive to the crisis and conflicts in the key regions like the Middle East.

In sum, now and in the next decades, since the United States has seen China and Russia as its principal rivals, gaining insight into their intentions is both more important and more difficult than ever. To that end, it is imperative for the U.S. elite to read their rivals’ minds rather than rhetoric in open show or some of scholars’ abstract analysis. Taking the case of the former Soviet Union, there were so many top scholars on Russian/Soviet studies, but few if not none were able to foresee the end of the Soviet Union in 1992 and the quick recovery of post-Cold War Russia. Today, Burns hopes to grasp the strategic thinking of Chinese leaders and their advisors through the training program in language and history. To certain extent, it matters but it is vital for the U.S. elite to read attentively and carefully their former peers’ minds in search for the common sense or what Walt has coined the geopolitics of empathy. In so doing, either the U.S. elite or global students are able to read the wisdom of politics among nations in Hans Morgenthau, George Kenna, Kissinger, Robert Gilpin, Walt and many others.

After all, most decent international scholars around the world have intensively read their ideas and extensively practice what they have offered.

Paul Wang
Paul Wang
Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.