In January 2021, US President Joe Biden announced his nomination of Ambassador William Burns as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. This marked the first time an American diplomat had been nominated for the position. The Senate confirmed Burns’ appointment as the CIA’s new director in March 2021.
As someone whose leadership qualities became clear at a young age, Burns draws on a long diplomatic background and wide-ranging practical experience. TIME magazine even included Burns on its rosters of the “50 Most Promising American Leaders Under Age 40” and “100 Young Global Leaders.”
Highlights of William Burns’ experience
The new CIA director’s academic and professional background can be summarized as follows:
1- Early emergence of leadership traits: William Burns was born in 1956, and he is married with two daughters. In 1994, when Burns was 38 years old, he was included in TIME magazine’s lists of the “50 Most Promising American Leaders Under Age 40” and “100 Young Global Leaders.”
2- Graduate degrees in law and international relations: Burns earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Oxford as well as a B.A. in history from La Salle University. He holds three honorary doctoral degrees.
3- Extensive diplomatic and political experience: Burns served as a diplomat under five Democratic and Republican administrations for a total of 33 years. From 1998 to 2001, Burns served as the US Ambassador to Jordan. He was then appointed as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, a position he held from 2001 to 2005. In 2005, Burns was appointed as the US Ambassador to Russia, which he held until 2008. In 2008, he was appointed as Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and he remained in this position until 2011. From 2011 to 2014, he served as Deputy Secretary of State, after which he retired from the State Department.
Burns held several other positions in the State Department, including Special Assistant to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright; Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs at the US Embassy in Moscow; Executive Secretary to the State Department; Acting Director and Principal Deputy Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff; and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council.
4- Highly competent and a high profile as a diplomat: Burns has an excellent reputation in US political and diplomatic circles, where he is seen as a seasoned and professional diplomat. In President Biden’s statement on the nomination of Burns, Biden describes him as a career diplomat with integrity and skill who will bring the knowledge and independence that US national security demands. Burns achieved the rank of career ambassador in the United States Foreign Service and is only the second career ambassador to become deputy secretary of state.
Burns has also received three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and several awards from the Department of State, including Secretary’s Distinguished Service Awards; two Honor Awards for Distinguished Service; the Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Ambassadorial Award for Initiative and Success in Trade Development (2006); and the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Award for Diplomatic Excellence.
5- Proficiency in Arabic and other languages: In addition to his native English, Burns knows Arabic, Russian, and French. These proficiencies may owe to the substantial lengths of time Burns spent working in Jordan and Russia, as well as from Burns’ conviction that communication and negotiation are key to the success of diplomacy.
6- Wide circulation of Burns’ book, The Back Channel: In 2019, Burns released his acclaimed book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal. The book explores Burns’ experiences over his thirty years of diplomatic service. During this period, he worked with five US presidents, including both Democrats and Republicans, and ten Secretaries of State. Burns relies on declassified cables and memoranda to describe important moments in his professional life, which began before the fall of the Soviet Union. His book has been praised for offering a rare and important perspective on the nature of US diplomatic service.
The Back Channel highlights how today’s world differs from that of the Cold War and the era of unilateral US leadership in the world. The book goes on to provide evidence that underscores the vital importance of diplomacy in today’s world.
7- Limited experience in the intelligence field: Although Burns has received the highest civilian honors from the Department of Defense and the United States Intelligence Community, he does not appear to have a great deal of experience in the intelligence field. This may be why some have criticized Biden’s choice as similar to President Trump’s mistake of nominating Mike Pompeo—who had an intelligence background—to head the State Department. However, given Burns’ extensive experience, President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris see him as capable of ensuring American national security.
Burns’ support of negotiation and diplomatic resolutions
Burns’ political positions regarding regional and international issues can be summarized as follows:
1- Prioritizing negotiation as a tool for conflict resolution and peace: Burns’ keen interest in conflict resolution and peace is evident throughout his biography. Perhaps this is what led him to serve as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—the oldest international affairs think tank in the US—after retiring in 2014. This position seems to align with Burns’ background as a student of law and international relations and his extensive diplomatic experience. In this respect, Burns received the Robert C. Frasure Memorial Award for conflict resolution and peacemaking. He was named “Diplomat of the Year” by Foreign Policy magazine in 2013.
2- Galvanizing international efforts to confront China, Russia, and terrorism: In a statement released by President Biden on 11 January 2021 regarding the nomination of William Burns as director of the CIA, Biden noted that Burns is a career diplomat who has served in the Foreign Service for 33 years. He added that Burns has the competence and integrity to ensure US national security. Biden then identified three major threats to US national security: Russian cyberattacks, the challenge posed by China, and the threat of terrorist groups and non-state actors. He stressed that Burns is capable of galvanizing action around the world to ensure the ability of the CIA to protect the interests of the American people.
3- Prioritizing US-Europe relations: Burns supports the restoration of close ties with Europe. He considers US-European relations to be more important than ever before, especially given the problems in the Middle East, the return of Russia, and the rise of China. Such positions appear to be consistent with the vision of President Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
4- Enthusiasm for forging alliances: Burns is enthusiastic about the idea of cooperation and creating alliances. He stated in an interview: “In my three-decade-long career, diplomacy has never been as important as it is now to defending or promoting American interests. The United States is no longer the big kid on the geopolitical block, with the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia. Without arrogance, I would still argue that the United States has a better hand to play than any of our rivals, if we play our cards wisely. And that’s not just in terms of economic leverage and military leverage but by working together to form alliances. That’s what set us apart from our rivals over the decades. But my fear now is that we are no longer using this tool, that is, diplomacy.”
5- A refusal to personalize foreign relations: Burns is less enthusiastic about trying to resolve foreign political issues through personal relationships. Followers of President Trump previously criticized this relationships-based approach with world leaders and politicians. Therefore, it is expected that the coming period will witness a greater focus on institutional work. There is wide agreement on this point among most members of the new president’s team.
6- Keen interest in the rise of China: Burns is very interested in the rise of China, and he considers the country a unique phenomenon in the 21st century. Since China is fully integrated into the global economy, it cannot be contained, and Burns thus sees it as a major challenge to the US. He believes that efforts should be intensified to form an alliance and work with other powers that are concerned about China’s rise. He stresses that potential allies should not be forced into a zero-sum option (“you are either with the US or with China”); instead, it is important to forge institutional alliances that will help shape the future.
7- Interest in the Middle East: William Burns’ biography reveals an early and considerable interest in the Middle East. In 1984, when Burns was only 28 years old, he released his book, Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, 1955-1981. His interest in the region is further reflected by his proficiency in Arabic. Jordan was Burns’ first overseas posting as a US ambassador.
8- A significant role in the Iranian nuclear issue: The selection of Burns appears to send a number of signals about the US administration’s approach to the Iranian nuclear issue. Burns is seen as a supporter of the idea of negotiation to resolve crises, and he himself played a major role in the secret negotiations with Tehran. Some have accused Burns of offering Tehran too many incentives to win its acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018.
9- Separating the nuclear issue from issues regarding Iran’s regional activities: Regarding Burns’ role in Iran nuclear talks, he has noted that the negotiations were primarily focused on Iran’s nuclear program. However, since the talks went on for long hours, regional affairs were occasionally discussed as well.
10- Lack of enthusiasm regarding US sanctions on Tehran: Burns appears to see little benefit to US sanctions on Tehran. Commenting on Trump’s maximum pressure strategy against Iran, Burns doubted the effectiveness of the sanctions, suggesting that even though they harm Iran’s regime, they will not bring about major changes nor the regime’s surrender.
11- Non-recognition of the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights: Regarding President Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Syrian Golan, Burns said that this decision is unnecessary and creates various problems. First, it poses a problem given the international principle stipulating that land cannot be annexed by force; thus, Trump’s decision legitimizes Russia’s actions in Crimea. Additionally, the decision helps al-Assad, Iran, and Russia by drawing attention to the resistance to this occupation instead of the bloodshed in Syria.
Key expected policies of William Burns
William Burns’ expected policies may be summarized based on the Congressional hearing held this past March to confirm him as director of the CIA.
1- An emphasis on integrity and the non-politicization of intelligence work: In the hearing, Burns stated: “Across those decades as a diplomat […] I learned that good intelligence, delivered with honesty and integrity, is America’s first line of defense. I learned that intelligence professionals have to tell policymakers what they need to hear, even if they don’t want to hear it. I learned that politics must stop where intelligence work begins.”
He added: “It was [my CIA colleagues’] skill at collection and analysis that often gave me an edge as a negotiator; their partnership that helped make me an effective ambassador; and their insights that helped me make thoughtful choices on the most difficult policy issues.”
2- An emphasis on the need for integration between the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and Directorate of Analysis: In response to a question regarding the controversial restructuring and reorganization carried out in 2015 by former CIA director John Brennan, Burns said he believes that integration between the departments of analysis and operations will provide better information and guidance for decision-making. He said that care must be taken to ensure that this kind of cooperation continues.
It is worth noting that Brennan’s reorganization included the distribution of researchers and analysts from the Directorates of Operations and Analysis into groups of ten. Each group was then tasked with focusing on a specific region or part of the world, on the basis that this approach would help improve the integration between different units of the CIA.
3- A preference for gathering information by hand and through fieldwork: The CIA primarily gathers evidence through a hands-on approach in the field. Thus, it relies on human contact, in contrast to agencies that depend on technology to access, analyze, and monitor information. In response to questions at his confirmation hearing, Burns said that CIA mechanisms for gathering information are particularly important at present. He added that they serve all functions and missions of US intelligence. The CIA and other US security agencies like the military and the FBI achieve a form of integration as they share lessons learned and best practices for accessing desired facts and information.
4- An emphasis on integration with US Army task forces: One of the controversial issues raised in the hearing was the distinction between the Army’s special task forces in battlefields and combat and the paramilitary function of the Central Intelligence Agency related to counterterrorism. When Christopher Miller created this overlap last December, he ended the material and logistic support offered by the CIA in paramilitary functions and areas related to counterterrorism.
Burns affirmed that the functions of the CIA complement those of the special task forces, with different jurisdictions as established by law. Special task forces are involved in strategic military functions, while the CIA handles clandestine functions.
5- The need to protect the reputation of the CIA: Burns was asked how he would respond if a CIA employee made statements to the media containing information that was not authorized for public disclosure. He stated that he would communicate with the employee to try to correct the action to preserve the public image of the CIA. Similarly, Burns said that if false information were shared with the media, he would immediately seek to correct it.
He said that he will not take punitive measures against CIA employees and officials who were involved in investigations of foreign detainees that contravened humanitarian norms. These investigations took place during the presidency of George W. Bush. At the same time, Burns said that some methods of investigation that were previously used, such as waterboarding, will no longer be used and will be prohibited altogether.
6- Interest in internal cohesion and working with allies: In Burns’ confirmation hearing, he showed an acute awareness of how the US position in the global order is changing. He stated: “The international landscape is changing fast. We are in a period of profound transformation. The United States may no longer be the singular, dominant player we were when I worked for Secretary [of State James] Baker 30 years ago, but I would still argue we have a better hand to play than our major rivals and that’s because of our capacity for domestic survival – which I know has been tested in recent years. But it’s hugely important… It sets us apart from authoritarian regimes around the world, in addition to the capacity to draw on allies and partners, which also sets us apart from lonelier powers like China and Russia.”
7- The importance of reassessing relations with Moscow: In light of Russia’s regional and international movements, Burns said that work must be done to reassess US-Russia relations and how to best interact with Moscow. He said that the US decisions and reactions should be resolute and coherent. Along with Burns’ remarks on Russia, he affirmed that CIA priorities will include China, Russia, technological advancement, and the intense rivalry between countries in outer space, a domain that is not bound by any rules.
The nomination of veteran diplomat William Burns as director of the Central Intelligence Agency is consistent with President Biden’s tendency to nominate individuals who have extensive experience and who share his ideas. Biden also prefers to avoid highly partisan choices insofar as possible to secure the broadest possible support for his nominees.