The incoming Biden Administration has appointed a new CIA Director: William J. Burns. President-elect has reasoned decision saying it was time to “restore independence of the intelligence community”, Burns stating his purpose as “to deliver intelligence without partisanship, strengthening trust and alliance with our allies in around the world”.
Being the first appointed career diplomat to the head of the CIA, Burns has served 33 years in the State Department. He has been Ambassador to Russia and Jordan, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs and Deputy Secretary of State in the Obama Administration.
Burns currently holds the presidency of the US think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The appointment of Burns is interpreted as a repeated focus on Middle East, including major policy shift of US versus international organizations, US policy towards Iran and a strengthening of traditional diplomacy apparatus.
Burns has also been discussed for the position of Secretary of State, and he has published several articles in the past year on the “reform of the department”. His articles almost always diagnose both an “end to American hegemony” and the rejection of “isolationism”.
“US CAN NO LONGER DICTATE – BUT STILL A MAJOR POWER”
In July 2020, Burns wrote:
“We live in a new reality: America can no longer dictate events as we sometimes believed we could. The Trump administration has done more damage to American values, image, and influence than any other in my lifetime. And our nation is more divided by political, racial, and economic tensions than it has been in generations. But even so, assuming we don’t keep digging the hole deeper for ourselves at home and abroad, we remain in a better position than any other major power to mobilize coalitions and navigate the geopolitical rapids of the 21st century.”
According to Burns, the new foreign policy must center on “the American middle class”, face “grand global challenges”, requiring a “new multilateralism” and finally address the greatest geopolitical challenge: China”.
STATE DEPARTMENT REFORM
William Burns is a harsh critic of the Trump Administration’s governance of the State Department. In an article published in Foreign Affairs November / December 2020, Burns criticizes explicitly former Trump-advisor Steve Bannon’s claims of a “deep state” and the following “deconstruction of the administrative state” that has led to a “wreckage at the State Department” and the US diplomacy being “badly broken”.
Burns explicitly criticizes the appointment of US Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell for “his support for far-right political parties” and the ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, for “clientitis”.
Stating that “restoration of American hegemony is not in the cards”, Burns calls for a reform in the State Department, reversing the process of political appointees instead of career diplomats, realizing “diversity in the diplomatic corps”, reinforcing the contacts of embassies with civil society and the turning the department into a “more upstanding, courageous, and agile institution.”
Burns proposes to introduce new legislation to codify the reform.
Burns’ appointment indicates a change of policy in different areas. The proposed CIA – Director has pointed out in his first declaration “new threats” like climate change, global health security and cyber threats.
The Trump Administration had been explicitly very critical of the existence of climate change and had withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord. Likewise, the Trump and Biden Administrations differed fundamentally on the evaluation of the Covid19-crisis, with the former basically arguing for a laisser faire policy and the latter for harsh lockdowns.
MIDDLE EAST: GRADUAL RETREAT CONTINUED BY ESTABLISHING COEXCISTENCE
Burns confirms the US “long game of departing the Middle East and focusing on Asia-Pacific”, as intended but not realized by Obama and hastily pursued by the Trump Administrations, and proposes simplification of ambitions and use of tools. Burns rejects “regime change and societal engineering projects” and calls to focus on maritime security, guarding against outside hegemons and local terror groups.
Main elements in his proposed strategy limiting Arab interference in conflicts like Libya and Sudan, struggling for a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine, and establishing “coexistence between Saudi Arabia and Iran”.
This includes, as Burns puts it, “an updated nuclear deal with Iran”.
CHANGE IN US POLICY TOWARDS IRAN
But the appointment most importantly indicates a change in US policy on Iran.
Burns is reported to be the first US diplomat engaging 2009 in bilateral talks with Teheran since the Iranian Revolution.
Burns, together with future National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, has led during the Obama Administration a secret diplomatic channel to Teheran that produced an interim agreement between the P5+1 countries and finally the JCPOA.
Burns and Sullivan harshly criticized Trump’s retreat from the JCPOA and lack of diplomatic communication with Teheran in an article published May 16, 2019 in the Atlantic:
“But so far, (Trump’s) strategy is all coercion and no diplomacy. His aggressive escalation of sanctions, the blustery rhetoric of his senior officials, and his administration’s lack of direct engagement with Tehran betray a fundamentally different goal: the capitulation or implosion of the Iranian regime.”
CEASE – FIRE WITH TURKEY IN SYRIA WAS “DUMB”
Burns also criticized in an in interview on American TV Channel CBS October 2019 the than phone call between Trump and Turkish President Erdogan, where the former accepted Turkey’s intervention into North East Syria , as a “dumb step, giving away leverage on Turkey and throwing the Kurds under the Bus”.
RELATIONS TO RUSSIA: “NARROW OPPORTUNITIES”
Burns, who has served as Ambassador to Russia, described the US-Russian relations in a conference in October 2019, saying “we are going to be operating in a pretty narrow band of possibilities.”
In his memoires published 2019 in a book titled “The Back Channel: American Diplomacy in a Disordered World”, Burns describes with official documents his opposition to the NATO membership of Ukraine and Georgia, reasoning that a NATO MAP for these countries would result in Russian-Georgian and Russian-Ukrainian military conflict.
Burns has supported the renegotiation of the START-Treaty with Russia.
COEXISTENCE WITH CHINA
According to the appointed CIA-Director, the “greatest geopolitical challenge is managing competition with China”. Burns concedes “preventing China’s rise is beyond America’s capacity, the U.S. can however shape the environment into which China rises.”
Burns describes the target as “bound rivalry with China, define terms of coexistence, prevent competition becoming a collision, and preserve space for cooperation on global challenges.”