Top U.S. Diplomat Stresses Reconnecting with Allies On his last day on the job at the State Department, Nicholas Burns discusses the beginning of the United States' return to multilateral diplomacy after a period of frayed relations. Burns is the undersecretary of state for political affairs.
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Top U.S. Diplomat Stresses Reconnecting with Allies

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Top U.S. Diplomat Stresses Reconnecting with Allies

Top U.S. Diplomat Stresses Reconnecting with Allies

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This morning, we dropped in on Nicholas Burns during his last day on the job at the State Department. As under secretary of State for Political Affairs, Burns served as the department's highest ranking career diplomat. His career actually started out when he was an intern in the U.S. Embassy in Mauritania. After serving as State Department spokesman, as an ambassador to Belarus, to Greece, to NATO, Burns joined Condoleezza Rice's team at State. And now he's retiring.

But when we spoke, he did still have some work to do. On his plate today he said, a forthcoming U.N. sanctions resolution on Iran, a Turkish withdrawal from northern Iraq and the continuing crisis in Kosovo. I asked Nicholas Burns if it's fair to see his tenure as under secretary as part of a return to multilateral diplomacy in the second Bush administration.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Under Secretary, U.S. State for Political Affairs): Well, I think it's true that the first term was unique in the sense that we fought two wars. And when we came in the second term, it was abundantly clear that we now had to rebuild alliances that had been weakened perhaps, and we had to turn our attention back to our allies. We've made a huge effort in trying to reconnect with our European allies, with our three principle Asian allies, and to rebuild some of those bridges with the Middle Eastern countries that at least have been shaken. So it's been a time of America realizing that our leadership within the world has to be leadership with others.

SIEGEL: When you speak of that realization is at least to imply that that worldview is a little bit an eclipse during the period of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq perhaps.

Mr. BURNS: I think - and I'm just speaking here as a professional diplomat, that United States has to lead in the world, but in a globalize world, and I do think globalization is the defining feature of the modern era. It's impossible to attack certain problems alone. We can't succeed in confronting global climate change alone or terrorism or drugs and narcotics cartels or trafficking of woman and children. These are five at least of the most significant challenges for the 21st century. And the common denominator on all of them is that it does require cooperative action to succeed in confronting these terrible challenges.

SIEGEL: I want you to talk about Iran. On the one hand as you say there's a resolution soon to be considered at the U.N.; on the other hand, there's some sense that the energy, the sense of urgency about Iran and the world community has lost some steam over the past few months. Fair characterization?

Mr. BURNS: Fair characterization. I think that's a characterization that I picked up from press reporting. I don't see that translated in the diplomatic terms for the following reason: There are two problems with Iran. One is that the Iranian government is funding and arming most of the Middle East terrorist groups that are our adversaries - Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria and Shia militants in Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And second, I think more pertently(ph), there is no question that the Iranian government of Ahmadinejad is trying to develop a nuclear capability. That is of concern not just to the United States, but I feel a concern in my work daily with the Russian government, with the Chinese government, certainly with the Europeans and definitely with most of the Arab states.

So the reason why we've been able to keep this coalition together and now beyond the verge of a very big agreement in the United Nations to sanction Iran for a third time under chapter seven, is because there isn't much trust for the Iranian government. And everyone realizes that, should Iran achieve a nuclear capability in the future, that would be a game changer in the balance of power in the Middle East and very negative for the United States, for the moderate Palestinians, for Lebanon and certainly for Israel.

SIEGEL: Well, do you come away from the experience of this entire career fortified in the belief that some say that a nations don't have friends, they have interests, that ultimately will deal with Russia, say, in the way that satisfies - and just sort of there was some ideals that intrude upon our relations?

Mr. BURNS: That's a conventional truism. I guess I'd say this: foreign policy is the pursuit of a country's national interests. And we always must keep our national interests - economic, military and political - squarely in mind. But I do think that we Americans need to pay attention to the way people look at us, and as the most significant power in the world, showing respect, showing interest, meeting people halfway. This is what people do in their normal lives; it's things that your mother teaches you as a kid and those same rules also apply to nations.

SIEGEL: You should work and play well with others.

Mr. BURNS: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Last area of policy I'm going to ask you about is the Middle East. As you follow events in, say, Gaza where fighting has intensified, rocket attacks coming out, Israeli forces going in. As we hear, President Mahmoud Abbas publicly contemplating a return to intifada as a possible tactic. Is it realistic to think that there actually can be a - even a peace agreement on paper by January of 2009?

Mr. BURNS: You know, I think we have to try. And until that basic problem is resolved, a Palestinian state living side by side with a secure Israel then the greater problems are not going to be resolved. And like it or not, we Americans, our country, is the most significant power in the Middle East.

And I think, Robert, there's one more great change, for most of the 20th century. We saw Europe as the focal point of our foreign policy because that's where the dangers were in World Wars I and II and the Cold War. It's very clear that in our time, it's the Middle East, which is the region of the world that presents the greatest challenges and where the most significant dangers lie for us. Therefore, we have to be the intermediary for peace and that's what Secretary of State Condi Rice is trying to do.

SIEGEL: And before I let you go, the lessons of being a Red Sox fan all your life?

Mr. BURNS: Well, as a native New Englander, Red Sox Nation is a binding element among six states. We're so proud of our two championships and we'll continue to combat the evil empire.

SIEGEL: Said like a retiring diplomat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Nicholas Burns, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BURNS: Robert, it's a pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Career diplomat and proud lifelong member of Red Sox Nation, Nick Burns, who says he's not sure what he's going to do next. He's retiring today from the top job for a Foreign Service officer, under secretary of state for political affairs.

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