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



William J. Burns, President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Date and Time

April 16, 2019 7:00 PM - 8:30 PM


RSVP Required.


Encina Hall

Bechtel Conference Center, 1st floor

Over the course of more than three decades as a diplomat, William J. Burns served five Presidents and ten Secretaries of State. He 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. Now, Burns draws on his decades of experience to make an impassioned argument for the enduring value of diplomacy in an increasingly volatile world in THE BACK CHANNEL (A Random House Hardcover; On Sale 3/12/2019). 

In this memoir, Burns recounts with novelistic detail and incisive analysis some of the seminal moments of his career. Employing a trove of newly declassified cables and memos, he gives readers a rare inside look at American diplomacy in action. His dispatches on war-torn Chechnya and Putin’s opulent dacha outside of Moscow and his prescient 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 young 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 an urgent reminder, in a time of great turmoil, of the enduring importance of diplomacy.

“The Back Channel is a masterfully written memoir from one of America’s most accomplished and respected diplomats. Ambassador Burns not only offers a vivid account of how American diplomacy works, he also puts forward a compelling vision for its future that will surely inspire new generations to follow his incredible example.”

–Madeleine K. Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State

“Bill Burns is a treasure of American diplomacy who I had the honor of watching in action and working closely with during my years at the State Department.  He is a model of the American idea and spirit when we need it most. In The Back Channel, Burns provides another great act of public service by giving us a smart, plain-spoken account of America’s changing role in the world and the power and purpose of American diplomacy at its best.”

–Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State

“From one of America’s consummate diplomats, an incisive and sorely needed case for the revitalization of our diplomacy—what Burns wisely describes as our ‘tool of first resort.’”

–Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State

Retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014, after a thirty-three-year diplomatic career, Ambassador Burns 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 under secretary 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 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.

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