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The Back Channel  By  cover art

The Back Channel

By: William J. Burns
Narrated by: Mark Bramhall,William J. Burns
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Publisher's Summary

“A masterful diplomatic memoir” (The Washington Post) from Joe Biden’s nominee for CIA director, a career ambassador who served five presidents and 10 secretaries of state — an impassioned argument for the enduring value of diplomacy in an increasingly volatile world. 

Over the course of more than three decades as an American diplomat, William J. Burns 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.

In The Back Channel, Burns recounts, with novelistic detail and incisive analysis, some of the seminal moments of his career. Drawing on a trove of newly declassified cables and memos, he gives readers a rare inside look at American diplomacy in action. His dispatches from war-torn Chechnya and Qaddafi’s bizarre camp in the Libyan desert and his 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 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 a powerful reminder, in a time of great turmoil, of the enduring importance of diplomacy.

Advance praise for The Back Channel:

“Bill Burns is simply one of the finest U.S. diplomats of the last half century. The Back Channel demonstrates his rare and precious combination of strategic insight and policy action. It is full of riveting historical detail but also, more important, shrewd insights into how we can advance our interests and values in a world where U.S. leadership remains the linchpin of international order.” (James A. Baker III)

“From one of America’s consummate diplomats, The Back Channel is an incisive and sorely needed case for the revitalization of diplomacy - what Burns wisely describes as our ‘tool of first resort.’” (Henry Kissinger)

“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)

©2019 William J. Burns (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“Told with humor and humility, The Back Channel brings all the behind-the-scenes efforts into the light, and brings readers into the room to share the journey of a talented, tough-minded diplomat par excellence who served as conduit and catalyst in making America stronger.” (John Kerry)

The Back Channel deserves to be widely read - it’s a great book filled with fascinating stories and the kind of wisdom that is sorely needed these days.” (George P. Shultz) 

“Bill Burns, one of the most respected diplomats of the post-Cold War years, has now written what I regard as the best diplomatic memoir of that period - must reading for anyone looking back on an era that’s now ending, and for any young person looking forward to diplomacy as a profession in whatever era is likely to come.” (John Lewis Gaddis, Robert A. Lovett professor of military and naval history, Yale University)

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A Definitive look at Diplomacy

Burns has had a long career as a diplomat. The book covers the period from Regan to the current time. Burns tells about his long career in the State Department. He has held all types of positions from Deputy Secretary of State to Ambassador. He explains about the role of diplomacy and what is happening as we forgo the importance of diplomacy.

The book is well written. I found the last chapter the most interesting where he discussed the rebuilding of foreign policy and the State Department. He gave suggestions on how the State Department should be reorganized. I enjoyed his evaluation of the various Secretaries of States he served under. I found the book to be enlightening and upbeat. It is easy to read and understand. I highly recommend the book.

The book is seventeen hours and five minutes. Mark Bramhall does a good job narrating the book. Bramhall is an actor and audiobook narrator. He has won the prestigious Audie Award as well as thirty Audiofile Earphone Awards. He is also the Publisher’s Weekly’s “Best Voice of the Year”.

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Engaging Listen that Ends With A Proposal

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was a memoir that makes a case for diplomacy through a lifetime of experience to support the conclusion. It helps that I do agree with the premise that American diplomacy matters more than it has in generations. His experiences at the front lines of some of the largest shifts in geopolitics is interesting on its own and makes for a compelling argument for more investment in diplomatic arts. What I enjoyed most, however, was that it was just a book reminiscing on what was, but that it concludes by advocating for a better future for the profession in which he dedicated his life. And he provides concrete ideas and critiques which policymakers would do well to thoughtfully consider.

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Exceptional

I am not a student of history but I have lived through the time period that this book speaks about. After reading this book, I have a better appreciation of the US State department and diplomacy. Thank you Mr Burns for that insight and I recommend this book to anyone who wants a better perspective on the world events of the last 30 years.

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a great study of post Cold War Diplomacy

This is a valuable contribution by a recent practitioner, to understanding the pressure, opportunity, and leadership that contributed to US foreign policy of the past 30+ years. it sets realistic expectations for what diplomacy can achieve and how it can work best. It makes the case that US diplomacy and pivotal leadership is still needed. articulate and enlightening.

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Truly an interesting autobiography

William Burns has had a front row seat to most of the major diplomatic events of the last a several decades. He writes as if an objective observer that places country above party and real work pragmatism above blind ideology.

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Unique authority

Mr. Burns provides the listeners with a first-hand account of major diplomatic challenges occurring over his career. This non-political, hard fact and entertaining book provides a unique understanding of what our diplomatic corps provide to our country. Proud we have people of this caliber working in the State Department.

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Gave me much greater apprec for art of diplomacy

The book held my attention from start to finish. Maybe President Trump should read this book....couldn't hurt.

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Refreshing, diplomatic, informative

A breath of fresh air, listening to an intelligent individual describing events and interactions in a diplomatic manner. I learned a lot that about the back channels of recent world events. I pray our country can re-establish it's diplomatic influence after being devastated by this current administration.

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Most memoirs disappoint

A "Back Channel" in diplomatic parlance apparently means a person, operation, or arrangement, by which formal agreements can be first introduced to the principals and tested in a private way, prior to its announcement in an open forum, for view by a larger number. A common example of backchannel diplomacy was that used by the Kennedy Administration and the Soviet Government led by Kruschev, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. That "backchannel" was/is credited with averting nuclear confrontation between the leading world powers, in Oct '62, and many significant lasting effects, for years to come.

A prime consideration in diplomacy like most endeavors involving prolonged, serious effort, is to create something lasting.

In his memoir, Mr. Burns describes the process behind several, prolonged diplomatic efforts in which his use of "back channels" was key to bringing about important outcomes. It is very much about the process. It may be helpful if you are an undergrad, at Georgetown's School for FS.

But, it is not enough to create an outcome, alone. That may simply be process for process sake. For the diplomatic effort to be successful, the outcome needs to be substantial enough to bring about a lasting change, a new condition that (in)form(s) policy.

Mr. Burns' feelings, especially his hard work and dedication to a prestigious role in a prestigious center of the US Government, come through very clearly,

Clearly, Mr. Burns produced volumes of work during his time and tenure, at State, But, many of the (fine) important things that he produced were quickly and easily laid bare, shunted aside, or abandoned, by the current Administration. That has to hurt,

His very detailed descriptions of the painstakingly difficult diplomatic processes end up sounding hollow because the outcomes were so short-lived. Likely too short-lived to be considered as policy. In my opinion, the origin of the book may have been the need to bring back some substance to his work.

In the pages of this book, Mr. Burns notes the many, good, well-intentioned people, who he had the good fortune to work with, during his tenure, at State. They in-turn acknowledged what a good, capable person he was to work with. That is all well and good, validating, and diplomatic. But, good, well-intentioned people do not always make good policy any more than bad policy is the sole province of the evil and ill-intended. Other cases for diplomacy have been very well presented over thousands of pages. And, from all those well-intentioned good works, it has been accepted/proven that policies are sometimes very separate from the people who make them.

Over time, it may be hard to separate ourselves from our work. In my opinion, Mr. Burns may be struggling with this because the book seems to be so painstakingly making a case not just for diplomacy, but for him and his career, too. He may just need reminding that the ease with which the diplomatic policies he was tasked with were set aside is not a reflection of his ability, as a diplomat,

The diplomat, diplomacy, and diplomatic policy are separate things. If some diplomatic policy is bad that does not mean that diplomacy is a bad policy to follow, or there was anything lacking in the diplomat. Not any more than it makes sense to throw out the baby, with the bathwater. Such an experienced diplomate as he should also remember those policy setbacks and changes are common, a Presidential prerogative. When you are up on the 7th Floor at State, things get a little "heady," and you may need to be reminded to accept the result, see it as part of the process, an act diplomatically.

I believe that somewhere in the book Mr. Burns reminisces about a certain cultural trait of his that he says someone may have played on, in order to keep at State longer than he may have intended. Something in those traits may have given rise to his feeling the need to make a "Case for Diplomacy".That case has been made, by many people(s) throughout time. Since diplomacy still exists, the judgment must have been favorable.

In my opinion, Mr. Burns seems to be trying to connect failed policy with failed diplomacy, when they are two very separate things. This effort reduces the value of the book.

Last Notes:
1. George Packer released a book about another contemporary diplomate, Richard Holbrooke. In a part of that book dealing with memoirs, he states that most memoirs are disappointing. In the "Case for Diplomacy", Mr. Burns does not disappoint, and helps makes the case, for Mr. Packer's comment.
2. In Mr. Burns's very detailed telling of the process that went into making the most recent Iranian Nuclear Deal, The JCPA, he mentions that one of his two Iranian contacts was very proud to say that he attended a class taught by Madeline Albright's father. I don't think that at the time( and even at the time he told Mr. Burns) he knew that Prof Albright's religion was Jewish,




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Staff the State Department!

Sharply written and inspiring, this is a tale of highs, lows and triumphs in statecraft. The foreign service and diplomats are, unfortunately, not frequent headliners in the crisis obsessed media. Their contributions to averting crisis the world over have shone a bright light into some of civilizations darkest moments. Burns personal story is an inspiring and thoughtful journey around the world.

1 person found this helpful