William Burns, one of the most experienced American diplomats, may look to intensify the agency’s focus on China - the biggest threat to the US global domination.
William Burns was confirmed on March 18 by a bipartisan US Senate vote as the new chief of the world’s most powerful spy agency. The 64-year old bureaucrat’s credentials inspired confidence in both Republicans and Democrats.
During his three decade career at the State Department, Burns has become known for his backchannel diplomacy with Washington’s fiercest enemies. He has also previously served as US ambassador to Russia - one of the most challenging posts an American diplomat can experience.
It is reported that the Russians would have liked to see him as Secretary of State, but he ended up as CIA director, a post which is sometimes regarded as a pit stop before becoming America’s top diplomat. Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State, was also CIA director prior to his confirmation as leader of the State Department.
Burns’ friends describe him as both mild-mannered and modest. When he was working as a young officer in the State Department, then-Secretary of State James Baker offered him an ambassadorship, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Burns, whose father was a top general in the US army and later also became a top bureaucrat, overseeing the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in the late 1980s under the Ronald Reagan administration, declined the offer.
“I need to earn my spurs the right way,” he told Baker, according to Richard Armitage, a friend and a former high-ranking diplomat. Several decades later, he seems to have earned his “spurs” after a unanimous Senate vote.
Dealing with China
The new CIA chief is well respected across the political spectrum as a neutral bureaucrat, whose skills both Republicans and Democrats need at a time when growing Chinese clout concerns all Americans no matter what political affiliations they harbour.
He considers “predatory Chinese leadership” as America's “biggest geopolitical test”.
“If confirmed, four crucial and interrelated priorities will shape my approach to leading CIA: China, technology, people and partnerships,” Burns said, during his confirmation hearing at the US Senate.
Beijing is not only catching the US economy, but it is on the way to challenging its global military dominance, too.
Last year, the US Air Force conducted a classified war game regarding a military confrontation between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, a breakaway state from China. The result suggested that the US would lose to China after a decade of military engagements.
But long before that bleak scenario emerged for the Americans, its military officials were already aware of China’s rising power.
“More than a decade ago, our war games indicated that the Chinese were doing a good job of investing in military capabilities that would make our preferred model of expeditionary warfare, where we push forces forward and operate out of relatively safe bases and sanctuaries, increasingly difficult,” Air Force Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements, told Yahoo News in an exclusive interview last week.
“At that point the trend in our war games was not just that we were losing, but we were losing faster,” Hinote added.
As a result, many experts believe that US intelligence should focus on the capabilities of nation-states like China rather than concentrating on counter-espionage operations, as has happened for the last two decades, in order to deal with terrorist threats.
Burns appears to be one of the best candidates to lead that transition from counter-espionage to traditional intelligence gathering.
“A significant amount of resources are going to have to be rejiggered towards China,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA chief of staff, who now leads George Mason University’s Hayden Center. Burns will lead an anti-Chinese effort to deal with Beijing’s increasing political power in a way that is “harder than we’ve ever worked it,” said Pfeiffer.
Talking with Iranians
Burns appears to be someone who is not only skilled in talking to enemies, but also in keeping balanced relations with them even when tensions escalate on other fronts, according to experts.
Burns led secret talks with both Libya and Iran. Under Muammar Gaddafi, Libya was an adversary state to the US while Iran has opposed American foreign policy since the 1979 revolution.
His diplomacy with Iran was one of the primary reasons for the success of the 2015 internationally-recognised nuclear deal with Tehran. Jake Sullivan, his partner for Iran diplomacy at the time, also currently serves as a national security advisor to President Joe Biden.
He has had more connections with Iranian leaders than many other American diplomats. His links with Tehran go back to 2008, when the former George W Bush sent him there to get a feel for their politics.
In the end, he earned a good reputation for being defined as “a consummate professional diplomat" and “secret diplomatic weapon” by foreign policy analysts.
Burns also has an interesting connection with Egypt. His dissertation was on the Egyptian state: Economic Aid and American Policy Toward Egypt, 1955—1981.
In 2012, he met with the country’s first democratically-elected President, Mohammed Morsi, who had roots in Egypt’s currently banned powerful political Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi was ousted by a military coup led by the current President Abdul Fattah al Sisi in 2013.
Burns retired from the State Department in 2014 and has served as the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a well-known US think tank, until his confirmation as CIA director.