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2019 Aspen Ideas Festival: Is Diplomacy Dead?

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Panel of speakers: "Is Diplomacy Dead?"
Mary Louise Kelly of NPR, journalist George Packer and William Burns of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace answer the question, "Is Diplomacy Dead?" at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
Leigh Vogel | The Aspen Institute

From the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival: "Is Diplomacy Dead?"

Ambassador William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, served five presidents and ten secretaries of state in postings all over the word. 

Burns joined writer George Packer, and NPR's Mary Louise Kelly for a conversation at the 2019 Aspen Ideas Festival about the art of diplomacy, lessons from our shared past, and diplomacy's destiny in the emergent world order.

Burns warned against using "coercive diplomacy," particularly in the Middle East, which he called "the land of unintended consequences." 

George Packer said it's important to remember "how much foreign policy comes down to human character." 

America is "no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block," Ambassador Burns said, "but we do still have a better hand to play... and the capacity to mobilize coalitions is what sets us apart." He warned of "corroding that tool and squandering that asset." 

"The United States can reshape the world order before it gets reshaped for us," Burns said, and "it's possible to renew American diplomacy, but we're digging a pretty deep hole for ourselves." 

In considering the Democratic candidates for president, Burns said even without foreign policy experience, "there is no substitute for character and judgment." He added that a sense of history is also important. 

William J. Burns is president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, since 2015. He retired from the US Foreign Service in 2014 after a 33-year diplomatic career and holding its highest rank: career ambassador. Burns is only the second career diplomat in US history to become deputy secretary of state, serving from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was undersecretary for political affairs from 2008 to 2011, US 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. Burns has received three Presidential Distinguished Service Awards and several Department of State awards.

George Packer is a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of "Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century." He has published five other works of non-fiction, including "The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America," which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2013. 

Mary Louise Kelly is co-host of NPR's "All Things Considered" and a contributing editor at The Atlantic. She was previously a national security correspondent for NPR News, reporting from all over the world on the CIA, the NSA, and other spy agencies; terrorism; wars; and rising nuclear powers.

She has lectured at Stanford and Harvard and taught a graduate course on national security at Georgetown University. Kelly is also the author of two novels, Anonymous Sources and The Bullet. She moderated this event at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 25, 2019.