The Back Channel

American Diplomacy in a Disordered World

March 2019 9781787381230 520pp,
8pp illus
March 2021 9781787385528 520pp,
8pp illus
EU Customers


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 relations with Putin’s Russia, from post–9/11 tumult in the Middle East to the secret nuclear talks with Iran.

Burns draws on a treasure trove of newly declassified cables and memos to offer rare insight into US diplomacy in action. He illuminates the back channels of his profession, and its value in a world that resembles neither the zero-sum Cold War of his early career, nor the ‘unipolar moment’ of American primacy that followed.

The Back Channel recounts with vivid detail and incisive analysis the seminal moments of a legendary career and makes an eloquent and impassioned argument for diplomacy in an increasingly volatile world.


‘William Burns ranks among the foremost American diplomats of his generation, serving five presidents and 10 secretaries of state. His memoir is a plain-spoken defence of an unfashionable craft. It is also a testament to the perils of wishful thinking in US foreign policy . . . refreshingly candid.’  The Financial Times

The Back Channel is one of those rare intelligent and clearly written books that makes you believe that diplomacy, like handwriting, is still critical for our survival.’  New Statesman

‘[Burns’] beautifully written book, rich in pen portraits, anecdote and description, is also a meticulous record of three and a half decades of diplomatic history.’ The Irish Times

‘Bill Burns is a treasure of American diplomacy who I had the honour of watching in action and working closely with . . . 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 revitalisation of our diplomacy—what Burns wisely describes as our “tool of first resort.”’ —Henry Kissinger, former U.S. Secretary of State

‘Bill Burns’ penchant for record-keeping paired with his colourful writing style combine to produce a compelling, fast-paced, and witty narrative … This book is soon to become necessary reading for America’s next generation of diplomats.’ – Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State

‘A reflective and candid story of a professional diplomat par excellence who deployed insight and inquisitiveness, skill and strength to advance Americas interests. Told with humour 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 who served as conduit and catalyst in making America stronger.’— John Kerry, former U.S. Secretary of State

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 stellar exemplar of the grand tradition of Wise Americans who made our country the indispensable nation in this world. The Back Channel shows how diplomacy works, why it matters, and why its recent demise is so tragic.’— Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo Da Vinci

The Back Channel deserves to be widely read – a great book filled with fascinating stories and the kind of wisdom that is sorely needed these days.’— George P. Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State

The Back Channel demonstrates [Burn’s] rare and precious combination of strategic insight and policy action. It is full of riveting historical detail but, more importantly, of shrewd insights.’— James A. Baker III, former U.S. Secretary of State

‘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.’ —John Lewis Gaddis, Yale University


William J. Burns is currently Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Ambassador Burns is known as America’s ‘secret diplomatic weapon'. Having served five presidents and ten secretaries of state, he has been central to the past four decades’ most consequential foreign policy episodes.

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