What keeps Bill Burns up at night?

After his opening remarks this morning, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns was asked "what keeps you up at night?" by a member of the audience. Here's what he said:

Obviously, the dangers of weapons of mass destruction, both by states and non-state actors. This is a huge danger and one of the main reasons why President Obama has concentrated so much over the last 4 years on nuclear security and to address the problem of proliferation. That's not unique to the Iranian challenge, it has to do with the Korean peninsula and other parts of the world too.

Burns also talked about the challenge of maintaining a balanced foreign policy when challenges form the Middle East keep popping up. "The middle east has a nasty habit of reminding us of its relevance," he said.

I was also interested to hear Burns highlight the opening of new Arctic shipping lanes due to global warming as a major emerging strategic issue, saying it could be "as important as the opening of the Suez Canal."


Dennis Ross: German unification took our attention away from Iraq

Today's first panel discussion featured a unique conversation between past directors of the State Department's Policy Planning staff, including Dennis Ross, who served under the first Bush administration, Jim Steinberg and Morton Halperin, who worked under Bill Clinton, David Gordon from the Bush administration and current director Jake Sullivan. 

A theme of the discussion was that, as Halperin put it, "ineffective policy planning staffs do what people think of as policy planning." The role of the State Department's strategic arm is less to predict the future than, as Steinberg explained it, to inform the rest of the department of "the things that are deeply consequential”.

One of the more striking moments was when Ross was asked by FP Editor in Chief Susan Glasser to reflect on what the office got right and wrong during his tenure. Ross remembered one time when the office was out on a limb within Foggy Bottom: "We saw German unification coming at a time everyone else was rejecting it," he said. The downside was that the focus on Germany took the office's attention away from the growing crisis in Iraq. The situation in Germany "made me too consumed with one area of the world," Ross recalled. 

Something to keep in mind at a time when the focus of U.S. policy is dominated by the Middle East.