The world is in the middle of a “transformative” moment — the kind that comes along only a time or two per century — as events, relationships and influence are accelerating across the national landscape, CIA Director Bill Burns told a packed auditorium at Texas A&M University’s Annenberg Presidential Conference Center last week.
The last time Burns recalled such a period in history, he was working as a young diplomat in the George H.W. Bush administration. The 41st president’s years in office intersected with major changes in the international landscape: the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany. Three decades later, Burns said society is in the middle of a similarly significant era in history.
“I continue to believe that the United States should approach that landscape with optimism and confidence,” Burns said at the talk hosted by the Bush School of Government and Public Service. “I think we still have a better hand to play than any of our rivals. But we’re no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block.”
The rise of China, the dangers posed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and a revolution in technology are all complicating factors, Burns said, not to mention challenges like climate change, energy security and food, water and health insecurity.
Burns gave his assessment on these and other threats in a conversation moderated by Greg Vogle, director of the Bush School’s Intelligence Studies Program. Dean Mark Welsh noted that Burns’ visit was an example of the school’s efforts to provide opportunities for students to learn from world leaders — FBI Director Christopher Wray also visited campus the previous week.
“We try very hard here at the Bush School to bring remarkable people, remarkable leaders and new ideas and current events into our students’ lives every year to help prepare them for the dreams they’re all going to chase in the public service sector,” Welsh said.
Burns, who was sworn in as CIA director in March 2021, is the first career diplomat to hold the role. His many former titles have included Deputy Secretary of State, U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Jordan, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.
Much of Burns’ talk centered on the war in Ukraine. By any measure, he said, Russia’s full-scale invasion that started last year has been a massive strategic failure between the exposure of the weakness of the Russian military, losses in manpower and material and long-term economic damage.
“The challenge, though, is that when faced with a whole series of setbacks on the battlefield, a whole series of catastrophic economic damage to Russia, rather than escaping, (Putin) still believes today that he can grind down the Ukrainians, that he can grind down the United States and our European allies,” Burns said.
Putin’s principle ambition has been to restore Russia as a world power after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Burns said, adding that his instincts to create a sphere of influence and impose an authoritarian order in Russia stems in part from a fundamental mistrust of his own people.
He said Putin see democratic Ukraine as a stubbornly independent country becoming increasingly Westernized. By fall 2020, Burns believes Putin had convinced himself that his window of opportunity for establishing control of Ukraine was beginning to close.
Putin believed Ukraine was weak and divided, and the U.S. and Europeans were at the same time distracted and risk averse — the Russian military would likely be able to achieve a quick and decisive victory at minimal costs.
“He got each of those assumptions profoundly wrong,” Burns said.
As Ukraine prepares to launch another offensive this spring, Burns said the challenge ahead will be to “puncture that sense of arrogance on Putin’s part,” adding Russia will not be able to advance further and will risk losing more with each passing month.
Another issue occupying the CIA’s attention is the ongoing tension between China and Taiwan.
“I would not underestimate President Xi’s determination to control Taiwan,” Burns said, but both the country’s leader and Chinese military leadership have their doubts about whether they could successfully invade Taiwan. No one has watched Russia’s invasion in Ukraine more intently than Xi Jinping, Burns said.
He said Xi has instructed the Chinese military to be prepared for such a conflict by 2027, but that doesn’t mean he’s made a decision to launch an invasion by then. “I think the risks grow the further you get into this decade,” Burns said.
Burns also touched on the CIA’s hiring and recruiting efforts, saying he hopes Texas A&M students will follow in the footsteps of the hundreds of Aggies who have served in the CIA over the years.
“You get a chance to play a very small part in history, and sometimes a chance to shape a political goal as well,” he said. “To do it at this remarkable moment of huge challenges for our country, I think it’s an incredible opportunity.”