Burns, who has been nominated to run the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) by US President Joe Biden, told lawmakers at an open session of his confirmation hearings on Wednesday that Washington requires comprehensive strategies to enforce its will on China, Russia and Iran.
Burns told the Senate Intelligence Committee that China is at the top of his list of concerns because of its “aggressive undisguised ambition and assertiveness” over the last seven years, but he warned that a “declining power” like Russia could still be dangerous, too.
Fighting China’s ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’
“The challenge, therefore, is: how do you build a long-term - and I would emphasize the term ‘long term’ because we have to buckle up for the long haul with China. This is not like the competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, which was primarily in security and ideological terms. This is an adversary that is extraordinarily ambitious in technology, in capable and economic terms as well, and so it’s buckling up for the long term and developing a very clear-eyed bipartisan strategy,” Burns told lawmakers, saying China’s so-called “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” was isolating it from regional partners.
Indeed, Burns’ approach, and that outlined by the Biden administration thus far, does not significantly deviate from that laid out by his predecessor, Donald Trump. In November 2020, Trump’s State Department published a document advocating an approach to China akin to that pushed by US diplomat George F. Kennan in the late 1940s vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. The document urged that the US adopt a long-term approach to China that focused on isolating China from productive relationships with other nations abroad, and inculcating an anti-China sentiment among academics and civil servants at home as well as in the education system.
Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) told Burns, a former undersecretary of state under US President Barack Obama, that he expected Chinese President Xi Jinping to “lie” about the country’s plans and accomplishments in combating climate change, and asked how he thought that would influence the efforts of climate czar John Kerry to organize international summits on fighting climate change.
“A lot of us are worried about the climate lies that are going to come from China as a way around this,” Sasse said. Burns replied that Chinese climate actions are in the self-interest of China, not a gift to the United States.
Forthcoming Report on ‘Consequences’ for Russia
Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) also asked Burns about his approach to Russia, which she characterized as a “profound challenge” and cited unproven allegations that Russia influenced the US 2020 election, that the Kremlin was behind the poisoning of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, and that Russia was behind the Solarwinds hacking attack.
“It’s a huge mistake not to underestimate the challenge and the threat that Vladimir Putin’s Russia can pose to the United States,” he said. “There’s no substitute for firmness and consistency in dealing with Putin’s Russia and working as closely as we can with allies and partners who share those same concerns.”
Burns added that the Biden administration would soon issue an "assessment" of those issues that will "not only provide not only the best intelligence that we’re capable of on exactly what happened in those instances, but also a sense of the consequences for them as well."
“The reality is that, I think, in terms of American policy of US-Russian relations, that as long as Vladimir Putin is the leader of Russia, we’re going to be operating in a pretty narrow band of possibilities from the very sharply competitive to the very nastily adversarial,” he told Gillibrand.
‘Strategy that Pushes Back’ on Iran
Gillibrand also asked Burns about his and the Biden administration’s approach to Iran. Burns said that the key is a comprehensive “strategy that pushes back against threatening Iranian actions,” including its nuclear program, but also its ballistic missile program, as well as allegedly “subverting other governments” in the region or committing human rights abuses.
“I think in all those areas, we have to be mindful of the fact that even if Iran returns to full compliance with the comprehensive nuclear agreement and the United States does as well - as President Biden says he is prepared to do - that then needs to be a platform - Secretary Blinken has emphasized this - a platform for building longer and stronger nuclear constraints and also for dealing with those other areas of threatening Iranian actions that I mentioned before,” Burns said.
Trump pulled the US out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018, claiming without proof that Iran was violating the deal and reimposing sanctions against its economy. In turn, Iran began reducing its commitments to the deal, which includes strict limits on its quality and quantity of refined uranium. Iran has indicated its willingness to immediately return to the confines of the deal if Washington does, but the US and allies such as France have pushed for renegotiating and expanding the JCPOA, two things Tehran has rejected out of hand.