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Condoleezza Rice on the Shocks to the International System

Former secretary of state combines personal history, reflections on international affairs in talk

Part of the Said at Duke: 2018-19 Series
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivers the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture Tuesday.  Photo by Les Todd
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivers the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture Tuesday. Photo by Les Todd

"Three great shocks" are shaking up the assumptions of the international system, affecting the ability of the United States to impress its vision upon the system, said former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday night in Page Auditorium.

The first shock was the 9/11 attacks, which changed the idea of physical security for nations, where now the greatest threats come from non-state actors and failed states, not other governments. The global financial crisis of 2008 undermined global financial security and exposed the flaws of a failed currency in the European Union.  The third shock is the uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, which Rice said exposed the underlying instability of authoritarian regimes.

Rice, who served as the national security advisor and secretary of state under President George W. Bush, said the international system has always had as part of its rules that a great power would imprint its view upon the system. "Since World War Two, the US has been that power" with its vision was one of free markets and free peoples.  The main rival vision lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union. "The question is will the US continue to be that power," she said. 

The core strengths of the US are not just its military and economic power, she said, but "the myth of the log cabin, that people of humble origins can do great things."  That makes the country attract ambitious and risk-taking people. That myth is also "for those who are already here," she said, telling the story of her grandfather, John Wesley Rice, a sharecropper who saved to attend college and became a Presbyterian minister. "The transforming power of education" continued down the generations in her family to "the little girl who couldn't order a hamburger at Woolworths," in Birmingham, Ala., yet grew up to became secretary of state.

Delivering the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture, Rice combined both personal history and reflections on international affairs and offered some surprises when answering questions.  When a third-grade girl in the audience asked about her favorite moment, Rice responded, "playing the piano with Yo-Yo Ma. " In fact Rice had studied concert piano before earning a PhD in international affairs, but she added she got to play with Ma not because of her talents but "because I was the National Security Advisor."

Rice also noted that the biggest difference in being out of government was now she could read the newspaper and go on with her day. 

During discussion, Rice responded to questions from Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy and a former adviser to the Bush Administration.  Feaver asked what advice Rice would give President Obama about Iran.

"Iran is a revisionist power," Rice said, seeking to unite Shia dominated portions of the Middle East that were divided by British colonial authority. This makes Iran a threat to Saudi Arabian and Bahrain.

"They are dangerous because they carry out their threats through terrorism," she said. "The international sanctions are building and squeezing the regime."  

Iran's unpredictability means the US cannot allow Iran to gain nuclear weapons, Rice said, adding that she believed President Obama will use military action if necessary.

Rice ended by talking about leading the State Department and her pride in the foreign service.  She said she changed rules on promotion to give emphasis to service in "hardship posts" such as Pakistan or Guatemala. The future of Foreign Service is in changing people's lives, she said.  "There is no greater job." 

Pictued below, Condoleezza Rice meets with students prior to her lecture Tuesday.  Photo by Les Todd.