Towards the end of 2016, three months before a course-altering U.S. Presidential election, Susan Rice was feeling hopeful about the future. As she shared in an August 2016 interview, “I tell my kids this: they couldn’t be luckier to be living in the world at this time.”
Rice was in her fourth year serving as President Obama’s National Security Advisor—Obama’s eighth year in office. The administration had much to celebrate in terms of foreign and domestic policy successes. These included the achievement of a landmark global climate agreement, a new multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, and the advancement of LGBTQ social rights in the United States. As National Security Advisor, Rice played an integral role in 2014 climate change negotiations with China which paved the way towards the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. She also worked with Iran, Russia, and Western European States to put in place the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which severely restricted Iran’s ability to become a nuclear power.
Rice is both a scholar and foreign policy leader. After earning a BA in History from Stanford University in 1986, Rice earned her doctorate in International Relations from Oxford University, though she has spent most of her career as a public servant, including as Ambassador to the United Nations from 2009-2013. Her approach to international policy emphasizes diplomacy and negotiation. As a liberal in international relations terms, Rice understands foreign policy as a positive sum game, not a zero-sum game as espoused by realists. This contributed to her alignment with Obama in the pursuit of multilateral agreements like the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and Paris Climate Accords: undergirding both agreements was the notion that all parties had something to gain from collaboration (new trade and investment opportunities for Iran and a less rapidly heating planet for all 195 signatory countries, respectively), even if collaborators were required to give something up in the process. Rice’s engagements with China similarly reflected her belief that China’s growing economic clout was not a threat, but rather an opportunity to strengthen bilateral ties and create more prosperity at home. This view of other countries as potential partners in global problem solving constitutes a legacy that would be inverted in expected ways in the Trump era.
Rice has been a bold voice of opposition to Donald Trump’s unraveling of the preceding administration’s foreign policy achievements and progressive record on some key environmental and social issues. As she asserted in a January 2020 op-ed, “It’s hard to place confidence in the representations of an administration that lies almost daily about matters large and small.” Rice has been vocal against Trump’s careless foreign policy in the Middle East, including the recent assassination of Iranian General Suleimani that provoked an attack on a U.S. base in Iraq. The future consequences of Sulleimani’s targeted killing, which came in the wake of the administration’s May 2018 withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (what Rice had called Trump’s “most foolish decision yet”), are still being speculated.
Rice’s voice in the public sphere no longer espouses a message of political hope or optimism. The U.S.’s abrogation of leadership on climate change compounds her concerns about the current national security “strategy.” She has criticized the Trump administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge and act upon Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election. In November 2019, Trump’s impending impeachment led her to conclude that the U.S. has an “increasingly dysfunctional” democracy. Political moments can generate waning optimism. Nevertheless, policy makers and the general public alike will benefit from Rice’s continued and prominent voice lending national security expertise and advocacy for the public good.
The Lesley community is thrilled to welcome Amb. Susan Rice to the Boston Speakers Series.