Condoleezza Rice on Russia, Populism & Democracy's Challenges

Condoleezza Rice on Russia, Populism & Democracy's Challenges
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On Wednesday, I sat down with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss her new book, “Democracy: Stories From the Long Road to Freedom.” The following transcript has been edited slightly for length and clarity.

Question: The story in the Washington Post [on Tuesday] was interesting in that the principals in the room, many of whom you know -- Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, Dina Powell -- were all on the record saying this [sharing classified information with the Russians] did not happen, this is not the way it went down. Yet we had these leaks that caused this story to really blow up and I guess my question is, what are your thoughts on that and Vladimir Putin saying that “Oh, I’ll provide the transcript, if you want”?

Rice: Well, I don’t think we really need the Russian transcript. I saw that and I thought, “Let’s just leave the Russians out of this.” Look, I totally and completely trust H.R. McMaster. Yesterday when he came out and said that this [information sharing with the Russians] was appropriate, I don't have any reason to believe that H.R. McMaster, who has a sterling reputation, who has defended us and who knows how to do this, and who knows what intelligence information is as well as anybody -- when he says that it’s appropriate I accept that. Now, if there is work to do with the ally whose information this was, then you need to do that work with the ally. But this is another example of White House processes that seem to me to need to be under review. The thing that is clear is that the White House is not working as it should. They need to look at their processes and tighten it all up, so that everyone will be better served.

Q: Do the leaks worry you though?

Rice: Yes the leaks worry me...

Q: You’ve been in this situation both at the White House and the State Department. This administration has been leakier than most, but it also seems that there are leaks coming from other parts of the government. There has been this term called the “deep state,” which has been thrown around a lot which typically refers more to…

Rice: Turkey and Egypt generally…

Q: Regimes you call in your book quasi-authoritarian.

Rice: I really do think that the leaks are problematic because there are proper channels if you think something has happened or something is wrong. There are ombudsmen who can be spoken to, you can always go to Congress and say what’s happened, and as someone who’s served in the government, I think that this practice of going, with all due respect, right to the press with the latest story is not very healthy for the country.

Q: Speaking of Turkey, and in the context of your book, this is a country that is moving in the opposite direction of democracy and is one of our key allies in the region. Trump invites Erdogan to the White House, and then we see the video of his security beating up protesters on the street on Embassy Row. What do you make of this, and is it the right thing for the president to be having authoritarian leaders at the White House?

Rice: Well, he’s the president of Turkey, a longtime ally, and so I’m not surprised that you’re going to have a meeting with the president of Turkey. When I used to be asked what would the Middle East look like when it is democratic, I would say Turkey, because it looked like a country with the right institutions, it was moving closer to Europe, it was moving closer to democratic norms.

A lot of that has been reversed in recent years. And it’s a story that’s been there time and time again with authoritarian governments: When you get too strong an executive, too strong a president, it starts to degrade all the institutions around him, the legislature, the independent judiciary, civil society. And before you know it you have an authoritarian regime.

I’m not yet ready to give up on Turkey. I do think that the referendum, which I don’t think was conducted fairly, even then it was a very close vote for Erdogan. There may still be some life in Turkish institutions and I think it’s important that we don’t give up on Turkey and the European Union doesn’t give up on Turkey. Erdogan is seeing that the international community is responding to what’s going on in Turkey, and there still are plenty of Turks who want to rescue their democracy.

Q: In the book you describe populism and nativism as two of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as far as democracy is concerned. I want to ask you about that, since we have seen this rise in populism across the globe: Brexit, Trump, and even to a certain degree the vote in France. You have a 39-year-old neophyte leading a party that is less than a year old, an outsider to the establishment. What is happening here, what does it say? Is it a symptom of something that’s gone wrong with democracies?

Rice: I do call the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse populism, nativism, protectionism and isolationism. They usually travel together and it didn’t turn out so well for the world the last time around, or for world peace as a matter of fact. But I think there are underlying circumstances here: There's a backlash against globalization, there's a backlash from people who think they haven’t really benefited from globalization, and populists give you easy answers to why you’re not doing well. They say, “It’s the foreigners” or “It’s the others.” If you’re on the left they’ll say, “It’s the big banks.”

Of course, that isn’t really the right answer. We have economies that are changing, [there’s] automation. People need skills. The way to disable populism is to look at those who are responding to it, and to really think of the human potential of those who have been left out.  I believe that globalization is a fact, not a policy. Those of us who believe in free trade and a willingness to move across boundaries still don’t have an answer for those people who have been left out.

Let me say one other thing. People are applauding what happened in France that [Emmanuel] Macron won and [Marine] Le Pen lost, but populists are changing the conversation. Even for mainstream parties and candidates, it’s getting harder to defend immigration and free trade. And so without even winning they can change the nature of the political conversation, so I don’t think the challenge of populism has been met by democracies.

Q: One of the things I want to touch on is that this book is basically a love letter to democracy, especially our democracy, and yet you mention that we’re having our own crisis of confidence here. There’s been an erosion of public trust in Congress, the media, even the Supreme Court is now viewed as more political. One of the other things is how free speech is a hallmark of democracy, yet we’ve seen that there’s been an erosion of this principle on college campuses in places like Berkeley, which is ironic. And you have been the target of some of this illiberalism on college campuses and corporate boardrooms. So what’s going on here, and how can we correct it?

Rice: Let me say a few words about these institutions. We were gifted amazing institutions by the Founding Fathers. A Constitution that is evergreen, a Constitution that is so evergreen that slaves found their rights through that Constitution. So they’re remarkable institutions. But democracy is always balancing on a knife’s edge, because it’s just a little between chaos and too much authority. And the answer is to go through institutions.

When people start to lose confidence in those institutions, you have reason to worry. But we as Americans are still willing to go to the Supreme Court if you think your rights have been violated. So the Supreme Court may not have the mystery it once had and people therefore might be less trusting of it, but they still go there. We still go out and elect people who we think are going to govern and better our interests. So we may not have the same confidence in the people we elect, but we still go out and elect them.

One of the signs that things are going reasonably well for democracy is that we have the states where they’re closer to the people. Federalism is a strength. We have all of these civil society institutions -- civil society is a very important hallmark of democracy -- and people are still helping their Boys & Girls Clubs and the American Red Cross. So we have this infrastructure of democracy, which is why I’m confident about America.

But on the free speech issue, there I think we have a problem, because we’ve stopped listening to each other. It used to be that we had the same sources of information through network news and now we have a multiplicity of places to get information. But instead of taking full advantage of that multiplicity, I fear that what happens is people go to their own channels, their own bloggers, or their own website in an echo chamber where their views are affirmed rather that looking across and seeing that there are people who disagree with them. If you’re always in the company of people who agree with you, you’re going to think of people who don’t agree with you as venal or stupid. I constantly tell my students that if they’re in the company of people who always say “amen” to what you say, find other company. And that is the source of illiberalism, when you are unable to listen to someone who thinks differently. That’s when democracies are in trouble.

Q: But isn’t this all connected in the sense that we now all live in very homogenized worlds. The blue states are getting bluer and the red states are getting redder. We’ve been sorting along tribal lines for some time, it seems to have accelerated in the past 15-20 years, and so it’s no longer just a matter of where you get your news but where you live now.

Rice: Not only that, I feel that we’re dividing along class lines for the first time in our history. Now one thing that has happened in this reaction to globalization is that the elites are not respectful of the values of those who are ordinary citizens, so we seem to be dividing ourselves into ever-smaller identity groups, each with its own narrative, each with its own grievance, and that’s a problem.

We’ve got to get back to a sense of an American identity, and that identity is not nationality or religion or ethnicity. It is a particular idea, and that idea is that you should live in liberty and you should be able to pursue happiness.

I’ve always thought the pursuit of happiness is a strange phrase. Really, I think it’s the pursuit of fulfilment. You can only be fulfilled if you have the tools to be fulfilled, and I think that one of the greatest challenges we have today is around education. One of the things that is dividing us more and more is whether you have good prospects or you don’t. Do you live a neighborhood where the schools are good? If you don’t, your kids may not read until the time they’re in third grade. Do you at least have access to a community college that will give you job training skills so that if you don’t go for four years you will at least come out with a decent job and a decent wage. Too many people don’t have that opportunity. Do you have a way to have your skills keep up with an ever-changing job-market? Too many people don’t have that opportunity. I’d like to see us get back to a sort of “national project” on human potential that every American, who wants to work on it, can have that opportunity. We desperately need something that will bring us back together.

Q: I was just going to say it seems like we don’t have anything that unites us anymore.  Even in Congress people don’t even talk to each other anymore; there is nothing that united the parties. 

Rice: Well you get the democracy that you deserve. You know, we as citizens always criticize our leaders and I sometimes want to say to them, “Go try those jobs, they’re really hard,” But citizens in a democracy have to take responsibility, too. Tocqueville talked about “ceaseless agitation,” citizens constantly use their institutions, constantly challenging them, constantly insisting upon their rights. It’s also individuals taking responsibility for other individuals, recognition that no democracy works if they’re weaklings. We’ve organized human potential and have been better at using human potential better than any country on the face of the Earth. That’s because we’ve recognized that our national creed, our national identity, is that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, it matters where you’re going. You can come from hard circumstances and do great things. We’ve got to make that true for a whole variety of people who no longer feel that.

Q: So it took you three years to write the book, and you’d been thinking about it a long time. As you travel around the country now and talk about the book, has anything surprised you about the reaction to it?

Rice: What has surprised me is the depth of angst about where we are. This book is very much about America’s experience and how hard it has been for us to get to a functioning democracy. See, I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. We couldn’t go to the movie theater or a restaurant. I relate a story in the book: George Wallace was running [for governor], it’s Election Day and there are lines and lines of black people [waiting to vote].

I say to my uncle, “He can’t possibly win, he’s so bad for black people, he can’t possibly win with all those people voting.”

And my uncle said, “Well, he will win because we’re in the minority.”

So then I said, “Then, why do they bother?” And he responded, “Because they know that one day that vote will matter.”

So I come from an experience where people without really true citizenship -- black people in the South -- still voted because they knew that vote would eventually count. The book is about that experience and where we go out into the world where people also want that vote to matter and our moral obligation to help them and the practical sense that we’re better off with democracies.

What surprised me was the angst at our democracy. And I understand it -- I teach at a university and feel it in my students -- but what I’ve tried to say to people is that we have amazing institutions, but nobody ever said we were perfect. We struggled before and we’re struggling now, and we’re going to struggle every day. We’re a work in progress. That’s why the American experience is so important for us to remember, and for us to be a beacon for others to enjoy those same rights.

Q: Do you worry that because there's so much focus on our democracy now that there's no focus on the rest of the world?

Rice: I do, because I try and make a moral and practical case for democracy. The moral case is, people say, “Oh they’re not ready for democracy,” but that’s something someone who lives in a democracy would say about someone who doesn’t live in a democracy. Well, if democracy is the highest form of human potential, then it can’t be true for us and not for them. But, the practical case is democracies don't invade their neighbors. Democracies don’t traffic in child soldiers. Democracies don’t harbor terrorists as a state policy. So there's a reason to have more democratic states. We took an incredible risk that a democratic Germany and a democratic Japan would never threaten their neighbors again, and look at how well it’s turned out. So I hope we can keep advocating for people who need to be free.

Let me say one more thing. I want people to understand that democracy promotion is not Iraq and Afghanistan. I have a regret about that. It was so hard and people saw it and thought, “I don’t want any part in democracy promotion.” But those were security problems we dealt with by military force. I would have never said to President Bush, “Let’s bring democracy to Iraq by military force.” But once you’ve overthrown the dictator -- we thought Saddam Hussein was a threat, more imminent than he actually was but he was a threat in the region -- and al-Qaeda was harbored by the Taliban, now you had to have a view of what comes after. And we thought giving a chance for democracy was the right thing. But most of the time, democracy promotion is far less dramatic than that. I like to describe then what we did to help the Colombians and the Kenyans.

Q: What about the humanitarian case, vis-a-vis Libya?

Rice: Well, it’s really hard. Personally I was 50-50 on Libya. So if you’re going to do that, and you’re going to cut off the head, you really have to have a plan for what comes next.

Q: And is Syria both? National security and humanitarian?

Rice: Syria is both. It certainly is national security concern but it is a humanitarian nightmare. That war has got to end.

Q: Last question: As you look around the globe, what concerns you the most?

Rice: North Korea. You have a reckless, potentially slightly unhinged leader in North Korea who is quickly acquiring the capability, nuclear capability, and the means to deliver it, potentially even to the United States. No American president can live with that. The Chinese have to be convinced that they have to tighten the screws to this regime. And they’re the only ones with the leverage to do it. They’ve always worried that if they do that, the regime might collapse

Q: Which is their greatest fear.

Rice: Right. But now we have a bigger concern. And they should have a bigger concern, which is that no American president is going to let that stand. By the way, if we’re looking for things to cooperate with the Russians on, if a North Korean ballistic missile can reach Alaska, it can reach Vladivostok.

Tom Bevan is the Co-Founder & Publisher of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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