A Conversation with Condoleeza Rice

The Secretary of State gets beneath the headlines to address the theory and practice of American statecraft.

On July 25, 2005, AI editor Adam Garfinkle spoke with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in her State Department office. Our purpose was to elicit from Secretary Rice a conceptual analysis of U.S. foreign policy and of the challenges the world now faces. We present the transcript of this conversation–with minor editorial clarifications–in full below.

–The Editors


AI: Madame Secretary, I’ve got ten questions for you today, and the first is this: We assumed during the Cold War that strong states were the source of most international security problems. Nowadays, a lot of people argue that weak and failing states are the larger source of problems, because they leave room for non-state bad guys to plot and plan. Do you think that’s really true? And if it is true, is it a passing blip, or is this a real structural change in world politics that you sense?

Rice: Well, first of all, I do think it’s true at this particular point in time. While there are strong states that have conflictual issues from time to time, there are no really underlying conflictual interests that would drive them to the kind of animosity that we had between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War, for instance. And so if you look at most of the great powers out there, they actually have perhaps more in common than they have in conflict.

Now the really interesting question is: Will that last over time, or is this a sort of structurally epiphenomenal period after which you will see the re-emergence of great state conflict? I happen to think that because international politics is partly about agency, not just grand events moving or grand forces moving, that if we’re smart about it we can probably get to a place where you would not see great power conflict for years, decades, maybe even longer to come. If you go back to the President’s September 2002 National Security Strategy, it essentially foreshadows that, saying that you could come to a time where great power conflict doesn’t exist and wouldn’t exist again long into the future.

Now, the flipside of that is the weak state theory, which I think is clearly true for the time being: the inability of states to engage in what people have called “responsible sovereignty”, to do things like guard their borders, to have police forces or border guards that are not corrupt, to manage their internal affairs in a way that does not permit the growth of terrorist cells and the like, the ability to manage trade and flows of people so that you don’t get the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction materials or the like. All of those functions are difficult for any state, but particularly difficult for weak states, and so the ability to strengthen the capacity of states is critical. We had a long period in which we thought of globalization and transnationalism as positive trends. And for the most part, when you talk about trade and movements of people and openness, they are positive trends. But there’s a downside to it, too, which is that if sovereignty is breaking down, or if the ability to control those aspects and those elements that we associate with sovereignty is breaking down, then you’re very vulnerable. So I think for this moment in time, I would say yes, that’s right.

AI: Our second question is a little more neuralgic. The diplomacy of the Iraq war has suggested to many that we and some of our allies–I won’t name them–lack a basic consensus over what is a legitimate use of force, and what role international institutions, including the UN Security Council, have in defining a legitimate use of force. How serious a lack of consensus is this? I ask because one contemplates NATO: How can NATO be an effective organization in the long run if its members disagree about first principles every time a serious crisis arises? What do you think has caused this lack of consensus, and what if anything can we do to reconcile it?

Rice: I would be careful about extrapolating from a single case. Iraq is a fairly unique phenomenon in that you had a consensus about the problem, about the threat and about the outlaw status of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Otherwise you would not have had 17 UN Security Council resolutions, and you would not have had sanctions on the Iraqis–that we now know were not working very well, but nonetheless a sanctions regime that was completely supported in theory by the international community. So I don’t think there was any disagreement about the threat of Saddam Hussein or about the outlaw status of that regime. But I also don’t think that there is anything in history that suggests that you’re always going to have consensus about the timing of the use of force. When you think about the Kosovo situation, for instance, you also couldn’t get a UN Security Council resolution–

AI: Well, but NATO was good enough for that.

Rice: Right, you got a NATO resolution, but you were not able to get a UN Security Council resolution at that time. The only times in which you were actually able to get a UN Security Council resolution on the use of force were the Korean crisis, when of course the Russians had walked out of the room, and the Gulf War in 1991, which I think was possibly a kind of crack in time where you were having such egregious behavior by the Iraqis and also the fact that the Russians were in a particular state at that point, that you got agreement on the use of force. So I think that while the Iraq situation is in many ways unique, the fact that you can’t get consensus on the use of force is actually not very unusual in international history. It means that at any given time, you may be operating with a coalition of the willing. So I think this is in many ways an argument that’s more theoretical than practical.

You’d obviously always like to have the widest possible support for the use of force but, you know, when you have 17 violated Security Council resolutions, and when you have a state that has wreaked as much havoc in a region as important as the Middle East as Iraq had, then I think somebody sometimes has to take a decision to act, and it was a coalition that took a decision to act.

AI: Let’s move to Asia for a moment, okay? Many observers of Asia see a trend toward pan-Asian attitudes and institutions at the expense of Transpacific ones. You’ve got the ASEAN-plus-Three meeting, and the East Asia summit coming up, and I know you know about this because it was a main theme of your Tokyo speech in March. Is this a problem for the United States, and if it is, what options do we have to actually do anything about it?

Rice: I don’t think it’s a problem that there’s an identity that is pan-Asian. I think it would be a problem if it becomes an exclusivist identity, but I don’t think that all the states who are a part of that identity want it to be exclusivist. I don’t think Japan wants it to be exclusivist. In talking to a number of Southeast Asians, they don’t want it to be exclusivist. The Australians certainly don’t want it to be. And so the idea that you would have existing side-by-side organizations that are pan-Asian and organizations that are Transpacific I think is unproblematic. The advantage to the Transpacific ones is that they bring together democratic forces as well, and so that needs to be kept in mind, but I think there are plenty of institutional possibilities to strengthen those Transpacific ties, and the United States has a lot of leverage and considerable influence with which to do that.

AI: You have stressed “transformational diplomacy”–that’s the phrase we’ve heard a lot–and, as I understand it, that’s the determination to actually fundamentally solve a problem when you can as opposed to just tinkering with it or managing it. But obviously prudential judgment has to be brought to bear because not every problem has a solution. So, assuming that there’s such a thing as “a bridge too far” in foreign policy, how do you know when you’re on the near side of one?

Rice: Well, I don’t think you can think of it in those terms. I think you have to decide what is critical to American interests and American security interests and you have to go after those problems.

I also think that the other part of transformational diplomacy is that what you’re trying to do is to increase the capacity of states to manage and to deal with problems as well. It goes back to the first point about weak states. If you don’t believe that you can tolerate a situation in which weak states become either breeding grounds for terrorism, or transit points for terrorism, or unable to control their environment and therefore have a spillover effect into the international system, then you have to do something to increase capacity. And so part of transformational diplomacy is working with other states to increase their capacity to change people’s lives.

You’re not going to be able to do it in every case, no, but clearly there are enough key places that you’re going to have to be able to do that: in the Middle East, in some countries in Africa. And I think if you have it as a goal that it’s not just up to the United States to do this, but that you have partners and that you actually have willing states who want to be a part of this, it doesn’t overstretch your capacity to try and do it. No, you’re not going to resolve every problem, but if you manage to do well in some percentage of those cases, you’re going to leave the world a lot better off than if you hadn’t tried.

AI: Absolutely. The next question is this: The hallmark of President Bush’s second term was established in the second Inaugural, which is the spread of democracy worldwide as America’s mission. So in that light, what do you make of the arguments that we’ve all heard from time to time, that if electoral democracy comes too soon, before the institutions and attitudes of liberal democracy are established, you can end up with populist demagogy? And I’m sure you also know of the data which suggest that young democracies correlate with both interstate and civil war. So, presumably, the application of this mission, which I don’t think anybody would doubt is desirable, has to be done with some care. How does that actually apply in the real world, say, in the Middle East, where its focus is today?

Rice: Well, the first thing is that democracy is not just elections. Democracy is, in fact, also the creation of liberal institutions, the strengthening of civil society–and most of our democracy programs are actually aimed at both those elements. It’s later into the process that you get into election assistance.

We’ve been working in a lot of places for a long time on civil society development and institutional development. You look at a place like Ukraine. I was in Ukraine in 2001. You would never have guessed that the Orange Revolution in 2004 was actually going to be led by a combination of opposition and civil society groups. But those groups have been strengthened and supported over a period of time, so democracy is more than just elections, it is also institutions and civil society, and you have to work at all elements of it.

But I also reject the notion that because democracy is hard and because there are risks associated with democratization that you avoid trying. The question I would ask skeptical people is, “Okay, then, what is the answer? Is it continued authoritarianism?” Well, that hasn’t gotten us very far, particularly in the Middle East, where all it’s done is breed opposition outside of legitimate channels, so that you get extremism instead. It clearly isn’t the case that the United States of America ought to argue that, “Well, those people just aren’t ready for democracy.” Is that the answer to “there might be risks associated with democracy?”

And when it comes to the question of whether you might, in fact, get extremists elected, which is another way that this is sometimes put, I think you have to ask yourself if you are better off in a situation in which extremists, Islamists and others, get to hide behind their masks and operate on the fringes of the political system, or would you rather have an open political system in which people have to actually contest for the will of the people? And who does best in a contest for the will of the people? To a certain extent, you have to trust these values, and you have to believe that while democracy is very hard–it is certainly not an easy system to bring into being–I would have two answers: First, it’s certainly better than anything else that we can cling to; and secondly, what’s the alternative?

AI: During the Cold War we were all familiar with varieties of anti-Americanism, mostly on the Left. A lot of people now claim that not only is there more anti-Americanism, but that its sources are more diverse. Do you think that’s so and if you do, where does this new anti-Americanism come from? Is it just a reaction to American conduct after the 9/11 attacks or is it because we’re No. 1 and there’s a natural envy? What do you think accounts for it?

Rice: I think people have to be more rigorous about what they mean by anti-Americanism. Clearly, this is still the most popular place in the world to come if you want to be educated, or if you want to immigrate. The United States is still a pretty popular place. American culture, both good and bad, is very much sought after abroad. And I still think that the values of the United States are the most universal of all values.

Now, I do think that we’ve gone through a period of time in which the United States has had to do very difficult things, as the most powerful state in the international system, to shape the environment so that things began to change. And I would give a couple examples where those decisions were wildly unpopular at the time but now have become almost common wisdom. For example, the decision that we weren’t going to deal with Yasir Arafat because he was a failed, bankrupt leader and there was going to be no peace in the Middle East until the Palestinians had new leadership. Now it’s almost common wisdom. But when the President said that in June of 2002, it was considered an outrageous statement.

AI: It made me happy.


Rice: (Laughs.) You’re unusual, Adam. For most people, it was, “How can you do that? You have to deal with Arafat. You’ll never get a peace without him.” Well, we’ve learned something very different.

AI: Well, we still may not get a peace without him, but we certainly weren’t going to get one with him.

Rice: Indeed, and the President’s point was that the Palestinian people deserve better. They deserve a government that is democratic and not corrupt, that is transparent and all of those things. Now everybody talks about transparency in the Palestinian Authority; the Palestinians, too, by the way, talk about transparency in the Palestinian Authority. So that’s just an example of taking a difficult course.

AI: He changed the whole conversation with that.

Rice: Completely changed the conversation about that. That’s the kind of thing where the United States has to make a difficult decision.

We also had to make a difficult decision in Iraq. Not everybody liked it. I do think now though that if you go, like I did, to the Brussels conference and listen to people talking about how a stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors and at peace with itself could change the entire structure of the Middle East, that’s now common wisdom that that’s the case. So the United States has had from time to time to make difficult decisions, and when you have to make difficult decisions, sometimes people want to shoot the messenger. And on some of these hard things that have had to be said, that’s the way it’s been.

But it’s also the case that 60 years of American policy is somewhat at fault here. I don’t try now to go back and judge in retrospect the decisions that were taken over the whole history of the Cold War about the Middle East and authoritarianism, but the perception was that the United States was associated with authoritarian regimes, and that there was a kind of Middle East exceptionalism when it came to democracy. I think that has hurt us. But the President is on a different course now, and I think it’s appreciated.

AI: I wish I had time to go into more detail on that particular matter, but let me ask you just one thing. What does that actually mean? To take just one example out of dozens you could think of, does that mean the President thinks or you think that putting the Shah of Iran back on his Peacock Throne in 1953 was a mistake, that that did not contribute to stability for 25 years?

Rice: I’m sure at the time it was a very tough decision, but you can’t effectively go back into time and try to put yourself in the context of what everybody was feeling at that particular point in time. You take decisions in a particular political and temporal context and I have never been one to go back and say, “Well, they made a mistake in X, Y and Z”, because that’s not fair. But the cumulative effect of policies over a long period of time where not only did we not speak out about authoritarian practices, but where those practices then denied a legitimate channel to dissent have indeed come back, I think, to haunt us.

AI: Speaking of the distant past, you and I both went to graduate school and got inundated with arms control, Sovietology and all that stuff. And now there’s no Soviet Union and now people are talking about a second nuclear age of incipient medium-power proliferation. All that stuff we learned in graduate school: Is it worth a hoot? Is any of it still useful? Or does some of it actually get in the way of clear thinking in our present situation?

Rice: (Laughs.) I’m clearly a dinosaur since the first book that I wrote was called The Soviet Union and the Czechoslovak Army, and neither of those countries exists anymore.

I do think that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a break in the old system and the beginning of a new one. And I have thought that the end of the Soviet Union and 9/11 were kind of book-ends; there was that period in between where we didn’t really know what the shape of international conflict was going to look like. But I’ve found that what was useful from studying as a political scientist–earlier in economics and then in political science as a graduate student–was that you gain certain analytic tools about the international system. You learn to understand how incentives are imprinted on the international system by the most powerful states and how states respond to them or don’t. Those are the kinds of things that I think are useful.

But much of the arms control theory that we learned should probably go the way of people who study ancient texts. The key is to make current policy respond to the new threats on the proliferation side, not to remain stuck in the past.

I remember the debates at the time of the U.S. decision to move beyond the ABM Treaty, and to finally decide that the ABM Treaty should be put out of its misery. And I remember having discussions with people from time to time and they would say, “But, you know, it’s prevented war.” And I would think, “No, it hasn’t prevented war.” Actually, to the degree that it was a part of a system that had Mutually Assured Destruction at its core, okay, maybe–but on what grounds today would you expect that the United States and Russia would engage in suicidal nuclear war? So even if you want to grant the utility of the ABM Treaty at the time of the Soviet Union, when really the only thing that we agreed about was that we would prefer not to annihilate each other, what was the point of it in 2002?

And by the way, that’s why when there would be summits everything was focused on arms control, because the summit–between Brezhnev and Carter or Reagan and Gorbachev–was an opportunity to reassure the rest of the world that we actually didn’t want to annihilate each other and, by the way, them as well. And so this was a system which I wrote papers on, and I’m sure you did too, a system of strategic stability that came out of a particular political context in which the United States and the Soviet Union were mortal enemies but essentially didn’t want to annihilate each other–and so we created strategic stability as a concept. When you lost the political venom that was underneath the U.S.-Soviet relationship, you no longer needed this system of strategic stability. But people couldn’t let go of the ABM Treaty because it was part of “strategic stability.” That to me was a good lesson in why you have to be able to move beyond whatever it was you were taught in graduate school.

AI: Now, Dr. Kissinger said a couple of months ago that he thought it might be a good idea if the world’s main energy consumers sat down together to think through in concert how they might avoid beggar-thy-neighbor, 19th-century style competitions for resources. Whether you think this idea of sitting down in private, in a sort of Metternichian concert diplomacy, is a good idea or not, do you think we yet have a coherent diplomacy to handle global resource issues?

Rice: It’s an interesting question. I do think that energy is becoming an increasingly important part of the diplomatic calculus, and I’m not quite sure that we have fully accounted for it in our diplomacy. The President has begun to do that because when he talks to nations about economic growth and development, energy is always a part of this discussion. It’s also the case that this cannot simply be competition for fossil fuels. If it’s competition for fossil fuels, you are back into a kind of 19th-century world of scarce resources with everybody vying for the same pie. And it seems rather antiquated in a world in which oil is a traded commodity. You’re not in the same situation where people are simply trying to put their stake on this field or that field. But it has that feel when you think of just competition for fossil fuels.

If you think of it, though, in the more 20th-century, post-World War II way that we conceive of the global trading system–which was not zero-sum but rather one in which you could have additive policies–there are ways to approach this in which the pie of energy expands; perhaps not in the immediate term, but with technology in the longer term. So that I thought what came out of the G-8 meeting in Gleneagles on global climate change had advantages not just for the environment, but advantages on the energy side–that you would have commitment to trying to find clean sources of energy through technological innovation. It gives you a whole different way to think about the energy problem.

You’re obviously going to have to solve the nuclear energy problem, too. If states are going to be able to diversify their energy sources–which is why we’re exploring civil-nuclear energy cooperation with India–you simply can’t be in a position in which you have huge growing economies like China and India and others while the energy supply is fixed. So the combination of increasing the exploration and production of fossil fuels–the sort of thing that Saudi Arabia has promised to do in the longer run–but also making that energy resource less finite through the applications of new technologies and the engaging of civil-nuclear cooperation, I think are all ways that you can avoid the kind of 19th-century competition for resources that underlay the whole collapse of the Concert system.

AI: Here’s a question that loops back to the failed state issue, but that starts from a different direction. One of the things we all learned in school is that when the international environment changes, governments need new skill sets to deal with those changes, and sometimes, to get those new skill sets, we have to reorganize ourselves–as we’ve seen in recent years with the creation of the Homeland Security Department and a new intelligence community arrangement. Well, one of the skill sets everybody acknowledges we need is how to deal with weak and failing states, including in post-conflict situations. We know how to set up a hospital and a radio station. But what we don’t know how to do is create viable, self-sustaining institutions in societies that don’t have them. So we have a new Office for Reconstruction and Stabilization in this building that Carlos Pasqual is running, and I know you’ve voiced very strong support for that office. So how’s that office coming along so far, and how far does it have to go until you are satisfied that it has the operational capacity you think we need?

Rice: Carlos is doing a terrific job with it, and I think it’s coming along. It’s got great support from the key committees on the Hill. But it’s going to have to get larger, and I have a checklist I use to make sure about its connection to others in the international system working this problem. But let me keep on the point of skills first.

It’s absolutely the case that when I sit here, whether I’m talking to the transitional Liberian leadership or whether I’m talking with people about Haiti, or talking with John Garang–who I talked to recently about Sudan–or talking to the Iraqis or talking to the Afghans, the same issues keep coming up. These are states without reliable police forces, for instance. They’re states without a reliable system of borders and customs management. They are states that haven’t quite yet figured out a number of the economic issues that they have to deal with. I mean it’s just capacity, capacity, capacity, and it’s the same issues time and time again. And we’re talking about states that are in the Caribbean, states that are in the Middle East, states that are in Africa, the Palestinians–it’s the same set of issues. They don’t have reliable civilian controlled security forces. You can go through the list.

We haven’t been well organized to help them. And so what we’ve done, every time one of these crises has broken out–and, by the way, the first challenge came to light in Bosnia–is make ad hoc arrangements for each one. And so finally you say to yourself, “Okay, when are we going to realize that this is not an ad hoc problem? This is a problem that’s going to continue to recur.” That’s when you start to get institutional capacity inside the Department of State.

Now, the Defense Department would be the first to tell you that the military can do some of these things on a temporary basis, but it’s not their forte, and they certainly don’t want to have to do it on a long-term basis. Now, to my mind, not only do we need to strengthen our own capacity, but we also need to help other states strengthen their capacities. So one thing that Carlos has been doing is talking to other states about who can create the equivalent of a Civilian Reserve–civil servants who can help with all these various elements. It’s sometimes as simple as, how do you set up and maintain a ministry? You’ve got a minister: now what’s underneath him? And so getting other states to do this, too, will be very crucial.

And then there has to be some sort of international coordinating mechanism. There are different stages that states go through, but particularly when they’re coming out of a post-conflict situation, they need immediate help in some of these areas, and then they need medium-term help, and then they need longer-term help. I’m really hopeful. It’s one of the issues that the United Nations, with its peace-building commission that it is talking about as part of UN reform, could really deal with: How do you get that immediate help into the field? It’s one of the reasons that we’ve pushed so hard that you’ve got to have broad UN reform, not just UN Security Council reform…

AI: Absolutely right.

Rice:…because while everybody’s talking about the Security Council–and you know, Security Council reform is important–but I was out in Sudan, looking at the need to build a sustained, comprehensive peace agreement between the north and south of Sudan, solve the Darfur problem and begin to deal with Darfur as a part of this, thinking, “Where is the capacity internationally to do this?” So yes, these transformations first of all of our foreign ministries and the State Department have to get done, and then I think we have to have better international capacity as well.

AI: One last question, Madame Secretary–the softball of all softballs. In January of 2009 there will be a new president. We don’t know if the president is going to be a Democrat or a Republican, or whatever. It’s a long time from now. But still, from the vantage point of the summer of 2005, what do you think the one or two principal legacies of these two terms will be–or even better, what would you like them to be?

Rice: I believe that the President’s second Inaugural will stand as one of the most important statements of American policy of many, many, many years.

AI: I agree.

Rice: The response to it has been pretty dramatic around the world, if you look at the multiple democratic sprouts that are out there now. So I think the real issue is: Can you leave a foundation in which those sprouts are beginning to grow into something more sustainable?

I do not believe for a minute that by 2009 you will have stable democracies in all of these places. I just don’t see that. You didn’t have a stable democracy in the United States for a fair number of years–forget just after 1776–even after 1789. Institutions have to grow not just in capacity but in legitimacy. It takes repeated interactions by the population with those institutions to believe in them and to begin to channel problems through those institutions instead of outside of them. That’s all the process of democratic consolidation. What the legacy has to be is to leave the foundation in place, and to leave American policy and American institutions that can support and sustain that process of democratic consolidation. So I really think that’s where it is.

I do think, too, that the other major legacy will be progress on the new proliferation agenda. We were laughing a few minutes ago about angels dancing on the head of an SS-18 when we were in graduate school–

AI: Well, the SS-18 had a big bus.

Rice: Yeah, a lot of angels could dance on the head of that thing. But now, the challenges are very different where you’re talking about secretive regimes and dual-use technologies–not something you can necessarily see with national technical means and not necessarily something that they parade through the streets. How do you deal with that proliferation challenge? How do you deal with the A.Q. Khan phenomenon? Those are major issues.

And then finally, on the terrorism front, being able to break up these organizations like al-Qaeda, that’s all critical. Defend the homeland, that’s critical too. But will we have also laid a foundation in which moderate Islam is on the ascendant. If I look at places like Pakistan, I know that in 2001 that country was on its way to extremism. It’s now pulled back from that brink, and you have a president in Pakistan who’s trying to move it in a different direction. There are stories like that across the broader Middle East. The moderates have to win.

AI: Thank you, Madame Secretary.

Rice: Thank you.


Appeared in: Volume 01, Number 1 | Published on: September 1, 2005
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