PITTSBURG — Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state and national security advisor during the George W. Bush administration, appeared Thursday at Pittsburg State University as part of the H. Lee Scott Speaker Series: An Examination of American Life, which has previously featured other high-profile political players including Bill Clinton and Mitt Romney.
At the start of her talk Rice said she was “delighted” to be at PSU to speak about “the challenges we see in the international system and our own country.”
In introducing Rice, PSU Vice President for University Advancement Kathleen Flannery noted some of Rice’s other achievements aside from serving as secretary of state from 2005 to 2009 and national security advisor from 2001 to 2005.
Rice has taught at Stanford University for decades and authored and co-authored several books, including To Build a Better World: Choices to End the Cold War and Create a Global Commonwealth, released in September. Years before her work in the George W. Bush administration and even before her service on President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Council staff as director and senior director of Soviet and East European Affairs, in 1986 Rice served as special assistant to the director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff while an international affairs fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations, of which she remains a member.
Today, Rice said in her speech, we are seeing “the breakdown of an international order that we all really have come to take for granted” since the end of World War II.
In the post-war era, Rice said, the Western nations among the victorious Allies “thought that if they could rebuild the vanquished countries after World War II they could ensure peace.”
They aimed to maintain “free markets, free peoples, protected by American military power,” Rice said. Now, however, that international order is starting to break down. “Why is it starting to break down?” Rice asked.
Rice discussed a wide range of issues, both international and domestic. She said she remembered September 11, 2001, and thinking “well, that’s a strange accident,” when she heard a plane had hit the World Trade Center. She said she called to alert President Bush of what had happened, interrupting his visit to a Florida elementary school where he was famously reading a children’s book, The Pet Goat, to the students.
“Well, that’s a strange accident,” Rice recalled Bush saying to her when they spoke.
Though Rice already had extensive experience in geopolitical affairs on 9/11 at the start of America’s Global War on Terrorism, other issues facing the US today were less well understood, such as cybersecurity, Rice said.
“And then there’s Russia,” she said. “I know Vladimir Putin. I’ve spent a lot of time with Vladimir Putin.”
Putin thinks of himself in comparison to the greatest leaders of Russia throughout the country’s history, she said. “He thinks he is reuniting the Russian people in greatness,” Rice said.
Rice also discussed what she called “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” — populism, nativism, isolationism and protectionism.
Globalization, which she is a proponent of, has been great for a lot of people, but others have been left behind, she said, and “globalizers, people like me,” are going to need to find an answer to those who feel they’ve been left behind. Rice said she’s optimistic, however, that that goal can be met.
“We are still the most innovative people on the face of the Earth,” Rice said, adding that Silicon Valley, where she lives, is a major hub for much of America’s technological innovation today.
“There’s a lot of good things about technology,” Rice noted, but she added that “technology is not in and of itself good.”
Aside from technological innovation, there have been other changes in recent years to be optimistic about, Rice said, such as the development of greater energy production capabilities in North America, reducing the market volatility that used to go hand in hand with dependence on foreign oil from less stable parts of the world. But problems remain.
“The K-12 education system is today our greatest national security threat,” Rice said, because it is failing poorer students. She also noted that some problems do not have easy solutions.
“I don’t know what to do about the opioid-addicted 50-year-old,” she said.
Following her address, PSU President Steve Scott sat down with Rice for a “fireside chat” question-and-answer session.
“I know there’s a lot of people in this room thinking to themselves ‘She needs to run for president,’” Scott said.
Rice said she had spoken earlier to some PSU students.
“We had a nice conversation about how you can take what you learn here at Pittsburg State and take it out into the world,” Rice said. She also talked about the difficulty of figuring out what you want to do with your life, noting that she changed her major while in college.
Rice also discussed some trends on today’s college campuses that she finds troubling. She said she tells her students “you actually don’t have a constitutional right not to be offended,” and that it’s important to hear a wide range of views, and for students to understand that they will hear views they find offensive.
Rice said today’s political climate has a lot to do with how people get their information today. Whereas in the past, the entire country heard the news from a few major nationally-known personalities such as CBS’s Walter Cronkite, today people’s information environments are “so atomized” with social media and specialized news sites and aggregators allowing people to become insulated and isolated from views that differ from their own.
Scott asked Rice a question from his brother, H. Lee Scott — who is also a PSU alum, former CEO of Wal-Mart, and namesake of the university speaker series — about social media in a world where a corporate CEO or the president can speak directly to people, and what that means for the traditional role of diplomats and diplomacy.
Rice said social media is not to blame for all the problems of today’s political climate.
“Technology is an accelerant of underlying trends,” she said, but added that “even if you want to speak directly to the people, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think before you speak.”
Rice said there are problems with social media, however, and people shouldn’t compare their lives with other people’s virtual lives. She said young people today growing up with social media face pressures that older people may not understand.
She also talked about her own youth growing up amidst racism in Alabama. Rice said because of racism, she grew up learning you had to be twice as good to prove yourself.
“I think we grew up with a kind of armor,” Rice said, adding that a lot of people in her community besides herself went on to be very successful, though most experienced a lot of racism, which in some cases had terrible results for people she knew.
“We have a birth defect, America,” Rice said. “It’s called slavery.”
She added, however, that things are improving, and that she’s been around the world and there’s no place that deals with the race issues it has better than America. “We just have to keep working at it,” she said.
Scott also asked Rice about what he called “the I word” — impeachment.
“It’s a very big deal,” Rice said of the recently launched impeachment inquiry against President Trump, adding that she hopes it is taken seriously.
“We’ve got to trust that our representatives can do this in a dignified way,” Rice said. She also added that “classification happens for all kinds of reasons.”
Rice expressed some concerns about Trump’s recent comments regarding China, but noted that we have a duly elected US president.
“I will say that I hope the language around all this calms down a little bit,” she said.
Scott and Rice also discussed college sports, and Scott noted that before the Gorillas, PSU’s teams were known as the Normalites.
“I like the Gorillas a lot better,” Rice said, adding at the end of her talk with Scott that she “had a great time in Gorilla Nation.”
Overall, Rice’s speech and answers to Scott’s questions suggested she is optimistic, but feels there is much work to be done to move America in the right direction.
“This is a strong democracy, but it needs to get stronger,” Rice said in her opening comments prior to her discussion with Scott.
“That promise that it doesn’t matter where you came from, it matters where you’re going,” is essential to American confidence, Rice said, which must be rebuilt for America to succeed in leading the world.