Presbyterian layperson and former Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, recently addressed the AIG ConnectEd event in Nashville. She told the thousands of financial advisors that the world is experiencing “techtonic shifts” the likes of which we have not experienced since the end of World War II.
“We are responding globally to three great shocks,” referring to the post 9/11 reality of global terrorism, the upheavals in the Middle East and what she called “big nations behaving badly.”
Shock 1: Terrorism
Rice spoke in deeply personal terms about September 11, 2001. Then Secretary of State Rice responded to the news of the first plane crashing into the Twin Towers thinking to herself, “that was a very strange accident.”
She recalled saying to the President who was at an event at a school in Florida, “The United States of America is under attack,” and adding her recommendation that he not return to Washington, “Sir, it’s not safe here.”
Rice acknowledged that many things changed that day and “from that day on we would worry more about ungoverned places.”
She then turned her attention to one such place: the territory between Iraq and Syria where, as Rice put it, “a terrorist group so brutal that Al Qaida expelled them,” is establishing a safe haven. She was referring to ISIL, or ISIS, the Islamic State.
Shock 2: Twin revolutions in the Middle East
“On the one hand,” Rice noted, “we have witnessed the rise of popular pressures to get rid of authoritarian dynastic governments that have not delivered.”
“We were at first exhilarated and then we became a little bit terrified,” Rice said. “But the seizure of rights is almost always a terrifying moment.”
Sharing personally about her own experience of seeing and reading the Declaration of Independence of the United States, Rice acknowledged that “about half way down it turns into a fist-shaking list. I found myself asking, ‘who were these people?’ And then I remembered, they were revolutionaries.”
The Stanford professor then adopted a very direct tone, saying, “Democracy is not only where rights are seized – but where rights find expression in a rule of law and then those laws are institutionalized – and that’s a very, very long struggle.”
Pointing again to the nascent democracies around the world, Rice said, “Democracy takes time. We’re going to have to be more patient with the people now seeking it.”
She then marveled at the “evergreen” nature of the U.S. Constitution. Rice said, “Our constitution is amazing but it’s a constitution that started out counting my ancestors as three fifths of a man. It is the same constitution that guaranteed the right of Martin Luther King to preach and speak freely and resist until freedom became a reality for every American and it is that same constitution to which I would take the oath of office as the 66th Secretary of State – what a constitution.”
Rice then described the second revolution underway in the Middle East. “There are really only three state systems in the Middle East: Egypt, Iran and Turkey.” All the rest, Rice said, were basically made up by outsiders who “paid no attention to the very deep internal divisions among the peoples in those places.”
This is what Rice sees as what is “coming to a head in Syria,” a place she describes as “flying apart.”
Shock 3: Big states behaving badly
Rice said, “When big powers get involved, bad things happen.”
She used Russia as an example. “Vladimir Putin never accepted the outcome of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is his conviction that Russian populations have been orphaned in other states. He intends to reunite them,” Rice said.
Rice said that Putin “has taken upon himself the mantle of reuniting the Russian people.” And she believes that he sees himself as the next “Great” after Catherine and Peter.
Rice then turned her attention to the role America must play.
“There is a vacuum now in the international system – and nature abhors a vacuum – it will not be filled with the so-called ‘international community.’ The United States of America is the only country in the world that can do what must now be done.”
She then acknowledged, “I know that Americans are tired – I’ve heard that. We’re tired of war, terrorism, vigilance – people are tired. But great powers can’t get tired. Putin is not tired, China is not tired, the Islamic State is not tired – and allowing them to dominate will be bad for our interests.”
Rice said, “We need to refocus on who we are. We are not just ‘some other country’ – we are exceptional because of who we are and what we have done.”
She imagined a “little green man from Mars arriving in America and saying, ‘This shouldn’t work! They come from every ethnic background imaginable. They don’t have the same religion. Some of them are nothing at all, and yet they have a sense of being American.'”
Rice said that as Americans “we share an aspirational narrative – it’s not about where you came from but where we’re going.”
She then gave a withering critique of the current state of education in America and concluded that “our poor education system may be our greatest national security threat.”
As Americans, Rice said, “our view is that history should unfold toward freedom, free people and free markets. It is in freedom that people find their greatest potential.”
Climbing the rhetorical ladder as her Presbyterian minister father might have done, Rice declared,
- “No ordinary country would have sent young men to storm the beaches of Normandy.
- “No ordinary country would have stood vigilant in Asia…
- “No ordinary country would have sent volunteers to the front lines of places like Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Concluding, she said, “It is hard sometimes in a world that criticizes and calls us names and then steps back and won’t do the hard work that just has to be done. But part of the responsibility of power is endurance in doing what is right and good. And remember, the freest and most generous nation in the world will also be the most powerful.”
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