Former Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice talks career path, foreign policy, personal failures at Rackham

Sunday, October 6, 2019 - 4:05pm

Condoleeza Rice, former Secretary of State, discusses her life, career, and policy at Rackham Auditorium Friday.

Condoleeza Rice, former Secretary of State, discusses her life, career, and policy at Rackham Auditorium Friday. Buy this photo
Allison Engkvist/Daily

Hundreds of students, faculty and local community members gathered in Rackham Auditorium Friday to hear former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discuss  life, career and her reflections on several specific points of policy. 

Rice served as Secretary of State under President George Bush from 2005 to 2009. She was the first Black woman to hold the position, after working as Bush’s national security advisor from 2001 to 2005. Currently, she is the Denning Professor in Global Business and Economy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The event was held in conjunction with then opening of the Weiser Diplomacy Center. The Center was established with funding from University of Michigan Regent Ron Weiser (R) and his wife Eileen Weiser in order to institute a leading school of international policy in the Midwest. Since its launch, the center has been committed to bringing in speakers from the world of international diplomacy within a wide range of viewpoints.

University President Mark Schlissel introduced Rice and pointed out her unique position as a figure both in the worlds of policy and academia.

“It would be hard to imagine someone who typifies the confluence of academia and international affairs better that Secretary Condoleezza Rice,” Schlissel said. “Her extraordinary career has furthered both, always fueled by her deep commitment to public service.”  

Rice began her undergraduate career as a student at the University of Denver with the intention of becoming a classical pianist. After attending the Aspen Music Festival the summer after her sophomore year, she realized she was underprepared compared to her classmates. As a result, she happened to take a course in international politics at the end of her junior year, and immediately felt a calling to a new career path. 

 “I wandered into my course at the end of my junior year in international politics that was taught by a man named Josef Korbel — who happened to be Madeleine Albright’s father,” Rice said. “He opened up this world of diplomacy to me ... and I knew all of a sudden what I wanted to be.”  

LSA senior Kate Westa, co-president of WeListen, an organization aimed to foster bipartisan conversation on political topics attended the event. She explained to The Daily that while she had always looked up to Rice, she specifically appreciated the ideological diversity of the speakers the Weiser Center brings, as it allowed her to understand diplomacy in a comprehensive way.

“I have looked up to Condoleezza Rice since I was probably 8 years old — I used to write to the White House about her,” Westa said. “I think hearing all aspects of the foreign services and everything related to foreign policy is very important — we’ll hear from former Secretary (Hillary) Clinton as well. I think it’s so important to hear the different aspects of the job and the different perspectives because there is so much going on in international relations.”

Rice delved into a discussion of pivotal points of foreign policy she influenced while in office — namely the war in Iraq. She acknowledged the controversial nature of the decision and conceded that policies were largely influenced by the context of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“We were a lot more on edge about what could happen by the time of the Iraq evasion than we would have prior to 9/11,” Rice said. “I wish the intelligence would have been better. I still think the Middle East is better off without (Former Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein. But we made mistakes in the post-war period ... It’s very difficult to understand a system that’s that opaque.” 

Reflecting on domestic economic policy, Rice discussed how the so-called ‘American dream’ often feels inaccessible to many Americans. She cited symptoms of late-stage capitalism, such as growing inequality and stagnant mobility, as the point of growing frustration among a large portion of the public. 

“Particularly for a country where we are not united by ethnicity, nationality or religion, but by idea: You can come from humble circumstances, you can do great things,” Rice said. “That better be true! And for too many people it isn’t true.”

 In order to help mediate this growing achievement gap, Rice called on academic institutions such as the University to ensure the stepping stones to a brighter future are continuously available to students in lower socioeconomic classes. 

 “If you’re a great university like Michigan … the one thing you’ve got to do is to make sure that these places are open to the entire bottom of pyramid, so that people have a way to the top of the pyramid,” Rice said. “Because if it’s ever the case that you get to places like this from the top of the pyramid, you’re toast.”

When asked to give advice to the current Trump administration and members of Congress, Rice noted how the current administration faces an obstacle she said she did not have at the time: Twitter protocol. Rice noted the decision-making process can be corroded if politicians automatically go to social media to try to push policy ideas.  

“If I would say one thing to both ends of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — the Congress and the White House — before you tweet, think,” Rice said. “If you are absolutely responsible for our democracy and you say whatever comes to mind, do you know how that's not a good thing?”

After the discussion, Public Policy junior Brett Zaslavsky explained he appreciated Rice’s positive outlook on America’s role in international diplomacy. 

“I think the most inspiring thing about the lecture today was that Dr. Rice outlined a fairly optimistic view of foreign policy and of America’s place in the world going forward,” Zaslavsky said. “I think getting the opportunity to hear that from a career diplomat and somebody who has so much experience with the foreign service was hugely insightful.” 

Rice advised students the career paths and personal passions they take up may not perfectly align with the preconceived notions society hold may hold. She challenged students to find something they love despite what outside individuals may deem suitable for them. 

“Nobody would have looked at me, a Black girl from Birmingham, Alabama, and said ‘you’re going to be a Soviet specialist,’” Rice said. “So, your passion might turn out to be something that doesn’t look like you. I was fortunate to find something I really loved, so once you’ve done that, things have a way of working out.”