The Deciding Decade: Susan Rice on rebuilding trust and the future of our foreign policy
Pete Buttigieg: Hi, I’m Pete Buttigieg, and this is The Deciding Decade.
Restoring the credibility of the United States will be an immediate, urgent task for the next administration and an ongoing effort through the decade ahead. Countries and peoples around the world trust the United States far less than at any other time in modern memory as a consequence of Donald Trump’s administration reversing American leadership on issues like climate change, insulting and abandoning our allies, and attacking our democratic institutions here at home, while cozying up to dictators and strongmen around the world. The work ahead will be daunting and exceptionally important, not just for America’s future, but the world’s. So I thought it was important at a time like this to have one of America’s preeminent foreign policy leaders and thinkers on the podcast, and I am so thrilled that Ambassador Susan Rice agreed to join us and have a conversation about the future of our foreign policy.
For those who aren’t familiar with Ambassador Rice, she is a remarkable person who served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations during the first term of the Obama administration — the first Black woman ever to hold that position — and was President Obama’s National Security Advisor in his second term. She is a longtime respected American diplomat who spearheaded a number of initiatives that helped America lead with integrity throughout the Obama administration. She also has a remarkable story, one you can and should read in her New York Times bestselling book Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For.
Welcome, Ambassador Rice. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Susan Rice: It’s great to be with you, Mayor Pete. Thanks for having me.
Pete Buttigieg: I remember hearing your name a lot when I was a student at Oxford, and you had served in the Clinton administration, among other roles, as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State responsible for our relationships and operations in Africa. I believe you were 32 years old, the youngest person ever to hold an assistant secretary position in the Department of State.
I just want to ask you about arriving in that position, the youngest person ever to be appointed, and in particular, knowing that you were doing so as an exceptionally young person, and in a predominantly male, predominantly white field. Did you feel an additional pressure to prove yourself, or how did you arrive with the right mentality, knowing that you belonged in that role?
Susan Rice: Well, it’s interesting, Pete. You’re taking me back in time. I had spent the first term of the Clinton administration in the White House at the National Security Council. And I had done my PhD dissertation on Africa and I had a substantive policy knowledge, but moving over in the second term of the Clinton administration to run the Africa bureau and all of its operations in 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, 100 people based in Washington and 5,000 based out in our embassies around the world in Africa, and then having a pretty large budget, that was a big leap. And as you pointed out, most of the people who I worked with and who worked under me were career foreign service officers who were 20 to 30 years my senior, and most of them white and male. To add complexity to the whole thing, I was a brand-new mother. I had just had our first child. He was three months old and breastfeeding when I started at the State Department.
Suffice it to say, I was not the person that many of these ambassadors expected to be their boss. It was a combination of things. Being an African-American woman was part of it, but my youth, as you point out, was really I think the hardest thing for them to swallow, and my relative inexperience on the kind of career path that they had been on, where you literally start as a foreign service officer in your 20s and it’s not until you’re in your 50s that you’re able to become an ambassador.
It was a challenge, and I was conscious of the skepticism. I made some early mistakes that could have been deadly, but were driven from a desire to get things done. I knew President Clinton. I knew Secretary of State Madeleine Albright well. I knew what my marching orders were in terms of getting policy progress accomplished, and my instinct was just to drive, drive, drive to get that stuff done.
What I learned was that, in my rush to get as much done as I could, that I was not patient enough, that I was not respectful enough of my colleagues’ knowledge and experience, that I was in such a hard-charging mode, that I was leaving a lot of them behind. And I write in the book about how I was incredibly fortunate to have a senior colleague who cared enough to help me, take me out to lunch and basically take me to the woodshed when I thought we were going for Chinese food. He told me very honestly, giving me what I call tough love, the hard messages that you may not want to hear, but that people who care about you are willing to tell you, about where I was screwing up, and that if I didn’t get my act together, I was going to fail.
That intervention was crucial.
Pete Buttigieg: It reminds me a lot of some of the dynamics after I took office when I was at that age, working with a lot of people who had served in local government. Their attitude was, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years or more. I know what I’m doing. I know what matters.” My attitude was, “Hey, the people of this city have elected me to come in, shake things up, drive these priorities.” Of course, at the end of the day, it proved to be the case that we were both right. In particular, learning how to direct somebody because that’s your job, and to learn from them because they have so much to teach you at the same time, was something that came with experience, but also with some truth-telling from people who were willing to pull you aside and say, “Hey, here’s something you don’t see.”
Susan Rice: And thank God there were people willing, at least in my case, to give me that hard message. Did you have any major screw-ups early in your tenure that were lessons learned for you, or was it just-
Pete Buttigieg: No, everything was perfect. Never made a mistake the whole… [laughing] No, of course-
Susan Rice: I had a few screw-ups that really were sobering.
Pete Buttigieg: Was there one in particular that… Not to dwell on mistakes, but that’s where we learn the most.
Susan Rice: No, sure. But that’s what you learn from. Yeah.
Well, there were several, but they all converged around the extraordinary pressure we were under. This is now 1998, and we had going on in Africa an extraordinary series of crises. We had a war among six-plus countries in the Congo. We had war break out between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which was the deadliest inter-state conflict in the world at the time. We had famine and genocide in South Sudan, and evacuations of our embassies in Liberia, and war in Sierra Leone and Angola. It was crazy.
Then just when we all thought it couldn’t get worse, on August 7th, 1998, Al-Qaeda bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and we lost 12 of our American colleagues in Kenya and 200 of our Kenyan employees and Kenyan nationals, and thousands wounded. It was horrific. When it’s your own people, your own embassies, it was a trauma for absolutely all of us, everybody on our team.
We were under an enormous amount of pressure and the objective was to make sure that we did all we could to prevent additional Al-Qaeda attacks because we had consistent intelligence that they were targeting other embassies. Our embassies in Africa at that point were particularly vulnerable. They were old, they were close on the road, stuff like that. We were constantly playing whack-a-mole with threat information.
One day in December, I think it was December, maybe late November, early December, we got this really frightening intelligence that seemed very credible that the next day there were going to be attacks on an unspecified number of embassies. I made the decision on the spot, in light of that intelligence, to shut down our embassies. It was going to be a Friday, going into the weekend. Shut them all down across the continent, nobody would go into the buildings and then we’d reassess over the weekend.
It was the right decision. The problem was I forgot to tell my bosses. I forgot to tell Under Secretary of State Tom Pickering, who was responsible for all the regional operations. I forgot to tell the Secretary of State. I was moving so fast that I didn’t do my homework. The next morning, I wake up to a phone call from Under Secretary Pickering, who never, ever lost his temper, screaming at me, “Why am I reading in the press that we’ve shut down all of the embassies in Africa? Didn’t you think it would’ve been wiser to let somebody up here know?” I just was like, “Oh my God, I’m sorry. That’s totally my bad.”
I was just moving too fast. When the pressure is so intense, at least I made the right decision, but you move so fast, you get sloppy.
Pete Buttigieg: Our relationship with institutions, I think, is one of the biggest things that’s on the minds of those who are worried about the future role of the rest of the world. The president has withdrawn the U.S. from the World Health Organization. We are at odds with the UN more, I think, than ever. I’m wondering to what extent you believe it will be possible for the next administration, we hope a Biden administration, to not only reset our relationships with these institutions, but do we have the credibility to help these institutions grow, knowing that a lot of them haven’t changed much since right after World War II.
Susan Rice: Well, I think a Biden administration can reengage in many of these international organizations and do a great deal to improve our standing and credibility and efficacy within them. When we withdraw from the World Health Organization or when President Trump contemplates withdrawing from NATO, as he reportedly has, or when we try to stick it to the United Nations rather than make it work for us, that’s not punishing the institutions; that’s harming our own national interests and our ability to protect and defend ourselves and advance our values.
Every time we pull out, we’re leaving a vacuum that gets filled by somebody else, and that somebody else nowadays is almost always China, so it could not be more counterproductive. Who’s benefited most from our withdrawal from the World Health Organization? China. And we’ve harmed ourselves because the World Health Organization is doing in the most difficult, least developed parts of the world, the hard work to stamp out diseases, whether Ebola or polio or HIV or COVID, that we can’t do all by ourselves, or if we tried to do, it’d be extremely costly and inefficient.
So yes, we can and we must get back in these entities and get back with strength and efficacy. There’s this misperception in some circles that we’re being jerked around, for example, by the United Nations. The fact of the matter is we designed the United Nations back after World War II, and as imperfect as it is, and it is, it works for us. We have a veto. Nothing happens of consequence in the United Nations that we don’t agree to, by definition. There’s no point in using that veto in an abusive or punitive way, but it does mean that, whether we’re standing up for Israel’s security and legitimacy or protecting our fundamental concerns, that nothing happens of consequence that we don’t agree to. That’s a pretty good deal. You can bat 1.000 under that kind of setup.
When we talk about reforming and updating the institutions, yes, a number of them do need updating and reform, and there are those who argue legitimately, “How can you have a UN Security Council with five permanent members, two of them are European, and India doesn’t factor in, as large as it is?” Or the Japanese will say they deserve a permanent seat, or the Brazilians. Then Africa will say, “Well, we are a continent of a billion people. We need a permanent seat.” All of those are legitimate concerns in principle, but then what do you do? Then the issue becomes really complicated. Do they all get a veto? Well, then that dilutes our ability to steer it in a direction that’s beneficial to our interests.
These things are really complicated, and they require, in the first instance, leadership from the United States that the world believes is acting not just in our narrow self-interest, but in our interest that is defined as that which is potentially and hopefully beneficial to others as well. You can’t have a zero-sum mindset “if it’s good for us, it’s got to be bad for everybody else” or “if it’s bad for everybody else, it’s good for us.” That is the Trump zero-sum mindset that makes it impossible to cooperate and bring others along with us.
Pete Buttigieg: That touches something I’ve been thinking about a lot, which is the question of trust, and the level of trust that the U.S. can command among nations in the world. In fact, while I was researching a book I have on the subject, I hit on this story of a moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis where President Kennedy knows he needs or wants to get French support for whatever he might have to do during the Cuban Missile Crisis, calls Dean Acheson, the former Secretary of State, out of retirement, sends him to Paris to go see Charles de Gaulle and tell him what’s going on, armed with highly classified photos as proof that the Soviets were putting missiles in Cuba, gets there, and the French president greets him, he’s grumpy, but when he offers to show him the photos, the French president reportedly just kind of brushed him off and said, “Your president’s word is enough.” You think about the power-
Susan Rice: Can you imagine that today?
Pete Buttigieg: Exactly. For this president’s word to be enough for anybody around here, let alone overseas, is just impossible to picture but that must’ve been something of just unquantifiable value for American objectives and American diplomacy, and ultimately for American security. The more I investigated the sources of trust, I found that one of them is predictability. I know that sometimes when people are trying to invent some kind of rationale for how this president behaves, they talk about his unpredictability as if it was strategic. Sometimes it’s been called the madman theory, that if other countries think he’s crazy, we’ll be more likely to get our way. Yet, even if that is strategic, which I don’t think most of us believe-
Susan Rice: It isn’t, trust me.
Pete Buttigieg: …but it would be a strategy that’s incredibly destructive of the ability to have any trust. What are ways to accelerate that process of building trust on the world stage or maybe even here at home before it’s too late, knowing that trust-building takes time but time is of the essence?
Susan Rice: So much of our problem is not just that the president is unpredictable. He’s unpredictable, but the predictable thing about him, once people cracked the code, is he’s serving his own interests rather than the national interests. And a lot of countries have figured it out, which is why they flatter him and stay at his hotels and do all these things that have nothing to do with what values or interests we might share. It’s all about making him feel bigger and better and advancing his own personal, political, and financial interests.
With Joe Biden, not only does he come with this very substantial and known and trusted track record, but people understand that he is serving U.S. interests and values, and that when he says something, he’s telling the truth, that he’s not in it for himself, having long been, for example, the poorest member of the Senate. He’s not in it for anything other than what one would expect the United States president to be in it for, which is to serve the national interest. I think fortunately in this moment, with all that we have to repair and rebuild, we benefit from the prospect of starting with somebody who comes with an extensive record that people can already trust.
Pete Buttigieg: You mentioned COVID. I know in addition to your foreign policy leadership, I know the mayor of D.C. has turned to you to help advise on how the District is managing the pandemic. As someone who comes from the local level of government, I was struck by something that you wrote about, this was back in 2017 when I think all of us were trying to figure out how to face the rest of the world in the Trump era, you wrote, “Congressional delegations, governors, and mayors can reassure our key allies that the American people still value them and that we do not intend to cede our global leadership.” Even then, you were thinking about the global role of local leaders, and now I know you’re helping at least one local leader deal with a global issue in its local implications with the pandemic.
I wonder, in your experience, what you’ve come to conclude about how the different levels of government in our system interact and what that might mean to help us meet the moment in the years ahead, especially knowing that in the absence of federal leadership these last few years it’s really fallen to mayors and governors to step up. Now, hopefully, with a president who supports them, there might be a whole new era in terms of what local and state leaders can achieve. How do you see all that fitting together, and has that changed any since you’ve become maybe more immersed in local problem-solving through your work helping the District navigate the pandemic?
Susan Rice: Well, it’s interesting. Up until recently, all of my policymaking experience was at the federal level and at senior levels in federal government. Even though I’ve been most of my life a resident of the District of Columbia and care deeply about this city, I’d never had an inside perspective on municipal governance. I really do think that in this vacuum that Trump has created, that I pointed to back in 2017, as you noted, and it’s only gotten greater, he’s essentially left us naked internationally and naked in terms of domestic leadership on critical challenges. Nothing points that out more starkly than his failure to lead on COVID and all of the many lives that have been lost as a consequence.
What it does point out is that for the average citizen on a daily basis it would be great if the president of the United States were doing his job and, for example, procuring vast quantities of PPE and ventilators and distributing them rationally so that states weren’t having to compete against each other and bidding up the price, and it would be great if we had a national testing strategy that made sure that we had the quantity and quality of tests and distributed them rationally, we don’t have any of that, but at the end of the day, what Americans have come to understand is it really matters who your mayor is, who your governor is. We’ve seen great successes and great failures at the state and local level. For me personally, but I think for many Americans, you come to appreciate even more how critical high-quality leadership is at the state and local level. You know this. Obviously, I’m preaching to the choir.
What I had in mind, for example, when I wrote that piece back in 2017 was something like climate leadership. The administration, the president pulled out of Paris. He’s flipping the bird to climate change and to the rest of the world. Everybody else on the planet cares deeply about this issue. At that point it was clear that governors and mayors and consortium like the ones that Bloomberg put together and the private sector and civil society and individuals like Greta can make an enormous difference on an issue of global significance, even when the president of the United States is AWOL. We want to be in a situation, particularly in a crisis like COVID and, increasingly, like climate, where we’re all firing on all cylinders, but in the absence of that there’s more that can be accomplished at the state and local level than I think many of us realized previously.
Pete Buttigieg: One other thing I really wanted to ask you about, because you have experienced foreign policy at so many levels professionally in foreign policy leadership, and it strikes me that the ranks of those who serve our country, especially as career diplomats, but really across all of federal service, if you think about the Department of Justice and so many parts of the U.S. government, have taken a real beating. A lot of people have left, and those who are there, many of them are demoralized.
I wonder what your hopes are for what the next generation of diplomatic service might look like, and things that you think the next administration should think about in building that team of public servants, all the way from the most junior career person through to presidential appointees, in order to make sure it really is the kind of team that could guide our country through this decade.
Susan Rice: Well, I think it’s a great question, and it’s one I’ve thought a fair bit about. I will say, Pete, we didn’t need to have the Trump-era destruction of the administrative state to accomplish the kind of progress that I hope we can make going forward. I can’t overstate the losses in terms of experience and talent, for example, in the State Department and in the Foreign Service and the civil service, but it’s not just the State Department. It’s the intelligence community. It’s the civilians in the Defense Department and in the Justice Department and so many other critical areas.
One of our greatest strengths as the United States of America is we are the most diverse country on the face of the earth. That gives us not only the capacity; as so many studies have shown, when you bring diverse voices around a decision-making table, you make better decisions. That is proven, whether you’re in the private sector in a corporate boardroom or in government or the nonprofit world. We have the opportunity to bring this incredible complexity of the mosaic that is our country to the decision-making table, but we also have this extraordinary advantage when we speak to peoples and countries around the world to show them that there’s people in this country that come from where they come from and understand their issues and concerns and language and all of the above. It’s a great asset if we use it, but we don’t use it. Right now in the State Department, this is as bad as I can imagine in my lifetime, but of the some 180-odd ambassadors that we have around the world, three, Pete, are African-American right now.
Pete Buttigieg: Three out of 180.
Susan Rice: One is Latino, I believe. It’s just crazy, and we can do so much better. Really emphasizing in our intake and our retention and our promotion, opportunities for all the people who represent this country who have the interest and the talent to service.
But then the other thing, and you alluded to this, is that the career path in the State Department is really antiquated. When I described early in our conversation my time early in the State Department, and all these people who are the ambassadors and senior officials when I was the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs who were 20 to 30 years my senior, they had literally been working in the same job on the same track, just moving up, for 25, 30 years. Who do you know your age and younger who does any job for 25 or 30 years anymore, much less five years, right?
Pete Buttigieg: Yeah. We’re not likely to be in the same career for 25 or 30 years-
Susan Rice: I mean, you did mayor for eight years-
Pete Buttigieg: … let alone the same job.
Susan Rice: … so that’s really unusual. Even I, I don’t think, have done one job more than five or six years. Nobody does that. If you want to have the best talent and refresh it and encourage people who may not want to commit a career to serving but could add a whole bunch of value for five year, and who come with skills and experience, like technical skills and digital skills and language skills and business skills that can be valuable in government, and yet the constraints of the career path make it really hard to tap that talent. You can’t just easily come in and come out and be treated decently.
We’re going to have to bring back people who have retired or were driven out and let them start at the level they left at without penalty. We’ve got to have more fluidity and interchangeability between the Foreign Service and the civil service. We’ve got great talent in the civil service that isn’t elevated to the extent that it should be. All of these things are difficult because Congress will have a say and the unions will have a say, and all of these entities that have a stake that are legitimate stakeholders. But it is really the case, in my opinion, that we’ve got to look at this fresh and be willing to change the business model in order to attract and retain the quality talent and the diverse talent that we need.
Pete Buttigieg: I think that you’re right. That’s a huge opportunity. I agree, it shouldn’t have taken things being smashed to bits the way they have been by this administration, but since they have been, it makes it all the more urgent and maybe all the more possible to make these kinds of changes.
I wonder, if you picture a historian in the 2040s looking back at the 2020s and what they wound up meaning to America, America’s place in the world, what would you most hope that observer would be able to say about the 2020s as we sit here now at the outset of that decade?
Susan Rice: I hope that a historian could look back and say this was the decade where America looked in the mirror and decided that it can and should be much better, that we can be more unified, that we can embrace despite our differences, that we can be a leader in the world that serves our interests and values, if not more perfectly, then more consistently and with the right intentions, that it’s a much fairer and more just society for the least among us, that we’ve narrowed the gaps of inequality and racial and regional disparity. And that if you’re a poor white kid born in Appalachia or a Latino boy born in the barrio in Los Angeles or an African-American girl born in Detroit or a Native American girl born on a reservation in South Dakota, that this is still a country where you can and have the real potential to achieve a brighter, more secure, more hopeful and prosperous future and pass that on again to your kids. We’ve got to revive and reinvigorate the American dream and make it really available to everyone.
Pete Buttigieg: Well, that was a great conversation with Ambassador Rice. I really enjoyed hearing her remarkable stories about what it was like to play a central role in so many of America’s toughest and most important decisions, her work helping to secure this country with countless lives at stake every day.
She’s got such an admirable life story and a fitting outlook on what we can do over the next decade to repair the credibility of the United States and restore the trust our government once inspired before Donald Trump around the world. There is so much that needs to be done to improve our country and reinvigorate the American dream, as she said, and we’re all better off when we pay attention to the insights and the aspirations of thoughtful leaders like Susan Rice.