At one time, Susan Rice seemed to be on a trajectory that would take her to the secretary of state’s office in President Barack Obama’s second term.
But the confusing timeline that she and the Obama administration have offered around the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, might have altered that political course, begun years ago with the help of a powerful family friend.
Madeleine Albright, while serving as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, recommended that he tap Rice for a high-level State Department post on African affairs in the late 1990s.
Albright had previously served with Rice’s mother, Lois, on a school board in Washington and watched Rice grow up with her own daughters.
“If I were to characterize her, whether it’s playing basketball or anything else, she’s fearless,” Albright said about Rice in a Washington Post interview during her time as the top U.S. diplomat.
The amount of time that has been spent in think tanks and inside the U.S. State Department trying to figure out whether and how to reform the United Nations would be impossible to calculate. The refrain of “U.N. reform” is heard over and over, yet infighting and gridlock continue to block bolder U.N. action, as the latest situation in Syria makes clear.
Like any organization, the U.N. does need to be reformed — from the structure and procedures of the Security Council, which 28 percent of Foreign Policy’s survey respondents identify as the part of the U.N. most in need of rethinking, to the body’s staffing, leadership, and budget. But reform is not an event; it is a process. Although people tend to blame “the U.N.,” fundamentally it is a collection of nation-states, often with competing interests. No wonder more than 40 percent of the respondents consider this fact the greatest internal obstacle preventing the institution from being more effective.
Although two-thirds of respondents endorse the idea of enlarging the Security Council, the reality is that finding a way to do so is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube. For example, when I served at the U.N., European Union states often voted together. The logical move would have been to give the EU one permanent seat on the Security Council, but it’s hard to visualize the British or the French giving up their individual seats. At that time, the United States supported Germany and Japan as additions to the Security Council’s permanent members; respondents to The FP Survey list Japan and Germany as candidates for Security Council seats today. Their top choice by far, however, is India, which U.S. President Barack Obama has now also endorsed for a permanent seat. So the Rubik’s cube continues to shift — and yet the council’s membership is unchanged.
With strategic setbacks dwarfing successes and America’s standing in the world diminished, it is no surprise that the Bush foreign policy receives withering criticism. But too often the critiques are as simple-minded and misplaced as the policy itself. We face problems not because the Bush administration is too unilateral, for example. The Bush approach has been more multilateral than most critics admit. Nor do our problems stem excessively from the president’s penchant to think big or to have bold ideas. Nothing is wrong with being ambitious in foreign policy. Every American president since the end of World War II has defined our international purposes in grandiose terms. (Certainly the Marshall Plan was an ambitious effort to rebuild Europe and save democracy there.) Such grand purposes fit our self-image and the belief that we are, in the words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the “indispensable nation.”
But there is something profoundly wrong when our objectives (for instance, promoting democracy through regime change) are disconnected from the means we possess or can mobilize; when our understanding of the world is askew (as in Iraq) because our assessments are driven by ideology and not by reality; when our purposes are questioned because too often we are seen by others, including allies, as creating more insecurity than security (an example is the Middle East); when we are missing in action in cases where sustained U.S. mediation might ameliorate regional conflicts (Israeli-Palestinian) and improve the perception of America’s intentions in the process; or when our word or our threats count for little with friends and adversaries alike. It is in these areas that the Bush administration so often fails. Statecraft depends on seeing the world as it is, not as one wishes it might be. Good statecraft takes an unacceptable reality and transforms it; identifies the things that are important and frames objectives and purposes in a way that others can accept; employs extensive communication channels to build understanding and to reduce the possibility for misperceptions; and uses all available assets to promote national interests and to counter real and potential threats. Tangible or intangible, our own assets flow from the nation’s economic vitality and wealth, military power, diplomatic wherewithal, advanced technology, informational advantages, organizational talents, the appeal of our culture, and our potential for leverage.
Madeleine Albright broke through huge barriers during her years in the Clinton administration, first as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, then as Secretary of State. She was a leader in what had been, until her arrival, an all-male club—the world of national security and international relations.
Ms. Albright, who later this year will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, says she never wanted to be considered a woman secretary of state, but as a secretary of state who was a woman.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Blumenstein, Ms. Albright discussed her pioneering career, obstacles she has overcome, and the continuing struggle for women’s rights around the world. Her latest book, Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, has just been published.
REBECCA BLUMENSTEIN: We’ve been talking about the status of women in America, how far things have come and how far things have to go. When you graduated from Wellesley in 1959, the expectations for women were not particularly great. You told me your commencement speaker was not exactly inspiring.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I did go to Wellesley, a women’s college. And I am of a kind of strange generation which is transitional in terms of women who wanted to go out and get jobs. A friend of mine did a study of the classes that ended in nines. The ‘49 class were people that were going to get married and have what were called traditional marriages. The ‘69 class, which is Hillary Clinton’s class, already knew that they were going to have careers. We were kind of in the middle.
Our commencement speaker was Neil McElroy, the Secretary of Defense, because his daughter was in our class. We all remember the words slightly differently, but what he said was, “Your job when you graduate is to get married and raise interesting sons.” It was slightly off-putting.