National Security Advisor Susan Rice spoke about the role of national security in President Barack Obama’s administration during the first event of “The Exit Interview,” Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service’s six-part lecture series, which will focus on Obama’s legacy.
Around 400 people attended the Sept. 14 event in Gaston Hall, which School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman moderated.
The event focused on national security and foreign policy, and the rest of the series will invite speakers from the Obama administration to cover topics ranging from criminal and social justice, the economy, healthcare reform, climate change and political culture. Speakers will also be asked to consider the successes and challenges of Obama’s term, their hopes for their remaining time in office and their advice for their successors.
The series will conclude before the inauguration in January and aims to create an oral history of the Obama administration.
GU Politics Student Advisory Board member Gabriela Barrera (SFS ’19) introduced Rice by citing her accomplishments as a U.S. permanent representative for the United Nations before describing her role as National Security Advisor.
“During her tenure as ambassador, she worked to defend universal values, advance U.S. interests across the globe and provided a vital role in preventing the spread of nuclear proliferation, and providing life-saving interventions in places like Libya and the Ivory Coast,” Barrera said.
In the conversation, Rice addressed her experiences at the beginning of the Obama administration and emphasized the urgent challenges facing the president immediately upon his assumption of office, including the 2008 recession, the troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and the condition of the United States’ alliances, which had been negatively impacted by what other countries deemed to be an American approach of unilateral activity.
“Many of our critical relationships and alliances were strained if not frayed, particularly by the decision to go into Iraq and the manner in which that was done,” Rice said. “So we had work to do in terms of repairing our alliances and partnerships and relationships in the world, re-establishing a constructive version of American leadership.”
Rice said the administration also tried to establish and pursue longterm goals, including the prevention of nuclear terrorism.
“Every couple of years we have had a series of gatherings at the summit level to try to secure, for lack of a better term, loose nuclear material and prevent it from falling into the hands of terrorists,” Rice said. “We have made enormous progress on that over the course of the administration, but that is an example of the permanent agenda that we were trying to pursue.”
Rice emphasized how, initially, certain challenges had to be given top priority, such as the Iran nuclear deal.
“First of all, we were very clear in the sense that we had to lay a foundation for some of the things that would take the most time in the first year or two,” Rice said. “For example, the work we did to try and strengthen and tighten the sanctions on Iran, such that we were able to test ultimately whether there was an opening for diplomacy.”
Rice described the lessons she has learned throughout her tenure and what principles guided her policymaking.
“First of all, I would be the first to say that there is no one-size-fits-all formula,” Rice said. “I think you can’t apply solutions in a cookie-cutter fashion from one crisis to the next, but I will say there are some principles that we have tried to adhere to.”
Rice commented on her view of the balancing act the United States tries to perform while juggling alliances, coalitions, programs and plans of action. She stressed the United States has been a leader in dealing with the Islamic State Group, promoting global health and putting pressure on Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
Rice cites her proudest achievements as national security advisor to be the Obama administration’s gains in climate policy and the Iran deal, as well as the U.S. change in policy toward Cuba and the administration’s efforts in improving global development.
“We’ve rallied the world to an agreement that is not in itself sufficient but has the potential to lead us all in the direction that we need to go,” Rice said. “I am particularly proud of the effort that went into work towards the Iran deal, and it has got its share of critics, but I challenge anyone to show a better way of ensuring that Iran does not have the access to nuclear weapons.”
Rice concluded the presentation by emphasizing that although the United States serves as a global leader, it cannot resolve every issue on its own.
“Whether you are talking about dealing with pandemics or climate change or terrorism or proliferation or any of the failed states, these are challenges that can’t be addressed through might alone or through one country alone, and therefore while we must lead — we have to lead — to the greatest extent possible with others,” Rice said.
Lev Sugarman (SFS ’19) said he found the presentation to provide fascinating insights into a little-known role in the West Wing.
“Something that stood out to me was her discussion of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into being the national security advisor. It’s a position that doesn’t get a lot of attention, so hearing her speak about the way she does her job — keeping the big picture in perspective, using social media and managing the size of her staff, among other things — was fascinating,” Sugarman said.
Errol French (MSB ’19) said he admired the introspective nature of Rice’s characterization of the Obama administration.
“I thought it offered a different perspective on the Obama administration and went in depth to a lot of foreign affairs,” French said. “I liked the reflective tone that this series is going to take, and I am excited to see where it is going to go.”
In addition to events featuring Obama administration officials, the series will host counterpoints in each area of interest to provide an alternate point of view on the administration. The first counterpoint presentation, scheduled for Sept. 23, will feature former Chairman of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Mike Rogers (R-Mich.).