Renewing America’s Global Leadership
Remarks as Prepared for Delivery by Ambassador Susan E. Rice
Center for American Progress Ideas Conference
Tuesday, May 16, 2017
Thank you, Neera, for your strong leadership of CAP, which so ably promotes our progressive priorities.
Good morning, everyone. I’m Susan Rice, and you may have seen a parody of me on certain cable news channels.
Since I left the White House, I’ve become deeply concerned that the United States is squandering one of our greatest strategic assets — America’s leadership of the world. I’m here to argue for a better strategy — a progressive strategy — that will renew our global leadership.
It seems that the current administration looks at the world and sees only threats. Immigrants. Refugees. Muslims. Mexicans. Even Trade. It’s: “America First” — and the rest of the world last.
I fully recognize we face serious threats. I spent eight years actually reading the Presidential Daily Brief, and the last three and a half personally briefing President Obama. But, the world I see is also filled with profound opportunities. Our relationships are not zero-sum; they should be mutually beneficial. Through enlightened self-interest, we can expand opportunity, not hoard it for the few.
I believe that a responsible national security strategy must be balanced — confronting threats while seizing opportunities.
It’s a strategy based on four pillars. A strong defense. Skillful diplomacy. Smart development. And, domestic strength.
First, our national security begins with a strong defense.
The United States must remain the world’s preeminent military power. That requires sustaining a force that is smartly-funded, wisely-deployed, and ready to deal with any threat at a moment’s notice.
Conflict is not inevitable. And bluster is for bullies. But our adversaries, from Russia to North Korea, must know that we will confront them with unity, resolve, and with every tool at our disposal.
When we employ military force, we must use it judiciously, because we have learned — from Vietnam to Iraq — that even the finest fighting force on earth cannot defeat the underlying political, economic and sectarian forces that fuel conflict.
So, instead of vowing simply to “bomb the bleep” out of ISIL, we must use our full arsenal, including cutting off its finances, discrediting extremism online, and helping stabilize fragile states. We must confront terrorists globally, from Syria and Afghanistan, to Northern Mali and the Southern Philippines, where Al Qaeda 3.0 may be germinating.
We can’t allow Twitter wars to become shooting wars. So, instead of vacillating between reckless saber-rattling and dubbing Kim Jong-Un a “smart cookie,” we should steadily apply increased pressure on North Korea, while protecting our allies and Homeland.
And, instead of excusing Russia’s outrageous behavior and branding NATO “obsolete,” we must defend every NATO ally unconditionally, and firmly counter Russia’s Cold War tactics.
Even as we address today’s crises, we must get ahead of emerging threats that will endanger us tomorrow — from rising oceans to the dark web, from conflict in outer space to the manipulation of artificial intelligence.
Second, an effective foreign policy requires skillful diplomacy.
We should embrace the mantle of global leadership, because the United States remains the world’s best hope. But, we need to be a steady, trusted partner so that, as Charles de Gaulle said: “The word of the president of the United States is good enough for me.”
From North America to Europe, from Israel to Asia, our allies and friends must know we stand with them. Not based on a business transaction, but because we are bound by shared interests and shared values.
And, let’s stop pretending that our interests and values conflict. Yes, sometimes, we must work with unsavory regimes. But, our values and our interests largely converge. Democracies that respect human rights are our most reliable partners. Visit Arlington Cemetery or Allied burial grounds around the world. Our soldiers did not fight as part of some global protection racket. They died for the rights of all people to live in freedom, dignity and equality. These are our values. These are universal values. And, they are not expendable when inconvenient.
To tackle challenges that transcend borders, we must cooperate across borders. As a former UN Ambassador, I know well the frustrations of multilateral diplomacy. But, international institutions and collective action make us more effective. We should reject the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” and update the post-War international architecture that the United States built, because it remains the right framework for promoting peace and prosperity around the globe.
The fact is: we can’t bomb climate change or even violent extremism into submission. Pandemic flu and Zika won’t stop at the Rio Grande. Cyber thieves and criminal cartels don’t respect national boundaries. In today’s interconnected world, we need collective action to achieve lasting security.
We also need a well-functioning State Department. Diplomacy isn’t optional, but it’s comparatively cheap. As Secretary of Defense Mattis has put it, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” For America to remain the unrivalled global leader, we must value — and fully fund — the talented career professionals who do the delicate work of diplomacy.
Third, our diplomacy needs to be backed by an equal dedication to smart development.
Helping other peoples is neither charity nor wasteful spending. It’s one of the wisest investments we can make in our security and prosperity.
From Afghanistan to Nigeria, we’ve seen poverty, conflict and corruption stifle opportunity, and extremism take root.
But, when USAID helps a farmer increase her yields in Ethiopia, supports micro-enterprise in Haiti, or electrifies a village in Kenya so kids can study at night — that’s good not just for them; it’s good for America’s security.
When we combat malaria, AIDS and Ebola, investing in global health infrastructure — that’s good for our security.
When we educate and empower women and girls — that’s good for our security, too. So yes, we still need to Let Girls Learn.
Finally, an effective foreign policy must be grounded in domestic strength.
To lead the world and protect our people, we can’t rely solely on military might. We must continue to prosper by growing our economy, creating jobs, raising wages, reducing inequality, and lifting Americans out of poverty. We must pursue trade that is fair and free, and not cede the Asia-Pacific, the world’s fastest growing region, to China. We need to catalyze American entrepreneurship and remain the global leader in R&D and higher education. These advantages don’t just make us competitive. They, too, make us safer and stronger.
Ultimately, of course, the greatest source of American strength is our people. The extraordinary skill, spirit, diversity, and audacity of Americans. Our founding ideals, including the inherent equality of every human being. Our commitment to free speech and a free press. Our welcoming of immigrants from every corner and calling them simply “Americans.”
Make no mistake: the world watches very carefully what we do and say.
So, we must ask, “What message are we sending now?” Because, at this moment, our single greatest weakness — as a people, a country, and a global power — is our profound political polarization.
It hasn’t always been like this. I grew up in this city, and I am old enough to remember when loyalties and even major legislation crossed party lines…when civility was the norm and politics mostly ended at the water’s edge. That seems like lifetimes ago. But it wasn’t. We need to shake off this national funk and remember that, first and foremost, we are all Americans. We must honor our constitution, our founding values, and each other.
Surely, we will often disagree. But, we sure as hell need to agree that a hostile foreign power has no business messing with our elections.
Because here’s the truth: if we cannot find our way to put country over party, and democracy over demagoguery, even in the face of such a dangerous external threat, then we might as well hang up our leadership cleats and resign ourselves to becoming a second-rate power.
That should not be our future. We are so much better than that. At our best, we are still the bright beacon to the world of hope, creativity, justice, and opportunity.
When Americans of every race, religion and class stand together for the rights of all — for women as well as men…for our immigrant heritage…for LGBT citizens…for the belief that we are all equally God’s children…when we recall that we all love this country deeply… when we remember what America truly means, then, and only then, will we be strong at home and a still stronger leader in this complex world.
The choice is ours. We can either squander our greatness, or build a common future based on respect for the dignity and value of every American and all mankind.
Together, let’s ensure we make the right choice.