Career Insight: 3 Honest Reflections from Foreign Policy Expert Susan Rice

by Diana Drake

Susan E. Rice spent many years on the front lines of American diplomacy and foreign policy, which is basically a government’s strategy for dealing with other nations. She held key posts during President Bill Clinton’s administration and later served as National Security Advisor to Barack Obama and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Rice left her post in the White House in January 2017, when President Donald Trump took office. She recently published her memoir, Tough Love: My Story of Things Worth Fighting For, in which she gives an insider’s account of some of the most complex foreign policy issues in the U.S. in the past 30 years, including Black Hawk Down (when 18 U.S. service members were killed in Somalia, Africa), the genocide in Rwanda, Africa, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the conflict in Syria, which she refers to as “the toughest problem I faced as an advisor.”

The University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House hosted Rice on January 22 in a conversation with Provost Wendell Pritchett. During that talk, Rice said of her memoir: “I try in the case of Syria…and a number of other issues to be candid about what I think we got wrong and what I think we got right…The only way to learn in the world is to be willing to be candid about it.” Here are three more honest reflections that Ambassador Rice shared during her visit:

  1. Studying international relations. “In so many ways, my higher education and my secondary education helped give me the skills and the tools to end up doing the work that I did. When I was in college and even in graduate school, I had no plan or expectation that foreign policy or national security would become my career. For a long time, I thought I would be a lawyer and work in civil rights law or public interest law or some kind of social justice. I thought my initial two years at Oxford University [as a Rhodes Scholar] would be rounding me out and giving me some perspective on the larger world so that when I came back to the domestic side that I wouldn’t be so one-dimensional. One thing led to another and I found an interest and a passion that I didn’t know I had. My education opened extraordinary windows into different parts of the world.”
  1. Always asking the critical questions. “After Black Hawk Down, Congress stepped in to mandate that U.S. forces withdraw from Somalia in six months. The last American troops had to get out of Somalia by March 31, 1994. On April 6 going into April 7, the genocide in Rwanda happened. An airplane carrying the Rwandan president was shot down and that was the key for the killing to begin. It lasted for 100 days or so, and up to 1 million people were killed…So, the plane is shot down, the killing begins, and the U.S. government does what it always does in a crisis like that – it gets its American personnel out safely…Once the Americans were out, we all breathed a sigh of relief… and for a period of time we lost our direct eyes and ears, and the killing intensified. Eventually, there were images on T.V. of bodies running down rivers and choking rivers. All throughout that, we never had a meeting that considered the question of whether or not the United States with others or to enable others or on our own should intervene to address the killing and try to mitigate its severity. The reason for that, in my judgment, was that in the context of the aftermath of Somalia, the idea of going back into an even more rural part of Africa that nobody had ever heard of to engage in peacekeeping and hope for Humanitarian protection when Congress had just mandated to get our troops out, nobody even through of it. It was inconceivable. We never confronted the critical question. I’m not sure that the answer is yes we should have been there. But the big takeaway for me as a policymaker and one that has stayed with me for many years is: you can’t not call the question. You’ve got to engage the question, and do so repeatedly.”
  1. The value of cautious decision-making. “President Obama really pressure-tested decision-making and was suspicious of consensus. If you came to him with an important topic and all the cabinet-level principals agreed on the recommendation, you can be sure he’s going to poke every possible hole in it to be satisfied he had really thought it through. One of the things that I admired about him is that we would be sitting in the White House situation room around a tight table…The President would always make sure he got the full and ungarnished opinions of his senior team. But on top of that, he would go around to the back bench, those sitting along the wall, the plus-ones for the principals who are the real experts on whatever the topic – they wrote the memo. He would ask each of them and engage them in a substantive exchange. He would take all of that, ask tough questions, and then usually take a day or night or two to think it through. He often didn’t show his cards at the table. Then he would make a decision…We made our share of mistakes, but not for lack of trying. We really considered and analyzed the risks and the benefits.”


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Conversation Starters

Which of Susan Rice’s reflections do you find most interesting and why?

International relations is a very popular major these days in college. What does this term mean to you and why do you think it interests students?

Susan Rice says that President Barack Obama was “suspicious of consensus.” What does this mean and why do you think he felt this way, especially when making critical decisions?

4 comments on “Career Insight: 3 Honest Reflections from Foreign Policy Expert Susan Rice

  1. Hats off to Susan Rice! Rice’s career as a foreign diplomat and National Security Advisor requires her to tackle the various “critical questions” and issues that the United States faces. What people like Susan Rice do affects the entire well-being of our country, and we have to give more recognition to the diplomats for that. When we think of people who deal with the United States’ foreign relations, we think of maybe the Secretary of State or the President himself. But by doing so, we often fail to consider the power and the importance of the diplomats.
    I have a personal experience where people of “lower power” have taken action and gotten things done and affected their “country.” My high school a few years ago got a new principal assigned by the city’s Department of Education. This principal had a bad record behind her, which may have been a huge factor in the reason why she was let go from her former position as an assistant principal at another top-notch high school in the city. After seeing her unethical attempts to make drastic changes to the school,which most of the school body did not find satisfactory, along with the reports of her harassment of teachers, the students and teachers of my school decided to reach out to the Department of Education. Although the teachers and students, specifically the Student Union and the student-run school newspaper, were of lower status, they were able to make waves that shook the entire city. The “subordinates” of my high school decided to take on the issues that they knew would put them against some of the highest powers in our city. What diplomats, although often seen as “subordinates” to most other people, have to deal with and can do puts them among the top of the most important and powerful people in our society. Susan Rice’s work as National Security Advisor can also be reflected in one specific teacher in our school, who really helped guide the rest of the students on what to do to succeed and be effective, including when he obtained a record of the principal lying when there was clear evidence that was not yet presented. In the end, the students and teacher instituted the changes necessary for the success of the school and secured the true values of the school.
    From this experience, in addition to reading about Susan Rice’s position and duties, I’ve learned that we shouldn’t be overshadowing those in “lower” positions. The students have the power to change the entire school, and Susan Rice—and others in her position—also have the power to change history for the country.

    • Interesting perspective, Daniel. It sounds like you learned quite a lot through your personal experience about advocating for change and holding people accountable. Thanks for posting.

  2. Although I have commented on this article already, I’d like to share another personal story about the power of advocating for change, just like Susan Rice had done during her tenure as National Security Advisor.

    Recently, my high school, Townsend Harris High School, was ranked fifth nationally in the U.S. News & World Report 2020 Best High Schools rankings. This achievement may have been something to celebrate, but I and my fellow students, both former and current, were taken aback by this honor. The score did not reflect the internal conditions of the school, but rather solely its academic performance. After the news of being top five in the nation broke across the school, one alumna took to Instagram to start a platform with the hashtag #NotMyTownsend to gather and spread stories of all sorts of discrimination and bigotry, including racism, sexism, sexual harassment, and homophobia. Stories from over a decade ago to this very month were posted, and it was utterly shocking how many reports of harassment and discrimination has ocurred in such a “prestigious school.”

    I have not felt comfortable enough to share this event to anyone as it is a bit embarrassing to think back, but in my freshman year of high school, I encountered a bit of this “hidden” horror all other students are now reporting. I bumped into two tall and fashionably-dressed Caucasian seniors in a small staircase while students everywhere were rushing to their next classes. I went up the stairs, trying to stay on the right side of the stairwell, when the two girls, instead of walking one behind the other, walked next to each other, taking up most of the stairwell’s space. They bumped into me, and one of them gave a loud “Oww! Watch where you’re going!” I would have let this occurrence pass, but her friend commented, “He’s like, one of those Asian try-hard freshmen.” “There’s too many of them in this school.” “Yeah, I hate them.” I don’t think it was directly targeted at me, but I heard that bit, and it made me ashamed and angry. I am sure I am not the only one that has witnessed this type of bigotry, but for too long, the students have swept it all under the carpet.

    The student who started this new #NotMyTownsend movement acted like Susan Rice. Susan Rice’s job has made her think about the shortcomings of the country in order to better secure the country’s safety and image, such as acknowledging that the U.S.’s non-interference in the Rwandan genocide was a bad choice. Similarly, the student has revealed shortcomings (of Townsend) in order to make the school a better place. She has pointed out, just like how a National Security Advisor would, that Townsend Harris High School is not as much of a safe place as people thought. Both Susan Rice and the founder of this movement have the same job — to keep the people safe — and I think that especially amidst a society where discrimination is rampant, advocating for change to make people feel secure is one of the priorities of this nation.

  3. Susan E. Rice gives me inspiration. I admire her honesty about how she thought her career path would go another direction, but how she ended up in foreign policy and national security. I would like to think that there was some luck and fate involved with her decisions, but I am certain that it was her multifaceted experiences that guided her along the way.

    I have considered international relations as a major when I get to college. I have really enjoyed competing in speech and debate, especially in the category of Foreign Extemporaneous speaking. This neat niche focuses on international developments around the world. Preparing for competition has pushed me to read about all kinds of policies and conflicts that affect us today. However, when I try to discuss these issues with others, I soon realize that a lot of people do not keep up with global affairs and do not appreciate what world leaders have to contend with.

    Like Rice, I find myself asking critical questions when making decisions. Even when I am competing in Foreign Extemp, I am constantly asking myself why something happened and how I can better present my argument in my speech. As I edit myself over and over again, making tough decisions about what to include or not include, I think about what leaders like Rice would say or do. I cannot imagine what our current National Security Advisor or US Ambassador to the United Nations does each and every day to protect the American people. I salute these courageous leaders, and I hope that I can live up to their standards one day.

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