Lessons on democracy: What Trump should learn from Condoleezza Rice
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Condoleezza Rice’s new book, “Democracy: The Long Road to Freedom,” provides a useful framework to understand the complicated and disruptive process that is democracy.

A relentless student of political science, and one of America’s most respected diplomats, Rice makes a compelling case for the importance of democratic institution-building around the world, arguing that no other form of government can protect the long-term interests of the United States, and deliver global stability.

In doing so, she compels the reader to fast-forward to today’s political environment and ask the question: Can the Trump administration’s newly articulated policy of “principled realism” protect U.S. interests over the short and long-term?

As I interpret the lessons from Rice’s 500-page book, the answer is no. And here’s how I get there.

Born in 1954 to African-American educators in segregated Birmingham, Ala., Condoleezza Rice found her passion in international relations, and for 40 years, she has lived, studied, practiced, and taught her trade. Rice has been on the front lines of the transformative events of the 20th and 21st centuries, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the expansion of NATO to the former communist states of Eastern Europe, the transition to multiparty democracy in Asia, Latin America and Africa, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the emergence of Islamist terrorism.


From her vantage points, as a student having lived in Russia, a Soviet expert on the National Security Council to George H.W. Bush and the secretary of State under George W. Bush, and then from her more circumspect perch on the West Coast at Stanford University, Rice transports the reader to her Forrest Gump-like moments in world history.


We go to the Old Executive Office Building in 1989, as Poland is emerging free after decades of communist rule and subjugation to Moscow. Here Rice argues for a robust package of assistance to the deputy national security adviser, Bob Gates. “Bob,” she says incredulously, “the Cold War is ending, and we are proposing to hold a trade show in Warsaw.”

Next we head to the Oval Office in 2001, when Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, who had led his country for nearly two decades, is intent on running for president yet again. Says George W. Bush to the aging Kenyan leader, “Everyone’s time comes to leave office. ... go home to your children and grandchildren.”

Rice then takes us to the Green Zone in Baghdad, in late 2006, when post-Saddam Iraq is unraveling and revenge killings are spiraling between the Sunnis and the Shiite. She shares her report to the U.S. president upon her return to D.C.: “I’m not sure they are going to make it.” Rice says this moment was her low point, professionally and personally.

She reports on her trip to Sochi, Russia, in 2008, where President Bush is holding his final meeting with Vladimir Putin, who is stepping down from the presidency after his constitutionally mandated term limit expires. “It was one of those moments when you breathed a sigh of relief [that he’s leaving], even if the outcome didn’t feel quite right,” Rice says. And in retrospect, nothing was quite right.

Rice encapsulates the totality of her eye-witness accounts as watching “imperfect people, in difficult circumstances, creating institutions that can slowly come to govern human interaction, peacefully.”

Using Rice’s formula, it would suggest that relationships of international affairs, defined within a transactional mode (of shared interests) but without the principles and values that bind the partnerships, will be subject to the winds and whims of economic and political cycles. By definition, they will be transient. 

Her conclusions further seem to contradict the remarks of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that America can disconnect its values from the policies it promotes around the world. To Rice, they are inseparable, and can only be realized by patient execution of American diplomacy.

Through careful examination of historical precedent, Rice argues that values must not be removed from policy decisions. She recalls the post-World War II U.S. policy, and the decision by the United States and the Allies to stabilize the defeated powers of Germany and Japan. These nations, she notes, have since anchored the new world order.

Rice reminds us of the anticipated trade-offs of NATO expansion, and the inevitable reaction of Russia, a post-communist defeated power, to feel threatened. It was a calculated risk. But she cites the decision to expand NATO as an enduring win for global stability — not only did it make the pro-U.S. alliance stronger, it compelled those nations who wanted in to strengthen rule of law and other fundamental principles that define a democratic state.

Rice points to the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC), established under George W. Bush, as an institution in the image of NATO, in that it builds a pro-U.S. alliance while demanding democratic governance and pro-market reform. She credits this type of instrument in helping the post-conflict recovery and stabilization of the West African nation of Liberia.

This national security framework, Rice suggests, where U.S. partnerships and alliances also demand a commitment to work toward core principles and values, is the only way to win the long-game in securing U.S. interests around the world.

Rice is insistent that human beings, no matter their station in life, no matter their location on earth, “are drawn to the idea that they should determine their own fate.” She calls democracy the system offering “the highest form of human potential.” And she notes that for every passing day, “sovereignty is dying as a defense against oppression within one’s borders.”

Principled realism, one must therefore conclude, is the short-term, opportunistic play, and it will not stand the test of time. 

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, and author of "Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa's First Woman President" (Kiwai Media, June 2016). Follow her on Twitter @RivaLevinson.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.