During the Obama administration, Ambassador Susan E. Rice served as the US ambassador to the UN and the president’s national security advisor. In her memoir, Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For, Rice gives readers a frank look into the pivotal moments that shaped her character as well as how mentors have influenced her career.
We spoke with Rice to learn more about her values and her experiences in foreign policy.
Q: Throughout your life, there have been women who have shared their insights with you and supported you, including DC representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, the first female US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and your mother, Lois Dickson Rice—who was a scholar, businesswoman, and the policy expert known for her tremendous role in the establishment of the Pell grant. How important was female mentorship in your career growth and how important is it, in general, for the professional development of women who want to be public servants?
I’ve had the benefit of great mentors, male and female, but there’s something special about female mentorship. Women are able to impart not only their professional knowledge but also the experiences unique to being a woman in a predominately male professional environment—which was certainly my case and that of many women, including my mom, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and, of course, Madeleine Albright.
But I also want to give huge credit to my father and to male mentors like former National Security Advisors Anthony Lake and Sandy Berger, and my first direct boss in government Richard Clarke, who each helped shepherd my growth and career progression. I think it’s important for women to look for men and women mentors who can offer different perspectives.
Eleanor Holmes Norton may have given me the most directionally significant advice that impacted my career trajectory. I was completing my master’s degree at Oxford and trying to decide whether to go to law school, which had long been my plan, or to do my doctorate in international relations. Her advice was, “there are very few folks like you or me in the world of foreign policy and national security, and if it’s something you’re passionate about, why not get your doctorate and then decide if you want to go to law school?” I finished my doctorate, and I decided that was enough school for me.
Q: When you served in your first government job as director for international organizations and peacekeeping during the Clinton administration, you were affected by the US’s and the international community’s collective failure in responding to the Rwandan genocide. How did your exposure to one of the Clinton administration’s most difficult foreign policy challenges impact the decisions you made later in your foreign policy career?
Both the Rwandan genocide and US involvement in Somalia shaped my subsequent thinking about matters involving humanitarian intervention. In Somalia, we had “Black Hawk Down,” and Congress, in effect, forced President Clinton to withdraw US forces precipitously. There were many elements to that decision-making process leading up to that point that were not ideal. Cabinet-level principals delegated too much responsibility to their deputies, and there was a failure to understand the political subtleties and complexities inherent in Somali society.
Then you go to Rwanda. This was a case where there were many failures on the part of the international community, the UN, and the US, but what struck me most, in retrospect, was how circumstances conspired to leave the US government without any active decision-making process on whether or not to intervene. Intervention in Rwanda wasn’t advocated for on the country’s editorial pages or in Congress. It was one of those strange circumstances where something massive and catastrophic was occurring in a remote part of the world, and Washington was not engaged in a timely fashion.
From those experiences, I concluded that we have to ask ourselves whether or not to intervene and have a process that deals with these questions seriously. Later in my career, when we faced the issue of intervention in places like Libya and Syria, in making my recommendations to the President I carefully and soberly weighed the risks to American interests and resources versus the benefits that we might be able to accomplish from such interventions.
Q: In your memoir, you said that one of your “most gratifying initiatives [during the Obama administration] was leading the NSC Principals’ push to diversify the national security workforce.” Why is it important for the national security workforce to reflect the diversity of America?
There’s a ton of rigorous research showing, whether you’re in the private sector, nonprofit sector, or government, that teams make better decisions when the team is comprised of people who come from various backgrounds with different experiences and perspectives.
We as the United States of America have a unique, inherent advantage in that, within our citizenry, we have literally every nationality, every religion, every perspective, every socioeconomic group represented. And our ability to influence other people to shape global decision making—to mold the perspectives of people in countries around the world—is enhanced by being able to harness our diversity as a population.
I loved working on this issue, and I did not get one minute of pushback from any of my colleagues at the cabinet level on the importance of focusing on diversity and inclusion. It was the rare topic where everybody came around that table without a dispute or argument, only the desire to show off to one another about how they were doing better than their colleagues.
Q: One big takeaway from your book is that the ever-widening partisan divide dangerously impedes the government’s ability to generate sound US foreign policy, benefits terrorists, and pits Americans against each other. It’s an issue that weakens the United States as a whole. But just as you work to try to bridge the political differences between you and your son, who you write is a conservative, you believe Americans who are split along party lines must do the same. How?
My son and I have very different political perspectives, but I love him dearly and we are very close. It’s a challenge for us to discuss and manage those differences, even in the context of our relationship. It is, of course, much harder on a national level, where there are all of these forces at play that go beyond individuals.
But what I’m saying is that our domestic political divisions, I believe, are the greatest threat to our national security because they undermine our ability to accomplish everything that’s important: to get things done and to trust each other. And it’s getting worse—our adversaries are aware of it now, and they’re trying to take advantage of this to weaken and exacerbate our divisions.
That’s why, among other things, I suggest that we very seriously examine mandatory national service, wherein for six months or a year, every American 18 to 21 must participate in a form of national service that brings them into contact with their fellow 18- to 21-year-olds from very different parts of the country and different perspectives. I am advocating for a version of mandatory service that is deliberately structured to compel people who would not otherwise understand and know each other to have to work together.
Q: Your book gives readers a behind-the-scenes look into the Obama administration, including the efforts that went into big foreign policy moments. While you were the NSA, you were part of the effort that resulted in changing the US’s Cuba policy. A big part of pulling this off was your suggestion to pursue a “Big Bang” in negotiating with Cuba. Can you break down what exactly was the “Big Bang” and its role in changing our Cuba policy?
Recall, we had no bilateral relationship with Cuba, and US policy had not changed substantially since the early 1960s. Legislation upon legislation had been enacted that made it very difficult to unwind our hostile policy towards Cuba.
We sought to explore whether there was a prospect for change. We started secret negotiations with the Cubans around the unjustified detention of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor whose health was deteriorating. As the national security advisor, I understood that, even if we succeeded in getting Alan Gross out, that would become public. The fact that we had been talking to the Cubans behind the scenes would have signaled to opponents of any change in Cuba policy that they had to put the brakes on any further engagement. And so, we would have maybe gotten that far and no further.
The idea behind the “Big Bang” was to try to secretly negotiate multiple things to culminate in a surprise change in policy. We’d get Alan Gross, we’d exchange certain prisoners that were perpetual irritants in the relationship, we’d get the Cubans to agree to open up the internet and release political prisoners, we’d agree to normalize bilateral relations, we’d lift those elements of the economic embargo that were within the president’s authority to address without legislation, we would deal with the terrorist list, etc. We’d negotiate all these things and announce them at once.
It took a lot of time and diplomacy by folks like Ben Rhodes and others, and it also required extraordinary confidentiality and the assistance of the Pope. All of those things worked, we got the agreement, we got the moral authority of the Pope behind it, and we managed to work these policy changes internally without them leaking. That was a high moment because it’s just so rare for everything, every piece of the challenge to fall into place. From the policy makers’ point of view, I’ve never seen the landing stuck so precisely.
Q: Throughout your book, you showcase how you were able to grow as a public servant in response to tough love—when people in your life were honest about what you can improve. The ability to listen to constructive criticism, reflect on it, and grow is not innate, nor is it easy. Do you have any recommendations for how to develop this type of productive introspection?
I was raised in a family where people were always telling me what I was doing right, what I was doing wrong, how I could do better. I was steeped in that tough love—I knew that the people who love me most were going to tell it to me like it is. And, as a professional, I sought to figure out how to grow, learn, and do better. Part of that was reaching out and trying to seek advice and feedback, but also there were times where it was provided to me unsolicited.
I think it’s key to have enough confidence in yourself to say, “look, I know I’m good, but I’m far from perfect. There are many ways in which I can do better, and the people who care about me most are going to be the ones that are able and willing to tell me how I can do better. I ought to listen and try to absorb what they say.”
My dad used to say, when he would give my brother and me lessons and advice, “understand that this is coming from someone who has your best interests at heart. Take it in that spirit.” And that’s the way I try to take tough—painful, even—advice from colleagues and friends. It doesn’t mean I don’t get frustrated or exhibit some initial skepticism or resistance to it. But at the end of the day, I do always try to step back and say, “OK, I may not want to hear this, but I need to hear it, and let me try to figure out what made this person feel they had to confront me with this. What can I learn from it?” Because the people who don’t care about you are the ones that are going to go ahead and try to undermine you without ever throwing you a life vest. People who throw you a life vest, they have your best interests at heart, and that’s the spirit in which you ought to try to hear them.
I certainly have benefited from friends’ and colleagues’ willingness to give me difficult feedback. You don’t get better at anything without discovering your weaknesses and actively trying to improve upon them.
Q: There have been instances during the Clinton and the Obama administrations in which you were misrepresented by certain media outlets and political opponents—the most disruptive being their mischaracterization of you during Benghazi. What were the basic details of this misrepresentation, and how did it impact you and your family? How do you feel now that you are able to take ownership of your story through Tough Love?
I was accused of deliberately lying to or misleading the American people about the nature of the attack on our US facilities in Benghazi, in which we lost four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The fact of the matter is I did not deliberately mislead anybody. I shared the latest information provided by our intelligence community. Within about a week to ten days after I went on the Sunday shows and made those statements that were based on the intelligence community’s talking points—one of those points ultimately turned out to be inaccurate. It was a critical inaccuracy regarding whether or not there had been a demonstration outside of the facility in Benghazi prior to the attack by the terrorists. The accusation was that I lied and tried to downplay this and say that it wasn’t a terrorist attack, which is not the case.
It was really, really hard on my family, particularly on my young daughter and on my elderly mother, who suffered in ways tangible and intangible from watching me be pilloried, publicly, for a sustained period of time. One of the messages that I hope comes through in this book, whether you’re on the right or the left, is that when Washington and the media engage in the politics of personal destruction, the victims are not merely the targets of the attack, the victims are also the people who love and care for those targets.
While I was in government, I was not in a position to tell my own story, and that was frustrating. Now that I can, I hope other people see value in my story, drawing lessons from my family, my upbringing, and decades of service that are useful to anyone who aims for compete and thrive in unforgiving environments and get back up, if they have been knocked down.