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Condoleezza Rice and Philip Zelikow on Building a Better World

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Two women and two men smiling on stage
AU president Sylvia Burwell (left), Condoleezza Rice, Philip Zelikow, and KPU director Kevin Norton.

Condoleezza Rice has had a front row seat to history, as both a key participant and scholar. Rice served as secretary of state and national security advisor under President George W. Bush, and as an academic, she’s used her voice and pen to advocate for a smart, robust US foreign policy. Now she’s teamed up with her longtime colleague, Philip Zelikow, to write about the end of the Cold War and its lessons for today’s policymakers. Zelikow has held prominent positions in academia and government as well: He was executive director of the 9/11 Commission and served as director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at University of Virginia.

Rice and Zelikow appeared at American University’s Bender Arena to talk about their new book, To Build a Better World: Choices to End the Cold War and Create a Global Commonwealth. The Kennedy Political Union, the Sine Institute of Policy & Politics, and the School of International Service cosponsored the event, with AU president Sylvia Burwell moderating the discussion.

Burwell introduced Rice and Zelikow as “two people whose careers reflect leadership, scholarship, and practice.”


European Divisions

Rice and Zelikow drew parallels between 1989 and 2019, with continuing tension between freedom and authoritarianism. In the book, they celebrate leaders who transformed Europe from Cold War divisions to peace. “But we wanted to show that it wasn’t easy. There was nothing foreordained about this. They actually did face hard choices,” Rice explained.

After Burwell asked about Brexit and the European Union, Zelikow noted how the waning Cold War era of the late 1980s led to greater European integration. “They made a series of decisions to actually double down on a European Union, in order to be able to absorb the dramatic changes in Europe,” he said. “Now you can think about some of these issues for today. We’re going to have to now adapt the European experiment again, because you can see that the European identity is not triumphant over all the national identities.”

“You could argue that the European Union, in a sense, sowed the seeds of its own potential destruction, and now it’s got to work hard to make sure that the European project actually survives,” Rice said.

In talking about national identity issues, Rice, an accomplished pianist, pointed out that not all citizens of EU member states favor the unofficial European national anthem, “Ode to Joy,” which is based on the music of Beethoven. “People still would like to be Polish, or British, or German,” Rice said.


The China Challenge

The authors also warned against getting stuck in a Cold War mindset, particularly in the case of China. “This should not be viewed as Cold War 2.0,” said Zelikow. “Watch out for seductive analogies to Cold War and containment, because it’s just not very helpful in getting you to think about the future.”

Rice said the US-China relationship is rooted in certain American narratives: China as military threat (the security narrative), markets cure all (the CEO narrative), and now China as technological adversary. While pointing out the flaws in current tech-competitor bravado, she sees value in Ronald Reagan’s approach.

“He expressed also a confidence in our system that free peoples would always win the race of innovation. And if we’re going to take on the Chinese challenge, it can’t be to out-China China, and right now that’s what you’re hearing.”


Leadership and American Confidence

Burwell inquired about the role of American leadership in building a better world. Zelikow then recalled questions they raised in the book about American confidence.

“We’re asking you the question,” he said to the audience, “because your generation really is the generation that’s going to have to decide what kind of leadership to show, and what leadership means.”

In identifying characteristics of great leaders, Zelikow mentioned then-president George H.W. Bush and German leader Helmut Kohl at the Cold War’s end. “They are very action-oriented people,” he said. “And they find themselves—these men typified as so conservative—being radical pragmatists.”

Rice evoked the value of humility in leadership, again exemplified by the first president George Bush. “When the Wall fell, everybody rushed to him to say, ‘you have to go to Berlin for Truman and for Kennedy and for Reagan.’ And he said, ‘what would I do, dance on the wall?’ He said, ‘this is a German moment, not an American moment.’”


Do Your Homework, Save the World

Rice expressed optimism about the US, partly based on her own personal experiences. “I know we’ve got many, many problems, but I’ve seen us overcome so many of them in so many ways,” she said. “I grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. I couldn’t go to a movie theater. I couldn’t go to a restaurant with my parents until the Civil Rights Act passed. But then I stood in front of a portrait of Benjamin Franklin and took an oath of office to defend the Constitution that once counted my ancestors as three-fifths of a man. And I did it sworn in by a Jewish woman Supreme Court justice named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”

Advising the Bender crowd, Rice, Zelikow, and Burwell emphasized the importance of doing your homework. One student asked Rice how she prepared for her toughest decisions in government. Her answer, both fascinating and revealing, related to her experience as national security advisor on September 11, 2001.

During the 1980s, she was part of a mock-training team to keep the government running in the event of nuclear war. When she was in the bunker on 9/11, she remembered her training and made two key decisions: get word out to other countries that the US government hadn’t been decapitated; and with US forces on high alert, contact Russian President Vladimir Putin and prevent a spiral of “high alerts” that could spark an American-Russian war.

“You rely on a lifetime of experiences, training, opportunities that, as you move up the ladder, may come and benefit you in ways that you might not even know,” she said. “Take each and every experience before you, and milk it and mine it for as much as you possibly can.”