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Influencers Transcript: Susan Rice, October 17, 2019

ANDY SERWER: Some shrink from conflict, some don't. Susan Rice has spent her career figuring out when confrontation can create change. Rice served as the national security advisor under President Barack Obama for 3 and 1/2 years, giving intelligence briefings to the president every morning. She was also the US ambassador to the United Nations.

She currently sits on the boards of Netflix and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She's here to talk about the global conflicts that put markets on edge and what we should do about them.

Hello, welcome to Influencers. I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest, Ambassador Susan Rice, former national security advisor, former US ambassador to the United Nations, and author of the new book Tough Love. Susan, great to see you.

SUSAN RICE: It's great to be with you, Andy. Thanks for having me.

ANDY SERWER: So I want to talk about the book. But I want to ask you about some news that's going on right now, in particular about the impeachment inquiry that the Democrats have opened up. Do you think that impedes the ability of the United States to conduct foreign policy? And does it let our adversaries have any kind of advantage if that goes on.

SUSAN RICE: Well, it shouldn't. I served, as you know from reading the book, in the Clinton administration for eight years and was the assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Clinton impeachment effort. And so I was doing business with all the various countries of Africa and actually some in Europe and elsewhere. And I watched the State Department from where I was perched do the business of the United States every day.

And in that context, you know, because President Clinton was intent on keeping the work of the government focused on the business of the nation rather than on him personally, we were able to continue to do what we needed to do and serve the American people. And I think the countries we worked with, the issues we focused on, were given as much attention as they would have in any instance.

So that's possible. The question is whether this president who seems to think that, in some ways, he is the state, is prepared to allow his government to continue to function normally, which is what he ought to do in service to the American people. Congress continued to work during the Clinton impeachment. You know, the notion that it's either-or is really a misconception.

ANDY SERWER: Let me ask you about the specifics that are pertaining to the impeachment inquiry, specifically Ukraine, where the president called up and asked the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens, and then subsequently asked the Chinese or suggested the Chinese should do the same. Do you think that's the right thing to do?

SUSAN RICE: [LAUGHS] No. It's absolutely the wrong thing to do. And it's deeply detrimental to our leadership in the world, to the trust that countries can place in us, and to our national security. It's inconceivable in normal times that a president of the United States would ask our most formidable adversary, China, to intervene in our elections on his personal behalf, to manufacture non-existent dirt on his political opponent in order to benefit one man, the president of the United States.

We should be engaging with China to advance our national interests. We have economic challenges that everybody is fully aware of. We're in the middle of a hot trade war. We've got very serious security concerns ranging from cyber and technology challenges to the South China Sea. And here's the president of the United States essentially saying to China from the South Lawn of the White House, if you give me some dirt, then, you know, we can play ball on a whole bunch of issues, essentially selling out the American people for his own personal gain.

ANDY SERWER: Doesn't make it better that he's doing it publicly rather than in private?

SUSAN RICE: Absolutely not. I mean, it-- it's galling and appalling one way or the other. The fact that he feels so confident to do it in public suggests that he really, truly thinks he's above the law, and that he has become the state, and that whatever is good for him is sufficient justification for what he does in the name of the United States.

ANDY SERWER: Would I be correct in inferring, then, that you'd be for impeachment?

SUSAN RICE: No. You can be correct in inferring that I think an inquiry needs to be conducted. I don't want to-- I wouldn't personally prejudge the result of the inquiry. And I think, you know, to be honest, Andy, I was slow to come to the conclusion that an inquiry was necessary until the latest thing occurred with respect to Ukraine, and then, subsequently, China.

Because for all the outrages that I certainly think this president has committed, what he did by signaling very directly to Ukraine that he was holding hostage US taxpayer dollars for their security when Russia is on their territory, and trying to trade that security assistance in a White House visit for, again, dirt on his political opponent-- frankly, it validated all his denials from 2016 when he did, in effect, the same, asking the Russians publicly to intervene.

And he did it perfectly brazenly and claims it was a perfect phone call, because he seems to be unable or unwilling to distinguish himself from the interests of the United States of America. And Andy, we may come to this, but when we get to the discussion about Syria and the decision to abruptly withdraw our troops and let Turkey in, now we have to ask ourselves, what happened in that phone call with President Erdogan?

ANDY SERWER: Right.

SUSAN RICE: What made Donald Trump wake up without consulting his national security team and all of a sudden declare that US forces are pulling out? And now Erdogan is coming to the White House for a visit. And remember the last time he came, his security thugs beat up a bunch of peaceful protesters.

So Erdogan is a thug. Putin is a thug. Xi is an adversary. And this president is giving all of these adversaries or thugs the benefit of our favor if they do something for him.

ANDY SERWER: I do want to get back to Syria, of course. But sort of taking a bigger step back, Susan, I mean, is there a Trump doctrine--

SUSAN RICE: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: --when it comes to foreign policy?

SUSAN RICE: It's actually not America first. It's me first. And I would-- having to say that, as a former National Security advisor, is appalling, and dangerous, and horrible. We are in quite a uncharted territory. And I don't take any pleasure in saying that.

But I don't see what conclusion rational people can draw other than that the president has put a for sale sign on the Oval Office. And what he is selling is anything that would get him what he thinks would be politically beneficial to him, maybe also financially beneficial, although that's less clear.

ANDY SERWER: But wouldn't it-- wouldn't he argue that-- I mean, if you look at what he said in front of the United Nations recently that, you know, nationalism is on the rise. And this is the end of globalism-- that he is really all about sovereign nations instead of just himself. I mean, is there anything to that?

SUSAN RICE: Well, there is such a political philosophy, which he occasionally tries to wrap himself in the mantle of. But that's not how he governs. And if it were how he governs, I would be critical of that. Because I think we actually don't live in a world where sovereign nations can put up walls and pretend that they don't have economic engagement or security engagement with the rest of the world. We're way past that time. This is not the 14th century here.

This is a world in which commerce, and climate effects, and disease, and terrorists, and weapons of mass destruction and all of these things can move across borders. And so to pretend that we can be an island, economically or from a security point of view, is a fallacy in the first instance.

But leaving that aside, that's actually not his governing philosophy. That's great for a United Nations speech. But when you turn around and essentially in the same month, you know, try to cut a deal to undermine the security of an important partner, Ukraine, by withholding desperately needed security assistance, because they are in a hot war still with Russia, who is supposed to be a primary adversary-- and to withhold that assistance and withhold a White House meeting to extort false information that doesn't exist on a political opponent is the height of me first. There's no nationalism in that.

ANDY SERWER: Right. And this is a business news network.

SUSAN RICE: Yes.

ANDY SERWER: And so we're watching the financial markets feel the implications of those forces, sort of the unwinding of globalism brought about by President Trump, but also other forces as well, like Brexit and maybe President Xi, who's a strong nationalist. So the implications from a business standpoint are writ large as well, right?

SUSAN RICE: Well, absolutely. Andy, we don't have the luxury of disentangling ourselves from the rest of the world, as-- you know, as simple as that might seem. And we are now feeling the economic costs, the beginning of the economic costs, of this trade war that we initiated with President Xi. And you know, I write in the book about President Obama's very last meeting with President Xi of China. We were in Peru at the APEC summit in November of 2016. And President Obama and President Xi had developed a working relationship where we were able, actually, to cooperate on important things, even as we were very firm in our competition with them.

And at the end of the meeting, unsolicited and kind of out of the blue, President Xi says to President Obama, look, China does not want a trade war with the United States. But if the United States starts one, we will fight it to win. And it was a stark statement that we-- that really had no predicate. I mean, and it was obviously not a warning to President Obama, because he was going to be gone. It was a warning through President Obama to Donald Trump.

Donald Trump starts that trade war and seems to have no strategy for ending it. Does it without the cooperation and support of our economic partners and allies, where, if together we were confronting China, we'd have a much stronger hand than doing it by ourselves, and actually engaging in parallel trade skirmishes with our partners and allies. And so, you know, we face real challenges in terms of our economic interdependence with China. But we're managing them in a very counterproductive way, I'm afraid.

ANDY SERWER: Right. I mean, you would acknowledge-- just speaking to that last point-- that the rules of engagement between the United States and China in terms of trade were written when the economies were here and here. And now the economies are here and here. And we still have the same rules. So they should change. But how to get the Chinese to change?

SUSAN RICE: Well, they're two different things. They're the rules, which are to be negotiated. And we need to negotiate from a position of strength, meaning with our partners and allies. And then there are the things that happen beyond the rules, which is a large part of our concern with China, that they cheat on a number of different dimensions.

ANDY SERWER: Right.

SUSAN RICE: And again, we need to stand up to that. But we need to stand up in a way that's smart and strategic, and that has an end game. And I don't envision an end game either then-- other than, potentially, capitulation after a costly and lengthy trade war. The Chinese-- and this is what President Xi was saying to President Obama-- they're not going to back down. They're not scared of Donald Trump, not under this Chinese leadership at this point in their history and development. It's not what they want. But if that's what we bring, they're going to play to win.

And we need to understand that. I think the Trump administration has a perception whether they're dealing with Iran or China or any of these ancient cultures that have a history and a pride and a philosophy of their position in the world, which may not accord to our view of their position in the world-- but they're not going to just back down because we say boo. And you know, too often we see the president backing down after escalating and raising expectations.

ANDY SERWER: So what are some specific ways to deal with China, then? In other words, you can just continue to negotiate and try to make incremental gains in terms of all manner of things, from trade to, say, human rights?

SUSAN RICE: I mean, we got a whole lot of reasons to be very concerned about human rights in China.

ANDY SERWER: Yes.

SUSAN RICE: And that was something that we, and I think, previous administrations took quite seriously.

ANDY SERWER: Right.

SUSAN RICE: But the larger challenge with China is we have-- it's the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world, US and China. For the reason we've discussed, they are rising, and they're going to become a more and more formidable competitor, economically, militarily, and otherwise. But that does not render conflict inevitable.

ANDY SERWER: Right.

SUSAN RICE: And you know, one of the other things I write in the book is about how during the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations I met on a number of occasions with my designated successor, Michael Flynn, who lasted 24 days into the Trump administration. But he gave me a very interesting insight into how they were thinking about China. And I can't say that it was the president's view, but it was his view. I think it's Peter Navarro's view, which is essentially-- you know, we're going to have to fight China sooner or later. They're just going to get stronger. So let's fight them now. And he didn't mean purely on an economic basis. He meant fight them.

I don't think we should accept conflict as inevitable with China. We're going to have to compete. And it could get ugly. And we've got to compete with all of the assets that we have, including our partners and allies.

But there are also avenues through which we can and must cooperate. And that's what we were able to do in the Obama administration, is balance the competition with the cooperation. That's how we got the Paris Climate Agreement, working with China. That's how we got the Iran nuclear deal, working with China. That's how we were able to get the toughest sanctions to date on North Korea. I was negotiating at the UN with China. So--

ANDY SERWER: We're so far from that right now, right?

SUSAN RICE: We're very far from that.

ANDY SERWER: I mean, working with China to sort of have international things--

SUSAN RICE: We got a cyber agreement that nobody thought we could get in 2015 where, you know, we agreed not to steal each other's intellectual property using cyber means for commercial gain. That deal largely held-- and I was involved in negotiating it, as I described in the book. That deal held until we got into this trade war with the Chinese under President Trump.

So it's not impossible to work with China, even as we're competing and even as we're having very serious concerns over South China Sea and their economic policies. We've got to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And I think we've seemingly lost that ability.

ANDY SERWER: That maybe any young child could do. But that's a whole-- so I want to talk about your book, of course. And the title is curious to me, Tough Love. What is that from? What does that mean?

SUSAN RICE: Tough love--

ANDY SERWER: I mean, I know what it means, but--

SUSAN RICE: Tough love means, to me, loving fiercely, but not uncritically. And that's how my parents raised me and my brother. They had very high expectations. And yet they-- you know, they gave us every support, every confidence.

But when we screwed up, they were going to be the first ones to tell us. And they weren't going to pat us on the head and say, you know, nicely done, when it wasn't nicely done. When they said that, we knew they meant it.

That's how I've also tried to raise my own kids with my husband. That's how I've tried to lead my teams in government. And it's, frankly, how I love our country. I think this is the greatest country on earth. I love it fiercely. But we make mistakes, historically and in the present. And I think part of being a patriot is being willing to acknowledge those mistakes, and learn from them, and improve upon them.

So that's how I was raised, Andy. I mean, it's-- you know, we all are fallible. And we all can do better. And my parents raised me with the mantra to always do my best. And that-- they made it very clear that if I did my best, and I screwed up something or wasn't very good at it, that's fine with them. What wasn't fine with them is, you know, mailing it in or putting in a half hearted performance on anything.

ANDY SERWER: And you grew up a black child growing up in this world of privilege in northwest Washington. Was that a tough environment for you? Did that shape you?

SUSAN RICE: Well, I grew up-- to back up a few steps, I came from parents who, themselves, had come up from modest economic circumstances.

ANDY SERWER: Right.

SUSAN RICE: My mother came from parents who were immigrants to Portland, Maine from Jamaica in 1912. My grandfather was a janitor. My grandmother was a maid and a seamstress. They had nothing but grit, and faith, and hard work. And they managed to scrape, and save, and send their five kids to college.

And two became doctors, one a university president, one an optometrist, and then my mom, who served on 11 corporate boards, was herself a corporate executive, and also, for the bulk of her career, worked in higher education finance and was known as the mother of Pell grants, which have enabled 80 million Americans to attend college.

My dad was born and raised in segregated South Carolina. He was the son of a minister. But his father died when he was 7. And that plunged their family into difficult economic straits. His mother had to go back to work as a teacher. And-- go to work-- she had not worked prior to that. She had to get her teaching degree and go to work. And he, you know, had to fight in a segregated Air Force in World War II with the Tuskegee Airmen, where he was fighting on behalf of freedom for everybody in the Western world except African-Americans, who were not treated equally.

And so they came from backgrounds where they had to make huge progress. And they did so against major obstacles. My brother and I, born in the '60s, were already in a better position. Because my parents had become professionals. And they were able to give us, you know, a top quality education in Washington, DC, even though we were black kids.

ANDY SERWER: I guess I meant more that the people around you-- it was the environment that was, you know, at those schools.

SUSAN RICE: The environment was challenging. But I mean, look, first of all, I have to say I'm blessed that I had that education. And that's all I've known. So yeah, I was one of six black kids in a class of more than 60 in my high school. And I had-- you know, I did well academically, and athletically, and socially.

But I also experienced something that may not surprise you, because we come from the same area and grew up roughly the same time, which is that, at that white school, I saw some of my-- some of the parents of my classmates, when it came time to apply to colleges, say to their daughters, you know, don't worry about Susan. She's going to get into some of these good schools because she's black.

And so it was this reverse-- you know, diminished expectations because they were discounting my success, because I was, in their mind, black. And it was a way of sort of encouraging their daughters, in a false way. But it was also saying, you know, that I'm not really worthy.

So that got under my skin. And I worked my behind off. And I ended up sharing the award for valedictorian. So when that happened, I-- you know, I never said anything. But in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, now what are you going to say?

ANDY SERWER: I bet. So how do you aspire to get into foreign policy as a young person?

SUSAN RICE: I didn't actually aspire to get into foreign policy. I knew I wanted to be involved in making public policy. And growing up in Washington all my life-- I mean, I was in that world, and my friends' parents were in that world. And I worked on Capitol Hill for four Summers in high school. And so the business of Washington I was raised with.

But I actually thought until I went to graduate school and started studying international relations thinking I was going to go on to law school and be some sort of public interest advocate, or you know, civil rights attorney, or something like that. I got the bug as a graduate student when I was taking a two year master's course in international relations. And I stayed on to do my PhD in international relations and then had the opportunity, ultimately, to serve in government at a young age.

My first job at the White House was when I was 28 at the National Security Council. And then one thing led to another. So really, I knew I wanted to be involved in policymaking. At one stage, I thought I wanted to do it through elected office. I realized in my mid 20s that I didn't really have the patience for that and that I just-- I could make policy without doing it through elected office. And that's what I was, thankfully, able to do.

ANDY SERWER: An elected office is still out there for you, maybe, right?

SUSAN RICE: Well, elected office is still out there. Whether it's for me or not, we'll have to see. I haven't ruled that out by any means. And at different stages, I've thought about it. I think my-- I'm a little more patient. And I'm a little more suited temperamentally to the give and take and the compromise that should occur in Congress, if Congress is working. But having said that, you know, I can serve, again, in an executive branch capacity. Or I can go in a completely different direction and stay out of government. There are many different ways to serve.

And I think-- I'm just-- I will do what I'm excited about and where I think I can contribute. It doesn't have to be in foreign policy anymore.

ANDY SERWER: Let me ask you about Benghazi, Susan, because your name is going to be linked to that forever to one degree or another. You've been exonerated across the board. Trey Gowdy exonerated--

SUSAN RICE: Even Trey Gowdy. [LAUGHS]

ANDY SERWER: Trey Gowdy.

SUSAN RICE: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: But you know, if you Google it, and there's always the right wing trolls out there that are forever going to say, you know, she was guilty of a cover up. She was guilty of misconstruing the information. Does that bother you? Or where do you come out on that today?

SUSAN RICE: Well, it bothers me because it impugns my integrity.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah.

SUSAN RICE: And you know, I can make mistakes. I can be wrong. But I don't mislead. And I wasn't dishonest.

And you're right to say that, you know, eight congressional committees and everybody who looked into it agreed with that conclusion, that I had not lied or misled in any deliberate way. But there will always be those-- and I, you know, they're sort of the noise of the far right that, frankly, I tune out. Because otherwise, you know, it would make you a little bit crazy.

But the notion, as you said, that my name is forever, in some fashion, synonymous with that is not a happy thought. But it's a price I, in some ways, signed up to pay when I decided to serve. It's sad that that should be the case. But I would serve again and do what I've done if given the opportunity. Because it's such a privilege. And I think it's important work that our public servants do on behalf of our country. And I was really proud to have that opportunity.

So for all that I endured in that context, I would serve again and be very grateful and proud to do so.

ANDY SERWER: Let me ask you what I think is the question of our time when it comes to your world. And it pertains to a lot of things we've been talking about, which is, you know, since World War II, we've had this seemingly inexorable rise of globalism until now.

SUSAN RICE: I hate that term, by the way. Why--

ANDY SERWER: Inexorable or globalism, which one?

SUSAN RICE: Globalism.

ANDY SERWER: OK. Why is that?

SUSAN RICE: Because it's a term that's now been hijacked by the right to imply, you know, that there's something-- it's a Bannonism.

ANDY SERWER: I didn't think it was pejorative.

SUSAN RICE: It is-- I think of it that way now.

ANDY SERWER: You do?

SUSAN RICE: And that's why you have Trump saying at the UN, the era globalism is over-- it's not about globalism. It's about, we live in an interconnected world.

ANDY SERWER: OK.

SUSAN RICE: We live in a world where, you know, from an economic point of view, from a security point of view, from a social point of view, we're inextricably linked.

ANDY SERWER: So but my question is, whatever you want to call it, the world was maybe coming closer together.

SUSAN RICE: Yes.

ANDY SERWER: We were cooperating more. I'm not going to use the g-word. OK. Until recently. And recently, then, we've had, as I said, Brexit, Donald Trump, Erdogan, Bolsonaro, Xi Jinping. It's reverted a little bit, right? Things have gone in reverse a little bit. And my question is, is that a permanent thing, maybe for the rest of our lifetime? Or is it a little blip? How much of a setback in terms of the world coming together are we in the midst of?

SUSAN RICE: It's hard to judge. My instinct and my expectation is that it is not permanent and that this is something of a phase. I say that because the forces of progress pull us in a direction where we have to engage each other, and hopefully, in that engagement, cooperate.

But we don't-- as I was saying earlier, we don't get to throw up walls and pretend that we all live in our own little patch of earth. That's not how we function anymore. We've got all kinds of things that connect us, whether it's technology, whether it's, you know, the movement of people, whether it's air travel, whether it's commerce.

And you know, unless we want to go back to medieval times, which I don't think we could even if we wanted to, we're not going to be able to undo the forces that have brought us to this point. And so we can fight them, which is, in effect, what some countries are doing now and what Trump philosophically portrays himself as doing.

But I don't-- I don't personally think that the tide is going to stay receded as it is now. I think it will come back. I think it has to start, frankly, here in the United States, where we are paying the costs to our farmers, to our manufacturers, to our taxpayers of this economic isolationism. You know, this trade war with China is not something China's paying for, as the president would have people believe. You and I are paying for it. And so is every American with increased prices.

And this is going to get, you know-- the promise that he has held out of putting up these walls and being America first-- it's an illusion. And it's becoming a costly illusion. So I think here, I'm hopeful that-- you know, that people will see that this is actually not a path that serves as well. And you know, we'll see what happens in other parts of the world. Even in places like Italy, you know, the tide may already be turning.

I'm going to be very-- I'm very interested to see what happens in the UK. I don't think that is a done deal at all yet. So-- and, you know, it seems that Johnson may be about to, again, overplay his hand. So let's see. But it's going to take wise leadership in the United States and many of these important countries.

You know, China is going to be a nationalistic force. But it's an economically integrated nationalistic force. And you know, that tethers it, to some extent, to a system that we helped create in the post World War II environment.

ANDY SERWER: Do you think about how Facebook, Twitter, Google are connected to the world in which you just described?

SUSAN RICE: Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: How?

SUSAN RICE: Well, for better or for worse, they're mediating the flow of much of the world's information. And-- or failing to mediate the flow of much of the world's information, depending on your perspective. And the danger of that is that their success and-or failures become perceived as American successes or failures.

So if Facebook, for example, is blamed in Myanmar for, you know, allowing anti-Rohingya propaganda that incites violence or genocide, that could redound to the detriment of the United States and how we're perceived internationally, because Facebook is such a major player. I'm not saying it's justified. Not saying it's fair. But I think we have to be mindful, both as policymakers and as corporate leaders, that, you know, it's very difficult to disentangle the perception of our biggest economic players that impact the lives of people around the world and our country itself.

ANDY SERWER: And last question, Susan. This program is about influencers. And so I want to ask you, how do you see using your influence on the world?

SUSAN RICE: Well, Andy, one of the many reasons I wanted to write this book, but I think one of the most urgent reasons is because I'm deeply worried that we're at a point where our domestic political divisions threaten to undermine the stability of our democracy, and very importantly, our national security. And in the last chapter, in particular, I write about both, how I'm wrestling with that challenge in the microcosm of our family, where we've got kids from very different political points of view.

But the sort of urgent call that I try to make is to Americans to understand that we've been through very difficult patches in our history, more difficult patches than today, from the Civil War, to, you know, Vietnam era, to 9/11. But if we don't recognize the urgency of this moment and understand that healing these divisions is an absolute necessity for our continued leadership, our strength, our ability to serve the economic and the security interests of this country, then we may well find ourselves before too long greatly diminished and corroded from the inside out.

But because our divisions are a problem of our own making, it's a problem we have the capacity to fix, if we understand its urgency and if we're prepared to see ourselves as greater than the sum of our parts. We are all Americans in this boat together. And we can sink, because, you know, we put all our weight to one side and flip the boat. Or we can balance out and row in the same direction.

And I think we can do it. I think, as I said, we've overcome much worse. But, you know, this is my message for the moment. And it may be my message for a long time to come. Because as a former National Security advisor, I've seen how dangerous these divisions are. We can't do simple things, like get our-- get infrastructure legislation passed. Basic stuff that enables us to stay on par with a country like China.

But we also are vulnerable to adversaries like Russia who are trying to exploit those divisions every day on the internet and through their propaganda. If we don't recognize this, and deal with it, and fix it, our adversaries are going to benefit. And we're going to be weakened.

ANDY SERWER: OK. Susan Rice, thanks so much for joining us today.

SUSAN RICE: Good to be with you. Thanks for having me.

ANDY SERWER: I'm Andy Serwer. You've been watching Influencers. We'll see you next time.