Professor Condoleezza Rice participates in a Q&A moderated by Professor Scott Sagan, left, at Bechtel Conference Center on Tuesday, March 12, 2024.

Professor Condoleezza Rice participates in a Q&A moderated by Professor Scott Sagan, left, at Bechtel Conference Center on Tuesday. (Image credit: Rod Searcey)

With so much global turmoil today – from Ukraine to the Middle East to parts of Asia – many question how much the United States should involve itself in foreign affairs, especially when facing many domestic challenges. But former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warns that America’s retreat would create further challenges in the future.

“Every time we have tried to avoid entanglement, we have had to be entangled later at greater cost,” she said while delivering the Drell Lecture on Tuesday at the Bechtel Conference Center.

In her address, titled “What Does America Stand For?” Rice discussed the economic, political, and military systems championed by the U.S. following World War II, how those systems are being challenged, and what America’s role in the world should be today.

The Drell Lecture is an annual public event addressing a national or international security issue. Sponsored by the Center for International Security and Cooperation, or CISAC, it is named for the late Sidney Drell, CISAC co-founder and former deputy director of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The event is endowed by Albert and Cicely Wheelon.

Condoleezza Rice is the Tad and Dianne Taube Director and the Thomas and Barbara Stephenson Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, and the Denning Professor in Global Business and the Economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business. She served as the 66th Secretary of State of the United States.

Envisioning globalization

Following World War II, the United States reflected on the war’s carnage and its causes, such as conflicts over resources, trade policies that led to currency manipulation, and the rise of authoritarian regimes. America’s vision of what the world would look like going forward had three major components. The first, Rice explained, was a belief that the international economy did not have to be zero-sum.

“You could build a positive-sum economy, in which everybody traded in freedom, in which capital moved, in which you didn’t have a circumstance [where], if I grew, it was at your expense,” Rice said, adding that this system of “prosperity for all” was supported by strong institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Under the second component – military security – the U.S. gave other nations a guarantee of protection. The promise that “an attack upon one is an attack upon all” was embedded in agreements like NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “The United States would provide a security commons to marry with its economic commons, which would bring peace and stability and prosperity across the world,” Rice said.

Lastly, the U.S. gambled on democratic peace, or the idea that democracies don’t fight one another. For example, it helped Germany rebuild itself as a democracy to ensure it never threatened its neighbors again, and made similar attempts to establish democracy in other nations.

However, in recent years, various global circumstances have put pressure on these economic and military systems, including the rise of China and its aggressive foreign policies, as well as years-long wars in the Middle East that have led some Americans to become disillusioned with U.S. involvement overseas. Many today even question America’s commitment to protect the very system that it helped create.

“There is no doubt that there is a question of will,” Rice said. “And I want to suggest that it has less to do with what we have done abroad than what we have failed to do at home.”

Domestic challenges

For many, the post-WWII global system has produced extraordinary gains through new opportunities and greater social and economic mobility. But others, like unemployed coal miners in West Virginia or steel workers in Great Britain, have not had the same success.

“When you have people for whom globalization seems to have backfired … there is no doubt that it will be fertile ground for populists who say, ‘Let me tell you why you are not succeeding,’” Rice said, noting that the blame often falls on immigrants or tech companies.

She said the American confidence that built globalization has been replaced by populism, nativism, isolationism, and protectionism. Rice contends, however, that America can continue its economic and technological dominance while still maintaining strong alliances – but not without heeding its own human development.

“It requires a sense of national mission to make things better here at home first,” she said.

Rice insisted that the U.S. cannot withdraw from the world and called on Americans to remember key moments in history when the U.S. tried to avoid “entanglements,” but was drawn in later at greater costs, like its entrance to WWI in 1917.

“Great powers don’t mind their own business,” she said. “They shape the future.”

Encouraging future generations

Following Rice’s lecture, she participated in an audience question-and-answer session moderated by Scott Sagan, the Caroline S.G. Munro Professor in Political Science and senior fellow at CISAC.

When asked about isolationism and how to keep younger generations engaged with global issues, Rice encouraged students to study abroad and said she’d like to see Stanford admit more international undergraduates, who help broaden the views of American students. She also noted the need to better teach complex histories that lead to current events.

“You cannot understand what’s going on with Russia and Ukraine unless you know something about Russian history,” she said.

She called on students to engage in productive debate and reminded them that there is no constitutional right to not be offended. “Put forward your arguments and have them rebutted,” she said.

During the event, a few dozen demonstrators could be heard outside the building, protesting matters related to the war in Gaza. Meanwhile, Rice noted the importance of civic engagement and public service and said she was impressed with how many of her students today want to contribute to the greater good.

“In my 40 years at Stanford, I’ve never taught a more public-minded generation than this generation,” she said.

Rice’s lecture is available to watch online.