WASHINGTON — Former secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warns against feeling reassured by the defeat of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election Sunday.
"I really do believe that these populists are changing the character of the politics just by being there, so even mainstream candidates are having to respond to their agenda," Rice told Capital Download. "You see fewer people talking about free trade. You see countries talking about industrial policy and protectionism. It's hard to defend immigrants almost any place in the world today. ...
"The rise of nativism is having an impact on the politics, even if the candidates aren't winning."
More than four years ago, Rice began writing a book about the challenges to democracy, especially in nations that only recently have moved toward free elections. Now Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, is being published Tuesday by Twelve in the wake of the unexpected passage of Brexit in Great Britain and the surprise election of Donald Trump in the United States.
In a final chapter, Rice describes "the rise of populism, nativism, and a tinge of isolationism" around the world. "It is no surprise that this earthquake is shaking young democracies like Poland," she wrote. "But it is stunning that it has jolted the most mature of them."
The 486-page book is at its core a push-back to the America First ideology advocated by candidate Trump, the sense that the United States should be less engaged in international affairs and less concerned about advocating human rights outside its borders. Rice argues that the United States is essential in protecting and expanding democracies, an approach that she says ultimately safeguards American interests.
In an interview Saturday with USA TODAY's video newsmaker series, Rice was tempered in her comments about Trump — praising his national-security team as "outstanding," saying Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was "fantastic," and suggesting the president and his administration was successfully learning on the job. She declined to criticize the administration's proposal to cut the State Department budget by nearly 30% and to eliminate thousands of agency jobs.
Consider Trump's praise of authoritarian strongmen abroad, among them Russian President Vladimir Putin, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and even North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. "A pretty smart cookie," Trump said in an interview on CBS' Face the Nation last week.
Does that send a dangerous message?
"The president's words matter," Rice said, though she distinguished between allies like el-Sisi — "I have no problem with that" — and adversaries like the erratic Kim.
"The president of the United States is the most important voice for our foreign policy. He's the most important voice for our values and for our interests, and the use of that voice is important, and I think we're starting to see recognition of that."
While every new president faces a learning curve, she acknowledged that it may be particularly steep in this administration. "President Trump has never been in government," she noted. "As a matter of fact, a lot of the people around him have never been in government as well. Yes, I think that they are getting accustomed to what the presidency can do."
Rice, now 62 and a professor at Stanford, was a National Security Council aide with a specialty in Russia for the elder President Bush. (She still occasionally watches Russian newscasts online.) During the younger President Bush's administration, she became the first woman to serve as White House national security adviser. She was secretary of State during George W. Bush's second term.
During last year's presidential campaign, she called for Trump to withdraw as a candidate after the release of the Access Hollywood tape that included audio of him bragging about sexually assaulting women. "Enough!" she wrote on Facebook in October. "Donald Trump should not be President."
Five months later, in March, she sat down with Trump in the White House for what she calls "a very good meeting."
"For me, he is the president of the United States," she said. "He won it fair and square. We have an electoral process in our democracy and I completely respect that process and its outcome. I also respect the fact that he saw something and felt something in the population that a lot of people didn't see. And people took the democratic road to find a candidate who they thought would represent their interests and deal with their aspirations, deal with their fears, and so I respect that.
"He's the president, and I'll do what I can to help him."
That is, to help him. Not to join his administration.
"I'm going to stay in California," she demurred. "I'm a happy professor."