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Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice, John Kerry find ‘common ground’ in panel at Notre Dame

Two former secretaries of state, Republican Condoleezza Rice and Democrat John Kerry, came together in front of a sold-out auditorium in DeBartolo Performing Arts Center on Tuesday night to find common ground on issues including the United States’ role in foreign affairs, climate change immigration policy and America’s future.

Rice — the 64th secretary of state who served under President George W. Bush and received her master’s degree from Notre Dame in 1975 — and Kerry — the 66th secretary under President Barack Obama — were brought to campus by the Common Ground Committee, a non-partisan organization that offers a platform for public figures to reach across the aisle to discuss policy considerations. On-campus partners for the event included BridgeND, the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy and the Notre Dame International Security Center.

The panel opened with a clip of President Donald Trump’s inaugural address from January 2017 in which he promised a new, “America First” vision for the country, opening a discussion of foreign policy between the two secretaries and moderator Howard LaFranchi, the diplomacy correspondent at The Christian Science Monitor.

Kerry first addressed Trump’s decision to pull out of agreements such as the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Iran Deal, agreements Kerry worked on during his time as secretary of state. Kerry said Trump “made a blanket decision to pull out of” these deals rather than attempting to improve them, which he thinks would have been a better course of action.

“Look, if you want to make them better, make them better. But he hasn’t made anything better,” Kerry said. “ … I think if you’re the world’s greatest negotiator, you negotiate. And if you have objections — which are legit, by the way, I don’t think anyone thought that the TPP was a perfect agreement — but he was teed up to actually prove to the world what a great country this was, and all he had to do was put on the table five or six changes.”

Rice voiced a different view from Kerry’s on Trump’s decision to withdraw from various deals.

“I want to get to the basic question of why we are seeing this pulling away from the liberal order,” she said. “Because I think, in this sense, the president is — in many ways — a symptom of a larger problem that we globalizers have. Now, to be very clear: I am a staunch defender, as John is, of the liberal order that we created. … Somewhere along the way, those of us who believe in the liberal order have begun to lose support for it. And I think we have lost support for it among common people.”

Both Kerry and Rice attributed the rise of populism to America’s shift, a movement that has altered America’s role in international relations.

“When the president of the United States stands up and says ‘America First,’ he’s articulating something that every president of the United States has always believed and always acted on,” Kerry said. “There’s nothing new in that. … But when you say it the way the president has said it and you put it out there in the way that he has promoted it … America loses credibility. America loses leverage. And that is what has happened.”

Rice echoed Kerry, adding that “we don’t really have an answer for” populism.

“We need to modernize the liberal order,” Rice said. “ ... Populists give you a reason why you’re failing. They say it’s the immigrants. They say it’s the Chinese. If you’re on the left, they say it’s the big banks.”

LaFranchi landed on a subject of intense passion for Kerry when he led the discussion to climate change and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, a deal within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Kerry spoke for several minutes on this question, emphasizing the urgency of the need to combat climate change.

“I will say to you bluntly tonight, that when the president said to the American people, ‘I’m pulling out of this because it places an undue burden on the United States of America,’ he lied. He did not tell the truth to the American people,” Kerry said. “It places no burden on any country other than what each country wrote as a plan itself. Every country wrote its own plan on Paris and what they would do to reduce emissions.

“ ... Right now, as we sit here tonight, we’re heading to a 4 degrees-plus Centigrade increase in this century — catastrophic. … The bottom line is, folks, we have to change our politics. We have to hold politicians accountable.”

Rice also said she supported remaining in the Paris Agreement, noting that climate change needs to be addressed “as urgently as possible” and that “our savior may be technology.”

“What countries have to do is that they have to satisfy three Es: they have to satisfy economic growth, they have to satisfy environmental sustainability and that is done through energy use,” she said. “ … The problem is, however much time we have, we’re not going to be able to tell people, ‘Don’t grow economically.’ So how do we proceed to get technology more quickly?”

The panel then touched on the recent controversy surrounding border security, which led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. Rice explained that while the country needs immigration reform, the discussion is being framed poorly.

“We would not be in this mess today if we had comprehensive immigration reform,” she said. “If you ask most Americans, they will say, ‘We ought to be able to have an orderly border.’ I can’t even count the number of times the Democrats and Republicans have been for a wall, not for a wall, for a fence, not for a fence — I mean, come on. People are playing politics with this issue. … We want people at all ends of the immigration pendulum. I don’t like this idea of so-called merit immigration. The idea that we only want people who come here to make us better. I thought the idea was people came here and America made them better. And then they made us better in return.”

Kerry kept his response short and to the point: “I agree with Condi.”

The conversation pivoted to U.S. relations with countries that might pose threats to the U.S., beginning with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

Rice, who has studied Russia extensively, began by explaining that she believes Putin has chosen the U.S. as Russia’s enemy to reunite Russia and make it a great country with strong leadership. While the U.S. needs to “contain and stop Putin,” Rice said, she emphasized that Russia is still producing citizens who should remain welcome in the U.S.

“There’s a young generation of Russians who we shouldn’t be isolating,” she said. “ … Let’s isolate Putinism, but not isolate Russians. Because one day, Putin will be gone and those young Russians who are in my classes in the [Stanford] School of Business, who are in our law firms, who are in our businesses, need to be supported.

Kerry added that he believed working with Russia was possible, but that the country was still prone to suffer from a Cold War attitude of distrusting dialogue.

“I got along with Putin, as [Rice] did, and we managed to cooperate on a lot of things,” he said. “ … We cooperated on the Iran Nuclear agreement, we cooperated on Paris, we cooperated on other things. I found them ready to deal, to be honest with you. And to be candid, I had some problems within our administration. I had people who just could only see them in a Cold War context, only wanted to bring the hammer down. … It was just, ‘Sanction them. Don’t talk to them. Isolate them.’”

The two also discussed Trump’s recent diplomatic efforts with North Korea, agreeing that the president had made inroads, but had been mistaken in attending the second summit without a clear next step. They also explored the current administration's approach to China, where Rice admitted Trump’s aggressive trade policies had been effective and the time to make a deal was nearing. Kerry agreed, and added that China’s “One Belt, One Road” program of international development was a byproduct of the narrative that the Western liberal order and America are on the decline.

The official panel ended with a joke from Kerry: “We’re going to run.”

Once the moderated panel wrapped up, Rice and Kerry took questions from the audience. This was where the two encountered their biggest disagreement of the night, as Kerry raised the question of voter suppression, something Rice said she does not feel is a problem.

“We’re not going to solve our problems in this country, I regret to tell you, ultimately, without major reform to the way we approach our elections and the structure,” Kerry said. “We are the only country I know of — well, only full democracy — that has major elections accountable to the people in which one party spends an awful lot of time preventing people from voting and gets away with it.”

Rice interjected to offer a different take on voting rights and a citizen’s ability to vote, citing the African American voter turnout in the Alabama special election for senator, when Roy Moore was the Republican nominee, as an example of citizens turning out to vote in droves when they feel inspired to do so.

“It’s your fault if you don’t vote. It’s not the fault of the system. It’s not their fault that you’re not inspired,” Rice said. “ … My relatives in Birmingham, Alabama, my ancestors, died to vote. So if you don’t vote, it’s your fault. And secondly — voter suppression? I’m sorry, John, people can vote if they want to vote.”

Kerry pushed back, however, pointing to his own examples of elections in which voter suppression was evident, whether it went unpunished or not, and urging audience members to do their own research on the subject.

The night ended with both speakers offering some final words of wisdom for the audience.

Kerry stressed that the only way to change the recent shift in politics toward “the hard policy of orthodoxy thinking” was through voting for more moderate representation, and offered a Nelson Mandela quote as inspiration: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

Rice gave a three-part potential solution primarily directed to the younger members of the audience: to not live in a political echo-chamber, to avoid the appeal to a right of being offended and a plea to “own your democracy.”