Condoleezza Rice on the Record

Iran hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin last week, as the two countries look to bolster relations while under strict sanctions from the West. It’s one example of how the war in Ukraine is influencing foreign policy worldwide. For more on this, Walter Isaacson speaks with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

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WALTER ISAACSON, CORRESPONDENT: Thank you Sara. And Secretary Condoleezza Rice, welcome to the show.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Thank you. It’s great to be with you, Walter.

ISAACSON: You’re coming to us from Aspen where you’re co-chair of the Aspen Security Forum and Strategy Group. Bill Burns was just there talking to you. And let me read something he said. He says, “Putin really does believe his rhetoric that Ukraine is not a real country. He believes it’s his entitlement to dominate Ukraine.” Nobody knows Russia better than you do. You’ve been studying it your entire career. Is he right and what does that mean?

RICE: Oh, I think that Bill Burns is absolutely right. And of course, few people know Russia better than Bill Burns either, having been ambassador there and speaking fluent Russian. Vladimir Putin used to tell me all the time things like, Condi, you know us. Russia is only great when it’s ruled by great men like Peter the Great and Alexander II. He now compares himself to Peter the Great. That very strange speech that he gave just before the invasion talked about how Lenin had created Ukraine. He told us that Ukraine was not – that Ukraine was a made up country. And so I think he really does have this delusional view of history where Russian empire requires that there not be an independent Ukraine. And that’s very hard for us to get our heads around because we thought people stopped thinking that way a century or so ago. But that’s what we’re confronted with Walter.

ISAACSON: Does that mean there’s no solution other than a victory for either side in Ukraine?

RICE: Well, there certainly is no solution if Ukraine is left to the tender mercies of the Russians. But I continue to believe that if the Ukrainians fight as bravely as they are fighting now, if we support them as fully and as completely and as quickly as we can, if we are less constraining on them and what they need to do to win this – win this war, that at the very least they can fight the Russians to let’s say, a stalemate. That yes, Russia may be able to hold onto some territory, even though I – I really hope that the Ukrainians can mount a counter offensive, but we can absolutely make sure that Putin does not succeed in liquidating Ukraine. In fact, I think he’s already failed at that. Our goal with the Ukrainians has to be to make sure that he fails here going forward.

ISAACSON: You say that perhaps the Ukrainians can hold it to a stalemate. Do you think then there should be like a cease fire in place? And we just put aside, for a while, the question of disputed territory?

RICE: I would never presume to tell the Ukrainians when the conditions are met that they would be prepared to take a, to take a ceasefire or an agreement. These people have fought, they have suffered, the Russians have committed horrendous war crimes. We have to support the Ukrainians until they decide that they have achieved the conditions in which they want to look for a ceasefire. That’s my view. This is a decision in Kyiv, not in Washington, not in Berlin, not in London. And oh, by the way, when I say a stalemate, I don’t mean that necessarily the fighting stops. I mean that from there, perhaps they can really undermine the Russians with a combination of resistance and continued military fighting. But we just can’t let the Russians – they can’t let the Russians go any further. They can’t create a landlocked Ukraine for instance by winning in the south. And Ukrainians are doing very well in the south. So it is not for us to say when Ukraine wants to stop fighting, that is for the Ukrainians.

ISAACSON: President Putin just went to Tehran where he met with Iran’s Supreme Leader. What do you make of a possible alliance or better relations between the two countries? Or is that possible?

RICE: Well, there is no doubt that Putin is seeking allies wherever he can get them these days. And frankly, Belarus is not a particularly strong read. So you wouldn’t be surprised that he’s looking for allies elsewhere. It might be an effort to say to the Iranians, if you help us evade sanctions, we will help you evade sanctions. I can imagine that that’s part of the conversation. But two pariah states, I suppose they deserve each other. We have to just keep pressing hard and, I will say this: This is not the time for nuclear negotiations with the Iranians with the Russians at the table. This is a time to isolate Iran and isolate Russia across the board.

ISAACSON: So you would cut off the talks on the Iranian nuclear deal and perhaps even think the European should do that, right?

RICE: Well, as far as I can tell, the Iranians have not answered the questions that they were asked by the administration on the way to a deal. So yes, I think it’s high time to say to the Iranians this is over. I didn’t favor – to be fair, I didn’t favor going back into nuclear negotiations with the Iranians in any case. And so I think we need to concentrate on isolation at this point, not on engagement.

ISAACSON: If we’re going to isolate Iran and we’re gonna isolate Russia and do all these sanctions, don’t we have to have better relationships with China?

RICE: Well, the Chinese also seem to have made their choice. Their – what is it – relationship without limits. Although they must be wondering about a relationship without limits that’s bringing down sanctions across –

ISAACSON: You’re talking about what he said about a relationship with Russia.

RICE: What Xi Jinping said about Putin, exactly, in that little meeting that they had just before the Olympics. But we just need to send in – I think the administration’s done a good job here – send a very clear message to the Chinese that we don’t like their rhetoric, but that any material assistance to the Russians would be looked upon very very much a stance. And I think the Chinese know that you would then be looking at secondary sanctions. So yes, they’re gonna continue to buy discounted Russian oil. A lot of people are doing that, but any material help to the Russians beyond that has really – we, they – we have to warn the Chinese off precisely that. But I think Walter, as long as we can keep unity in the Western Alliance and NATO and the European Union and other countries like Japan and others that are a part of this I think we can bring the kind of pressure that we need.

ISAACSON: Do you think it was a good idea for President Biden to go to Saudi Arabia and sort of engage in fist bump diplomacy, and what good or bad do you think came out of that trip?

RICE: Well, the fact is that Saudi Arabia is an important country. It is an important economic power given its oil reserves. And the fact that the world is in need of oil – of oil and gas reserves. And it’s an important country to, frankly, keeping the peace in the middle east. Now the Saudis have gone quite a long way in – I won’t call it rapprochement, but I will call it movement toward Israel, along with the other Gulf states that have been more upfront about it like the UAE or Morocco or others. But that’s a positive thing for the middle east, and the Abraham Accords ought to be encouraged and they ought to be encouraged to expand. None of us wants to ignore what happened with Khashoggi. None of us wants to ignore the human rights problems and abuses in Saudi Arabia. But I had to go to Saudi Arabia, President Bush went to Saudi Arabia, President Obama’s been in Saudi Arabia. Who are we kidding? Presidents are going to go to Saudi Arabia. It probably is not a good thing to say that you’re never gonna go to Saudi Arabia, which is a pariah state and then have to go. That’s the problem. It’s also probably not wise to not shake hands. I mean that – it felt a little bit staged somehow. And I don’t know, as a fist pump more intimate or less intimate, I really can’t tell you but that he went to Saudi Arabia. I don’t have a, I don’t have a problem with that. By the way, one of the ways that you limit the dependence on Saudi oil is that you fully exploit America’s tremendous reserves. The North American platform for energy production, stretching from Canada down through Mexico, is a powerhouse. The United States was going to achieve independence and in supply. And that makes us, then, possible to export. And when you look at the places that the oil reserves are Saudi Arabia, Russia, we’ve been talking about Iran. Would I rather that the hydrocarbons that we’re going to continue to need while we make the transition to a less carbon intensive economy to favor climate change – while we are doing that, those hydrocarbons ought to be coming from North America. And then less dependent on Saudi Arabia.

ISAACSON: You’ve been watching, or maybe reading, about the January 6th hearings. How important do you think it is that the Republican party, of which you are a member, move on from Donald Trump?

RICE: Well, I am – look, I’m gonna leave to the American voter who they want to be president, but I am ready for you know, a new generation of leadership. I’m ready for all of those who’ve had their chance to step aside and let somebody else lead. I’ve made very clear my views about January 6th. It was a stain on American democracy. Walter, I cried that night because I thought to myself – or that afternoon, – I thought to myself, I study countries that do this. I don’t live in a country that does this. And yet when they walked to the centers and congressmen walked back into the capital after it’d been secured. And in that kind of almost boring way certified the election. I thanked God for Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and Michael Pence because the American system held. So there is nothing more important than the peaceful transfer of power after an election. And it should have happened. It should have happened without questions about voter fraud and voter suppression, by the way, both of which are terms that are meant to stop the conversation, not start it. And yes, we need a new generation of leadership for the Republican party. And dare I say, maybe for the democratic party too.

ISAACSON: But election deniers are running for office in states across this country right now, especially in the Republican party. What do you say to people when they’re faced with somebody who’s an election denier? Will you sort of tell people that’s not the way they should go?

RICE: Oh, I’m not gonna tell people how to vote, all right? Because I – voters have a wide variety of concerns when they’re voting. But I am gonna say that election deniers are not in my – to my mind, acting in the American democratic way. The American democratic way is to accept the outcomes of elections, congratulate the winner and move on. If you have a belief that something’s gone wrong in an election, we have courts that can hear those cases. And many, many courts heard these cases and said that, including the attorney general Bill Barr, who said there was no substantial fraud. So I would say, could we just accept that and move – move on. I do wanna say this, Walter. You know that I’m at – Director of the Hoover Institution, and you know, we’ve been – we’ve been looking at some polling that says Americans are losing faith in their elections. There is nothing more serious than a democracy starting to lose faith in its elections. And when Americans are told on one hand that their elections are fraudulent, on the other hand, that people are trying to suppress the vote, no wonder they’re losing faith in their elections. And so rather than saying, yes, we have some issues with our elections. I, for one, believe voterID is really an important thing to do. Because I went around the world as Secretary telling people not to do signature matching, right? Because what happens with signature matching? A woman of my age – and I’m not gonna say exactly what that is, but it’s like in my sixties – is sitting there as a volunteer, her eyes get tired of signature matching. So now she is throwing out votes or accepting them, cuz she’s tired. You don’t, you – we need voter ID. So when people want to claim that it’s voter suppression to have voter ID, I said really? When people wanna claim that it’s voter fraud, when the attorney general says, it’s not? We somehow have got to come back to a sensible place about our elections.

ISAACSON: Wait, you seem to be equating the election deniers with people who worry about voter suppression, which may or may not be that big of a problem –

RICE: No, it’s not – I’m not trying to equate anything, Walter. I’m just saying that when I hear those terms, they’re meant to stop the conversation, not to start it. And could we just back off and look at what we actually really need to do with our elections. But no, the – I’ve said the January 6th situation is sui generis. It is a unique situation in American history. But my point is we do have serious things that we need to – need to do about our elections, but until we stop calling names, we’re not going to be able to deal with them.

ISAACSON: In your 2019 book, which I really love cuz it was very prescient. It was called “To Build a Better World.” You talked about the rise of populism around the world and sort of the anti-establishment politics. And you wrote about the four horses of the apocalypse: populism, nativism, protectionism, and isolationism. What do you say now after three years it seems to have gotten worse?

RICE: Yeah. I’m afraid I think it is getting worse. And in part, Walter, I think we all have to take some responsibility that those of us who talked to – glowingly about globalization, didn’t actually think about people who were getting left behind in globalization. If you’re the unemployed coal miner or the unemployed steelworker in Great Britain, globalization didn’t treat you very fairly and people’s skills didn’t keep pace with what was needed. And it’s, by the way, not just globalization, it’s automation as well. And so I think the only way to beat back those four horsemen of the apocalypse is to make opportunity real for people in the world in which we live, not the nostalgic world of the past. And we’ve got a lot of work to do. It’s, you know, that I’m a great proponent of looking hard at our K-12 education system, looking hard at skills development. We need a human potential initiative in the United States because if people don’t believe that they can get ahead, they’re going to be susceptible to the siren songs of populists who will tell them it’s not their fault. It’s somebody else’s fault.

ISAACSON: Secretary Condoleezza Rice, thank you for joining us.

RICE: Thank you, Walter. It’s great to be with you.

About This Episode EXPAND

WHO has termed monkeypox a global health emergency. Epidemiologist Anne Rimoin discusses the state of global public health. Rafael Grossi is warning that Iran’s nuclear program is “galloping ahead.” Condoleezza Rice talks Putin, Ukraine and threats to democracy at home and abroad. Paul Andrew, a survivor of one of Canada’s Catholic-run residential schools for indigenous children, joins the show.