In a Thursday talk, Susan Rice, who served as national security advisor in former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, spoke to a Zoom audience about the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing movements for racial justice.
Rice, who also served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, drew on her expertise to assess the failures and implications of President Donald Trump’s administration’s COVID-19 response and foreign policy. She also highlighted the need to redress the country’s systemic racial and socioeconomic disparities.
The event, hosted by the American Grand Strategy program, was moderated by David Schanzer, acting director of AGS and professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy.
“Not marshaled in an effective way”
Rice said that “for years,” the intelligence community has warned about the inevitability of another pandemic based on patterns in history. She noted that the Obama administration saw multiple diseases, from the swine flu pandemic in 2009 to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa—none of which were extremely deadly in the United States due to swift, effective responses.
The Bush administration, she said, also confronted avian flu, which had the potential to be among the “most deadly the world had ever seen,” but did not end up spreading quickly.
“We knew, and anyone who knows national security, global health, development and any of these issues, understands the threat of disease jumping from animals to humans,” she said.
During the transition between the Obama and Trump administrations, Rice said she spent hours training and briefing the incoming team on key issues, including pandemics. She provided a 69-page pandemic “playbook” with processes to institute “in the event a pandemic arose.” By chance, a novel coronavirus from China was an example they used in a January 2017 tabletop exercise with the cabinet, she said.
By the time the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, however, Rice said that the work both administrations had done on pandemic response was “not marshalled in an effective way.”
“They had disbanded the [Global Health Security and Biodefense office] that I had set up in the [National Security Council] in 2018, the playbook vanished somehow—maybe it was discarded—and they didn’t begin with the critical steps you have to take early on in a pandemic,” she said. “First of all, as soon as the DNA sequence was available, to put in place the testing capacity that many countries successfully implemented but that we still are lagging behind in.”
Instead of engaging in the administration’s missteps—which she said included downplaying the virus, reopening the economy and some schools too soon, overemphasizing travel restrictions from China which were both insufficient and enacted too late—Rice said she would have recognized the importance of global cooperation and engagement and that the United States cannot solve the problem “purely within our own borders.”
She said her department “would have begun immediately helping countries with less resources” to diminish the disease’s first wave and prevent rebounding. Pulling out of the World Health Organization, she said, was a “terrible mistake” since it is the only global organization with the capacity to help less developed countries “in a way that is beneficial to us.”
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Had the United States been “willing to receive as well as to give benefit,” she said, testing capacity issues—which instead relied on the “failed processes” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—may have been mitigated.
Globally, Rice said the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated conditions in already-fragile countries, fueling broader issues such as instability, conflict and migration. Layered upon issues like climate change, she said the effect would be devastating, especially as the pandemic drags on.
Rice underscored the importance of global engagement and both global and domestic vaccine distribution once a vaccine is available, to shorten the pandemic.
“Fundamentally messed up—to put it politely”
Rice also spoke about issues of systemic racism that plague the country—issues that are “fundamentally messed up—to put it politely.” She said we need reform and accountability in the criminal justice system, and we need to reckon with extraordinary persistent racial and socioeconomic disparities in America.
“We’ve got poor black people, poor Latinos, poor native Americans, poor white people in this country who don’t have access to the housing, the education, the healthcare, the environmental quality that they need and deserve,” she said. “What we need to be demanding is that we finally have policies and programs and investments that redress those persistent disparities and recognize that to a very substantial extent in this country, those disparities are due to race.”
As a younger African American woman holding leadership responsibilities in a predominantly white and male space, Rice said she has faced people who thought she didn’t belong or deserve the roles she held and tried to undermine her. What she has always remembered, however, is what her father taught her, which she referenced in her 2019 book, “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For.”
She talked about her father’s experiences growing up in the Jim Crow era and at the height of lynching. Despite having a doctorate in economics from the University of California, Berkeley, her father, consistently treated as a second-class human, couldn’t find a job, she said.
She said her father taught her that she could either “buy the bigot’s definition of yourself and therefore believe you are less and perform as if you are less,” or she could decide that “you know who you are, you believe in your talents and you’re going to fight to the best of your ability to fulfill your potential.”
She draws on these ideas, she said, as she encourages others to push for meaningful change on issues like systemic racism.
“If I was going to translate my dad’s philosophy into 2020, it would be to believe in yourself, to develop those mental muscles of self-esteem so that you don’t doubt your own worth,” she said. “And then take that confidence and that righteous determination and be unafraid about challenging systems and structures that remain unfair, unequal, unjust, and don’t let anybody tell you that your championing of those causes is somehow unworthy or unnecessary.”
“The most consequential bilateral relationship in the world”
In addition to touching on systemic racism and the COVID-19 pandemic, Rice also brought the discussion around to national security issues, including U.S.-China relations, which she called “the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world.”
In this relationship, she said that the American aim should be to compete with China economically and strategically without tipping into conflict.
“Conflict between the United States and China is not something that either country… should aspire to. It’s something to be avoided as we can,” she said.
She said competition happen in cooperation with U.S. allies and partners who share similar concerns about the country’s “exploitative economic policies” and “aggressive actions in the security realm.” Nonetheless, the United States should also cooperate with China on issues of mutual interest, such as climate change, pandemic response and nonproliferation, she said.
In the realm of competition, Rice said the United States is falling behind through weak government support of key sectors like artificial intelligence; shutting out legal immigration; guarding universities from talent from outside; and weak infrastructure, broadband access, education and healthcare systems.
“Our ability to compete effectively with China begins at home,” she said. “It begins with our own domestic competitiveness. Whether we’re talking about reinvigorating the historic cooperation we’ve had between the government, academia and the private sector on strategic sectors… we are not keeping up.”
Broader foreign policy issues, Rice said, “are as bad or worse” since Trump has taken office. When Schanzer, the moderator, asked her to make a “rebuttal” to Trump’s potential claim of “turning around” a foreign policy mess inherited from the Obama administration, Rice defended Obama’s foreign policy while criticizing Trump’s.
She cited the U.S.-China trade war, Trump’s undermining of the North American Trade Organization and “coddling” of Russia, the abandonment of Kurdish allies and Iraq, the collapse of the Iran nuclear agreement, and the deployment of “more than 20,000 additional forces to the Middle East and Gulf region” as failures of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
“The reality is under Trump, our alliances and our partnerships are weakened,” she said. “Our adversaries—Russia, North Korea, China—are strengthened. Our values have been jettisoned. We don’t consistently stand up for human rights or democracy in the world at all. We have shown the world that out of the White House day after day, out of the mouth of the president come falsehoods. If they can’t trust us and our leadership, there’s no incentive for them to follow us. We cannot lead if others cannot join with us.”
What we need to fix this, she said, is “new leadership” with experience, competence and integrity—leaders committed to our allies and values, who will run foreign policy for national interests, not personal or financial reasons.
“And that is unquestionably Joe Biden,” she said.