By Jacob Jolis
Susan Rice ‘86 may laugh easily, but one shouldn’t be fooled by her lighthearted demeanor; she is a woman on a mission. Rice, the first African American woman to represent the interests of the U.S. at the United Nations, will address graduating seniors at her alma mater as the 2010 Commencement Speaker.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright described her in the Washington Post as “fearless.” That was in 1998, when Rice at age 34 served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under President Clinton. Albright adopted Rice as her “protege.”
10 years later, Strobe Talbott, President of the Brookings Institution, the Washington-based think tank and Rice’s former employer, told the New York Times, “Susan certainly is tough, and she’s tough in exactly the right way.”
From Washington, D.C., the 45-year-old U.S. ambassador to the United Nations tackled questions in a phone interview with The Daily regarding her marriage, relations with other U.N. ambassadors and her interactions with President Obama.
As a diplomat, Rice said she is concerned with issues of international security and peace.
“Our security and well-being are linked very closely to the security and well-being of people around the world,” she told The Daily.
The path to her current position began when she got to know Obama early on in his presidential campaign and came to hold the position of foreign policy advisor to the Obama-Biden ticket.
Regarding her opinion of the President’s policies, Rice said, “to a great extent our perspectives and views on foreign policy and national security are very, very alike, and to the extent that my advice on certain issues may differ, I wouldn’t air it in the press.”
To “the press,” Rice preferred to speak about an interdependent world. She described her foreign policy as reliant on global partnership as opposed to unilateral force.
“Where there is democracy, where there is respect for human rights, where there is economic opportunity . . . those are the kinds of societies that are best able and most willing to partner with the United States to deal with the threats that are posed to our national security, but also the global threats that are transnational in nature,” Rice said.
During her time at Stanford, Rice headed an effort to push the University to divest from corporations doing business in South Africa during the darkest days of apartheid. David Abernethy, a professor emeritus in political science who had a vast influence on Rice in college, remembered the effort in which Rice set up an “alternative fund to which students could contribute pending University divesting.”
Having graduated with honors and been elected to Phi Beta Kappa in ‘86, she was named a Rhodes scholar and studied at Oxford, where she earned a Ph.D. in international relations. The Chatham House-British International Studies Association awarded her its prize for the U.K.’s most distinguished doctoral dissertation on international relations.
Of course, politics for Rice haven’t always been seamless. A policy of inaction resulted in harsh criticism against Rice. During her time on the Clinton administration’s National Security Council, she was called upon to advise the President on an appropriate American response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
A 2001 Atlantic Monthly article pointed out that Rice had asked in an interagency teleconference, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” She was then criticized for mixing domestic Democratic Party politics into a decision regarding U.S. policy on the ongoing massacre.
Regrets about past American inaction have been voiced, and when the situation in Darfur warranted it in Rice’s eyes, she strongly advocated for an international intervention.
“She’s a realist . . . in tune with the way Obama wants to direct his foreign policy. It’s not going to be a human rights agenda like Jimmy Carter’s, but it might be more effective, because it is more realist,” said Clayborne Carson, professor of history and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute.
Carson remembered Rice from her time at Stanford.
“She was just determined to make the maximum use of Stanford as an environment to grow and develop,” he said.
He referred to her as “such a warm and personable figure” and recognized that while she worked in African Affairs, “a lot of these African leaders just had the assumption that they could ‘roll her’ because she was a woman in a place where, at the time, I think there were absolutely no other women leaders to deal with.”
“If they thought that because this person is smaller in stature and looks younger than her age, they could somehow take advantage of her, they were definitely mistaken,” Carlson added.
Looking back on her time at Stanford, Rice voiced nothing but affection.
“I loved Stanford,” she said. “I had a tremendous amount of fun at Stanford. I got a tremendous education. I made wonderful lasting friends.”
As a freshman, she lived in Soto, which was then a four-class dorm — “Is it still a dump?” she asked between chuckles. There she met her future husband, Ian Cameron, a TV producer at ABC. The seniors, of whom Cameron was one, hosted an ice cream social for the freshmen in the beginning of the year. Things clicked: the couple married in 1992, and Rice and Cameron now have two children.
In addition to meeting her future husband, she saw Stanford as a place for change, growth and self-discovery.
“Moving to the west coast and having the perspective of a different part of the country, and frankly a different part of the world, was a valuable growth experience for me,” she said. “Up until that point, I’d lived an east coast existence in a pretty rarified world of Washington. It was broadening in many respects. I don’t think there’s a more beautiful, a more fun place to go to college than Stanford. The quality of education is extraordinary.”
Ansaf Kareem, senior class co-president, said that he felt excited about Rice’s speaking at commencement, “especially since so many people in our class were involved in the election in ‘08. At some level, that defined our class.”
Commencement will take place on June 13 at the Stanford Stadium.