Condoleezza Rice: Institutions Aren't Perfect, But They're The Bedrock Of Democracy Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tells NPR that America is still a "bright, shining city on the hill, not because we're perfect but because we struggle in our imperfections every day."
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Condoleezza Rice Reflects On The State Of Democracy

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Condoleezza Rice: Institutions Aren't Perfect, But They're The Bedrock Of Democracy

Condoleezza Rice Reflects On The State Of Democracy

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">


It is a disorienting time for many Americans. And we've been trying to make sense of it all in a series called The History of Our Time. We have interviewed writers, thinkers and people in politics, like White House aide Michael Anton and former Irish president Mary Robinson.


MARY ROBINSON: A lot of young people are very cynical about the political framework because they see the countries that preach democracy and human rights being countries largely responsible for the problems in their region.

MICHAEL ANTON: We want to put the brakes on globalization a little bit and reassert control over our country, our borders with the recognition that, you know, the distinction of citizenship means something.

MARTIN: Today's guest has just published a full-throated endorsement of overseas engagement and democracy building. Condoleezza Rice was national security adviser and secretary of state under President George W. Bush. Her new book is called "Democracy: Stories From The Long Road To Freedom." And in it, Rice addresses the anti-immigrant, anti-trade sentiments that have surged across the U.S. and Europe. She talks about populism, nativism, protectionism and isolationism as the, quote, "four horsemen of the apocalypse."

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: I'm concerned that the current moment might take us back to those four horsemen of the apocalypse. And it didn't work out so well the last time around. And we have to recognize that the reason that the global order that we've enjoyed and almost take for granted over the last several years exists is that after World War II, the United States and its allies tried to build an antidote to what they had seen between World War I and World War II. There, they'd seen protectionism, beggar-thy-neighbor trading policies, so they said, we'll build an open international economy. And they did that.

They had seen fear of the other, a willingness to be harsh on people just because they were different. And they had seen that authoritarian states were violent states, and so they thought, we'll support democratic peoples. And so this system, built on free markets, free trade and free peoples and American protection, that's what got us from the end of World War II to the extraordinary events of the end of the Cold War and a system that was one of prosperity and peace for a lot of people, including for the United States.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about the throughline in your book, which is really institutions and how they provide the bedrock for any successful democracy, you argue. Institutions, though, are built by people. Can a country build a democracy without a George Washington, a Nelson Mandela or Lech Walesa?

RICE: Well, you're certainly fortunate if you get one of those great first presidents. But no country can rely on just a single personality to carry it forward. And so what the American Founding Fathers understood was that institutions were built for human imperfection, not human perfection. And so for instance, they constrained the executive by embedding it in a balance with other institutions, a very powerful legislature.

They also gave us courts, independent jurists. They left room for civil society, which meant that citizens could directly associate in order to bring pressure on their governments. And they gave us a free press. They understood that you might have in the presidency someone who wanted to arrogate power into themselves. And they believed that was dangerous, having just experienced King George. And so they built a balanced system.

MARTIN: And of course, as you know, we live in a time when there is a general distrust of those institutions.

RICE: And that's a danger. I worry a great deal about all of those surveys that are out that Americans, in particular, are becoming distrustful of our institutions - that Americans are beginning to say they're either irrelevant or they're corrupt or they certainly don't speak to me. But the institutions are actually still functioning.

MARTIN: Condoleezza Rice played a big role in the U.S. decision to invade and occupy Iraq. And she defends the Bush administration's efforts to build institutions there. She calls Iraq today a quasi-democracy.

RICE: It has a legislature that tries to function, has a prime minister who's accountable. They've decided to get rid of a couple of them, but they stepped down. Arab strongmen don't normally step down. They have a very free and functioning press. But it's got a long way to go to be a consolidated democracy where the institutions fully function and can carry out what they are intended to do. But it's not an authoritarian state any longer. And it's not a totalitarian state in the way that it was under Saddam Hussein. It's very different to be Iraqi today than to be Syrian.

If I can get one point across, it's that Iraq and Afghanistan are not the primary examples of democracy promotion. We went to Iraq because we had a security problem with Saddam Hussein. Turns out it wasn't a security problem that was as imminent as we thought because of the weapons of mass destruction. With Afghanistan, we needed to get rid of the safe haven for al-Qaida after 9/11 - security problems. Once we had overthrown their dictators, we had to have a view about what came after. And we believed that we would be better off to help launch them on the road to democracy. But I would never have said to President Bush, overthrow Saddam Hussein to bring democracy to Iraq because democratic openings that come about in that way - the overthrow of a totalitarian government by external powers - it makes it really hard to make those first steps toward democracy.

MARTIN: But you have to think about what comes next. Did you overestimate the ability for a democracy to flourish in Iraq?

RICE: I don't believe that we overestimated how hard it would be, but we did some things that made it harder, the disbanding of the army, for instance, which alienated the Sunnis. I think we undervalued certain institutions like the tribes who turn out to have been very good allies against al-Qaida. So there's no doubt that we made it harder.

But I do believe that the idea, the answer - that the best way, once we had overthrown Saddam Hussein, to contribute ultimately to stability in the Middle East was to give the Iraqis a democratic path - was the right decision. We could have said, let's just find a general who isn't accused of war crimes and let him rule the country.

MARTIN: Which you said Donald Rumsfeld actually supported that idea.

RICE: Well, some people have said that. And there were times in the administration when people said, wouldn't that just be better? But we'd done a lot of that in the Middle East - supporting authoritarians who, in time, didn't produce for their people. They became corrupt, and it exploded in the Arab Spring. When people said enough of those kinds of governments because our effort to build stability through authoritarians in the Middle East for 60 years had given us neither democracy nor stability.

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