The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Condoleezza Rice’s new book is a repudiation of Trump’s ‘America first’ worldview

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
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DEMOCRACY: Stories from the Long Road to Democracy

By Condoleezza Rice. Twelve. 496. $35.

Early this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered a speech in which he separated American values from American interests. Even though values — in particular, U.S. support for freedom and human rights — are “constant,” he assured, there will be times when overriding economic or security interests dictate that we set such values aside, or at least that we not make such a fuss over them “in every situation.” Essentially, the United States has declared that it will stand for liberty only when the costs of doing so are sufficiently low.

Among Tillerson’s influential backers is former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who endorsed the onetime ExxonMobil chief executive for his new gig. So it is a deliciously awkward bit of timing that just days after Tillerson’s speech, Rice has released a 500-page book implicitly repudiating the Trump administration’s “America first” worldview, and warning against the pernicious effects of populism, nativism, protectionism and isolationism, dubbing them “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Rice worries that the advance of nationalism in the United States and elsewhere could upend the international order that has sought to spread freedom. “Democracy has gained adherents in the context of this global order,” she writes. “Can it continue to do so if America and others withdraw from the responsibilities of the system they created? What will happen to those who still seek liberty in a world told to go its own way? What becomes of those still living in tyranny if we cease to tell others that democracy is a superior form of government and that its tenets are universal?”

In a travelogue of sorts, Rice takes us to Russia, Kenya, Colombia, Poland and Iraq, among other spots, and revisits each country’s democratic struggles. She mixes realism and idealism; this is a book that gazes at the stars with its feet shackled to the ground. “There is no more thrilling moment,” she writes, “than when people finally seize their rights and their liberty. That moment is necessary, right, and inevitable. It is also terrifying and disruptive and chaotic.”

To temper that chaos, we have institutions, and Rice is nothing if not an institutionalist. Democracies endure when they strike a balance between central and regional authority; between civilian and military leadership; between the state and civil society; and, of course, among the legislative, judicial and executive arms of government. “In functioning democracies,” Rice writes, “institutions are invested with protecting that equilibrium.”

A free press. The rule of law. A vibrant private sector. Regular and fair elections. In the nations she considers, such institutions are not always present, or when they are, they’re rarely strong enough.

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In early post-Soviet Russia, Rice argues, “the abrupt shift to capitalism outpaced the establishment of rule of law and institutions that could regulate against its excesses.” When Boris Yeltsin’s promising government degenerated into oligarchy, corruption and erratic presidential behavior, it was not hard for Vladi­mir Putin to step in and concentrate power, leaving the Russian people with “no institutionalized way to express their views,” Rice writes.

In Kenya and Colombia, solid institutional frameworks struggled to assert themselves against underlying social divisions. Kenyan tribalism overpowered regional and party affiliations, while Colombia’s democratic traditions and practices “were unable to contain competing interests — rural and urban, rich and poor, social liberals and religious conservatives,” Rice explains.

And she warns that Poland, a democratic success story for which she has “always had a soft spot in my heart,” is veering off course, with the illiberal Law and Justice Party undercutting the judiciary and the news media. “In Poland today, the resurgence of deeply conservative social attitudes, including religious piety, is clashing with evolving and more liberal European values,” Rice writes. “Poland’s democracy is not likely to be destroyed by the current challenges. . . . Yet the current circumstances in Poland remind us that democracy’s development is never a straight line.”

There is something slightly tautological about the institutional argument for democracy — if democracy survives, it must be because the institutions were strong enough; if it crumbles, clearly, the institutions were too weak. A similar logic pervades development economics, with emerging economies being told that what they really need for long-term growth is strong fiscal institutions, a proper regulatory framework, clear property rights and other items on an endless list of reforms.

Yes, institutions are vital, but they can also feel like a catch-all explanation.

Rice’s writing style won’t send me to the streets in protest, but it doesn’t exactly inspire freedom from cliches, either. She is obsessed with “the narrative” — identifying it, rewriting it, sealing it — and in her tales of diplomacy during the George W. Bush years, excitement is always palpable, tasks are always unenviable, and words always go unminced. Some of her personal recollections, such as an unfortunate Ukrainian campaign poster that read “Vote for us and you’ll never have to vote again,” are memorable. But many of them feel dutiful, as though she were filling in Insert Anecdote Here prompts in her manuscript.

Rice devotes her longest chapter to the Middle East, where she defends past controversial positions and take the long view. She blames the Pentagon for committing too few troops to secure Iraq after the 2003 invasion and slams envoy Paul Bremer for disbanding the Iraqi army, among other screw-ups of imperial life. Rice confines her own failings to her role as national security adviser during Bush’s first term, when the Pentagon and State Department often clashed. “I felt that I had failed to wire the various parts together into a cohesive whole,” she writes. And she recalls an infelicitous remark during the 2006 Lebanon war — “We are experiencing the birth pangs of a new Middle East,” she said — that she now thinks was correct. “The tumultuous events of the last decade have indeed torn apart the map of the area and cast aside the pillars of the old order,” she writes. “A new Middle East is emerging through war, unrest, revolution — and in a few cases, reform.”

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Any discussion of U.S. foreign policy principles should recognize that there have often been gaps between values and interests; Tillerson may be merely acknowledging that reality. And Rice has fallen short of high-minded rhetoric, as when she relied on legalisms to defend enhanced interrogation techniques. But in diplomacy, messages matter, and a speech Rice gave in Egypt early in Bush’s second term provides the sharpest contrast with Tillerson’s remarks, especially because she upholds liberty as a universal value.

“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East — and we achieved neither,” Rice declared. “Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people.” Again, Rice believes that she will be proved right. “Despite regional circumstances less favorable today than in 2005, I stand by that statement,” she writes. “A stable Middle East will one day have to be a democratic Middle East.”

When an early version of this book arrived, the cover featured a note: “The epilogue found in this galley is currently being revised to include analysis of events from after the 2017 Inauguration.” In the new epilogue, Rice does not mention President Trump by name — she refers only to America’s “new president” — but she calls out those politicians who scapegoat immigrants, stoke nationalism and seek to tear down institutions rather than work through them.

Even so, she decides, the notion that American democracy is threatened is “alarmist and premature.” It’s an intriguing conclusion to a work obsessed with the institutional architecture of democracy, especially when Trump has been intent on delegitimizing judges, journalists and many norms of the office he holds. Democracy was built to weather disruptions, Rice argues, so perhaps we can trust that American institutions — our “spirit of constitutionalism,” as she puts it — are up to the challenge.

But this book should give us pause. When modern democracies falter, it is usually “a story of executive authority that is outsized in comparison to other institutions,” Rice explains. And strongmen, she says, are sneakier than they used to be. “In today’s interconnected world, the creeping and subtle authoritarianism of illiberal elected leaders is a greater threat to democracy than if they were to crush it with tanks in the city square.”

The story of the Trump presidency can feel like an epilogue endlessly rewritten, never caught up. So I’m grateful that Rice made the effort. But her arguments and conclusions don’t always mesh. Perhaps it’s early for definitive interpretations. Or maybe Rice’s words are just a little bit minced.

Follow Carlos Lozada on Twitter and read his latest reviews, including:

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