Dr. Condi and Ms. Rice


In the Washington Post, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is at her have-it-both-ways best, penning an important piece on the transformation of U.S. foreign policy. Her argument is best summed up in this line:

In times of extraordinary change such as ours, when the costs of inaction outweigh the risks of action, doing nothing is not an option. If the school of thought called "realism" is to be truly realistic, it must recognize that stability without democracy will prove to be false stability, and that fear of change is not a positive prescription for policy.

One might of course reflect on what Rice is trying to say about Rice. Amid reports that she has rediscovered her "realist" roots (and even shared a meal with her mentor, predecessor, and devoted purveyor of stalemate, Brent Scowcroft), the secretary may be trying to say that things are more complicated than people imagine. She may also be reassuring her boss, President Bush, who seems to be among the last true believers in spreading democracy left in his own administration–particularly democracy in the Middle East.

However, my sense is that there is something more important going on here–or also going on: Rice lays down, in a historical context of state relations so dear to academics, a new rationale for foreign affairs. She's not pandering to Bush's ill-explained gut feeling that democracy's spread means more international stability, she is giving it intellectual validation; and she is doing so by, of all things, co-opting the likes of Dean Acheson, old-line realists and "sovereignists" who also supported the emergence of the most idealistic of strategies: open-ended containment of Soviet-backed communism.

Rice also seems to be doing something else: trying to somehow reconcile realism with the ambitions of democracy-spreaders. She is, in many ways, also trying to reconcile two contrary sides of her own personality, since the secretary was for a long time a realist who, after 9/11, adopted many a neocon strophe when she understood that was what Bush wanted. She is also clearly trying to take the democracy argument out of the hands of the ideologues and push it into the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy.

Does it work? Not really, not when democracy comes out as a strategic goal, yet remains so incomprehensible to realists in that incarnation. In writing an unintentional epitaph for the realist in herself, Rice may also have written one for realism in general. Unfortunately, the bureaucracy may be going in quite another direction.