Published March 1, 2018
Young people don’t get a pass on the issues of the day, former National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice told an enthusiastic UB audience on Wednesday.
“Venting on Facebook isn’t good enough. Your engagement is not optional,” Rice, the featured speaker for UB’s 42nd Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration, said at the lecture in Alumni Arena on the North Campus.
“It is my privilege to join you to honor Dr. King, to commemorate his senseless death and reflect on what was lost and what can still be gained,” she said.
“By being passive citizens, we are making ourselves lax and vulnerable to our adversaries. Dr. King’s greatest gift was not his oratory and bravery — it was his ability to lead the movement for the greatest social changes in U.S. history,” Rice said.
“He was felled by hatred and fear, and his torch has been taken up by young people in Florida. It is our responsibility to come together.”
Through 240-odd years, she noted, the U.S. has seldom been guided by balanced social policy, citing slavery, Jim Crow, repeated attacks on immigration, women’s rights, child labor and achieving the right to vote for all.
“We have, for too long, tolerated an enormous gulf between our practices and our ideals,” she told the audience.
Rice served President Barack Obama as national security advisor from July 1, 2013, to Jan. 20, 2017. In that role, she led the National Security Council staff, chaired the Cabinet-level National Security Principals Committee, provided the president’s daily national security briefing and was responsible for the coordination and integration of all aspects of the administration’s foreign and national security policy, intelligence and military efforts.
She is currently a distinguished visiting research fellow at the American University School of International Service and a non-resident senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
“If Dr. King’s legacy would have continued, what might it have looked like?” Rice asked the audience. “While we cannot know, exactly, we know there are many ideals that he championed, many of which are still the basis of intense struggles in our society.
“We know he would have wanted to see affordable health care made accessible to all Americans. A real living wage. Making our schools and neighborhoods safer. Banning assault weapons and making background checks the law of the land.
“Dr. King would have wanted to see humane immigration policies,” Rice said. “Delivering the highest quality care to our veterans. Providing a dignified retirement for our senior citizens, rolling back gerrymandering, protecting our voting systems against all intruders and making voting available every day prior to an election.
“And … we must tell the truth,” Rice stressed, bringing sustained applause from the audience.
After ending her remarks, Rice took questions for more than an hour. The questions were submitted by students and audience members, and also came in live, via Twitter. The Q & A session was moderated by Victoria W. Wolcott, professor and chair of the Department of History.
With the first question, Wolcott, noting that Rice holds a BA in history, asked: “How does your background in history shape your life’s work and views?”
“History has always been a passion for me,” Rice replied. “I loved the rigor, and studying history turned out to be extraordinary prep for the career I ended up in, teaching me critical thinking and historical perspective.
“My history studies also help me to frame and put into perspective the issues of the day.”
Asked in a question tweeted in from a member of the audience what she thought the biggest threats facing the U.S. are, Rice responded: “Well, there are several, but I would put North Korea near the top — or at the top, given the rapid advancement in their missile technology. It is, of course, not a new challenge, but it has long been a concern. President Obama placed it at the top when he met with then-incoming President Trump.
“Russia would also be on this list. Their decision to undermine our democracy — a threat which persists for the 2018 elections and shows no sign of going away — is a critical danger which we must address.”
In a follow-up question on the same subject, Rice went on to say: “For anyone following these events, from before the 2016 election to right now, there is incontrovertible evidence, from all of our national intelligence agencies, that Russia was heavily involved in distorting the results of the 2016 presidential election.”
Rice noted that Russia has not been penalized for engaging in any of this activity, and has suffered no consequences.
“So, they are going to repeat it. Following the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, for example, Russian bots were instantly active, driving the gun issue, focused on widening the partisan gulf — one of many — that exist in our country.
“Russian interference will continue until they are made to feel consequences, and international embarrassment. It is past time to implement additional, tough sanctions. We are so divided, and becoming incapable of sustaining and supporting our democracy.”
With a follow-up question on the subject of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman High School, Rice had this to say: “I am awed and deeply moved by the bravery and courage of those young people. They are extraordinary.
“They exhibit the presence and will and guts to view guns as an existential threat, and they have endured indecent and disgusting attacks on their integrity and selfless efforts.
“Change, however, if it comes, will be incremental,” Rice added. “There has been zero change for 15 years, since the assault weapons ban was allowed to expire, so any change will be better than nothing. These young people represent the best hope in many years to do something. We cannot let them down.”
Asked what she would tell young people about going into public life, Rice told the audience: “Now, more than ever, we need Americans to come into public service.
“We face a double whammy: Our workforce is aging and many are leaving government. In addition, there are ongoing efforts in the current administration to drastically reduce the numbers of people serving our country in many key areas — the environment, labor and public housing are three. The State Department, has, in a very short time, been hollowed out.”
With the questioning closed, Rice returned to Martin Luther King’s legacy.
“For an America that is fundamentally true to his legacy, we need equality for men and women, social and racial, with equal rights to pursue their dreams,” she said.
“We must choose leaders who represent triumph over fear. It is up to us. We must become truer to these ideals if we are to be, once again, the world’s greatest bulwark of freedom, hope and equality.”