Published April 19, 2019
UB’s annual Distinguished Speakers Series wrapped up on Wednesday night when former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered an analysis of the world’s political landscape. In front of a large crowd at Alumni Arena, she said that the international order, forged by the aftermath of World War II, is being challenged heavily.
“What we are really seeing is the breakdown of the international order as we have known it,” Rice said. “It’s the breakdown of a system that we’ve almost come to take for granted. It was a system that was by design and a system by which the United States was a principal designer.”
Rice, the undergraduate Student Choice Speaker, drew from four years of experience as the United States’ senior foreign policy official in the George W. Bush administration and from another four years as the nation’s national security adviser throughout the evening. She said that four political approaches are what’s behind the breakdown of international order.
“The biggest challenge to this international order that we are experiencing is the rise of what I call the four horsemen of the apocalypse: populism, nativism, isolationism and protectionism,” Rice said. “This system was built to avoid the mistakes of the inter-war period when nationalism, nativism, protectionism and isolationism led to a Great Depression and a Great War. Today, they are riding again.”
She specifically turned her attention to the rising tide of populism that many countries are currently experiencing, saying that the movement is damaging and only shifting the blame.
“The problem for people who believe in the global order is that what’s happening across the world is populists rising to tell people why they didn’t succeed,” Rice said. “A friend of mine called the 2016 election the ‘Do you hear me now?’ election. People said, ‘You global elites don’t hear me. Do you hear me now?'
“What do the populists tell you? They tell you why you’re not succeeding and it’s always about an ‘other.’ It’s the immigrants, the Chinese, or if you’re on the left, it’s the big banks. We all know that a lot of the job loss is not associated with trade, it’s associated with automation. But, bots don’t make a good other; humans make a good other. That drives nativism and drives us to our own clan, to people like us.”
To Rice, that way of thinking is divisive, and it jeopardizes America’s role as a global leader.
“Before you know it, we talk in ways that say that the United States won’t accept the responsibilities of global leadership that led to that long period of prosperity and peace [following the Second World War],” she said.
Despite what she perceives as a challenging global environment, Rice said she remains optimistic for the future, citing technology and its potential impact. Her biggest concern, however, is whether or not the technology will be used for good.
“Human beings have been a lot better at the knowledge part than the wisdom part,” Rice said. “The same science and technology that allowed us to split the atom allowed us to turn on lights with civil nuclear power or to make medical isotopes to deal with disease, but it also created the atom bomb.
“Do we have the ethical and the moral compass to understand that technology applied in some ways will make our problems far worse?”
She said she is also optimistic because the newest generation is, in her opinion, the most public-minded she has seen. But, her concern for this generation is in the fulfillment of its potential.
“We have to make sure that human potential and the ability to fulfill one’s potential is not the privilege of the few,” Rice said, later saying that K-12 education is an incredibly important national security issue for that reason.
After her speech and a question-and-answer session with Aviva Abramovsky, dean of the School of Law, Rice imparted her advice to the future leaders in the crowd.
“Use your time in college to find something that you’re passionate about,” she said. “What’s going to make you get up in the morning and want to go do that?”
She especially noted that students of today need to leave their comfort zone and explore thought outside of their beliefs, saying that today’s society is one dominated by echo chambers.
“In big and diverse places, there’s a very strong tendency to go to those that look like you and who think like you,” Rice said. “If you find yourself constantly in the company of people who say amen to everything you say, find other company.
“We only listen to those that think like we do and when we finally encounter somebody who doesn’t think like you, you think they’re either stupid or venal. Break out of your comfort zone and spend time with people who think differently.”
UB President Satish K. Tripathi began Wednesday's program by offering words of condolence and asking for a moment of silence for Sebastian Serafin-Bazan, the UB freshman who passed away Wednesday from a suspected hazing incident.
“Tonight, as a university community, we pause for a moment of reflection in memory of our UB student, Sebastian Serafin-Bazan, who passed away today,” Tripathi said.
“Our hearts go out to Sebastian’s family, to all of his friends and fellow students, and to all who are grieving as we mourn the tragic loss of a member of our UB family. At this time, please join me in a moment of silence to remember Sebastian. And to offer our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.”
Rice also offered her condolences following the Q&A session.
“I know how hard it is, because I am also part of a campus community,” she said. “University communities, we hold each other close at times like this and I know [UB] will.”