Rice Shares Family History, U.N. Experience

Former top diplomat and National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice discussed her personal and professional life, in addition to promoting her new book Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For as part of Boston College’s Clough Colloquium on Oct. 2. Rice served as U.S. permanent representative to the U.N. from 2009 to 2013 and President Obama’s national security advisor from 2013 to 2017.  

Rice explained that her unique career experiences inspired her to write the book, which is scheduled to be released on Tuesday. Rice said that it is rare for black women to ascend to the positions that she has held, and she felt it would be valuable to share what she has learned along the way.

“I learned a great deal from my family, from my upbringing, from my service that I wanted to share,” she said. “And I knew this: [It’s] a book that I hope will be of use to anyone who wants to compete and thrive in unforgiving environments, and if they’ve been knocked down, to have the wherewithal to get back up.”

Rice attributed much of her success to her family’s philosophy of tough love. Her parents always pushed her to do her best and provided her with constructive criticism from a place of love, she said. Rice has continued to embrace this philosophy, and she said she uses it with her own children.

“Tough love to me means you love someone fiercely, but not uncritically,” she explained.

Rice—a descendent of slaves on her father’s side and Jamaican immigrants on her mother’s—then discussed her background coming from a family whose values of commitment to education and service can be traced back generations. Her maternal grandfather, who came to the U.S. in 1912 with no formal education, was the first father to send four sons to Bowdoin College. Rice humorously remarked that her mother could not go to Bowdoin with her brothers, so instead, she went to Radcliffe. 

Rice’s great-grandfather was a slave who fought for the Union army during the Civil War. Thanks to the kindness of a captain from Massachesetts, Rice’s grandfather was able to pursue an education at the end of the war, and he eventually earned his college degree and opened a school for black Americans.  

Rice also discussed her experiences as part of the Clinton administration, working for the National Security Council, and then as the assistant secretary of state for African Affairs. She reflected on her past involvement with humanitarian intervention, including in Rwanda and Somalia. These experiences taught her that each case is different and that it is necessary to see if the benefits outweigh the risks when deciding whether or not to provide aid.  

Rice referenced a quote from Obama, which she said best expresses her philosophy on intervention. 

“‘Just because we can’t intervene everywhere doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene anywhere,’” she recited.

In discussing her time as a U.N. ambassador, Rice reflected on her friendship with the former Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin. Despite the U.S. and Russia being adversaries, Rice and Churkin formed a personal friendship. Rice said she believes that forming such friendships is beneficial to diplomacy.

“It’s really important and valuable when you can know even your opponent or adversary on a human level,” she said.

Rice also discussed being part of the first all-female National Security team, in which she served as national security advisor. She described how she is thankful that she and her female colleagues were mutually supportive of each other and always open and honest, even when they did not agree. 

“Those are really hard jobs, and I sure as heck can’t imagine doing those jobs if I had to worry about somebody leaking something about the press, or stabbing in the back or, you know, trying to undermine me,” Rice said. 

It is important to build strong, supportive teams at work, Rice explained. Being able to trust coworkers makes life easier, she said, especially for working parents who occasionally may need to step away from their jobs. 

Obama also shared Rice’s values of prioritizing family, she said. She told the story of how Obama called her when he was the president-elect to ask if she wanted to serve as ambassador to the U.N., but he insisted that he would call her back later upon learning that she was in the middle of reading a bedtime story to her daughter.  

As a black woman, Rice said she has often been the only woman or person of color in the environments she has worked in, so she offered her advice to people who share her experiences of being the “only” in a room. She explained that she owes her success to the mindset that her parents raised her to have: believe in yourself.  

“What my dad tried to teach us was a sort of psychological jujitsu,” she said. “If somebody is coming at you with their prejudice or bigotry, try to flip it away from you and back on them. Because where does that come from? It comes fundamentally from an insecurity. So why let it infuse you and become your insecurity?”

When asked what she believes to be the greatest national security threat to the U.S. right now, Rice expressed her concerns about Russian aggression, climate change, pandemic disease, and President Trump.

“I hate to even have to say this: What worries me most right now is the President of the United States,” she said.

Rice said she believes that Trump isn’t genuinely trying to advance national interests, and he has made it so that the U.S. is no longer an international force of stability and leadership. Under Trump, the U.S. is defined by disunity and uncertainty, according to Rice.

“We don’t know, if we wake up on the wrong side of the bed, if we’re going to close the Mexican border or start a trade war with our European allies,” Rice said. “I mean, I’m not trying to exaggerate. This is how uncertain our leadership is at the moment.”

Featured Image by Jonathan Ye / Heights Senior Staff