Condoleeza Rice, Condi to the world, is a tall, leggy, muscular woman. More like a supermodel than a professor-turned-policymaker and politician. When she strode into The Willard to meet the then Indian foreign minister Natwar Singh, on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s historic state visit to the United States in July 2005, it was clear to the Indian side that the secretary of state was checking out the thinking of a diehard Nehruvian diplomat before her boss settled down to business with the new PM.
In the event, Natwar Singh may have surprised her with his well-informed view of the post-Cold War world, but did not disappoint her. Her account of her meetings with both Natwar Singh and Manmohan Singh is accurate. The former took a diplomat’s view of the new world. The latter had to handle the politics of dealing with it at home.
Condi’s account of the Indian PM’s visit is less than an appetiser. It barely scratches the surface of the drama surrounding it and the negotiations that went on and on. She has also shied away from the breathless, story-worthy events of president George W. Bush’s visit to New Delhi in March 2006 and all the high-jinks at the meeting of the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group in September 2008, when China finally voted in favour of the India-specific waiver, after a late-night phone call went to president Hu Jintao from Bush.
Since I am familiar with the story, I can see that Rice has avoided telling it all, even though it would have shown her boss-cum-hero-cum-‘brother’, George W. Bush Jr, in very impressive light (as a visionary, a statesman and a friend of India). So what else of her tenure in Washington DC has she kept out of the book? Even so, this is a great read.
Rice reveals her academic competence, her razor-sharp intellect and her humanism, born of her upbringing during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Her background is not an incidental thing: she is the first coloured woman to hold the powerful office of the secretary of state. Regrettably, she tells us little about herself, her growing up, her fears, and her passions. This book is not about Rice the person, it is about Rice the national security advisor (during Bush’s first term) and secretary of state, steering America through a difficult world.
Rice tells the story of what happened—9/11, Iraq, Middle East, Russia, North Korea, India, AfPak—and what she did. But she does not place it all more clearly within her own intellectual perspective. This too is unfortunate because she was a key strategist in the ‘Bush think-tank’—one of the original “Vulcans” who set about shaping the post-Cold War world and developed what she calls the “Freedom Agenda”.
Much of what the US did in the Bush era, including developing a new strategic relationship with India, was rooted in this Freedom Agenda. Rice’s essay Promoting the National Interest (Foreign Affairs, January 2000) set the framework for the Bush administration’s foreign policy, especially in the second term. Interestingly, Rice takes credit for anticipating the Arab Spring and preparing the US for the new turn in the Middle East.
“The linking of our interests (the balance of power) and our values (democracy) was at the core of our strategic thinking,” says Rice, explaining the strategic relevance of the Freedom Agenda. She rejects the view that espousing values amounts to injecting ‘idealism’ into strategic policy, while upholding interests is ‘realism’. Both idealism and realism require countries like the US and India to uphold and promote the “democracy agenda”.
This is a perspective that Indian strategic thinkers must explore more closely, for India’s long-term interests too will be better served by the entrenchment of democratic values, especially in Asia.
How much the world has changed since the trans-Atlantic financial crisis of 2008, which unfolded in Rice’s last days in office, is shown by the fact that this book devotes more pages to Russia than to China, and to India than to Europe.
Referring to China, in the context of developments in East Asia, she says as a matter of fact, “It helped too that US-China relations were on a solid footing”. The only map in the book is of Western Asia from the Indus to the Mediterranean! Sitting now in Stanford, Rice would probably be paying more attention to the other side of Asia.
(The reviewer is a former media advisor to PM Manmohan Singh)