Condi, the Spice Girl

Can Condoleezza Rice achieve for U.S. foreign politics what the Spice Girls achieved for Brit Pop?

July 11, 2001

Can Condoleezza Rice achieve for U.S. foreign politics what the Spice Girls achieved for Brit Pop?

Imagine you are a university professor and your job is to teach international security. Further imagine your charges are the members of the Class of 2004 at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis — or the U.S. Army’s Military Academy at West Point.

Your job is to explain to those future members of America’s Armed Forces the thrust of U.S. interests around the world, such as alliances in Western Europe and Asia, the presence of U.S. troops in military bases in Cuba and Korea, or frictions in the Balkans.

Virtually all of those entanglements grew out of the Cold War and are very hard to understand without it as a context. But then it dawns on you that your current crop of students are quite unlike the generations before them.

Born around 1983, they had barely started elementary school when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Worse, they were only about seven years old when Mikhail Gorbachev — the last Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union — exited the world stage. No wonder you get blank stares in your classroom when you refer to the Cold War. To the kids in front of you, this stuff is ancient history — almost as ancient as, say, the American Civil War is to you.

Condoleezza Rice understands this problem very well. After abandoning a possible career as a concert pianist, she immersed herself into the field of national security studies and Soviet affairs.

This was her area of specialization in her student days — and even the subject of her Ph.D. thesis. After Texas A&M, she became a member of the National Security Council in the early 1990s. Later on, she became a political science professor at Stanford University, where Dr. Rice also rose to the prestigious post of provost.

Over the years, she won numerous awards for teaching as well as for her efforts to improve the quality of undergraduate education. She was even in the running to become President at the University of Chicago.

But, instead of staying in academia, Dr. Rice chose a more practical job, that of President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor. It is where she could have a much greater impact — especially in shaping U.S. foreign policy in the area of her own academic specialty in the eyes of future generations of students.

To be sure, Dr. Rice’s political ideas have been criticized as obsolete — and even not quite in tune with modern world. Her article in the January/February 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs, entitled “Promoting the National Interest,” is considered a throwback to the Cold War.

The United States, she asserts, must act independently, in line with its own national interests and without the constraints of international bodies such as the United Nations. Moreover, she identifies Russia and China as the main threats to stability in the world today.

For those who were born before the 1980s and still remember their history lessons, this rhetoric is redolent of a much earlier era. It harks back not just to the standoff between Ronald Reagan and the “Evil Empire” of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, but to still earlier times. Remember when the United States was trying to contain the huge Communist landmass ruled by Russia’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong?

Not so coincidentally, those were also the years when the academic specialty of Soviet studies rose to great prominence and prestige. Even future U.S. Presidents, such as Jimmy Carter, were enthralled by it when he enrolled at the U.S. Naval Academy. As part of his training as a nuclear engineer, he also was studying the Soviet military doctrine and related subjects.

How did Condoleezza Rice end up with an infatuation with the Soviet Union? It turns out that the young music major was turned on to political science as her future field by a lecture on the Soviet Union under Stalin given at the University of Denver.

Ironically, the specialist who intrigued her so much that she would eventually write her Ph.D. thesis under his tutelage was Josef Korbel, the father of none other than Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. Secretary of State.

As every educator knows, ideas absorbed early in life tend to be strongly held. In her early months in office as a key member of the Bush Administration, she appeared set on rattling the cage of the long-evaporated Sino-Soviet threat by cold-shouldering President Putin’s Russia and China.

But for the rest of the world, such ideas simply don’t make too much sense. Although the United States is highly respected by its European friends, in the modern world it simply cannot act without regard for others. It may find it all but impossible to implement major foreign policy initiatives without the support of the international community.

Not to mention the fact that America’s so-called “national interests” would be rather difficult to define in the contentious political environment of today.

This is why we are inclined to believe that perhaps it is not so much her more hard-line ideas in the realm of foreign policy which Dr. Rice is determined to put into practice at her new job.

Instead, it may well be that she is still acting in her capacity as an educator — to help her fellow university professors by promoting the study of political science and by putting America’s foreign policy into its proper historical context.

Of course, with Russia and China once more in focus as US adversaries, it makes a lot of sense why more US troops should be stationed in South Korea — the good guys — and why the missile shield is being prepared for use against North Korea (a.k.a., the bad guys).

And, under those circumstances, Cuba’s Fidel Castro — an insignificant, if charming, strongman on a tiny, dirt-poor Caribbean island — assumes a more ominous significance as an ally of much larger Evil Empires.

This, then, is where the Spice Girls come in. By virtue of their runaway success, the multiracial British foursome shook up everybody’s perception of their country’s pop music scene with their sexiness, when the young women first burst onto the scene.

Their Spice Girl manifesto — and, coincidentally, a line of clothing — were quite literally designed to “spice up our lives,” just as the lyrics of their early hit promised. Could it be that Condoleezza Rice aspires to be just that: by realigning US foreign policy, trying to add some spice to the study of college-level international politics?