On the brink of possible U.S. airstrikes in Syria and a summit meeting with North Korea, the discussion between Susan Rice, former U.S. ambassador to the UN and national security advisor to President Obama, and Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of State and national security advisor to President George W. Bush, was particularly relevant on April 11.

The two delved into a discussion of politics across the aisle in a Common Ground event that was combined with the Sacerdote Great Names series. The conversation was moderated by Andrea Mitchell, NBC News’ chief foreign policy correspondent, and centered on current issues of American foreign policy. While their opinions differed, Rice and Rice never lost the air of mutual respect that provided the foundation for an engaging and constructive discussion about hot-button issues facing the United States today.

The discussion covered a number of topics, including the recent use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria, and diplomacy with the regimes in Russia and North Korea.  The main area of disagreement during the discussion was over the Iranian nuclear deal. While both guests agreed that the U.S. should not back out of the deal, they debated its effectiveness and whether it was constructed too hastily.

Susan Rice believes the deal is working to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear weapon capabilities, while Condoleezza Rice is more skeptical and thinks the deal leaves room for Iran to renege on the bargain because the monitoring and verification process is not foolproof. Despite the disagreement, Rachael Lurker ’20 noted how “they both wanted to move forward in a productive way. The dialogue was most impactful for me when they agreed that the bottom line is that the deal exists and the question is how do we use it and move forward with it.”

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The two expressed concern about the current state of foreign policy under the Trump administration. The U.S. has long placed a high value on democracy both domestically and internationally. Yet Condoleezza Rice noted a dangerous sort of admiration that Trump seems to hold for authoritarian leaders like Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Vladimir Putin of Russia. She takes issue not with attempts to talk with the leaders, as foreign policy often requires contact with disagreeable people, but with his praise for them.

Susan Rice echoed Condoleezza Rice, but also said it goes further than just admiration for authoritarian leaders. She was concerned at what appears to be admiration for authoritarianism itself, given Trump’s attacks on the free press and civil society, both of which are foundations of stable democracies.  Both sides of the political spectrum agree that the maintenance of national and international democracy is of utmost importance, and that any attacks on democratic institutions are fundamentally dangerous.

Toward the end of the event, Mitchell asked questions submitted by audience members. One asked each guest to recount a time when their views changed in light of new or different facts and opinions.

Susan Rice talked about how she helped begin the lifting of sanctions on Sudan, despite her previous dislike for the Sudanese government, because the facts showed that the country had met the standards set for human rights.

Condoleezza Rice discussed how her attempts to get a U.S. interest section in Tehran, Iran, were met with inaction from President Bush. But when he discussed it with her, she understood that sometimes you have good ideas at the wrong time. Both expressed the importance of being able to change one's mind in light of evidence in their field of work. Charlie Cross ’19 agreed and observed how a refusal to change your mind is “a problem we’ve had in the current administration, where there’s less collaboration and more clamoring to be the one voice above all else, sticking with what you're doing, and even if it’s wrong you refuse to compromise or change.”

The event opened with a comment on the polarized state of the current political climate, but the program stands as an example of both the ability of opposing sides to come together in civil dialogue and the power of moments of agreement amidst division. The sense of mutual regard was perhaps the most noteworthy part of the discussion.

 As for the impact of the event, Makayla Franks ’19 said the discussion motivated her to “unlearn the defensiveness, because it doesn’t help further the debate. This event is a model for how discussions can and should take place both in the political sphere and on campus. They disagreed on the finer aspects but agreed about the bigger picture. It was what one would expect where respect is given to each other in a debate."

Author Maggie DeNoon is a sophomore government major.

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