At Davos, Condoleezza Rice said “whenever Americans talk about idealism and optimism, international audiences groan.”
I think she was right about the groans, but not because the world sees America as “young and naive,” as she said.
Rice summed up America: “We do not accept a firm distinction between our national interests and our universal ideals and we seek to marry our power and principles together to achieve great and enduring influence.”
As Rice talked about American ideals–democracy, free trade, equal opportunity–she was performing an essential American role. Speeches about American ideals are necessary to frame America’s use of its power in idealism, in Rice’s view of her country. I think it is the gulf between the stated ideals–which can be as attractive and persuasive as Rice said she believes they are–and reality that cause the groan.
Rice calls that marriage of ideals and power American realism, and through her speech tried to close the gap between the trio of democracy, free trade and opportunity and reality. She ran through an abridged, selective history of America’s foreign engagement since 2000, and framed America’s intentions in the ideals. She was an effective speaker, and as she talked the gap seemed as if it could close.
I think that’s an amazing feet for a speech. Fortunately, after the half-hour or so of orating, a narrative such as “American realism” is not as powerful when examined with cold sober thought.
A video of Rice’s speech is available on YouTube.
Podcasts and webcasts of other speakers at the World Economic Forum are posted here as they become available.