The Gist: A Woman of the World

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ’75M.A. discusses Putin, polarized politics, college sports and coeducation.

Author: Margaret Fosmoe ’85

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t come as a big surprise to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice ’75M.A., who long knew Russian President Vladimir Putin dreamed of restoring Russia to its imperial past.

“I knew that he had this aspiration for the restoration of the Russian empire. This is actually not really about Russian security interests. … It really is this kind of nostalgia for empire. It’s hard for us to understand because we thought people stopped thinking that way 100 years ago,” Rice said during a conversation on campus Thursday April 28 with Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., ’76, ’78M.A.

The discussion — which touched on such varied topics as the war in Ukraine, women’s leadership, this year’s celebration of 50 years of undergraduate women at Notre Dame and collegiate athletics — took place in a full Jordan Auditorium at the Mendoza College of Business.

Rice is an expert on Soviet/Russian and Eastern European affairs. She served two leading roles in the administration of President George W. Bush: as national security advisor from 2001 to 2005, and secretary of state from 2005 to 2009. She was the first Black woman to serve as the nation’s top diplomat.

Rice has been a member of Stanford University’s political science faculty since 1981 and served as that university’s provost for six years. She is now director of Stanford’s Hoover Institute. She and Jenkins served together on the Commission on College Basketball, a 14-member body chaired by Rice that examined aspects of Division I men’s basketball in the wake of FBI investigations into the sport.

Selections from Rice’s remarks:


On why she was not surprised by the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine:

(Putin) told me once, “You know, Condi, you know us. Russia has only been great when it’s been ruled by great men like Peter the Great and Alexander II.” Those are his heroes. He once told President Bush that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union, because 25 million Russians were left outside of Mother Russia.

... (Putin) actually thought his military was good and they’re not. It’s been one repeated failure after another. To be clear, what the Russian military lacks in competence, it makes up for in brutality. And what you’re seeing now is just the wanton destruction of civilians since (Russia) couldn’t take Kiev.


On Putin’s mindset after two years of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic:

By many reports, he spent a lot of time with Russian mystics during this time, who kind of reinforced his notion of the importance of him as the messianic leader. . . . The only problem is this is a major country with a major economy, with a major military and nuclear weapons.


At what point it makes sense to engage seriously in diplomacy to stop the war:

The Biden administration has rightly said that this has to be a Ukrainian decision. Right now I don’t see any appetite among the Ukrainians for a settlement. Remember that they have now experienced what has been variably called genocide and a set of war crimes on their territory. They’re in no mood to negotiate. I’m not even sure that Putin is in the mood to negotiate.

I think it will be harder for the Ukrainians. I think the Russians will get more brutal. And the real question is how long can (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy watch the wanton execution of his people without trying to strike a deal.


On whether Putin is willing to invade other European nations:

I think we can deter him in places that are part of NATO, particularly because he has managed to unite NATO in a way that was unimaginable. A friend of mine said (Putin) has managed to end Swiss neutrality and German pacifism in a matter of a couple months.

Condoleezza Rice
“I think there are all kinds of abuses taking place, but they’re not abuses because there are no rules,” Condoleezza Rice ’75M.A. says of college sports today. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

On the current challenging times for collegiate athletics, with student athletes now allowed to be paid for the use of their name, image and likeness, and disagreement about how much college athletes should be compensated:

I’m worried because there seems to be a devaluing of the central proposition of intercollegiate athletics — which is that you are an outstanding athlete, but you really want a college education.

Now it’s the Wild West. I think there are all kinds of abuses taking place, but they’re not abuses because there are no rules. I think we’ve got to try to get back to first principles.


On women’s leadership 50 years after Notre Dame’s undergraduate program became coeducational:

Women are now a completely integrated part of the Notre Dame community. . . . I hope we can get over the fact of having to talk about women’s leadership, because it is just expected. I think we’re getting there.

When you are a first (such as the first woman in a leadership role), acknowledge it and move on, because you’re not there to be a first. . . . Own it so that you have prepared deeply and you know you belong in that room. Don’t let somebody else’s sideways glance throw you off course, because maybe you belong there even more than they do.


On polarized political views among Americans:

We need to back off of each other and give each other room to discuss these difficult issues without judgment. And it’s very hard, with social media in particular — where you say something and the next minute you’re being doxxed or you’re being canceled because you said something that was offensive to someone. . . . I tell all of my students: “You actually don’t have a constitutional right not to be offended.”

We have to try to hold our leaders responsible for . . . polarizing behavior, but it can start with each and every one of us. On the university campus, how often do you actually spend time with people who don’t say “amen” to everything you say? You can start to practice not being a part of the polarization.

Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine.