By Other Means

Transnational Security Advisors

Transnational Security Advisors

This column will be short, since I spent the earlier part of this week on a Colonial America-themed quasi-camping trip with my daughter’s fifth grade class, largely cut off from the outside world. (Apparently the early Virginia settlers had no Internet access.) About the class trip, the less said the better. But here’s the amazing thing: When we finally staggered back into the 21st century, I found that we really had entered the 21st century in the national security domain — finally!

Yes, I’m referring to the overdue appointment of Susan Rice to serve as national security advisor, along with the nomination of Samantha Power to replace Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Most of the media coverage seems to have focused on Benghazi, and more specifically, on whether President Obama’s decision to move Rice into the White House was intended to stick it to the Republicans or just happened to stick it to the Republicans.

This is a stupid question, surpassed in its stupidity only by the original Republican pseudo-questions about Rice’s role in the Benghazi affair. Really, mainstream media people, could we just drop all that stuff? Regarding Rice’s appointment, even the most political of political hacks in the White House doesn’t base every single decision on politics — every now and then, logic and merit prevail. And as for Benghazi, there was no Benghazi cover-up! There was an above-average amount of confusion, but really, really, really, there was no conspiracy. Let it go.

The media should be focusing on something entirely different, which is, as I said, the national security establishment’s sudden leap into the 21st century, for real this time.

Here’s what I mean by that. Susan Rice and Samantha Power represent a profound generational shift in their approach to global problems. Unlike John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, or Tom Donilon, they were not shaped by Vietnam or the Cold War, or the age of great power politics. Instead, they cut their teeth on the very different challenges of the 1990s and early 2000s: the complex ethnic conflicts of Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo, and Sudan; the rise of transnational, globalized extremism; and the many novel economic, environmental, and socio-political issues characterizing our age of interconnectedness.

When Rice and Power speak of the challenges posed by climate change and emergent viruses, or the transformation of global discourse by human rights norms, or global poverty and human development, they don’t sound like they’re just going through the motions. They’re not: They’re passionate and smart about these issues. They get this stuff.

They get that the age of great powers is coming to an end and that the United States needs to find new ways to lead in a world in which conventional military dominance no longer guarantees we can get our own way. They get that we inhabit a system of international laws and institutions that was designed in an earlier age and doesn’t work very well. (Rice has had four long years to wrestle with U.N. Security Council issues, which are a case in point, and Power, if confirmed, will now take up that heavy baton). When Rice delivered a 2010 commencement address at Stanford, her alma mater, she could have given a self-aggrandizing lecture about playing hardball with the big boys on the Security Council — instead, she delivered a powerful speech about the challenge of global poverty.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t imagine that the appointment of Rice and Power will instantly translate into a new style of U.S. leadership. For one thing, the creaky old ship of state does not turn on a dime. Bureaucracies do their thing, and that thing usually involves putting on the brakes when new leaders and new thinking comes along.

For another thing, understanding the world’s challenges is only a first step — solving them is another story. Rice and Power get that the old ways don’t work very well, but each has already confronted the painful fact that we haven’t yet figured out new ways. Rice has seen how anachronistic Security Council voting rules can thwart action even on some of the most urgent issues; Power spent years on Tom Donilon’s national security staff and saw the human rights issues she cared about passionately pushed repeatedly to the sidelines. Both women have seen issues they champion dismissed as "soft" by the "hard security" boy’s club, and (since high-powered women are damned if they do and damned if they don’t), also saw themselves unfairly tagged as war-mongers for their insistence that the United States should not sit by idly as Libya’s Qaddafi turned his military against his own population. Both Rice and Power have had important successes, and frustrating failures.

All this makes them perfectly suited to the jobs they are now entering. These are passionate, principled women, tough-minded but never pompous. As leaders, both Rice and Power have high standards and staff who love and admire them. Their new jobs won’t be easy. But if you’ll excuse me for reverting briefly to the mindset of an early American settler (it’s harder than you would think to break free from these brainwashing class trips): I, at least, will sleep a little bit better each night knowing that they’re at the ship’ s helm — and that they’ll be steering us determinedly into the new world of the 21st century, with all the storm clouds and challenges that lie ahead.