January 19, 2016

Channeling Obama: National Security, Communications, and Politics in a Complex World

On January 19, 2016, the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) welcomed Ben Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, to deliver the institute’s annual Oscar Iden Lecture on American foreign policy and international diplomacy. 

ISD fellow Bernadette Meehan and Executive Director of IPPS Mo Elleithee moderated the discussion with Rhodes, which covered his role at the White House and career trajectory, the links between diplomacy, statecraft, and security, and important foreign policy issues like Iran, Cuba, and Libya.

Remarking that “there’s no such thing as a typical day at the White House,” Rhodes shared that his days are driven by a number of events, including policymaking committees, presidential engagements, and the daily crises that often overtake the rest of his agenda. Asked how he prioritizes his time and energy, Rhodes highlighted the importance of assigning relative value to information and commentary. He said “one of the things I like [about] working for this president [is] he doesn’t get knocked off course. It took seven years to get the Iran deal done.”

On that note, Rhodes also emphasized the importance of diplomatic ties from the perspective of national security. He spoke with Meehan, who also worked on the Iran deal during her tenure at the White House, about the recent release of American detainees in Iran and the milestones reached in implementation of the nuclear deal. He said that the administration has demonstrated to skeptics that mutual gains through cooperation are possible, but stressed that it remains too early to tell how the U.S.-Iran relationship might evolve.

When Elleithee asked about the ways domestic politics affect foreign policy, Rhodes acknowledged the difficulty of operating in a polarized environment but said that it was his role to create the space necessary for diplomats to do their work and keep partisan infighting from affecting foreign policy. He also credited President Obama’s leadership in a difficult political climate. Rhodes noted Obama’s consistent willingness to take risks with diplomacy and fly in the face of conventional Washington practice and status-quo thinking, citing the recent rapprochement with Cuba, which Rhodes had a hand in negotiating.

The event also featured questions from the audience, which included not only students and faculty but also community members and journalists in a packed hall. In response to a question from an SFS student on Obama’s climate change legacy, Rhodes heralded the administration’s decision to make climate a key priority in its bilateral relationships, arguing it helped put climate progress at the center of the global agenda. Mitigating the worst effects of climate change now depends on increased ambition in the wake of the Paris agreements, he said.

Video of the event can be viewed online here.