As new security advisor, Rice stands to impact biosecurity

by Chris Brown

Former  U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was yesterday named National Security Adviser (Image courtesy of the White House)

President Barack Obama announced yesterday that Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations whose consideration for Secretary of State was derailed by the Benghazi investigation, will replace Tom Donilon as National Security Advisor. Political arguments about her candidacy for the job aside, Rice in her new role has the potential to impact biosecurity and biodefense considerably through advice and action on issues involving chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats to national and international security.

Rice has often been called a liberal interventionist, particularly after she expressed regret for the Clinton administration’s failure to intervene during the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s.[1] More recently, as U.N. ambassador, she was an outspoken advocate for international intervention against Gadhafi’s regime in Libya in 2011 and more stringent sanctions against suspected nuclear weapons-seeking states, namely Iran and North Korea. Support for the latter evidences her commitment to controlling proliferation of nuclear arms, here by employing coercive diplomacy. Rice’s record on Libya and lessons learned from Rwanda—she had a much stronger position on involvement in what was then Zaire in 1996 than she did on Rwanda—suggest that she is not afraid to call for direct intervention when necessary.

One of Rice’s first marks on biodefense – and biosecurity – related matters may come from how her interventionist approach continues to shape U.S. and international action on Syria, where stocks of chemical (and potentially biological) weapons held by an unstable government pose major global security concerns. As U.N. ambassador, Rice has been a key player in international talks on handling the volatile conflict between the al Asaad regime’s forces and opposition groups. Now, she is particularly poised to help steer movement on Syria both because she has a very direct line of communication with the president—arguably even closer than she would have had as secretary of state—and, despite often tumultuous talks with her Russian counterpart at the U.N., the limited but important cooperation of Russia and China. Rice has helped win support from both countries for finding a political solution to the Syrian problem (particularly when it comes to controlling chemical weapons use by the al Asaad regime) despite their interests in preventing U.S. military intervention in Eurasian affairs. Rice is likely to continue in her new role to be an integral player in determining how the U.S. handles Syria—either with or without multilateral support from other U.N. security council members—and, consequently, what happens to Syrian chemical and biological weapons stockpiles if the al Asaad regime falls.

Rice’s track record suggests she would support continuing, if not expanding, efforts to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in other countries, as well. One of the U.S.’ primary counter-proliferation strategies has been the implementation of cooperative threat reduction (CTR) programs aimed at bolstering control over knowledge, materials, and other components of WMD, particularly in former Soviet states. Broadening application of CTR programs that productively and peacefully employ former weapons scientists and harden security at facilities where weapons are stored and destroyed offers an opportunity for Rice to manifest her liberal interventionist thinking in a way that meshes with the U.S.’ realist/neorealist foreign policy, in which actions promote security rather than increasing power.

At home, Rice also likely will take on responsibilities with which just four national security advisers before her have had to contend. Only since the September 11 terrorist attacks and anthrax letters in 2001, while Condoleezza Rice (no relation) held the post under President George W. Bush, has the national security adviser also dealt with the threat of WMD attacks on the U.S., outside of the context of war with an enemy state. As national security adviser, the newer Rice can be expected to have a significant say in how the federal government prepares for and responds to terrorist attacks on the homeland. And she will likely be around the table for exercising plans for these types of events, including those that simulate large-scale releases of biological and chemical agents or detonation of improvised nuclear or radiological devices.

Importantly, Rice’s ability to impact biodefense and biosecurity will depend upon her utilization within the administration. Despite traditional duties governing some aspects of the job, the role of the national security adviser is loosely defined at best, and varies widely depending upon the background and experience of the incumbent and the needs and desires of the president he or she serves. A swing in the Obama administration’s stance on any number of foreign or domestic threats either could dampen Rice’s influence or highlight the interventionist approaches she often supports.

Chris Brown is a PhD candidate in biodefense at George Mason University. He holds a Master of Public Health in biostatistics and epidemiology from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and received his undergraduate degree in biology with a minor in Spanish from the University of Louisville. Contact him at or on Twitter @ckbrow07.

[1] Timothy P. Carney, “Obama aides find moral clarity in Libya’s foggy war,” The Washington Examiner, March 27, 2011, accessed June 5, 2013,

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