For those who think the United States should withdraw from the world stage, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has a message: America is exceptional because of its willingness to lead, and without maintaining that commitment, America’s greatness will be in jeopardy.

In a wide-ranging speech today at The Heritage Foundation, Rice explained why American leadership and a strong foreign policy are vital to guarding U.S. interests and security while furthering the country’s prosperity, particularly given how the world has dramatically changed in the last decade.

Rice says those changes were brought about by three great shocks in the past ten years, all of which signaled a new paradigm in foreign affairs — and new challenges for the United States.

First, of course, were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Rice described it as the “the day in which everything after became September 12” and that America was awakened to the reality of a new threat to its homeland:

After 9/11, we confronted the fact that it was failed states and ungoverned spaces, and the potential nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, that threatened our very country. The fact that a stateless group of terrorists had come from a failed state — one of the poorest countries in the world, Afghanistan — to attack us and bring down the Twin Towers and blow a hole in the Pentagon. Perhaps they were paid $300,000 to do it. After that, your perception of physical security is never quite the same.

The next shock that came was that of the global economic and financial crisis of 2008, which Rice says “exacerbated and accelerated underlying tendencies in the international economy, called into question whether or not democratic capitalism — which had been at the core of the economic system since at least the collapse of the Soviet Union — was indeed itself in trouble.”

The final shock was that of the Arab Spring, which showed that authoritarianism is not stable in the long run. Rice says the upheavals in the Middle East were its “Ceausescu moment,” hearkening back to 1989 when the brutal Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed following a spontaneous uprising in Bucharest. Rice says that authoritarian governments in Middle East have experienced a similar march toward revolution for the same reason:

What separates an authoritarian from his people — fear — breaks down … At that point, the only thing that stands between the authoritarian and his people is anger, and anger is a terrible way to make political reform. We are watching in the Middle East what happens when reform comes too late, and it is replaced instead by anger and revolution.”

Given these events, Rice says that America faces a new world and a profound question. Will America take the lead in imprinting its values in this changing world and when confronting challenges in Asia and the Middle East, promoting free trade, fighting terrorism, standing up to authoritarianism, and speaking out for the advancement of democracy? She acknowledged the weight of those tasks, but argued that only by confronting them can America maintain its core values:

It’s a pretty big agenda to react to this changing world that has undergone these shocks. And there are those who ask can we handle this challenge and still pursue our values? I suggest we can handle this challenge only if we pursue our values. This is what has made the U.S. exceptional, this belief in free markets and free peoples, a willingness to try and promote them abroad, and a belief that the world would be more stable and more prosperous as freedom wins out.

Watch more of Rice’s speech above, and join in the conversation with a comment below.

Secretary Rice also joined us after her speech for a short “In the Green Room” interview: