Former Secretary Of State Madeleine Albright On The State Of American Diplomacy

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Former U.S. Sec. of State, Madeleine Albright, and former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, speaking with Wellesley President Paula Johnson at Wellesley College. (Courtesy Wellesley College)
Former U.S. Sec. of State, Madeleine Albright, and former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Wendy Sherman, speaking with Wellesley President Paula Johnson at Wellesley College on January 24, 2017. (Courtesy Wellesley College)

As President Trump holds meetings in Davos, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (1997-2001) reflects on the state of American foreign policy, Trump's tweets and why the State Department vacancies are "an embarrassment."


This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Meghna Chakrabarti: Well, first of all, let me just start off by asking, you have a book coming out this spring. It's called, 'Fascism: A Warning.' What's it about and why are you writing about fascism now?

Secretary Madeleine Albright: Well, I am a political scientist and a political observer and I am obviously concerned about things that are going on in the world, in terms of rise of populism, dissatisfaction, division in various societies, hypernationalism, and a kind of a sense that the global system isn't working.

And so my book is a look at what has given rise to fascism in the past. It has a lot of history, in terms of what's happened in a variety of countries, and what is going on. And I think we need to understand that some of the leadership in countries is a symptom of a problem, which is the division in societies, and in some cases a deliberate method of trying to get groups to dislike each other.

So does your concern then extend to the United States?

Well it does, but I don't want to give away the end.

OK. Well, without giving away the end, let me just ask you though, for example, President Trump is in Davos [Switzerland] today. He's expected to talk a lot about 'America First.' Does that fall into what you're talking about in terms of the rise of populism and hypernationalism?

Well, I am concerned about the fact that there is a lack of understanding of the importance of an international system functioning. I actually think we're in a third era at this point, after the end of World War II.

In the first era, we obviously were dominated by the Cold War, but also set up a lot of the institutional structures that provided checks and balances in the international system, and a spirit of cooperation through international organizations. Then the second era was one that came after the end of the Cold War — the fall of the Wall — and trying to figure out a little bit about what the institutional structure of the 21st century might look like when the world was no longer divided into the 'red' and the 'red, white and blue.' It was a wonderful era to be in office, it's when President Clinton was president and I was at the U.N. and then Secretary of State.

But now we're in a third era, where technology -- for the most part — and serious divisions in society have created a different era. And a lot of the international institutions and regional institutions and national institutions are no longer working. And too much of an emphasis on 'America First,' which is actually a statement out of the [1930]s, which was very damaging to America's image, is something that does trouble me.

I mean Charles Lindbergh, right. I mean again, I respect you not wanting to give away too much of what's in the book, but I also know that we have tons of listeners hearing this right now who would very much like to hear what someone of your particular experience — at the highest levels of government — thinks about the United States right now.

So let me just press you a tiny bit on this if I could. When you're talking about the functioning of key institutions, do you think the State Department under Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is functioning right now as it should be?

The short answer is: No, it is not functioning the way it should be.

I am obviously a great believer in the State Department and I teach a course at Georgetown [University] on the national security toolbox and diplomacy is one of the major tools, obviously. There are not a lot of tools in that toolbox, but diplomacy is the essential one, in terms of the way that countries talk to each other, try to sort out what there is common in our national interests and develop a way to compromise. It requires diplomats — people that know how to do the job.

This began I think, with the fact that the Office of Management and Budget, on behalf of President Trump, put out a budget which really was demeaning in terms of what the role of the State Department was, and cuts that were unconscionable. And then also a discussion about a reorganization plan for the State Department, which nobody seems to understand. And just yesterday, there was news about the fact that USAID, which has functioned in cooperation with the State Department, was not going to abide by or be interested in or try to figure out whatever this reorganization plan is. So I am very, very concerned about that.

We see the gutting of the State Department. I actually don't think that's too strong a term in so many different ways. Like for example, just this morning, I was looking at the Washington Post has a tracker of all the nominees that have been named by the Trump administration. Within the State Department, there are lots of key roles that there's still no nominee for. There's no chief financial officer, three undersecretary positions are still empty. Almost a dozen assistant secretary positions. We have no nominee for ambassadors to Turkey, Egypt, Belgium, Venezuela, Jordan, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, South Korea just to name a few.

What effect is this having when the chief diplomats under the secretary of state for the United States, are not even in place in key areas around the world? What effect does that have on U.S. interests in those countries?

Well, it completely undermines our interests because you do need to have people, first of all, that understand what the international system is, how they can cooperate with others, what their job in the State Department is — and the State Department I have to tell you, I'm about to teach about this on Monday, there's no question that every secretary of state comes in and looks at what can be done to do it better. And it depends on what the issues are and how it works. But usually it's being done by secretaries of state that have had some other experience in the government and have some sense of what needs to happen.

This was kind of a plan and we don't really know what the plan is, that was put down and their consultants sent a variety of people that have not worked in the government. Then I think what this does is, it's almost as though you're asking people to go to have a meal and you don't give them a plate and you don't give them anything to eat with. And so the people that are the ones that are supposed to be doing the job are not there. They are required. And it's very hard to explain American policies if there's nobody there to explain them. And it's very hard to get information back to the State Department for action if there's nobody in the countries that kind of acts as the eyes and ears of the United States.

It is so counter-productive and counter-intuitive in every way. There's no other way to talk about this than it's an embarrassment. It is really that the most powerful country in the world has denuded itself of capabilities of being a participant in this very volatile and changing era.

There's no other way to talk about this than it's an embarrassment. It is really that the most powerful country in the world has denuded itself of capabilities of being a participant in this very volatile and changing era.

Secretary Madeleine Albright

I asked you about the State Department as an institution. What about the current secretary of state? How do you think Rex Tillerson is doing?

I met Secretary Tillerson when he was head of Exxon and I think his reputation there was excellent. I have not talked to him. I don't know how he's doing. I think that he --

How would you assess how he's doing in the job.

Well, I think that, certainly the reorganization plan has not made a great impression. I do think in terms of reading, and all I do at this stage is be able to read in the newspapers or actually talk to some foreign friends, he has been involved in diplomatic activity. He has traveled. He has had bilateral meetings. He's been at the multilateral meetings.

I think what is something that is harder to judge is how the interagency system works, how the decision making process works, in terms of how the information that the secretary of state provides to the National Security Council, how it gets translated and moved to the President for a decision. And those are the kinds of things that are hard to see from the outside. There are a lot of kind of gossip and rumors.

But having been a part of the system myself, what the outside world often writes about is not what is really going on. And so I think it's hard to judge what happens when they're in the Situation Room, how they talk when they go in to see the president in the Oval Office, how cabinet meetings work — those that aren't on television — and so I don't want to comment in terms of how things are working internally because it's just based on gossip.

OK. But then externally, when you see the president of the United States doing things like tweeting — I was looking at a tweet that he put out last October about the United States and North Korea. And he tweeted, 'I told Rex Tillerson our wonderful Secretary of State that he's wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.'

If you were secretary of state, and the president was undercutting you that way, what would you do?

Well, I would try to have a discussion and say, did you do this on purpose? And is this part of some plan and I'm supposed to go in and be a good cop while you're the bad cop? I think that it's very — must be very disheartening. But it's conceivable, I'm trying to be fair here, that it is part of some plan that the president says something so outrageous and then it allows Tillerson to go in and say, I really do think we need to have some kind of a diplomatic discussion. But it's very obscure at the moment.

And what bothers me the most is just generally, in terms of foreign policy making, is that there needs to be some predictability in it. Because there are other countries that have to be able to read our signals and either be helpful in terms of multilateral talks — because North Korea for instance, obviously the South Koreans play a very large role. The Japanese play a large role. We are trying to get the Chinese to be more helpful. And I don't know whether then there's some kind of back channel information that says, 'Don't really take seriously what the President has just said, because he did it for effect.' But it is very hard to tell.

I've never seen anything like this. And when I do teach, I say the following things: We are an old country. We have made decisions for a very long time. There is a decision making process, and it's up to the people that are watching and now to judge whether this works or not. But there are those who think that kind of, it's called, the 'Crazy Man Theory,' ['Madman Theory'] which Richard Nixon played occasionally, that that is a way to operate. But constant unpredictability is not very helpful, I think.

It almost seems as if Defense Secretary James Mattis, I mean he's the defense secretary, but in terms of his influence and his planning, it's almost as if we're doing more diplomacy through the defense secretary than we are through the secretary of state.

I think that's a very good point. I was reading this morning for instance, that [Mattis] has gone to Vietnam. They're talking about getting a ship there. And talking about the importance of cooperation, I do think also, let me just say that when things do work right, the State Department the Defense Department work together.

I had a very good relationship with Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen in terms of being able — I used to talk about the importance of using force and he would talk about the importance of diplomacy. And so there is cooperation. And what has been wonderful frankly, is that Secretary Mattis has been arguing for the importance of a State Department budget. I was shocked frankly that Secretary Tillerson was, as Congress was trying to give him more money, he was saying he didn't need it. And meanwhile Secretary Mattis was saying if the State Department didn't have more money he would have to buy more bullets.

Can I just go back for a second to something you were saying earlier about how the diminishment of the State Department is an embarrassment. I mean, you sounded as impassioned as I've heard you in a while. I mean you feel strongly about that.

That would be an understatement. Because I really -- first, of all it's the oldest department. It is Thomas Jefferson's department. It is the way that countries talk to each other. Diplomacy has a very long history and it was obviously simpler in a time when there were monarchs or autocratic leaders. But the bottom line is, it is the way that you are able to legally and in an informed way talk to other governments. And there is a system, there's a convention --the Vienna Convention -- that describes what ambassadors are supposed to do and what happens on the premises and asylum and all kinds of things that are kind of rules of the game that the international system understands. But it requires people to carry it out.

And you were naming all the jobs that are not filled and there are people in those similar jobs in other countries they come to the United States, or they all meet in some international setting, and you're supposed to be able to talk to somebody. And if the title in front of them is 'Acting,' then it's a little harder to carry on real diplomacy and wonder whether anything will hold. Because you count on having discussions where you think that the person on the other side of the table has some authority to say, 'Yes, we will cooperate on x,' or, 'Why can't we help the person that has just been arrested illegally in your country?' And you need people that are empowered to do that.

Now when you said that you talk with foreign friends, am I overreaching in presuming that some of those foreign friends include foreign ministers, ex-foreign ministers, heads of state? I mean, I guess I'm just asking because I want to get a sense from you about how the world is viewing the United States right now.

Well, let me just say this. What is interesting is — this sounds crazy — but when I was secretary of state, I did something really, really new and modern, which was to have the international telephone conference call. And I'd talk to my colleagues every day during the war in Kosovo and we did an awful lot of things together and respected each other. We didn't always agree on everything. But when I was out of office, all of a sudden I got a call from one of them saying, we need to get together again and talk about what's going on.

So I created a group and it's under the auspices of the Aspen Institute and is called The Aspen Ministers Forum. That's its official name; its unofficial name is Madeleine and her Ex's. And we meet fairly regularly and we really are friends and we exchange views on things and they are saying, 'What is going on in your country? Try to explain it to us.' And I do think one of the kind of rules of the game is that it's inappropriate for a diplomat to go abroad and criticize one's own country. And so I try to be very careful when I'm abroad because I do believe in certain rules. And so I do not like to criticize what's going on in the United States when I'm in an official foreign meeting.

Point taken about diplomatic traditions. But there's a difference between criticism and you know, a frank analysis right. And so so let me put it this way: A couple of weeks ago, I had a very fascinating conversation with James Stavridis. He's the dean at the Fletcher School at Tufts, also a former supreme allied commander for NATO. And I kind of had a similar conversation with him about what does he make of the United States sort of withdrawal from diplomatic leadership, and who's going to fill that vacuum. And his answer was simply one word in terms of who's going to fill the vacuum: China. What is the consequence of that for the United States then, if indeed China's taking more of a lead role in managing major diplomatic efforts in key parts of the planet?

By the way, Admiral Stavridis is a very good friend of mine and on the 16th anniversary of NATO, I was asked by the Obama administration to help in creating a new strategic concept for NATO and that was the time that he was set here. So he's really one of our most remarkable public servants.

And I totally agree with his one word answer. I do think that the international system abhors a vacuum and the Chinese are in a state of their history where they believe that they have been disrespected to a great extent in the past. They have a much longer history than most countries and they are ready to go. And Xi Jinping, the president, is somebody that is establishing his centrality to the entire system, working very hard to project Chinese influence. And they have a new policy, which they call, 'One Belt, One Road,' where they would like to connect an awful lot of pieces. I have been saying they must be very fat because the belt is getting larger and larger. But I really do think that they are very much in the ascendancy. What is interesting is the United States has just put out a new defense strategy and they are saying that competition from China and Russia is what the United States has to look out for now.

Right. Again and that gets us back to the Defense Department leading on these major diplomatic issues as well. One more question specifically about foreign policy and then I want to shift gears here a little bit. Because earlier when you were talking about your book, Secretary Albright, you talked about how you know technology is changing everything and it has changed everything regarding foreign policy and domestic issues as well. So I'm just wondering, when you first heard that there was so much Russian interference in the presidential election, all that fake news, etc., I mean you know the Russians very well, were you surprised?

Yes and no. Let me just say, I used to be known as a Soviet expert and I sometimes look at my library and think archaeology. The truth is no. They have had an approach to things for a very long time and we need to remember that President Putin is a KGB agent. He has played a weak hand very, very well and propaganda is one of the tools that the KGB has used for a very long time.

We need to remember that President Putin is a KGB agent. He has played a weak hand very, very well and propaganda is one of the tools that the KGB has used for a very long time.

Secretary Madeleine Albright

And what their plan has been is to undermine democracy generally, try to reconstitute some form of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union by undermining and taking advantage of various aspects of democracy to propagate their message.

And so I'm chairman of the board of an organization called the National Democratic Institute. We have been looking at disinformation for a very long time. And one of the things specifically in Ukraine that happened — of putting out messages that would indicate that anybody that opposed them were Nazis — a lot of different propaganda things. I think and there's a very interesting document that has just been put out by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Cardin of Maryland, a lot of information which shows that the Russians have been working and continue to work on undermining the democracies in Europe and systematically dividing them between each other and also from us.

Let's switch switch gears here a little bit, because you are at Wellesley today. Of course, a place where great future leaders are are educated and put out into the world. And we're also still in the midst of this giant reckoning through the #MeToo movement, in terms of women and how they've been treated in the workplace etc. So I'm just wondering, do you do you have a #MeToo story of your own, Secretary Albright?

Well, I think we all do. But I think that in my case, I think it was mostly nothing in terms of the kinds of stories that people are telling now, but there was just kind of an assumption that women couldn't do what they should be able to do.

And specifically for instance, when I wanted to be a journalist, I had been one of the editors of the Wellesley news and wanted to be a journalist. I was married to one. And we were having dinner with my husband's managing editor who said to me, so what are you going to do honey. And I said well, I want to work for a newspaper and he said, you can't do that because of labor regulations, you can't work on the same paper as your husband. Chicago at that time had three other newspapers and he said, and you wouldn't want to compete with your husband, so go do something else. I know what I would say now, or what young women would say now, but I basically saluted and found another life. It ended up OK, but I'm not a journalist.

But the bottom line is, I think that in my case, it was mostly just trying to embarrass me in different ways so I can't say that I have the same experience. But I'm very, very glad that women are now speaking out supporting each other and understanding that this is in every way unacceptable, illegal, immoral way to behave. And so I am very proud to support the #MeToo movement and and really make sure that it's important that we do continue to support each other.

I mean, it's so ironic I feel, that while we have this -- I'd call it a global #MeToo movement now — at the same time we have an administration, again getting back to the State Department that for example has no nominee for ambassador at-large for Global Women's Issues. In your time as secretary of state, you made women's issues central to American foreign policy. Again I guess I'm asking you a lot of questions about consequences, but what do you think the consequences of that is that we seem to to be shrinking back from that as well?

Well, I think that what is interesting — I did make them central not just because I'm a feminist, but because I know that when women are economically and politically empowered, societies are more stable.

I know that when women are economically and politically empowered, societies are more stable.

Secretary Madeleine Albright

And then Hillary [Clinton] through Ambassador Melanne Verveer made it an even larger post. I think it is most unfortunate that that is not one of the activities at this point.

But what has happened, is I do think that there is a new consciousness just generally, about the importance of having women in political posts, in elected posts, all over the world -- and the support system that is developed among women in terms of running for office and supporting each other in positions that most women didn't have. There are a number of countries that have women foreign ministers and women defense ministers. And I do think that we're just left out of the story.

The part that really bothers me is I have so believed in the importance of American involvement and power. I don't like us to be described as a victim that everybody's been taking advantage of us and why should we cooperate. It's not the America that I think that most of us have treasured and have wanted to see in a leadership role.

So you mean the fact that President Trump and other members of his administration have said that the global community has treated the United States unfairly. Is that what you're talking about?

It's ridiculous. I mean, he has made it seem that we are weak and victims of everybody, instead of who we really are, which is the most powerful country in the world, that benefits when the international system works and we can cooperate with others. It doesn't mean — Americans don't want to run the world, but we do have issues out there that require international cooperation.

You don't have to be a genius in order to understand that nuclear proliferation and climate change and poverty and the spread of disease requires more than one country to do it. And that's where we're losing out — because those are the things that threaten the United States.

I fully agree that it's written, and also true, that every president has to protect the people, the territory, and the way of life. That's the job of a president. In order to do that, you have to understand how the international system works and you have to find partners to deal with the issues that no matter how strong you are, you can't do alone.

This is a very complex thing though, because yes on the point of climate change and other international treaties, you need the world — and the presumption is American leadership on those things, which of course, we're out of the Paris Climate Accords.

But I think a lot of people look at other American international escapades, like the Iraq War, for example, which some people still look at as an illegal war and say that's an example of things that they don't want the United States to be involved in anymore. Because they don't believe it had actually any positive impact on the lives of Americans here in the country and in fact, just led to the last massive loss of life instead. So that's the other side of American internationalism that I think some people do want to shrink back from.

Well, I agree with that. And I think that that is something that you know — I happen to think that war was one of the worst mistakes we've ever made and we are dealing with the consequences.

But in order to deal with the consequences, we have to deal with others to help us deal with them — we can't do it alone. And that's one of the things that's going on now, kind of discussing what is going to happen in Iraq and Syria and how we operate. We cannot be safe in the United States, which is the job of the president, without cooperation through the international system and information that we can trust.

Now one last question for you, secretary. You've been very generous with your time and I'm really grateful for it. But I'm thinking back to where we started about your book on 'Fascism: A Warning.' And I wonder how you reflect on your own family's experience. Because your family fled fascism following the Second World War in Europe and were immigrants to the United States. And so it seems to me that -- are we at a point now where there's a rising chorus of voices in the Trump administration who want to reduce immigration? And you're sounding this warning about fascism. I mean do you think about your own family's story and how perhaps are you concerned about other people who could be future Madeleine Albrights, who may not be able to come to this country?

I definitely am because I do think — well, also when I teach I always talk about that we need to understand the background of the people that are making decisions — that individuals play a very large role. And I am always willing to admit that my own background — in terms of having to leave the country where I was born when I was two, and spent the war in England, and then again when the communists took over in Czechoslovakia coming to the United States, and having to leave again — it obviously has affected how I think.

I describe myself — and I do have a Twitter account — as a grateful American and there is nothing more important that happened to me than to become an American. And so I am worried about the fact that all of a sudden, immigrants, foreigners, refugees are being depicted in a way as if they are a threat to the United States. I think the bottom line is that America has gained by our diversity.

And I am at Wellesley now and a program that is called The Allbright Institute where in fact a number, forty-plus young women of a variety of different backgrounds are being trained for global leadership and what they see — and I've see it among them now — is respect for people with other backgrounds, of the importance of including people that come from somewhere else. And that the strength of this country is in fact our diversity.

And I am appalled by the cruelty of some of the statements that have been made and the depiction of people who are dying to come to this country, literally, being depicted as people that are a threat to us. It's the opposite. If we raise the moats and build the walls, we are the ones that will be weakened by that.

If we raise the moats and build the walls, we are the ones that will be weakened by that.

Secretary Madeleine Albright

Secretary Albright, through the course of this conversation, I can't help but to feel that a lot of what you seem to be doing right now is — or do you feel like a lot of what you're doing right now — is sounding an alarm?

Yes I am. I do think that I had the privilege of sitting behind a sign that said the 'United States' and I was very proud to represent the United States. And I continue to be a proud American. And I want to make sure that people understand what this country is about and that we don't all agree with building walls, and limiting our capability, and drawing back, and blaming everybody else for things that need to be looked at internally. No country is perfect. And what is wonderful about the United States is our resiliency, our capability of talking to each other, and being problem solvers. That's what I want to talk about.

This article was originally published on January 25, 2018.

This segment aired on January 25, 2018.


Alison Bruzek Associate Producer, Radio Boston
Alison Bruzek was a producer for Radio Boston.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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