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Madeline Albright

Madeleine Albright was an American politician and diplomat who served as the first female U.S. Secretary of State from 1997 through 2001. She was born in 1937 in Prague, Czechoslovakia and grew up in London during the height of the second World War. After the war, Albright emigrated to New York. She earned her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College, studied Russian and international relations at Johns Hopkins University, and received her Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University. When President Clinton took office in 1993, he appointed Albright U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. As Secretary of State, Albright worked to expand women’s rights and roles in positions of diplomacy, pushed for military intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the Middle East, and supported economic sanctions against Iraq. Secretary Albright has negotiated with many key figures in modern issues, including former Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Il. In 2012 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. She also chaired the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm, taught international relations at Georgetown University, and promoted global equity through the World Justice Project. She died on March 23, 2022; this interview was conducted in 2016 by head of interview Nat Goldstein and interview staff Lily Parker.

Spectator Magazine: You broke the gender barrier when you became the first female Secretary of State. How deep does misogyny still run in the United States, and to what degree do you think misogyny played a role in Hillary Clinton losing her bid for the presidency?

Madeline Albright: Well, let me just say this: I was the first woman Secretary of State, but when my name came up to do that, people would say that a woman couldn’t be Secretary of State because the Arab countries would not deal with a woman. So then what happened was the Arab ambassadors to the UN got together and said that they’d had no problems dealing with Ambassador Albright, and they wouldn’t have any problems dealing with Secretary Albright. So that went away. Then what happened was somebody at the White House — and I never want to know who — said, 'Yeah, Madeleine is on the list, but she’s second tier.' And so then, I ultimately did become Secretary of State, and one of my first meetings was with the Gulf Cooperation Council ministers, and it was a perfectly nice meeting in every way, and at the end of it I said to the ministers that were there, 'Thank you so much, maybe you’ve noticed I’m not dressed the same way as my predecessors, and next time we’ll talk about women’s rights and issues,' which we did, because they had daughters and really wanted to do that. I actually found that it was more difficult dealing with the men in our own government, not because they were male chauvinist pigs, but because they had known me too long, through various parts of my different jobs as carpool mother, student, or staffer. They couldn’t understand how I had gotten to be Secretary of State. And I think that continues in many ways. 'How did you get there?' You know, 'What are your qualifications?' And I do think that women need to be more qualified in so many other ways than men across the board. I do think that misogyny played a part in Hillary not winning the election. But part of it was — and I’m not sure that misogyny is the right word for this — there were many women that did not support Hillary, which I found hard to understand. I think jealousy projected our own lack of confidence or weakness onto other women. Women are very judgmental about each other.

SM: With the advent of the Trump administration, The Washington Post created the motto for their masthead, 'Democracy Dies in Darkness.' Do you believe American democracy is in grave danger today? And if so, how?

MA: I actually don’t think we’re in danger because I think that we’re showing the resiliency of democracy already in terms of the many town hall meetings that are taking place. And really, people are asking their representatives to be responsive to their voters. Also, in terms of what is happening in the judicial system, about slowing down the ban on people coming into this country. You are a new generation of young journalists — what is happening is [that] a lot of the journalists are out there asking a lot of questions, writing articles, talking about the role of the media. Members of the media are questioning what their role was during the campaign — and so I think we’re going to show the resiliency of democracy, but it is going to take active participation. And I think that there’s an awful lot of protests going on that prove the point of the statement: We can’t allow darkness.

SM: The United States has been involved with Saudi Arabia diplomatically since the 1930s, even with their repressive monarchical government. Do you believe that the US really supports democracy, or only the illusion of democracy when it’s in our best business or military interests?

"...There’s always this discussion about 'should our foreign policy be idealistic or realistic?' And I always think that’s a false dichotomy, mainly because I couldn’t figure out if I was an idealistic realist or a realistic idealist. You need both."

MA: It’s hard for me to speak about what this administration is doing because they have not really stated a lot of the valued principles that were a part of administrations like President Carter’s, that clearly made human rights central to American foreign policy — and actually, the two Bush administrations did talk an awful lot about values. But what I feel is happening now is that there’s not much discussion of it. I do think that one of the things that is important in foreign policy is to know what the basis of your system is. There’s always this discussion about “should our foreign policy be idealistic or realistic?” And I always think that’s a false dichotomy, mainly because I couldn’t figure out if I was an idealistic realist or a realistic idealist. You need both. And the only way that I can describe it is that it’s kind of like a hot air balloon: You need the value of the air that is idealism to lift the balloon up, and then the ballast of realism, to get it going in the right direction. And so it's very hard to say you never deal with a country because you disagree with its government. I think we need to remember that we should have a moral foreign policy, the question is how you state it and when. And whether you do it publicly or whether you have a quieter diplomacy, I think we have to see in terms of what's going on now. But I’ve kind of missed the discussion about the importance of value-based foreign policy in the last hundred days.

SM: So with the recent appointment of former ExxonMobil CEO, Rex Tillerson, as Secretary of State, many Americans, and politicians in particular, from Marco Rubio to Elizabeth Warren, have expressed concern over Tillerson's lack of experience in the realm of diplomacy. What type of experience do you believe is necessary to fill that position?

MA: Well, we’ve had a lot of different Secretaries of State, but for the most part they have had a foreign policy background of some kind. I’ve met Mr. Tillerson, but I don’t really know him. He clearly has operated within the international sphere so I think he understands what the national policies of other countries are; but frankly, I think what is harder is that he’s never been in government. I do think having some sense of what government does is important for any Secretary of State — either in Congress or as a staffer within the bureaucracy. Also having a deep interest in national security policy. You have to like what you’re doing even during difficult times. Diplomatic skills are important as well — being able to relate to the people that are part of the bureaucracy, because you can’t do these things alone. What’s evident, even in the last couple of weeks, is that Secretary Tillerson is enlarging the way he’s talking about things, and maybe finding his footing in terms of how he should be Secretary of State.

SM: Did personally growing up in Europe, especially during the London Blitz, help shape your experience or worldview?

MA: No question it did. I think everybody is influenced by their own background. Every country makes foreign policy decisions based on five factors. The first one is objective. Where is the country’s geographical location? What is its resource base? What are its demographics? The second factor is how do the people feel about foreign policy? Much harder to measure. The third factor is how the government is organized; in our case, executive-legislative relations and party control of that. The fourth is bureaucratic politics reflected in how the budget comes out. And the fifth is the role of individuals — to get back to the question that you asked. The individual brings his or her own background. So my background, having seen what happens if you don’t stand up to an evil such as a Hitler, shows that terrible things happen.

SM: Speaking of intervention, on April 6th, President Trump called in a U.S. Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian military air base in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. During your time as Secretary of State, what were the determining factors when you did recommend intervening in foreign conflicts?

"I believe in peace and stability, but I'm not a pacifist."

MA: Let me just say the course I teach at Georgetown is called 'The National Security Toolbox', and there are not a lot of tools in the toolbox. There is diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral; there are economic tools like trade, aid, and sanctions; and then there's the threat of force, law enforcement, and intelligence. They’re all in the toolbox. So what you do is you look at what the problem is and try to figure out which tool is best. Usually you work your way through all the tools before you get to force. Some people believe that if you wait too long to use force, then it's too late. I think you have to understand what the situation is; figure out whether you try the various tools. I did feel that it was important in Kosovo, after having tried diplomacy and sanctions, to use force to stop the genocidal killing — the ethnic cleansing. But you need to understand how the tools work, how they interact with each other. I believe in peace and stability, but I'm not a pacifist. There are times where either a show of force or force itself can make the difference.

SM: Recently, several countries have been testing America’s resolve both before and after the 2016 election: Russia, North Korea, and China to name a few. How would you describe and prioritize the dangers these countries pose to the United States?

MA: Well, they all pose dangers in some way. The question is how the priorities go together and what is the time frame. I do think that the most important relationship in the twenty-first century is our relationship with China. So that is a priority in understanding all our interactions with them. Then it’s important to do the five factors for China, because they are a growing, rising power and it’s important to see what they want out of their policy. On the other side, Russia is a fading power, and that is one of the things that makes them complicated for us to deal with. After the end of the Cold War, we were asked to do something that has never been asked before, which is how to devolve the power of your major adversary without a land war. So they are making problems for us to show they are not a fading power, but they clearly are affecting a lot of our relationships. I think Iran and North Korea are dangerous because of their behavior in their region as their leadership attempts to prove some things. We have been very concerned about Iran’s nuclear potential, and I think the Iran nuclear deal has done a great job cutting off paths for them to have nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. But there's no question they’re using their other tools to compete with the other regional power, Saudi Arabia, and so you have the  whole Sunni-Shia issue as well. North Korea is a problem because they actually have developed nuclear weapons, and they are run by somebody who is very concerned with his nation’s image, and who is very hard to figure out. So, the truth is they are all priorities, but then there is something that will come out of left field to worry about: everything going on in Syria, or Europe seeming to fall apart, or the various ethnic and tribal issues and weak governments in Africa, or what is happening in Latin America. So you need a full team in Washington, an all-government team, frankly, keeping very careful eyes on what is going on everywhere, and that’s the hard part about running the United States government.

SM: Do you think, with North Korea threatening America and its allies with nuclear weapons, a possible solution could be to convince China to stop buying North Korean coal until North Korea curtails its nuclear weapons program?

MA: Definitely. I think that, easily, the Chinese have the most influence over them because of their economic relationship. However, they are concerned that the country will completely fall apart, and there will be a lot of refugees on their border; and then also, if there is a reunified Korean peninsula, with Americans continuing to play a role with the South Koreans, that all of a sudden Americans will also be on their border. So, the question is whether they can be persuaded to do more, or whether their own five factors are affecting them in a way where they are not as helpful as they should be. I think it’s going to be very important for international pressure to stay on North Korea, to show that their behavior is unacceptable; but part of it is that we are unclear about how Kim Jong Un really operates, you know? What is his trigger? And I am very worried about some kind of an accident.

SM: One side of the ongoing controversy regarding the effective use of drones argues that it successfully eliminates terrorist threats while avoiding endangering the lives of American troops. Another side argues that it creates martyrs, which serves to recruit more followers to the Jihadist movement. In your opinion, has the use of drones contained or expanded the War on Terrorism?

MA: I think it’s an open question, frankly. Part of the issue is saying “War on Terrorism,” President Bush used to use the term, “War on Terror,” and I thought that it was the wrong term, partially because it began after 9/11, and the people that attacked us on 9/11 are murderers. And, so, when we talk about a “War on Terror,” they become warriors, heroes to their side. And they are murderers, they’re not warriors. The other part is that terrorism is something that, unfortunately, is going to be with us for a long time. The question is how not to create more terrorists. And, so, there is that issue about, “Why are there terrorists? Where do they come from? What is the kind of petri dish that is creating them?” And I think one has to be very careful, in terms of victims. This is why this is a kind of hard question to answer — there are many times where the drone is more accurate than some other way of getting terrorists, certainly more accurate than a bomb, but sometimes there are civilians and horrible things happen. And then there’s always this issue that it seems particularly cold-blooded to be sitting in some office somewhere launching a drone without anyone flying it. The bottom line, though, is we are dealing with cold blooded killers on the other side, so I think it is a question that needs to be discussed to see both sides of the issue.

SM:  If terrorism is going to go on for a long time, do you think it will ever end? And if so, how?

MA:  The truth is that terrorism has been with us forever. There is always somebody that is dissatisfied with what is happening, and they choose a particular weapon, and the main part about terrorism is that it’s usually an attack on an innocent group of people with a political value to show what can happen. Part of the issue that makes it complicated is that it is now identified with a religion, and that creates an additional problem. And as a result of new communications technology, the terrorists are able to get an awful lot of publicity for what they do, and they use social media to propound their message. But I think it will be with us for some time, and it has been with us for some time in different parts of the world. Now it seems much worse — I think it is much worse — because we know what is going on everywhere.

SM: In response to that fear of terrorism, President Trump’s recent travel ban on select countries in the Middle East has caused a public uproar among those who believe it is an unjustified attack on Muslims. On the other hand, others applaud the current administration for taking action against countries that threaten the United States. In your experience, do immigration bans help or hurt attempts to increase national security? If they do more harm than good, what alternative policies would be more effective?

MA: I think that this particular ban, now enunciated by the Trump administration, is a gift to the terrorists, because of their ability to use social media and make themselves victims. Plus, I think it’s a punishment to those who have nothing to do with terrorism. Every country has the ability to control who enters it — that is a national prerogative. But I think that it can be done by vetting in a better way, by sharing intelligence.

SM: Where would you personally draw the line between freedom and security regarding this travel ban?

MA: I’m not trying to align, but basically we have to be careful not to operate totally on the fear factor, and decide that everybody that looks different is a terrorist. Again, better vetting. Try to figure out who is who. I do think that we all need to be subjected to inspection as we come in and have the T.S.A. look at everybody before they get on airplanes. I would like to be secure, but not at the expense of making things worse.

SM: On a lighter note, we understand you have an extensive collection of brooches that represent your feelings or actions in your everyday life. Which is your favorite and what does it mean to you?

MA: Well, my favorite is a ceramic heart that my daughter made for me. She is very much of a grown up now, and she said to me, “Mom, you have to tell people I made it when I was five years old,” and I bet you guys made a pin similar to that for your mothers. And so it is very much my favorite because it’s a sign of how an inanimate object can, in fact, become loaded with emotion. Another one that I like a lot is one that I call my Katrina pin. I had gone down to New Orleans, after Katrina, and I was at a dinner at the World War II Museum, and I met a lot of veterans and all of a sudden this young man comes over, and he has this box with this pin and he said, “There is my father sitting over there; he earned two purple hearts, and my mother died as a result of Katrina. She had been given this pin by my father.” And I opened the box, and it had amethysts on it, which I presume were a sign of the purple heart, and I said, “I can’t possibly accept this!” And he said, “Please do, our mother loved you, and we want you to have this pin.” And again, it is an inanimate object that brings an awful lot of emotion with it.

SM: That’s a great story. Thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate it.

MA: Well thank you for your truly terrific questions and what you’re doing.  I’m very happy to do it. Good to see you. Okay, bye.

—Madeline Albright for Spectator Magazine, 2016

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