by DAVID MARCHESE, New York Times Magazine, Apr. 25, 2020
In the two decades that she has been out of government, Madeleine Albright has, remarkably, developed a portfolio perhaps even broader than the one she maintained as secretary of state during President Clinton’s second term. She served on the board of the New York Stock Exchange and co-founded the Albright Stonebridge Group, a business-strategy firm. She helped monitor elections, among other duties, as the chairwoman for the National Democratic Institute. She continues to teach diplomacy at Georgetown University and keeps writing books, the latest of which, her seventh, is “Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st Century Memoir.” ‘It took me a long time to find my voice,” said the 82-year-old Albright, who didn’t start working in government until she was 39. “I’m sure not going to be quiet now.”
Your last book was about the rise of fascism. So let me ask you this: It’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic has afforded opportunities for authoritarian leaders to consolidate control. Does it afford any opportunities for democratic leaders? It’s more complicated than meets the eye. I believe that for a lot of the issues in combating the pandemic, you have to use centralized government and also have a message that goes out that is consistent and comes from the authorized leader. The question is how that’s exploited. What Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary is that he’s taken advantage of the pandemic in order to get rid of institutional structures. But what I find interesting in the U.S. is that there has been bipartisan agreement on the packages that Congress is getting together that the president is then signing. So I do think that the pandemic might show the efficacy of working together and that not all government activity is bad. You know that cliché about you shouldn’t let a crisis go to waste? There are things that need to be looked at from that perspective.
Madeleine Albright at her office in Washington in 1988. Diana Walker/The Life Picture Collection, via Getty Images
So how else might this crisis be leveraged positively? If there is good will and a desire to find an international approach to the pandemic, then the crisis will have shown that there’s no way to deal with this if you don’t see it as a multinational problem. So I would hope that this is an example of where crisis can be used to improve international communication. I’m prejudiced about this. I was ambassador to the United Nations, and my whole life is based on being an international person. It’s a mistake for the American president to talk to the General Assembly and it’s all sovereignty, sovereignty, sovereignty. The word “global” is not a four-letter word. We have to make the institutions respond to our needs and not just say they’re useless.
Is there any diplomatic pressure that the United States could have exerted that would have helped us get our experts into Wuhan earlier and given us a better sense of what was happening? Ultimately we’re going to have to figure out what happened. It’s essential for us to work with the Chinese. They clearly have some responsibility in terms of the way they handled the coronavirus initially and in their way of not communicating — some suggesting that this was an American plot. But I’m just going to read this to you, because it is the way I feel: “In the present crisis, for example, imagine a president who has led from the beginning, who promoted an emergency containment strategy worldwide, who invested generously in medical research, a president who treated the pandemic as a shared challenge, not a competition. This peculiar and troubled spring, as we sit at home for longer periods than usual, let us think about what the coronavirus is telling us and consider with care the choices we face. We can learn from history or we can repeat history; we can embrace our international responsibilities or try and go it alone.”
Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaking at the U.N. in New York City in 1995. Osamu Honda/Associated Press
Along those lines, you’ve always promoted the idea of the United States as the “indispensable nation.” But we’re moving quickly into a future — if we’re not there already — where that’s not necessarily the case. What ramifications does that have for how this country might conduct foreign policy? There’s nothing in the definition of indispensable that says “alone.” It means that the United States needs to be engaged with its partners. And people’s backgrounds make a difference. So for me as a Czechoslovak, the United States was not involved in Munich and terrible things happened. Then in England during the war when the Yankees came, everything changed. I am testimony to the fact that it makes a difference where the United States is, and I believe in the importance of America being a leader within a partnership that deals with new problems; not somebody who orders everybody around but one who listens to what our partners say and has diplomatic conversations. Maybe that seems utopian at the moment, but I do think this coronavirus crisis needs to be used in a way that takes another look at the United Nations, sees how the relationship of the regional organizations fit in with the United Nations and understands that human rights is not just an American idea. People are all the same. They want to make decisions about their own lives, and the next period could be one that is exciting in terms of possibilities for how to have a more partnership-oriented world. I am, in case you haven’t noticed, an optimist. But I’m an optimist who worries a lot.
The idea that when America gets involved good things happen is one that’s informed by your personal history. But do you think that belief transposes factually onto America’s foreign-policy history over the last 50 or 60 years? Clearly, I come from an era where American involvement did make a difference, but I have some problem accepting what you said about the last 50 years. The end of the 20th century was where one administration built on another, where the Clinton administration built on what President Bush had done: the unification of Germany and how countries at the end of the Cold War wanted to be part of a Western system that they had not been able to be a part of. There were attempts we made to have a respectful relationship with Russia and China. There were attempts to try to operate in an American partnership role. Things did change a lot with 9/11 and trying to figure out how we dealt with that. There were issues about how the war in Afghanistan morphed into a war in Iraq that made things worse in the Middle East. But I wouldn’t totally accept what you’re saying about the last 50 years.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at the White House in 1997 with, from left, Samuel Berger, William Cohen, Bill Richardson and President Bill Clinton. Time Life Pictures/White House/The Life Picture Collection, via Getty Images
But there are so many negative counterexamples: the Vietnam War; C.I.A. intervention in Latin America; our long history in the Middle East, which you noted. So why shouldn’t someone be skeptical of rhetoric about America as the indispensable nation? Vietnam clearly was a terrible disaster. The war in Iraq was a terrible disaster. I do think that we have misunderstood the Middle East. So to be fair and honest and an analyst, in addition to being a political person, one has to explain the mistakes and understand how not to repeat them. One has to admit mistakes, and I obviously do and would.
What was the biggest foreign-policy mistake America made while you were actively working in U.S. foreign diplomacy? The one that I regret in many ways — because it goes to how the U.N. is used or not used — is what happened or didn’t happen in Rwanda. I also think that while we tried very hard to develop a functioning relationship with the Russians, for whatever reason they felt that we were condescending toward them, which we weren’t. We have made mistakes in not being able to fully understand what’s happened in X country. It’s worth analyzing what goes wrong so that we don’t repeat history.
Albright in Jordan during a Middle East tour in 1997. Ali Jarekji/Reuters
In your new book you get into the sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s. Specifically you write about that infamous interview from 1996 with Lesley Stahl on “60 Minutes” in which you talked about the cost of Iraqi children’s lives as a result of those sanctions. You do point out in the book that the number of dead was ultimately shown to be far less than was believed at the time, but I’m curious to know what you learned from that situation about sanctions and making a foreign-policy case to the public. What I said was totally stupid. I use it in my class as an example of how thinking through what you’re going to say is important. I regret it. I have apologized for it I can’t tell you how many times. What I’d like to do is explain more the context and what it was like at the United Nations at the time. What was happening was that the cease-fire from the gulf war had been translated into a series of sanctions resolutions. My job was to make sure the sanctions stayed on. By the way, we don’t have a lot of tools in the diplomatic toolbox, no matter how powerful we are. The sanctions were put on by the U.N. before I got there. They were the toughest, most comprehensive sanctions ever, and the only thing that they exempted, because that’s American policy, was food and medicine. But then we ran into problems. Saddam Hussein would not allow the U.N. to distribute the food and medicine. There was no question that people were being hurt, but back then I was trying to say that basically it was due to the fact that Saddam Hussein was not fulfilling what was required of him. But we learned in many ways that comprehensive sanctions often hurt the people of the country and don’t really accomplish what is wanted in order to change the behavior of the country being sanctioned. So we began to look at something called “smart sanctions” or “targeted sanctions.” We in the Clinton administration began to develop that as we were dealing with Milosevic.
You mentioned that you’ve apologized for that statement, but it’s not quite clear to me what your apologies were for. Were they because the statement was callous or factually incorrect or revealed something about the realities of foreign policy that you didn’t want to reveal? All of the above? None of the above? I do not think the sanctions were worth any children’s lives, frankly, because I don’t believe in that. The sanctions weren’t supposed to be against them. But I do think that if you go back and try to figure out how this whole sanctions regime was put into place and how it was translated from the cease-fire, then you can understand how there began to be problems about how the sanctions were carried out. And by the way, it’s easier to explain it to you than trying to explain it quickly on TV. It was just stupid. It was just the worst possible thing I could’ve said.
Albright, right, with Henry Kissinger during a 2002 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing regarding U.S. policy toward Iraq. Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Earlier you brought up democracy in the context of people wanting to be free to make decisions about their own lives. I thought it was conspicuous that in your book about fascism, which is obviously also a book about challenges to democracy, you never really got into economic systems as a possible engine for those challenges. Don’t the dark sides of free-market capitalism and neoliberalism have something to do with what’s driving so much political disaffection? I happen to believe in capitalism, but I do think it needs to have a trickle down and various other aspects. But what I was trying to make clear in the book, rather than doing economic theory, was to talk about the fact that a fascist leader is an expert in dividing and exacerbating division and manipulating the laws and the system to further his own gains. Economic divisions are the ones that are easiest to pick up on.
Both in office and out of office you’ve done a lot of work in trying to spread democracy. What makes you hopeful that things will move back in the direction they were moving during the 1990s, when there was so much democratic progress being made, rather than continue on the path they are now, where democracy is being rolled back all over the place? It goes back to your question about America’s domination, which is to realize that there are a number of ways to empower people through their institutional structures: What are the tools of democracies? How do elections work? How can local communities connect with larger federal ones? It’s looking at the importance of the rule of law. Then the other part is that I believe that economic and political development go together, and the private sector must have a big role. I have my little mottoes: Democracy has to deliver. People have to recognize that other people not only want to vote but they want to eat. So there needs to be economic development that goes with democracy. You have to mobilize the various parts of the government as well as be in partnership with the private sector, which are some of the things that I do through my business.
Albright at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Ida Mae Astute/Walt Disney Television, via Getty Images
How do you make sure that happens with your own business? Albright Capital is invested in companies that have looked at getting involved in mining in southern Africa, for example, where the economic benefits can have a way of winding up going to kleptocrats rather than the public that needs them. What do you do, just generally, is make sure that the companies that we work with are socially responsible. So if we are dealing with X company, talk to them about the importance of their labor practices or their health policy or about being careful about the climate aspects of what they’re doing. Now, I do not mix business and the National Democratic Institute. I don’t suggest companies. With them I talk generally about the importance of economic development and having guiding principles for business about trying to be good local citizens and not taking advantage of countries.
As somebody who has observed elections and paid close attention to democratic processes in other countries, do you have concerns about what the pandemic might mean for our election in November if we’re still far from any sort of “normal?” We’re going to have the election. It’s the law to have the election. We need to understand, without the president taking it personally, that something went wrong in the last election. We need to understand that the states have a lot of control in this. We need to decide that America’s going to prove our democracy by making sure that we’re going to have a free and fair election where people are encouraged to vote and supported in their desire to vote. But I’m not sure we fully have grasped some of the issues — and how quickly things can change.