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Madeleine Albright On How To Solve Our Global Problems Together

Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks during a hearing on "National Security Implications of the Rise of Authoritarianism Around the World" at the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill on February 26, 2019 in Washington,DC. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks during a hearing on "National Security Implications of the Rise of Authoritarianism Around the World" at the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill on February 26, 2019 in Washington,DC. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright joins us to talk about her new book, “Hell and Other Destinations.” She also shares her observations about the coronavirus pandemic and lessons we can take away from it about working together to solve global problems.


Madeleine Albright, former U.S. Secretary of State. Author of “Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st century memoir.” (@madeleine)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

We are in the midst of an international crisis. So what would you do if you were secretary of state right now?

“If I had been secretary of state in earlier this year, we wouldn’t, I think, be in this particular mess. I think that what has to happen is to make clear that in order to solve this issue, we need to work with other countries. Because the virus … knows no borders. And what we’re doing is kind of acting as though this is just something about America. And ultimately it is the job of the secretary of state to create functional and useful relationships with other countries. And really to put ourselves into the other countries’ shoes as we hope that they put themselves into our shoes. So I think cooperation is what I would be trying to get.”

What is the role of diplomacy right now?

“First of all, obviously, to have better contact with China. I think that is one of the issues that is at question at the moment. I also think in terms of if, in fact, what had been happening in the world had been followed, then to call the countries that were experiencing the crisis and trying to find out what they had been doing or were doing. So, for instance, Korea had really done a lot of testing and we know now had been very active. Or what went wrong in Italy.

“And then obviously to offer help, because I do think we’re going to need help. So I believe that diplomatic policy is built an awful lot on knowing the country that you’re dealing with, but also the relationships. And it is unclear to me how they have evolved or when there have been meetings of groups, the G7 or the G20. How does the United States interact? And then obviously … the relationship with the United Nations and the World Health Organization. So I think there are an awful lot of things that need to be done. And I do think that one of the issues that has to be looked at [is] how many people are at the State Department or in our embassies that are able to carry all this out.”

You’ve been inside the Situation Room when presidents and their advisers have to deal with world-shaking events. What is the advice that you would have given to a president as we saw a pandemic encroaching on the horizon?

“I do teach and I teach a lot about decision-making and descriptions of what it’s like in those rooms. And part of what makes the principals committee of the National Security Council operate is that different secretaries are free to present what they think, what their views are. And there sometimes are arguments. And in fact, what one wants is for disagreements to be aired and to try to figure out how one can present a common proposal to the president. But I think having disagreements is actually a very important part of a decision-making process. And being afraid to have disagreements is also a downer, frankly, and doesn’t help in the decision-making. So I think had I been, I would have wanted to know where we were, what the capabilities of the United States are for dealing with it.

“But I would have seen it as a national security issue. Because what has happened recently is that health issues have become national security issues, HIV/AIDS and Ebola. And an understanding that it takes working with other countries. And I would have advised that we are not showing off in terms of how much we know and what we’re doing. But I would try to make you get the president and the others that would be making calls to really inquire about what had happened in the other countries and learn from their experiences. And then also — and I would hope that this would have happened — is that there would be a desire to not only share information, but to share equipment and various things that we’re clear that we need. So I believe that diplomacy is about partnership. And so that is what I would have tried to expand on.”  

Where would you say the United States is vulnerable right now?

“I think that our strengths are our people, and our diversity and our economy. I think our vulnerabilities are that it is difficult to run a country of our size with the various issues that are complex and trying to get agreement on them. And then I think the vulnerabilities are basically the kind that are fixable. That’s the part that my students, I think, really see our country as I do. Of one that has a great history and great potential. And so our vulnerabilities are only ones that we create ourselves by doubting, by forgetting our resiliency.

“And by the way, I’m often asked if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I’m an optimist who worries a lot. And so I am concerned that we’re focusing too much on that we think — and I underline that — that our vulnerabilities are that we don’t have walls, that there are too many people coming here, that there are countries trying to exploit us. Those are not our vulnerabilities. Our strengths are that we are the most powerful country in the world that can and should have very positive relations with other countries that benefit both them and us.”

How can we break through our nationalistic impulses for the betterment of humanity?

“I really am concerned about exactly that. Globalization is a statement of fact. I mean, we are all interconnected and we have seen it even obviously before the virus. But it now is very evident. But partially what has happened is that it’s faceless. People want to know what their identities are and that is very appropriate. But when that morphs into hyper-nationalism, where people think they are the right and everybody else is wrong. And then there is a leader who takes advantage of it to take complete control.

“And I’ve written about Hungary, for instance, is a perfect example of that, where the leader all of a sudden — Orbán — is operating by decree. And therefore, I think what has to happen is we need to think more about the values of democracy and having people empowered, and voting, and making decisions and not being taken advantage of by hyper-nationalism.

“And that’s why I’m so troubled when the President of the United States goes to the United Nations, and all he does is talk about how important we are and nationalism. Without considering — and it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure this out — is that we cannot exist in the 21st century if we do not have respectful relationships with other countries, and respectful means. You can tell it like it is to them without berating them and thinking that you are the one that has all the answers.

“So we’re at a very, very difficult point. And I’m hoping, frankly, that — I know it’s a cliché — that we take advantage of this crisis in order to figure out what kind of a world we want to live in in the 21st century, where the United States is respected and acts as a partner. And the American people have a chance to do what we’ve been doing. Is to have free and fair elections and be able to know what the truth is. Tell the truth and be proud. And I have been asked to describe myself recently in six words. I say: worried optimist, problem-solver, grateful American.”

From The Reading List

The Wall Street Journal: “Madeleine Albright Is Still in the Arena” — “A few years ago, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright was pulled out of line at London’s Heathrow Airport by British customs. Frustrated and late for a meeting, she asked the officials, ‘Do you know who I am?’ As she recounts with some relish, they replied, ‘No, but we have doctors here who can help you to figure that out.'”

TIME: “Madeleine Albright: Coronavirus Should Be a Wake-Up Call for World Leaders to Work Together” — “The coronavirus that now poses a dire threat to public health and to the world economy is so dangerous partly because it is novel — a new harm that our bodies and our governments must learn to face. But it is also a reminder of a lesson we should have learned long ago: that, to thrive, people of every nationality must combine strengths. We have been taught this lesson over and over again through history, only to forget when our tribal instincts resurface and wisdom is lost.”

The Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Foreign-Policy Experts Call for Cooperation With China on Coronavirus” — “A large group of prominent American foreign-policy experts, including former high-ranking White House officials from both parties, is calling on the Trump administration to work more closely with China to stem the coronavirus epidemic.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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