Commencement 2014: Q&A with Madame Secretary

madeleine albright

madeleine albright

Class of 2014 members Noorjahan Akbar, Benjamin West, Rizwan Saffie and Marketa Jakubcova discussed leadership and world affairs with this year’s Commencement speaker and recipient of an honorary doctorate in international relations, former Secretary of State of the United States Madeleine K. Albright. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Benjamin West: Let me begin by saying welcome, Secretary Albright. Thank you so much for being here. We have a few questions about American foreign policy. I was noticing in the last 10 to 15 years, issues in Latin America have taken a backseat in U.S. foreign policy to other more pressing world regions. I was curious what you think in the next few years the greatest challenges and oppor-tu-nities are for the U.S. in that region.

Albright: I have always believed that we needed to have a much more robust policy, vis-à-vis Latin America, but I have to tell you, frankly, it’s not easy — partially because if we do too much, then a lot of the countries there say, “Leave us alone.” And if we don’t do enough, then they say what you just said, which is, “Why don’t you care?” It is a complicated relationship. But one of the things that we did during the Clinton administration was to talk a lot about the solidarity of the Americas and try to figure out how to have respectful relationships.

When I was secretary, I used to travel around with a map that showed how the governments in Latin America were changing from authoritarian to democratic. Authoritarian were in red and the democratic ones were in green. When we were in office, there was only one little red island left. But I do believe that we need to have much more involved relationships, and ones in which we complement each other; we need to be partners.

Marketa Jakubcova: Do you think that Ukraine should consider a decision that would divide the pro-West and pro-Russia regions [like Czechoslovakia], or is Kiev actually able to find a form of govern-ment that would keep the country as one? And what should the West be doing at this specific moment if the current expansion of sanctions is enough to stop Putin from taking over eastern Ukraine as a part of his ambition to expand Russian influence in the rest of Europe?

Albright: I think what President Putin did is a game changer in terms of the kinds of experiences that the countries in Central and Eastern Europe were having at the end of the Cold War. And I’ll never forget this. I was doing a lot of focus group work in ’91. I was in Russia doing one where this man stood up and said, “You know, we used to be a super-power, and now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.” There has been a real identity crisis that the Russians are having. Putin plugged into that and is acting as if he is bringing back Russia or the czars.

One of the proudest moments of my tenure as secretary of state was when we brought the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland into NATO. Part of it was to make clear that countries that were ready to be members, could and should be part of the West; that countries need to be able to make their own choice about where they belong.

I could talk about this for a very long time because I feel very strongly about it, but I think that the countries that border Russia have every right to make decisions about where they want to be. And I think it’s possible, and likely, and would be good, if the Ukrainians were able to have a Western perspective, be a part of whatever groupings they want to be, but also have a good relationship with Russia. It doesn’t mean one is not the opposite of the other.

On your question about splitting, Czechoslovakia was a very special case, I think. And I have to say, when I was growing up, I would ask my parents, was I a Czech or a Slovak? And they said you’re Czechoslovak. They were of the first generation of Czechoslovaks after World War I, and they were very proud of it. So I was one of the people who wish it hadn’t split. But what is interesting are the good relationships now between the Czechs and Slovaks.

Noorjahan Akbar: I had another question, but your response brought up one that’s different from my original one. In regard to Afghanistan, many people recently have been speaking of a federal system that would probably make the relations between the South and the North better, maybe give more power to the Taliban in the regions where they have more public support and not so in other regions. Do you think that same model of a federal government would work there as well?

Albright: I think, actually, yes. The people that I’ve talked to from Afghanistan — and by the way, I know both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — and the different groups within Afghanistan itself, I think there are people who say that Americans don’t understand how Afghanistan is put together. And culturally and ethnically there are highly differentiated parts. The question is how a federal system works. And if you look at constitutions in different federal governments that really work, they have a capital and a legislative system that allows representations of various autono-mous parts. So it isn’t as if you separated and have no relationship. Do you think that?

Akbar: I’m highly conflicted about this issue because I also think that, much like Ukraine, these areas are very much mixed. In the South, which is highly populated by Pashtun ethnic groups, there are lots of non-Pashtuns. In the North, there are many different ethnic groups. I don’t know how arbitrary these borders of states that we create will be and whether or not Afghans themselves will be satisfied with those borders.

Albright: The United States is different from every country. Even though we have a federal system, it’s a different kind of a thing. But I do think one of the things people forget about democratic governments is majority rule and minority rights. One can delineate certain borders if, in fact, there are minority rights within them, but it’s difficult. When you think about federal countries that work, there are few of them.

One of the questions is what happens to the taxes? That’s what a lot of this is about. If you collect federal taxes, do they go back to the other regions? And in Ukraine, what has been the problem, in addition to the history of how Ukraine was put together, is that the taxes have not gone back to the eastern part. I think in Afghanistan, it’s a different issue. And I also think that in Afghanistan, there are more different ethnic groups. And the relationship between the North and the South and the Taliban has been more complicated. But it doesn’t surpass human brain power to try to figure out systems that allow some integration and, at the same time, allow various regions to have more control over their taxation systems and their rights if, in fact, it doesn’t undercut the rights of the minorities that live there.

Akbar: It’s a tough balance to keep.

Albright: It is.

Rizwan Saffie: I’ve actually got a question about your pins. I know in the past you’ve given great significance to the pins you choose to wear at special occasions. You even wrote a book about the various pins you’ve used to express yourself both personally and diplomatically. And so I was wondering if you will have any special pin for tomorrow?

Albright: Well, the pin I’m wearing today has special meaning because it’s your red devil. I’m not going to wear a pin tomorrow because I don’t think it looks right on my academic robes. But the way it started, I have to tell you, is I clearly like jewelry. But what happened was that when I was ambassador to the United Nations, it was right after the Gulf War, and the cease-fire had been translated into a series of sanctions that had to be kept on. I was an instructed ambassador, and my instructions were to make sure that the sanctions stayed on. So every day, I said something terrible about Saddam Hussein, which he deserved. He had invaded Kuwait. A poem appeared in the papers in Baghdad comparing me to many things, but among them, an unparalleled serpent. So I had a snake pin, and I wore it whenever we talked about Iraq. And then when I went out — you’ve seen pictures of when the ambassadors go out and talk to the press — the camera zeroed in and [the reporter] said, “Why are you wearing that snake pin?” And I said, “Because Saddam Hussein compared me to an unparalleled serpent,” and I thought, well, this is fun. I went out and bought some costume jewelry to reflect whatever we were going to do on any given day. When the other ambassadors said, “What are we going to do today?” I would say, “Read my pins.”

Saffie: That’s the title of your book, right? Read My Pins?

Albright: And they all have foreign policy stories. I have one pin that is actually an arrow, but it looks like a missile. When I was negotiating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Russians, Foreign Minister Ivanov leaned over and said, “Is that one of your missile interceptors?” I said, “Yes, and we make them very small, and you need to negotiate.”

Akbar: You have been an icon for American women and women around the world. Your accomplishments are a testimony to the potential of women if they’re given the chance to really flourish. How do you define women’s empowerment? How do you distinguish an empowered woman and her qualities from one who might not be?

Albright: When I became secretary, I decided to make women’s issues central to American foreign policy, not just because I’m a feminist, but because we know that when societies empower women politically and economically, they’re more stable. You really see a difference. In every country, women are at least half the population. So if women are not part of the system, it really robs the system of resources, if I can put it that way.

It is very important to have women politically empowered, which means that they should be elected to various positions. As a matter of fact, I just had an interesting discussion with [Lakhdar Brahimi] about Afghanistan where … one of the deals they were going to make was that every province was going to say that they would have two women elected to the Loya Jirga. And some of the provinces are so small, they made an agreement that by average, there would be two women. A real recognition that having women elected to office makes a difference in terms of the way decisions are made and what some of the priorities are. Economically empowering women makes clear that it isn’t that women don’t have jobs in developing countries; it’s just that they work harder and get no pay, which is not untrue in other developed countries.

What I find interesting, and it goes to the question that you asked, and it has a lot to do with all the countries, is democracy is very complicated. One of the issues that I’m sure you’ve talked about in your classes all the time is what comes first, political or economic development? They go together, because democracy has to deliver.

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Read more from the summer 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

Published July 22, 2014