SAL/on air: Madeleine Albright
August 24, 2018
“Fascism caught on,” Albright observes in a particularly chilling passage in Fascism: A Warning, “because many people in Europe and elsewhere saw it as a mighty wave that was transforming history, that was owned by them alone, and that couldn’t be stopped.”
In our new episode of SAL/on air, our literary podcast featuring talks from across Seattle Arts & Lectures’ thirty years, we hear from Madeleine Albright, America’s first-ever female Secretary of State. Last April, at the Paramount Theatre, Albright sat down to discuss her latest work with Mark Suzman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Drawing upon both her experiences as a child in war-torn Europe and her distinguished career as a diplomat, Albright turned her wisdom, wit, and brains to everything from North Korean leaders to the state of the United Nations. Most importantly, she spoke about how fascism not only endured through the twentieth century, but how it now presents a more virulent threat to peace and justice than at any time since the end of World War II.
Listen to the episode on lectures.org, or wherever you get your podcasts (and don’t forget to “like” and subscribe!). If you don’t have time to listen to Albright in conversation, here are some highlights from the event:
On how fascism creeps into leadership
Mussolini said if you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, then it won’t notice. I see feathers being plucked.
On the definition of diplomacy
Diplomacy is not a gift; diplomacy is primarily the language you use to talk to people you can’t agree with in order to try to figure out some solutions . . . One of my friends is a former French foreign minister, and I was asking him for the definition of diplomacy. The answer was: “It allows you to talk to monsters.”
On why fascism is a global phenomenon again
When the Berlin Wall came down, there was a sense of great hope, frankly euphoria, because a lot of countries were becoming democratic, the multilateral system was working, and there was a lot of cooperation. And then 9/11 happened, accompanied by major changes in technology, and a disappointment with the kinds of things we expected would happen [after the Cold War]. We are at a time where things are genuinely in disarray, but the reason that I see this happening in various places is, whether it’s a result of the financial crisis or of technology—that has left people without jobs or training to take new jobs, and has disaggregated voices—people don’t quite know where we are. In fascism, there are these divisions in society, and then there is a leader who shows up and says, “I’ve got the answer to this.”
On America’s independent streak
I happen to believe America is an exceptional country—geographically exceptional, as well: a continent-nation protected by two oceans, with friendly neighbors on both sides. There’s a sense that we can exist by ourselves . . . Americans don’t like the word multilateralism. It has too many syllables and it ends in an “ism.” But all it means is partnership.
On helping out at a naturalization ceremony
A man said, “Can you believe I’m a refugee, and I just got my naturalization papers from the Secretary of State?” To which I replied, “Can you believe a refugee is Secretary of State.”
On aid as a critical dimension of U.S. foreign policy
There are not a lot of tools in the national security toolbox. There is diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral, the economic tools—the carrots—which are aid and trade, and then the sticks—which are sanctions: the threat or use of force, intelligence, and law enforcement. Aid has been a remarkably important tool because it obviously assists countries and works on their economic and health issues in a number of ways.
There’s an attitude now that foreigners are taking advantage of us, that the United States is a victim, and that people are punished by cutting foreign assistance, even if it’s not a lot—basically, we are undercutting the life and the heath of people in other countries who are very important to us . . . If there is economic inequality, it creates that division in groups which is then exacerbated by demagogic leaders, so we have to look at assistance in terms of economics and human rights.
[In fascism,] there’s a movement from the bottom of people who are dissatisfied, and then a leader from the top who takes advantage of that dissatisfaction, makes it even worse, and comes up with simplistic answers. Another category or symptom is that you have to blame somebody—there’s always a scapegoat, which comes as a result of hyper-nationalism . . . When my identity hates your identity, there is a problem. Patriotism is great, hyper-nationalism is not.
On being a woman Secretary of State
The truth is, I didn’t have any problems dealing with foreign men because I arrived in a very large plane that said “United States of America.” I had more problems with the men in my own government. Not because they were male chauvinist pigs, but because they had known me too long. I had been the carpool mother, I’d been a friend to their wives, I’d had them over for dinner when I’d done the cooking, and they thought, “Why does she get to be Secretary of State when I should be Secretary of State?” It took a while, frankly.
By the way, my youngest granddaughter said, seven or eight ago, “What’s the big deal about Grandma Maddie being Secretary of State? Only girls are Secretary of State.” Which was true, and now there are a lot of little boys who are encouraged by the fact that a man can be Secretary of State.
On Russia’s current global actions
In ’91, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, I was a professor working in a think tank, and I was asked to do a survey of all of Europe, in terms of how people felt after the end of the Cold War. I will never forget a focus group outside of Moscow, where this man stood up and said, “I’m so embarrassed. We used to be a superpower, and now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.”
We had been asked to do something at the end of the Cold War which had never been done before: to devolve the power of your major adversary without a war . . . What’s happened is Putin has identified himself with the loss of grandeur that Russia and the Soviet Union had had, and I think he’s done that very successfully—he has played a weak hand very well.
On the meaning of her pins
They all have diplomatic stories so that I can make foreign policy less foreign. So, for instance, when the Russians were bugging the State Department in a room not far from my office—we found the man listening to us outside—the next time I met with the Russian foreign minister, I wore this huge bug pin. He knew exactly what I was doing.
These outtakes have been lightly edited for flow.