Madeleine K. Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, and distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, discusses how the reemergence of authoritarian nationalism is shaping the world today.
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FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
Today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/campus. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are excited to have Secretary Madeleine Albright with us today to discuss “The Rise of Authoritarian Nationalism.” Secretary Albright is chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and chair of Albright Capital Management, an investment advisory firm that is focused on emerging markets. She is also the Michael and Virginia Mortara Endowed Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
In 1997 Dr. Albright was named the first female secretary of state of the United States and became at that time the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government. In that role she reinforced U.S. alliances, advocated for democracy and human rights, and promoted American trade, business, labor, and environmental standards abroad. She has served as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, member of the president’s Cabinet, and was a member of President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council.
In 2012 Secretary Albright received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, from President Obama.
And she was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations Board of Directors. We appreciated her service on our board.
Her most recent book is Fascism: A Warning, published in April of this year.
Welcome, Secretary Albright. It is an honor to have you with us today. We look forward to having you talk to us about the emergence of fascism and how it is shaping the world today.
ALBRIGHT: Irina, thank you very much for that introduction, and my thanks to CFR for organizing this call. And I’m really delighted to do this not only because I am an emeritus CFR board member, but because I am a professor, and there’s nothing I like more than a captive audience of students.
So I want to have—I want to leave plenty of time for discussion, so I will try to be brief. But as you mentioned, I have just written a book on this topic, and so I have a few things to say about the resurgence of fascism. And I’d like to begin, as I begin my first chapter, on a personal note because, for me, fascism isn’t just an academic theory; it had a major and direct impact on my life.
As an infant in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia I was forced by the Nazis to flee with my parents to London, where we survived the blitz. After the war the communists drove my family from our home a second time. And later, as U.N. ambassador and secretary of state, I had confrontations with the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and I was the most senior U.S. official at the time to negotiate with the ruler of North Korea. I’m chairman of the National Democratic Institute, and so I’m involved in the struggle between democracy and dictatorship every day in a lot of different places.
So my views on the subject are the product of personal experience. I lived it. I know what the stakes are. And when I look around the world today, I see abundant cause for concern.
It seems as if almost every month there’s a new sham election extending the tenure of an autocrat as president or prime minister. Just this year it has happened in Egypt and Venezuela, Cambodia, Azerbaijan, as well as Russia and Turkey. Meanwhile, in Europe, extreme nationalist movements are storming the barricades, shifting the terms of debate, moving into legislatures, and grabbing for themselves a larger slice of power. And most disturbing of all, here in the United States we have a president who openly scorns the building blocks of democracy.
In my travels, I hear the same questions all the time. If the American president says the press always lies, how can Vladimir Putin be faulted for making the same claim? If Trump insists that judges are biased and calls the American justice system a laughingstock, what is to stop a repressive leader like Duterte of the Philippines from discrediting his own judiciary? And if the leader of the world’s most powerful country views life as a dog-eat-dog struggle in which no one gains except at another’s cost, who’s going to carry the banner for international cooperation at a time when the most intractable problems cannot be solved in any other way?
One of the questions I tackle in my book is what went wrong. Why, almost seventy-five years after the deaths of Mussolini and Hitler, are we once again talking about fascism? There are a variety of answers, but I do think that the explanation begins with technology. The same forces that have brought the world closer together have made many people want to cling even more tightly to their ethnic, cultural, and religious identities. Also, because of technology a lot of good jobs have disappeared, and so people who feel betrayed and insecure tend to want someone, preferably an outsider, to blame, a scapegoat. Meanwhile, the rise of social media has enabled us to share our grievances instantly and globally, and this in turn has created an opening for predatory political movements to circulate lies that undermine democratic institutions and that violate what we used to consider the acceptable boundaries of civic debate. As a result, bigoted speech is heard more often and there’s an increase in hate crimes, islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. Then, when you add to this toxic mix the arrival of political leaders who promise easy answers, who exploit social divisions for their own purposes, who utter falsehoods with every breath, and who are skilled communicators, you can follow the trail to where we are today.
On my book tour, the question I’m asked most often is: What can we do about it? And my response usually includes the call to defend the truth, uphold the rule of law, be an active participant in the democratic process, and to listen to those with whom we disagree. But in my twenty-plus years as a professor I’ve also learned to ask myself when I’m not getting good answers whether it’s because I haven’t been looking in the right places. And I wonder now whether we, as democratic citizens, have been failing to form the right questions.
So perhaps we should begin by asking what our perspective leaders want us to think and feel. Do they cater to our prejudices by suggesting that we treat people outside our ethnicity, race, creed, or party as unworthy of respect? Do they want us to nurture our anger toward those whom we believe have done us wrong? Do they encourage us to have contempt for our governing institutions, the independent media, and the courts? Do they go beyond asking for our votes to brag about their ability to solve all problems and satisfy every desire? Do they solicit our cheers by speaking casually and with pumped-up machismo about using violence to blow enemies away? Do they echo the attitude of Mussolini, which is the crowd doesn’t have to know; all it has to do is believe and submit to being shaped? Or do they invite us to join them to build and maintain a healthy center for our societies, a place where rights and duties are apportioned fairly, and all have room to dream and grow?
The answer to these questions will not tell us whether a prospective leader is left- or right-wing, conservative or liberal, or in the American context Democrat or Republican. However, they will tell us much that we need to know about those wanting to lead us and much also about ourselves. For those who cherish freedom, the answers will provide grounds for reassurance or a warning we dare not ignore.
So, before opening it up for questions, let me make one final point. There isn’t a speech or a book that’s written that doesn’t quote Robert Frost. And so I’m paraphrasing one of his best quotes, which is the older I am, the younger are my teachers. And in my case it really is true. The cynics will tell you that there’s nothing to be done about the democratic crisis we find ourselves in today. But I for one am inspired by the opportunities I get to interact with young people, whether in my classroom at Georgetown or in classrooms across America, or here over this incredible conference call. So I’m really delighted to be with you and I look forward to our discussion. Thank you very, very much.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Secretary Albright, for that overview. And let’s open up to the group for questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Prairie View A&M University.
Q: Good morning. And I just wanted to start by saying thank you to CFR for holding this conference and thank you to Secretary Albright for actually being here with us today.
My question is, Secretary Albright, would you say that other countries around the world are going to be open to more fascist foreign policy, given the U.S. leadership styles and pro-nationalism views that we currently have in our administration today?
ALBRIGHT: Thank you for asking that. And I think that what we have to figure out is how many of the issues that bring on authoritarian fascist leaders are created internally by the societies and the divisions that are created in our societies today, and what the political leaders in those countries do to either find common ground or to exacerbate the differences. That’s the major influence, obviously.
But I do think that there is a real tendency to give power to those leaders that want to do it anyway by America’s absence in things, and the kinds of statements that are coming out of the administration, and speeches such as the one that President Trump gave at the General Assembly last year, where he really talked about sovereignty and America first and all that. So it kind of gives leeway and permission to leaders in other countries to say that all they need to care about is themselves and not see a global community where we need to help each other. So I also do think that one of the problems is that we are not providing a very good example at the moment.
I mentioned that I was chairman of the board of the National Democratic Institute. And a couple of years ago, when we were doing things in Egypt where what we really try to do is help people with the nuts and bolts of democracy, I said to them it’s very important for you to form coalitions and to compromise. And one of the participants said, yeah, you mean like you guys? So the bottom line, we are not a good example, and so we give support to the kinds of leaders that are going in the wrong direction.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Indiana University School of Internal (sic) Studies.
FASKIANOS: Are you there?
OPERATOR: Hello, sir. Your line is open.
Q: Thank you, Secretary Albright. What role do you think international organizations such as the U.N. or NATO should play, if any, in, like, the reestablishment or reassertion of democracy on the global level?
ALBRIGHT: I do think that both organizations have a role to play in a different way. And let me also say the following thing, which is that what we’re looking at is a very different kind of era than was present at the end of the 20th century and even the first decade of the 21st. There is a real disorientation at this time about which organizations work at all, how they are supported, and how—what role the U.S. plays in them.
So I do think that the U.N., having been created after World War II in a way to try to obviate or mitigate the problems that led to the war and is set up in order to respect the opinions of mankind, that it has a very large role to play. I think in a very specific way in many ways some of the Sustainable Development Goals that do create societies in which people can—or supposed to—where people can prosper provide a good basis for the U.N. getting involved in things. And so I think that it can play a role.
NATO plays a role. I mean, NATO is the world’s most powerful military alliance, but it also, in—founding documents talk about the importance of being value-based in terms of democratic principles. So I do think they have a role to play.
And I believe in global—or international and regional organizations, and that they do have a role to play, and that what is important is how the members in both support each other’s views in terms of propagating those kinds of values.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next—
FASKIANOS: It would be great if the students could just identify themselves by name.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Florida. Your line is now open.
Q: Hello. This is Priya Geer from the Global Perspectives Office at the University of Central Florida.
What economic or political factors could prevent short-term instability from occurring during transitions into democracy and allow for lasting stability in a democracy?
ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that one of the things that I’m sure you all talk about in class is what comes first, political development or economic development. They clearly need to go together because I think that—I say this a lot—democracy has to deliver because people want to vote and eat. And so I think that there are times where there needs to be, obviously, emphasis on some of the political factors and making sure that elections are fair, that people are represented properly, that the institutional structures work, but also that as the countries progress that the people within them are able to have a decent economic life—that they’re able to live, support their families, and really hope for a better future—and that, in fact, there is a way that the system that is being set up is legal and appropriate in terms of how economic development takes place.
And then, also, I think, kind of adding to the last question about the role of international and regional organizations, many of those also dedicate themselves not only to political rights and human rights, but also to economic advantages and rights. And as I mentioned before, the Sustainable Development Goals have a lot to do in terms of getting rid of poverty and making sure that there’s opportunity economically for people to have decent lives.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Syracuse University.
Q: Hello. This is Adam Sawyer.
My question has to do with migration. People are on the move in huge waves due to economic migration or forced displacement. I guess could you comment on the relationship between global migration and authoritarianism?
ALBRIGHT: I do think that we are involved in a period where there are more millions of people moving around the world for different reasons. And I think that there is a distinction between refugees and immigrants, and those seeking asylum because they are under threat of certain kind and those who want to move in order to make a better life. And there are some legal definitions of all of that.
I do think that what we are seeing—we’re seeing a lot of both, frankly. But the ones that have more related to the authoritarianism aspect is that some of the people that are seeking asylum, the refugees, are doing so because they feel threatened in the countries where they’re—where they have been living by dictators who have decided that they, whoever they are, are a danger to their country and threatened them. There’s no question. They live under threat of being arrested or killed, and they have to leave.
I do think that it is directly related. If one looks, for instance, at what is going on, the huge number of refugees that are trying to get out of Syria, that is because of Bashar al-Assad, who is killing his own people. Or we have the same issue in terms of Libya and Gadhafi, who called his people cockroaches and wanted to kill them. And so—and certainly we have always seen the exodus of people that were afraid of what the Soviet Union was doing to people and arresting people. We’re seeing the same thing in Turkey, people now trying to leave Turkey because they feel threatened by Erdogan’s rule. So I do think there is a direct connection between authoritarian rule and the large number of people that want to leave their countries for political reasons because they can’t exist, they’re afraid of being killed.
And then, basically, the way I define fascism is that it is a division in society between those that are tribally connected to each other that the leader favors and does—at the expense of another group that does not have any rights. And what an authoritarian leader does is exacerbate that division even more. And so those people are—definitely feel that they can’t exist in the country, so it is definitely just tied to authoritarian rule.
I also do think, even in the issue of some of the immigrants who feel they could make a better life, some of that has to do in various places where one tribal group is more favored than another, where people of a particular tribe cannot make a living. So you can’t just flat-out say that it doesn’t have something to do, also, with the kind of leadership that is there.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Kenyon College.
Q: Hello. I’d like to thank you again, as others have, for holding this. It’s a wonderful opportunity.
My question goes to—
Q: Your name.
Q: Oh. My name is Philip Bray (ph). Excuse me.
My question deals with the level of—we talked about setting an example with the United States and the important role that economics play with regime formation and stability. And so my question really is, given the fact that illiberal regimes like China the world over are quickly racing to surpass the economic clout of liberal ones like the United States, to what extent is—despite his deep flaws and questionable commitment to democracy, to what extent is Donald Trump correct in his assessment that we need to take China on economically? And, if so, are tariffs the right way to do that, or not?
ALBRIGHT: Well, I think there are a number of concepts that you’ve raised. I do think there is the whole issue of the fact that China is the rising power that is out there challenging us, partially economically but also partially geographically and partially ideologically. And the Trump National Security Strategy and their defense strategy points out the threat that China and Russia really pose to the United States.
Then there is another part about what the Chinese are doing, and that is filling a vacuum that we are leaving because—or creating as a result of a Trump policy that is basically isolationist and American protectionist.
And so I think that there is also, then, a general question which we had all through the Cold War, is how do you deal with a major country that is standing up to us? Do you try to find areas where you can cooperate and areas where you have to compete? So that is something that is going on.
What is also happening, I think, is that the Chinese have—are highly nationalist also and are, in fact, in many ways referring back to their history, where they feel that they were disrespected in so many different ways by the West when they actually have an incredible history and culture when they were the Middle Kingdom and everybody revolved around them. So you have to keep that in mind as you think about this.
I think, though, that Trump, what he’s done is to kind of get himself very involved in a tit-for-tat policy in terms of tariffs and the economy without really thinking through the various parts of what needs to be done in an overall strategy with China in which we try to figure out where we’re going to have to compete and where we cooperate. I find that some of the things that China’s doing—you know, their One Belt, One Road—I’ve been saying that they must be getting very fat because the belt keeps getting larger and larger, and they are more and more interested in being in a variety of countries that are having economic problems of some kind and then being able to say we can help you in terms of building roads or putting in railroads. And in that way they are kind of advertising how much better their system is than ours when we don’t give assistance to countries.
So it’s a very large question, and I think that all of us need to be thinking through the various aspects of how we deal with a rising China. And, you know, how much of it—there are these discussions about the Thucydides Trap, that there’s always the rising power that challenges the status quo power. What do you do with a country with a population the size of China that is, in fact, energy-hungry and is reaching out to other places?
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Waubonsee Community College.
Q: Yes. Thank you, Madam Secretary.
Could you share with us—there is a famous video of you in North Korea when you were visiting, under Kim Jong-il. And you’re in a stadium, and the people in the audience make a placard flipping over of a missile kind of going into the air. And I was wondering what was going through your mind while you were witnessing that firsthand.
ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, I have to tell you that going there was one of the stranger experiences of my life. Mainly, we have no embassy there, and trying to figure out what was going to happen, period. You know, I sat in a guesthouse for a long time waiting to see what was going to happen and knowing full well that they were listening and taping everything that we did. And you guys probably know this, but they can tell by—or anybody can tell what you’re typing on a laptop by the strokes. And so any number of things.
And I was first asked to go and pay my respects to Kim Jong-il’s embalmed father, and then we actually had a—we had a press conference, which was something that looked like something out of the ’50s with the cameras and stuff, and then had a meeting. And we began to discuss the major issue, which was their—what the limits had to be on their missile systems. So then what happened is Kim Jong-il says to me, I have a surprise for you tonight. And I thought, I wonder what that is. So then you need to—at that stage Pyongyang was a city that was dark and lonely in many ways. And then we arrive at the stadium, where there were tens of thousands of people. And we walk in, and I always hate applause that is, you know, the same rhythm all the time. And there was an incredible gymnastics show. But, to get to the point, they were very good at those flip cards because they did have kind of the normal tableaus of the dear leader and the fields with tractors, but they were so good at them that they could, in fact, make it look as though the missile was taking off. And one of the missiles under discussion was something known as the Taepodong missile, and it was one of the things we were talking about.
So, first of all, I did think the show was incredible. But what happened at that time, Kim Jong-il, through an interpreter, said to me, look at the missile launch; that’s the last one. So he used it, in a way, to underline what the purpose of our talks was. I thought it was very interesting and, obviously, the planning and coordination that went into that.
I do have to tell you the following thing, however. We didn’t know a lot about what I was going to see in North Korea, and I have to admit that I take full responsibility for Dennis Rodman because the one thing that we did know was that Kim Jong-il loved basketball and Michael Jordan. And so I took over a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan, which is in their holy of holies.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Minnesota.
Q: This is Gus Beringer.
I was wondering, how quickly does a democratic state become an authoritarian state? And is the U.S. at risk of going through that process?
ALBRIGHT: I think one of the issues is—there are two ways of looking at it. I think that one needs to understand that democracy depends on respect for the institutions that are in a constitution or a set of laws, that it also depends on a population that understands that democracy can’t exist without the participation of the citizens; that it is not only our privilege to participate in our democracy, but also our responsibility. And when institutions are discredited unfairly or actually if there are those that don’t participate in them well, I mean, you know, I think I’m allowed to have my own views here, and I have believed that the freedom party, for instance, is a party that was elected to come to Washington to do nothing. And what one needs to do is to have people that understand that if you’re in a government that there needs to be plans of how to work on behalf of the people, that you’re a public servant. And so if the system is not respected and not supported by the leaders, then you can lose democracy fairly quickly.
The other part, though, is the other side of it, which is that building a new democracy is difficult. It takes time and sometimes people get impatient. And so I think that democracy is difficult, there’s no question, and, at various times, messy, but it is hard to build and easy to lose.
And so one of the things—I mentioned my early story of coming to the United States. And when we came here, my father said I hope Americans don’t take their democracy for granted, it’s fragile just generally everywhere. And so I have two contradictory things to say: Democracy is fragile, but also resilient. And so it takes the people to make sure that we build on the resiliency of it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from New York University.
Q: Thank you, Madam Secretary. My name is Zack Servis (ph).
You talked earlier about kind of our desires for scapegoats. And as a student, I can’t help but look at this as almost a new-era McCarthyism. What are your thoughts on this and how do you think it affects democracy?
ALBRIGHT: I think I am very concerned about what I’m seeing. And our new scapegoats in the U.S. now are immigrants and refugees. And the most recent thing that happened in terms of lowering the numbers of people that are allowed to come in as refugees is appalling and it is based on the fear factor that these are people that are potential terrorists or drug dealers or whatever. And so I do think that that is – it is a different kind of McCarthyism in terms of picking out one group of people to make us afraid of them and make us see them as the problem.
Now, there also are those who see them as taking our jobs away. And so it’s a combination of who are these people that are actually willing to do work that a lot of Americans are not, but I do think that the new kind of McCarthyism is about those people that want to come to our country either as refugees or immigrants or students. And I think that it’s very dangerous.
And let me just say, again to refer to my own life and my father, when we were in England during the war, people would come up to us and say we’re so sorry that your country has been taken over by a terrible dictator, you’re welcome here, what can we do to help you, and when are you going home? When we came to the United States after the communists took over, people would say we’re so sorry your country’s been taken over by a terrible system, you’re welcome here, what can we do to help you, and when will you become a citizen? And that’s what made America different from every other country. So now, the way that we are looking at those who want to come here as either a danger or a problem, I think, is very un-American.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Washington and Lee University.
Q: Hi, Secretary Albright. This is Julia Badovic (ph) from Washington and Lee University.
And my question is, do you believe that growing power rivalries and infiltrations of democracy between the U.S. and Russia, paired with an increase in authoritarianism in the U.S., could once again bring about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and displays of power as seen during the Cold War?
ALBRIGHT: Well, I think—just kind of generally in terms of our relationship with Russians and what they’re doing—just to put a little bit more of a context on it, I did grow up—by the way, I went to college sometime between the invention of the iPad and the discovery of fire. (Laughter.) And we spent an awful lot of time worrying about the Cold War, there was no question about that, and trying to figure out how dangerous, what were the problems, how did the rules of the road apply through a variety of attempts to develop agreements and treaties, and all the alphabet soup that went with that in terms of creating new organizations.
I do think that many of the—the SALT Treaty and then the START Treaty have been very important obviously in terms of being able to have agreements, treaties with the Soviet Union and then Russia that have lessened the problems of nuclear proliferation.
I think, though, to kind of attack the issue from your question, is that as we have differences with how the Russians see us and we see them and the kind of tools that the Russians are using, that also will, in some way probably, affect some of the rules and agreements that have been made generally on missile defense and on maybe are they living up to various parts of the INF Treaty in a number of different ways.
I see the problem, however, more in another area, and that is the whole issue of technology on cyber, what is known as asymmetric warfare, how the cyberthreat has evolved and where it’s going, and then also now the whole use of artificial intelligence and a lot of issues where there are no rules at the moment.
I mean, I think that we were, even during the Cold War, able to develop a set of rules about nuclear proliferation. What we don’t have are any kind of overall rules about these new asymmetrical threats and some of them that seem kind of benign, like propaganda, which actually is not benign and is undermining democracies in Central and Eastern Europe and trying to separate us from our allies and obviously interfering in our election process.
So while nuclear proliferation is a huge issue to do with North Korea and we need to have the Russians and Chinese as nuclear powers help us and be on our side, I think that—and especially your generation I hope focuses on this asymmetric and cyber warfare.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Linfield College.
Q: Hello. I’m Pedro Rosaros (ph) from Linfield College.
And I wanted to ask, in your book you make a very interesting discussion of the current Venezuelan regime, and I wanted to see, what’s your current take on the situation and what do you think is the best approach to move forward?
ALBRIGHT: Well, I am very worried about what is going on now. And let me just say, when I was secretary, I would go—and even before when I was at the U.N.—I would go to Caracas fairly frequently. And I had to say that I was kind of depressed by the tired old men that were running the country at that time that had no connection really with the people.
And so what was interesting was when Chavez first came into office you could see how that happened because he started talking about how to deal with the indigenous peoples and the idea that there could be a poor people’s fund created with the oil revenue. And he, by the way, he came to New York and he met with President Clinton and me and he really did seem to understand the needs of Venezuela in terms of how to help all the people. Then, of course, the power went to his head and he became just an outright dictator. And Maduro now is trying to follow in his footsteps.
And I think what’s going on in Venezuela is very dangerous. Obviously, there are huge numbers of migrants that are coming out of Venezuela. And I just had discussions with people, for instance from Colombia, that are talking about how many Venezuelans are coming into Colombia and Colombia has—so they are the migrants, and in El Salvador, et cetera, are in fact creating issues in the neighboring countries. So there really are very, very serious issues going on in Venezuela. There are opposition groups. The question is, can they become united and really try to figure out what to do? But it is very, very dangerous.
I think the U.S.—I don’t happen to be in favor of the use of force there, which is something that was one suggestion by the Trump administration, but I think it is a very dangerous situation, not just for the Venezuelans, but for the whole neighborhood. And so whether there can be more pressure put by the other countries on trying to push for some kind of a solution where Maduro realizes that he’s on a losing track and that the opposition can in fact have more power.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Troy University.
Q: Hello. This is Zachary Wells from Troy University.
As former secretary of state, how do you believe that the current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is doing in his current role?
ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, let me say it is one of the best jobs in the world. And I have to say I loved being secretary of state and having the chance to work for a president who read a lot and had a lot of ideas and liked to listen to his Cabinet members have discussions with each other and maybe even disagree. I think that the real problem at the moment for any secretary of state is that the State Department is being undercut by the system in terms of how little money it has.
Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with the budget system, but there’s no question that the Defense Department always has more money than the State Department. But you need money to have a State Department that functions, and the budget of the Defense Department at the moment is somehow around seven hundred billion and the budget for the State Department is somewhere just under fifty billion dollars, and that is higher than what the administration has proposed. And it took the Congress to plus-up the money. So Secretary Pompeo has the problem. And there was a hiring freeze at a certain point. So he has tried to kind of, as he put it, give more swagger to the State Department.
Secretary Tillerson, I think, was a disaster because he was only concerned about reorganizing the State Department and there were a lot of vacancies. And he might have been a great CEO, but he was not—his talent was not used or exerted at the State Department, so Secretary Pompeo has had to pick that up.
I think that I was impressed during his hearings that he talked about doing more for the State Department and also interested in democracy programs. I think he is trying to get some of the positions filled. I was very disappointed yesterday when he announced this cut in the number of refugees that could come in for resettlement. And I think that he’s got a very hard job.
He’s works—one of the things—the course that I teach is actually about decision-making. And I enjoy giving it a historical context also by saying we’re an old country and we know how to make decisions and there is a process. And I have watched it from the inside and the outside, and the problem is that it’s very difficult at the moment to sort out how decisions really are made. And therefore, we are making it difficult for our decisionmakers and making it dangerous for those allies that we have that rely on us and dangerous so that our adversaries—we’re keeping everybody off base.
And, you know, there’s this theory that you can—if you act a little crazy it’s a good idea in national security, not if you do it all the time. And so I think that it must be very, very difficult to be secretary of state for President Trump.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Brigham Young University.
Q: Hello. Can you hear me?
FASKIANOS: Yes, we can.
FASKIANOS: Go ahead.
Q: Perfect. My name is Chelsea Nielsen. I just want to echo first the thoughts of some of the other students and just say thank you for coming and speaking to us. It means a lot.
I was just wondering, we’ve talked about a lot of different things that we can do just as far as our generation maybe becoming more politically aware, understanding that it’s our responsibility, like you said, to participate in democracy. I guess I was just wondering, what gives you hope for our future? Do you believe that our generation can really turn the tide and foster better relationships with other countries and those around the world? And how can we do that? Sometimes we all feel really small, so just knowing what things we can do to really make those big differences would be wonderful.
ALBRIGHT: Well, I really do believe that your generation can make a difference, which is really why I had that Robert Frost quote. I am very impressed with my own students. I’m obviously very impressed by my own grandchildren. But I really do think that there is a huge role for all of you.
And I’ve loved listening to the names of the different universities and colleges, and the interest and the kinds of questions that you all are asking is, I think, very indicative of what your generation can do, that you have a sense of where or are asking where America is and then what the reaction to America is in a number of these different areas and what happens if the U.S. is not fulfilling its role.
I also think the following thing, which is that there are two things that I think are—there just needs to be much more activism in terms of participating and running and supporting and getting people thinking about it, but from a perspective of international relations, of foreign policy. One of the things that I think is very important is that your generation, that really a lot of whom have traveled a lot and had interaction with foreign students, understands how important networks and international relationships are and what you learn.
I also presume, because I’ve seen it at Georgetown, is that, basically, when people are international relations majors or poli-sci majors or whatever, it is a much broader discipline. When I was in college, I was a poli-sci major and I took a lot of history, but it was a huge deal to take econ, by the way. But now, there are many of you that are looking at health issues and trade issues and various aspects of science and see it as a much broader discipline, so that is very important.
I also do think that the question is how you will participate because I think that some of what happened in the last election was that people didn’t vote. And I think that it’s just essential that you see yourselves as active players. And it could be that my generation has screwed up and now it’s time for you guys to take over. But I have great faith in your capabilities and your knowledge.
I’m just, I have to say, blown away by my own students who have already done so many different things and are activists. And I believe in activism. And so I hope that you see your power and that you will use it for good and that you understand what democracy is about.
And to go back, I’m sure that many of you in your classes in political philosophy have talked about a social contract. People gave up their individual rights in order to be part of a society where there was a contract. The government would do what they needed to take care of the people and to provide safety and a variety and roads and education, but it was the responsibility of the citizens to be—to take—to fulfill—to take advantage of the privilege of a vote to really organize politically. So it is a contract. And what has concerned me is that the contract seems to have been broken in places, which then gives rise to these authoritarian leaders.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from the University of Southern California.
Q: Hello, Secretary Albright. Thank you for being here today. I’m Loleï Brenot.
And my question is, how do you think democracies should balance strongly voiced authoritarian opinions while maintaining the tenets of democracy?
ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that what has to happen first of all—to go back to the previous question in terms of understanding the responsibility for democracy and the role that people have to play—and to look at what are the things that lead towards autocracy.
The best quote in the book that I have comes from Mussolini who said, “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody will notice.” And so I’m afraid there’s a lot of feather plucking going on at the moment. And what we have to do is to call it out and to make clear that it is unacceptable for our leader to see himself above the law, to put down the role of various institutions, whether the judiciary or the press, and to act as if, you know, democracy, there are—there’s no room for other people’s views.
And the other part that I think—by the way, you know, we’re all aware now of the saying “see something, say something.” I have added to that “do something,” which kind of is the cover for all the things that I’ve suggested, including the last ones about getting all of you involved.
But one of them that is really hard—and I try to do this myself—is to talk to people that I disagree with. And I think the issue there is that I don’t actually like the word “tolerance” because that means put up with, I don’t think we just put up with. I think we need to respect the views of others and try to figure out where they’re coming from so that we can find common ground.
I think the problem that we have is that we haven’t totally mastered the whole news cycle and social media. And by the way, you cannot do what I did in order to tell you this, which is I’ve plagiarized a quote from Silicon Valley. This is purely plagiarized, but it answers questions very well: “People are talking to their governments on 21st-century technology, the governments listen to them on 20th-century technology and provide 19th-century responses, so there is not faith in institutions.”
And there are great advantages to technology and social media, but what they have done is disaggregate people’s voices. And I do believe in political parties as—one of the things I’ve talked about with my students is the Arab Spring, for instance. So take what happened in Egypt, social media mobilized people to go to Tahrir Square, and they each had listened to their own source of information. Then what happened actually, elections were held too soon; the Muslim Brotherhood was organized and the people in Tahrir Square were not and so they lost the election and things got very complicated. The Muslim Brotherhood took some terrible actions. There still was disorder in Tahrir Square.
And I made up this middle-aged guy that lived outside of Cairo that wanted to come in in order to open his stall in the marketplace, and it was a mess in Cairo and he said to hell with this, and he said I want order and all of a sudden they have a military government.
So I think it’s worth trying to figure out what the effect of social media is, what the effect is when political parties are not able to aggregate voices and find common ground and try to compromise and build coalitions, the nuts and bolts of democracy.
FASKIANOS: We’ll try and take in one last question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Great Valley High School.
Q: Hello, Madam Secretary. Thank you for speaking with us today.
So returning to the aspect of political institutions, for a lot of our history in the U.S. we had a relatively homogenous electorate. That’s not so much the case anymore; hence, the tribalism you noted earlier. Are our institutions and our voting system built to adapt to an electorate that votes against at times their own economic and political interests in favor of that tribalism as we’ve seen in recent elections?
ALBRIGHT: I think that part of the issue here is that there is not enough—it’s a complicated issue in terms of that we are all proud and should be of our backgrounds and our identity. And the thing that is a problem is if all politics really does become just identity politics without thinking about the larger whole and how we go together. I think America’s strength is our diversity. But the problem is that there’s this combination, legitimately, of making appeals to people on the basis of their interests or their ethnic background. But ultimately, it’s important to try to get a common view, to find common ground.
I think it’s also part of the problem is that there are the issue of gerrymandering and creating districts that are made up for reasons that are more political than what is—what is just and fair. Then there are the problems of keeping people away from voting, so there are many aspects of the whole process that become counterproductive.
And so I also do think—and this is very hard. We have a Constitution that has served this country very well. And various things were set up for reasons in the past. And I do think that one of the things that needs to be looked at is the Electoral College. It was something that was set up when there was great disparity among the states, and the question is how representative it really is. So there are various aspects about the way that our system works that need to be constantly looked at while still maintaining the basic principles of why this is a country and the Declaration of Independence, so this is where you call come in.
And I have to say, since I think I heard this was the last question, I am asked by many of my students whether they should have anything to do with this government and whether they should in fact go into the Foreign Service or go and work in governments, whether they are city or state governments, and I urge them to do so because nothing works in democracy if there is a—if the people have decided to sit it out, to normalize things. Democracy has to be active. It needs—it is about the people. And so I’m really delighted at the kinds of questions you all asked and the variety of places that you come from.
And by the way, you know, one of the things, I do give a lot of commencement speeches and I talk about what responsibilities your generation has, and then I basically say, you know, I’m not going to tell you how to behave, that’s your parents’ job. But the bottom line is I do think that you all are living in a very complicated era. You have seen some of the things that have been going on that I think many of you probably don’t like. And you can’t just kind of say this will go away. It won’t go away and worse things could happen if in fact you do not participate and decide that you’re going to either run for office yourself or support those that do. And it isn’t just a matter of coming to Washington, but really working in your local elections and being supportive and asking questions. I think in a democracy you need to have answers, but they should be based on the things that you all are interested in.
And I have been really interested and moved and inspired by the questions that you’ve asked because I think that I do have a—I hope you don’t feel like a captive audience, but it’s wonderful to have an opportunity to talk to so many young people and to answer your questions. But do participate. This is not normal what is going on here. People my age need you and we’re all counting on you to get involved, so fight, fight and get involved.
Thank you so much for your attention.
FASKIANOS: Secretary Albright, thank you so much for this wonderful hour and your inspirational talk. We really appreciate it.
Thank you all for your terrific questions. And we really apologize for not getting to them all. I think we had somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty more questions on the line, and we are out of time. So we will just have to have Madam Secretary back for part two at another point in the course of our semester.
Our next call will be on Wednesday, October 3, at 12 p.m. Eastern time. Reuben Brigety, dean of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and an adjunct senior fellow here at CFR, will talk about Africa’s strategic partners.
So thank you all for being with us. I hope you will follow CFR Campus on Twitter @CFR_Campus for information on CFR resources and upcoming events. And we look forward to having you continue to participate in this series.