Past, Present and Future: Five Minutes with Madeleine Albright by Kenneth Anderson

Interview by Kenneth Anderson (14 November 2011). On November 14th former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sat down with one of her Georgetown students to discuss a difficult decision from her past, current policy challenges facing the United States, and possibilities for the future of America’s relationship with China. GJIA: Please describe a difficult decision you made as Secretary of State. What factors made it difficult, how did you weigh the decision, and how do you feel about it in retrospect?

MA: Well the biggest one for me is Kosovo. If we want to go through the factors objectively, they were in a position that included the falling apart of Yugoslavia, the area’s volatile ethnic composition, and the genocidal ethnic cleansing that was going on. Then from an American values perspective—was it in our national interest to do something when people were being killed for who they are, not for anything they’ve done? It was a difficult decision, and I had to argue within the US government. As you know the State Department doesn’t have any airplanes, so it really was a matter of working within the Principals Committee to try and make very clear what the stakes were, and why do it. There was this sense among the military brass of “Who does this woman think she is?”

The initial decision of going in was difficult, and all throughout it was difficult. In addition to the internal discussion, there was the external discussion of how to get NATO to act after the Russians told me they would veto anything in the UN. And thereafter, how to move that whole process forward. That’s how I got to be friends with all these foreign ministers – and still am today – because we talked on the phone every single day.

It was an interesting decision-making process both on a US bureaucratic level and an international level. Dealing with the aftermath is truly the hard part. Issues that crop up that you don’t expect always present a challenge.

Did it turn out right? I think it did turn out right. But there’s a lesson to it. And that is: it wasn’t just the military action that was important. I think that the US and the international community should have paid attention longer to what was happening both in Kosovo and in Bosnia. The lesson is that these things all take a very long time, and that it isn’t just the military part, but also the post-military part that matters. The bottom line is trying to figure out what happens in a country after the military campaign - how can one help without imposing our system on them, trying to figure out, through the international system, how to help them rebuild – this is all key.

GJIA: If you were preparing to assume the U.S. Presidency in 2012, what would your priorities be, and how might they differ from those of the current administration?

MA:    The truth is that our economic situation is an issue of national interest. Our debt is a huge liability in terms of our national security, and we have to deal with that. My priorities would be, beyond that, in many ways the same as what I wrote about in my Memo to the President book in 2008: to fight terrorism without creating more terrorists; to deal with the issue of nuclear proliferation- very specifically to take a look at what’s happening in Iran and North Korea; and more generally to be concerned with and follow on to New START, forming a plan to deal with missile defense and the issues that arise from that.

Then I think there has to be a way to deal with the energy and environmental issues in a more productive way. And to try to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, not only in this country, but abroad. But the economic and financial crisis is something that has to be the big priority because it is damaging to us both at home and abroad.

GJIA: Based on your experience, both in office and from what you’ve observed in recent trips to the country, what do you believe is the likely future of the US relationship with China?

MA:    It’s hard to predict. President Obama is looking for partners, for countries we can work with. There are discussions about the Chinese helping the Europeans out of their debt crisis. We’d like to see China not only as a global power but as a power that actually takes responsibility and isn’t a free rider in the international system.

On the other hand, there continue to be issues such as the South China Sea. Secretary Clinton has suggested that there is a multilateral solution, rather than the Chinese unilaterally deciding that they have access to the sea and the islands and arguing with Vietnam and the Philippines. I was just in Beijing for the third high-level dialogue between a bipartisan US delegation and the International Department of the Communist Party of China, and as a result of those discussions, I got the sense that there are actually a number of issues where we can see commonalities. For example, trying to deal with global problems related to the environment and energy.

It is one of those very fluid relationships that depend on who’s in power, and we’re going to see how that works with the transition in power in China this next year, coupled with the fact that we have an election going on at home at the same time. In every election that I’ve seen the challenger tries to portray China in the worst possible way, and we’re already seeing that China-bashing going on. So it is a peculiar year to look at it all. The future of our relationship is still very uncertain, and this can be seen as a threat or an opportunity- or treated as both.

Madeleine K. Albright served as the first female US Secretary of State under President Clinton from 1997 to 2001. Prior to this she served as the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997. Dr. Albright is currently a Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, and Chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm. She chairs both the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project and serves as president of the Truman Scholarship Foundation.