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Interview with Madeleine Albright

'I Am an Optimist Who Worries A Lot'

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, 81, is concerned about the possibility of a new rise of fascism in the world. But she remains confident in the strength of liberal democracy and its institutions.

Lexey Swall / DER SPIEGEL

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Interview by
Wednesday, 7/11/2018   02:41 PM

She could long-since have stopped working. At 81 years old, she can look back at a successful career in diplomacy, numerous books and a flourishing consulting firm. But Madeleine Albright is not the kind of person who can just disappear into retirement. She remains the Grande Dame of U.S. foreign policy, a career she began as UN ambassador in New York from 1997 to 2001 before becoming President Bill Clinton's secretary of state.

She focused on the Middle East conflict, the development of Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union and North Korea's nuclear program -- all issues that have not disappeared. Even today, she remains a keen observer of world events and takes a global view of trends and developments. The most important issue that is currently driving Albright is U.S. President Donald Trump, who has inflicted grave damaged to the trans-Atlantic relationship and has taken aim at the Western political order, an order that Albright helped create. In mid-July, her most recent book is appearing in German, the English title of which is "Fascism: A Warning."

She receives visitors in her office in Washington, D.C. In the corner is a stuffed tiger toy with a huge package of Toblerone chocolate on it, a gift from her students at Georgetown University. Albright points to a framed photo on the wall of an extract from the passenger list of the SS America, the ship on which she traveled to America from Europe following World War II.


Albright: You can see my name written over here, Marie Korbelova, 11 years old. Korbelova is my maiden name. I came to the U.S. on Nov. 11, 1948, on the SS America, together with my three siblings and my parents. Next to the passenger manifest you can see my commissions from former President Bill Clinton and the Medal of Freedom from ex-President Barack Obama. This is my life story if you will.

DER SPIEGEL: You were born in Prague, fled from the Nazis during World War II to London, and later escaped from communism to the U.S. How did this experience shape you in later life?

Albright: I saw what difference it makes when the United States is involved in global matters - and when not. The Munich Conference in 1938 is the watershed episode. It was an agreement made between the French and British with the Germans and Italians, without Czechoslovakia, and without the United States at the table. Hitler was allowed to take a part of Czechoslovakia. And when America came in, that made every difference. After 1945, as a result of the arrangements made during the war, Europe was divided into half and the country where I was born was behind the Iron Curtain for 40 years. So in my own case I can argue that when the U.S. is not involved then bad things happen. The U.S. needs to be a part of it.

DER SPIEGEL: If you look at the state of the West today, are you optimistic or pessimistic?

Albright: Well, I'm an optimist who worries a lot.

DER SPIEGEL: You write in your book that you fear a return to the international climate that prevailed in the 1920s and '30s. What do you mean by that?

Albright: When I wrote this book, I decided I needed to do something that was historical, not emotional. There are striking similarities between then and now that have to do with divisions in society, a sense that there are winners and losers in economic terms, and politicians that take advantage of these divisions. Instead of looking for common ground they do everything they can to exacerbate the divisions. I believe in patriotism, but I am concerned by nationalism. We've all benefitted from globalization, in many ways, but it also is a doubleedged sword, because people seem to have lost their identity, and a feeling of belonging.

DER SPIEGEL: The title of your book is "Fascism: A Warning." Isn't that a bit alarmist? Is there really a threat of falling back into fascism?

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Albright: It is supposed to be alarmist. But I specifically made clear that I don't think President Donald Trump is a fascist. He is antidemocratic; he does not respect democratic institutions like the free press, which he calls "enemies of the people." At the end of the book I say: If people think I'm sounding alarmist, it's because of the times we live in.

DER SPIEGEL: A majority of Americans thinks Trump isn't doing a good job, his core base represents only around a third of the electorate. Aren't you over-estimating the power of populists?

Albright: Better to over-estimate than assume all is well when it is not. The fact is that Trump's approval ratings are rising, not falling. Republican politicians are afraid to oppose him. Week by week, he is changing the nature of political debate, and we need to pay attention to that. I think the best quote in the book is from Mussolini: "If you pluck the chicken one feather at a time people won't notice."

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think democracy is fading as a grand idea?

Albright: No. And just because I see signs of fascism, it's not necessarily the same fascism as we witnessed during the 20th century. The Third Reich won't reappear. Democracy goes back to the ancient Greeks and there are various ways that democracy has been practiced throughout history. In the end, liberal democracy prevailed. "Compromise" is a good word, it's the element of democracy. But there are those leaders who operate on the basis of exacerbating divisions in society for their own advantage. By doing so, they're destroying the possibility of finding common ground.

DER SPIEGEL: Why do you think so many people mistrust their elected governments?

Albright: There's always this argument as to what comes first -- political development or economic development. Because people want to vote for their representatives and they want to eat. The bottom line is, democracy has to deliver. And there has been a sense, in some places, that democracy has not really effectively addressed this growing division between the rich and the poor. Citizens demand jobs, a working healthcare system, education. Populists offer seemingly easy solutions, they say "I've got an easy answer for you," and that's what we're watching now.

DER SPIEGEL: Your own Democratic Party is struggling to deal with politicians like Donald Trump. Why is this?

Albright: I believe the social contract that used to keep our societies together has broken. People gave up some of their individual rights in order to be protected by the state, and to have the state also provide a certain number of services to them. What has happened over the years is that neither side has kept its part of the bargain. The state has neglected its citizens, and the citizens evade taxes and are willing to be seduced by populists. I think now we have to figure out how to get the social contract back into some kind of genuine contract where both sides know what they're supposed to be doing. At the moment we are in that period where both the far-left and the far-right are taking advantage of the divisions and uncertainties to exacerbate them.

DER SPIEGEL: As secretary of state in the Clinton administration, you saw a fascist system from up close when you traveled to North Korea in 2000. You met Kim Jong Un's father and spoke with him for 12 hours. What did you learn in Pyongyang?

Albright: Well, first of all, we didn't know a lot, frankly, about that regime. I said repeatedly that the Kim dynasty really is one of fascists. What they developed there is, first of all, a narrative that they were being attacked by everybody in the world, and, therefore, they were able to use the propaganda to isolate and starve their people completely, while at the same time glorifying themselves. Kim Jong Il was smart, a fascinating character. He had kind of a colorful aspect to him in terms of wanting to be a movie director. He knew all about who won Oscars at the Academy Awards.

DER SPIEGEL: Kim Jong Il desperately wanted to meet President Clinton. Why did that never happen - contrary to the meeting between Trump and Kim?

Albright: President Clinton was deeply involved in the Middle East peace talks at the time. Ultimately, he wasn't successful, he ran out of time. But we had been dealing with North Korea over two presidential terms, between 1993 and 2000. Pyongyang threatened to leave the non-proliferation treaty, which they later did in fact. We negotiated a framework agreement to deal with North Korea's nuclear program; we had communication channels open on various levels. President Clinton said he would certainly travel to Pyongyang at some point.

DER SPIEGEL: Then George W. Bush was elected and included North Korea in the "axis of evil." Three years later, North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb.

Albright: But when we left office, there were no nuclear weapons. There was some fissile material -- we thought just enough to make one or two bombs -- and no ICBMs.

DER SPIEGEL: Kim Jong Un promised in the meeting with President Trump to end his nuclear program. Do you think North Korea is trustworthy?

Albright: There has to be an independent regime of verification, no matter what. We have to define "denuclearization" and what the parameters of the verification process should be. Which is why it's so crazy that President Trump tore apart the Iran nuclear deal, which has a very tough nuclear verification process.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you see a chance of rescuing the nuclear deal with Iran at all?

Albright: I hope it can be rescued. I've made very clear that I was supportive of the deal when it was negotiated, even though I knew that not everything could be dealt with all at once.

DER SPIEGEL: It didn't stop Iran from expanding its sphere of influence in the Middle East, though. Is Trump right when he says that we Europeans were naïve when it came to the intentions of Tehran?

Albright: I wouldn't say naïve. Iran is kind of putting its tentacles out in many directions, to Hamas in Palestine, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Yemen. There are some justified concerns about that. But us pulling out of the agreement makes dealing with the tentacles harder and more complicated.

DER SPIEGEL: The conflict surrounding the Iran agreement is not the only one between the Trump administration and Europe. Trump is waging a trade war against the EU. He speaks about friends as though they were enemies. Nothing seems to help to calm his anger down. Are we seeing the end of diplomacy?

Albright: No, I don't think so. We are all democratic countries, and just in the last days and weeks, some members of the House of Representatives and the Senate came forward to take action and limit the powers of the president in terms of some of the trade policies. We still do have checks and balances. But what worries me is that people will be deflected by those conflicts on the surface from actually trying to solve the underlying problems.

DER SPIEGEL: Trump attacks Germany and the German government on a regular basis. At the G-7 in Canada he reportedly threw Starbursts on Merkel's table and said: "Don't say I never gave you anything." What is a good strategy for dealing with a man like this?

Albright: Individual relationships at the top, between heads of state and government, obviously make a difference. But foreign policy shouldn't be based on personality. Even during the Cold War, there were people who really did talk about the fact that it was important to have relationships with the Soviet Union at other levels. The world is in disarray, but I think that there are mechanisms which help to foster a variety of discussions on a technical and diplomatic level.

DER SPIEGEL: But what can you do with a president who has such contempt for international institutions like the World Trade Organization or NATO?

Albright: Many people still believe U.S. foreign policy comes in fouryear segments. But it doesn't. We've had 70 years of good relations with Europe, not always exactly similar. We've had many highs and lows, and that's the way to look at the current administration. Under this president, trans-Atlantic relations are going through a difficult period, but I don't think we should give up on it. It will persist.

DER SPIEGEL: President Trump demands more commitment and more contributions from his European allies, while at the same time, he is cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Do you fear NATO is losing its relevance for European security?

Albright: Despite recent controversy, NATO remains the world's most potent and versatile institution of its type. Every Alliance member has agreed, in the past, to devote at least 2 percent of its GDP to defense spending. In urging support for this standard, President Trump is merely echoing past U.S. presidents, as well as NATO leaders. There is also nothing remarkable about American or European heads of government meeting with the president of Russia. It is vital, however, that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic reaffirm their commitment to a cooperative and productive partnership. The alliance is only as strong as the bonds of friendship and trust that exists between and among its members.

DER SPIEGEL: European security and stability are being challenged on multiple fronts -- by Russia, by immigration, by the war in Syria; the list could go on. Is there a role for NATO in this scenario at all?

Albright: NATO's revised doctrine seeks to defend member states from security threats that are both direct and indirect, new and old. NATO has a clear role, therefore, in safeguarding members from potential aggression by Russia and in containing the threat posed by cyberattacks and international terrorism. However, as a military alliance, NATO does not infringe on civilian policy matters -- such as immigration -- that are rightfully the concern of national governments and the EU.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think that the relationship between Trump and Putin is a danger for Europe?

Albright: I expect that, during the NATO summit in Brussels, President Trump and alliance leaders will have time to discuss a coordinated approach to various topics related to Russia. My hope is that they will agree to continue supporting the sovereignty of Ukraine, a negotiated end to the war in Syria, and opposition to Russian-sponsored interference in democratic elections.

DER SPIEGEL: You are friends with former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who says that we can't take the trans-Atlantic alliance for granted anymore. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says we can no longer rely on America. Aren't those signs that the trans-Atlantic relationship is already imploding?

Albright: The worst thing would be to give up now, wouldn't it? Joschka Fischer is one of my dearest friends and I admire him tremendously. It doesn't hurt to put out a warning of that kind, just the way my book is a warning, because I think that people need to be aware of the discontinuity and what is going on. But what is going on right now will not be solved by saying: "It's all over." The European Union, too, has internal issues, for example how Hungary and Poland are behaving, and what structures can be used to deal with that. Many Europeans were upset when Obama said that we were going to pivot to Asia, and I would say regularly, the U.S. is not monogamous. We are an Atlantic and a Pacific power.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you concerned that Trump insults even his closest allies like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, whom he called "very dishonest and weak?"

Albright: This can't possibly help. I was very distressed by that. I have never seen behavior like that from an American president. I was taking part in a conference at the time, which was run by Lloyd Axworthy, the former Foreign Minister of Canada. I was wearing a pin with a maple leaf on it -- the Canadian flag. For me, the Canadians are the best international citizens that exist. They have participated in peacekeeping operations, had done tremendous work at the International Criminal Court, fought against land mines, all kinds of things. They are remarkable, and the best allies. We have a 3,000mile border with them, and so I'm hoping that this will get worked out.

DER SPIEGEL: The whole situation seems to be getting more difficult and complex every day, and yet you don't seem fearful or desperate.

Albright: The world is in chaos, but from the perspective of a political scientist, it's a very interesting time. Western institutions, just like people at the age of 70, need a little refurbishing. Perhaps the time is now. What we need is the best minds to try to solve 21st century problems.

DER SPIEGEL: But do we have enough time left, considering the deterioration of the transAtlantic alliance and a rising China that is becoming ever more powerful?

Albright: I think it just requires all of our attention.

DER SPIEGEL: Will Trump be re-elected in 2020?

Albright: I know what I hope, but I have no idea.

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