Albright: Thank you.
Ignatius: Thank you ladies and gentlemen. It’s a pleasure—I want to say, a special pleasure to be here with Secretary Albright. As you know, she served as our secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. Before that, she was our U.N. ambassador. She served on the NSC staff. She served on the Foreign Relations Committee. She is now a professor, teaching and running her own company, traveling the world, and is somebody I always look forward to talking with about foreign policy.
She’s published a new book that we’re going to talk about in some detail called Fascism: A Warning. A bold title. Secretary Albright says towards the end of the book, “Some people might say this title is alarmist.” And then she says, “Good.” [LAUGHTER] Before turning to the subject matter of your book, Madam Secretary, I want to talk about what’s very much in the news and on our minds. A subject that you are really uniquely qualified to talk about, and that’s North Korea.
The audience will remember that Secretary Albright went to Pyongyang in October 2000 and met there with a then-leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il, the father of Kim Jong-un. And had a round of discussions with him about a deal that’s very much like the kind of deal that’s being discussed as President Trump prepares to go to his summit meeting on June 12th. So I want to ask Secretary Albright to begin by talking about that trip, and talking about the nature of negotiating with this regime, then and now.
Albright: Well, first of all, I’m delighted to be here, and with you, David, because I love reading your columns, and your books, and being friends. And so thank you very much and thank you all for coming.
I do think that it is a very difficult and peculiar regime to deal with. In the case of what happened during the Clinton administration, we had, in fact, been dealing with North Korea from the beginning of the administration because they had threatened to pull out of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and there were a number of aspects that we were trying to deal with. I won’t go through the story, but we were very involved in trying to figure out how to deal with North Korea.
And quite similarly to what is happening now, Kim Dae-jung, the president of South Korea, was somebody who wanted to have a relationship with North Korea. He developed something called the “Sunshine Policy.” So when I watch the kind of things that President Moon of South Korea is doing now, while not totally the same, it’s that same approach of, “We are one people, why can we not, in some way, work together?”
What had happened—and I think the thing that is essential to mention is how much preparation and how much time the Clinton administration had spent in trying to learn more about North Korea, and meeting with them a number of times at the United Nations and different ways. And yet, still, even then, it was very hard to figure out who they were and how to deal with them. What makes it interesting in terms of parallels at the moment, this all began, my visit to North Korea, with the number two guy, Vice Marshall Choe, coming to the United States in order to invite President Clinton. So the number two guy is here now talking to—
Ignatius: Being your successor, Mike Pompeo.
Albright: —Secretary Pompeo, trying to get ready for this summit. So what happened was that I first met him in the State Department. He looked very diplomatic. And then we went over the next day to the White House, and he was in full uniform, and he gave President Clinton a folder in which there was an invitation for President Clinton to go. And he said, “Well, maybe at some point I will go, but this has to be prepared, so I’m sending the secretary.” They weren’t real thrilled about that, but I obviously went.
I think the part though that needs to be stated very clearly, a year before that, or 18 months before that, President Clinton had asked former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry to do a complete review of our North Korea policy. And it deserved that because there was so much that had happened. And what happened was Bill Perry went ahead of me, several months, and said to them, “This is fork-in-the-road time. Either we will use force, or you can negotiate.” And they said, “We want to negotiate.” So there had been all that preparation.
So I go. We had no embassy there. So it was really hard to figure out how everything was going to work. We knew very little about Kim Jong-il. There was thing we did know. Dennis Rodman is all my fault because [LAUGHTER] we did know that they like basketball, and that Kim Jong-il liked Michael Jordan. So I took over a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan, which is in their holy of holies. [LAUGHTER] When you think about—
Ignatius: The idea of Madam Secretary carrying in her diplomatic pouch this signed basketball. It’s a great image.
Albright: But I think the thing that’s—
Ignatius: Did you brief Dennis Rodman before—
Albright: No. Nobody’s interested except you, hearing about what I had done. [LAUGHTER] But I do think that what is interesting is how smart and informed Kim Jong-il was. We had a lot of kind of back and forth about basketball, but then, basically, he wanted—he technically knew an awful lot of things. We were actually talking about missile limits at the time. He did not consult his experts. He really was able to talk about various aspects of the programs. And he spent a lot of time on it. It was very interesting.
He also could be very gracious. I mean, it was all kinds of dinners and all kinds of things. But I think that he was determined to make some progress. The problem was that we ran out of time. We were in the middle—we had begun negotiations on the missile limits, they were held in Kuala Lumpur, and the election of 2000 happened.
Ignatius: I want to ask you about the outcome and the lessons that you draw. But first, just ask the baseline question that I think most of us would want to ask President Trump. This seems to be a regime that tells us it’s ready to make peace, but in secret is doing things contrary to that. At the time that you went to Pyongyang in October 2000, it seems as if they were already at work on what we discovered, and told the world, was a program to highly enrich uranium on the way to building a bomb. Which it came out two years later, but the work had probably already begun.
I think that’s the gut question I’d ask you. After your time with them, do you think they’re a trustworthy counterpart in negotiations so that we could make a deal with them we’d actually feel this is a deal that will stick?
Albright: Well, I think the key word is “trust, trustworthy.” I think that this is why what one has to do is, if there is any agreement, it has to be verifiable. It’s interesting. You know, everybody quotes President Reagan, “Trust, but verify.” We can’t trust, frankly, so it really is verification. And that is one of the aspects of, I hope, as things go forward, that what is really detailed is what the verification process is going to be. Who will be the people that do the verifying? Will they have access to things? Because I think this agreement, whatever comes out of this, if something does, it cannot be based on trust because I think maybe it’s a different word in Korean.
But the bottom line is that it really has to be something that is verifiable in a way that we have developed in some other places. And there has to be some way where access is part of it, and where there are reports all of the time. Now, what’s interesting, when we left office, we did know that they had some fissile material, probably to make one or two bombs. They hadn’t made any. They did not have any ICBMs. And they didn’t have any nuclear weapons. And so time is something that has not worked very much to our advantage in terms of that, the kinds of things that have been developed under—well, obviously, on their way, even by the father, before the son took over.
So trustworthy, I think you raise a very important word. It can’t be based on trust. It has to be based on very deep and international verification. Plus, David, I think one of the words is “denuclearization.” We can’t even come to an agreement as to what the definition of that is. What are all the elements of it that have to be denuclearized? What is the schedule? Any number of very complex issues which would have been helped had there been a lot of thinking about this by this administration before agreements were made to have a presidential meeting.
Ignatius: I’ll just read briefly a passage from the book, but I’d urge that people, when they get Secretary Albright’s book, to look at her description of this North Korean diplomacy. “It is uncertain in hindsight,” she writes, “How real an opportunity was missed in the period around 2000,” the period we’ve just been talking about. “But there were reasons for our hopes.” And I think that’s really what you’re trying to make clear to us.
I want to close by just asking you if you would offer just brief advice for President Trump as he gets ready to leave for Singapore. When you went to Pyongyang, you’d had a lot more experience in international diplomacy. You’d been doing it for many, many years. I think reasonable people hope that President Trump will succeed, but he sure could use some advice [LAUGHTER] going into this. So I want to put that to you. If he was sitting in my seat, and he said, “Come on, Madeleine, really, tell me,” what would you tell him?
Albright: I’d tweet it probably. [LAUGHTER] Yeah. But let me say, what I think is that it would be important for him to understand who he’s really dealing with in terms of that—and if he’s any—Kim Jong-un like his father, I was surprised by how technically adept and smart he was. And so I think that President Trump has to understand that Kim Jong-un has spent his whole life studying this and understanding every single detail of their program, and all that.
Actually, even though we don’t know enough about, he’s dealing with a leader that knows what he’s talking about.
Ignatius: That sounds like a warning: don’t try to bluff this guy.
Albright: Yeah. I think absolutely. The other part that I think is really important is not to be extemporaneous. [LAUGHTER] I think—
Ignatius: Good luck.
Albright: Yeah. And I think that in any diplomatic talk, one of the discussion, what is really important is discipline. And every president, or all of us, frankly, when you go into these kinds of discussions, you’ve been briefed a lot by people. You have gone over talking points. You know how you want one discussion to lead. I can only tell you the kind of briefings that I would get whenever I went anywhere, what to expect that might be out of the ordinary, how you would respond to it, to be thoughtful about the answers you give. And to really know that you are either the secretary of state or the president of the United States, and therefore it has to be very disciplined in way about what you want.
I also hope that—I have advocated for diplomacy, especially when there were all the discussions about bombing and a variety of things. You always have to have that force tool in your toolkit, and not take it off the table. But I had argued for diplomacy, so I’m glad that they’re moving in that direction. But to recognize that it’s only the beginning of the story, and that he has to be—President Trump as to be very careful kind of not to declare victory, but to listen, and to be able to then move forward based on the understanding that a lot of detailed negotiations are going to have to take place, no matter what they decide there, to follow up.
Ignatius: Your successor, Mike Pompeo, is now center stage, meeting today, I think, in New York to explore the ground. I’m wondering whether he has reached out to you and other former secretaries of state as he begins his tenure, and if you can give us any of the flavor of what you might have said to him?
Albright: Well, first of all, I had met Mike Pompeo before when he was at the CIA, and I had been on something called the “CIA External Advisory Board,” which I’m no longer a member. But I had met him before at a social event. He did call me when he was named, and he said he’d reach out to me again, which he hasn’t. He’s been busy. I do think that—what I have to say, in listening to his hearings, I was encouraged by two things. One was that he said that he wanted to get the State Department kind of back in shape, and understood the importance of the State Department, and his interest in democracy.
So I haven’t heard from him, but I do think that he undoubtedly is more knowledgeable than most about what’s going on in North Korea given the fact that he had been director of the CIA.
Ignatius: Let’s turn to your book, Fascism: A Warning, with that striking title. The book is informed by Secretary Albright’s experience—I just want to say it directly—as an immigrant, as a person who as a young girl fled a Europe in flame from fascism, from Nazism. And maybe you could open our discussion of this book by sharing a little bit of that experience. You left Prague, the city where you were born, yes? And went to London and were in London during some of the awful days of the Blitz, and then came to America in 1948. And so I’d ask you, what was it like to leave a Prague that was under attack? What was it like to be in a London that was daily under attack? And then, what was it like to come to America?
Albright: Well, first of all, I was born in 1937, and in March ’39 was when the Nazis marched into Prague. I was a very smart two-year-old, but I don’t remember. [LAUGHTER] But what did happen was that my father was a Czechoslovak diplomat. And they managed, with me, to escape, and go to London where the government in exile was. So my father worked for the government in exile. We lived—Notting Hill Gate before it got to be fancy, and in a big apartment house that was filled with refugees.
What I do remember is spending every night in the cellar, you know, with everybody, after the air raid sirens had gone off. When I was working on another book, the previous one, Prague Winter, I went back to the apartment house and I actually was stupid enough to say, “Do you still have a cellar?” And they said, “Yes,” and went down. I had one of those moments where it still had the horrible green paint that I remembered from the war. And it was kind of a weird cellar. I remember my father, at some point, saying, “We’ve got to go down there, but it’s full of hot water pipes and gas pipes, so if we’re hit it won’t be so terrific.”
Anyway, we did come out in the morning, and I did see buildings destroyed. And then later, we moved out to the countryside to, to Walton-on-Thames, but I really did grow up during the Blitz. And I saw what had happened, and the bravery of the British people. So that had an incredible affect on me. We then went back after the war. We lived in Prague for a little while. And then my father was made ambassador to Yugoslavia. And so we moved there. My father didn’t want me going to school with communists, so I had a governess. And the little girl in the national costume that flowers at the airport, that’s what I did for a living. [LAUGHTER]
And so then what happened was that because I’d gotten ahead of myself, having a governess, and in Europe you have to be a certain age to get into the next level, they sent me to school in Switzerland, where they wouldn’t feed me unless I asked for it in French. So I learned French quickly. [LAUGHTER] And then the communists came and took over Czechoslovakia, and we had to leave again. A different form of fascism. And so that’s what I grew up with.
And we came to America and arrived on November 11th, 1948, Armistice Veteran’s Day. Then there was Thanksgiving, and this was my first real feeling that I had to do something different. We were singing. We gathered together to ask for—you know, and I heard somebody asking for God’s blessing, and I thought, “Who’s asking?” And then I realized I was asking, and from then on, I asked. [LAUGHTER] All I wanted to be was to be an American.
Then we moved to Denver. My father, at that stage, he had asked for political asylum. He defected. He asked for political asylum. And at that stage, the Rockefeller Foundation was finding jobs for Central European intellectuals or something. The found him a job at the University of Denver. They had no idea where Denver was. We started driving across America. My mother said, “They say Denver’s the Mile-High City, but we’re not going up, so maybe we’re going the wrong direction.” [LAUGHTER]
But the bottom line is we were refugees. In fact, at that stage, we were called “displaced persons,” and my father wrote a book about Mr. DP discovers America. What we really—I, especially, wanted to be an American teenager in every single way. But it wasn’t easy to fit in because, first of all, I had very ethnic parents. We kept eating the Czech food, and a lot of family solidarity. But the bottom line is that my whole desire was to have a normal American life. The thing about me though is my parents were remarkable in making that crazy story, the abnormal seem normal. And so going from place to place was something that I kind of grew up with.
I did not become an American citizen until I was at Wellesley, between my sophomore and junior year. And partially, I took us a long time to get our citizenship because we were here, we’re getting it during the McCarthy Era. And so there was a question about why had my father spent any time at all working for a coalition government where the deputy foreign minister was a communist. His assignment was, partially after being ambassador to Yugoslavia, on a new commission to deal with India and Pakistan over Kashmir. And then the coup happened. So for a period of time it was kind of—he reported to the British and the Americans, not to his own government.
But anyway, I became a citizen in ’58, ’56.
Ignatius: Let me just ask you, as somebody who came to America not simply as an immigrant, but as a refugee fleeing the war and chaos in Europe, what do you think when you hear President Trump use some of the language that he does about immigrants?
Albright: Well, I’m appalled, but let me just—something that my father used to say. When we were in England, he would say—people were very kind. They would come up and they’d say, “We’re so sorry your country’s been taken over by a terrible dictator. You’re welcome here. What can we do to help you, and when are you going home?” [LAUGHTER] When we came to the United States, people said, “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 my father said that is what made America different from every country.
And so, for me, when I see what is happening now, I consider it an outrage. This country is based on diversity, and people coming here and being proud to be Americans. One of the things that I love to do is do naturalization ceremonies. I can’t swear people in because I’m not an officer of the law, but I can give them their naturalization certificates. And the first time I did it was July 4th, 2000 at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. I figured since I had his job I could go and do that. [LAUGHTER]
I gave people their naturalization certificates, and all of a sudden, I hear this man saying, “Can you believe I’m a refugee and I just got my naturalization papers from the secretary of state?” And I went up to him and I said, “Can you believe a refugee is secretary of state?” And so when I think about what really people want to do, and contribute, and be a part of this country, the stunning number, recently, has been is we have deplored what, in fact, happened in Syria where people were destroyed with it or suffered from a chemical attack. The number of Syrians that have been able to come the United States is less than the number of people that were affected by that chemical weapon.
Really terrible in terms of—I have traveled around the United States a lot. We are a very large country. We have a lot of room. And I think people should be welcomed here, having been vetted in a number of different ways. But really, to be welcoming because that is what this country is based on. So I think it is un-American and appalling, what is happening.
And then the other thing is, we can’t tell other countries what to do if we aren’t showing some kind of leadership in this. One of the issues, as we get more into what I think is happening in Europe, a lot of it has to do with the fact that migrants, refugees are viewed—are not welcomed. And if we want to tell the Europeans to take more, how can we possibly do that if we are banning certain people? Some of them is very specifically against Muslims, and just generally, I think, un-American.
Ignatius: I want to invite the audience both here and watching this on livestream, if that’s available, to submit any questions that you’ve got to hashtag #SecuringTomorrow, and they will magically arrive on my iPad here, and we’ll try to look at some of them. So I want to take Secretary Albright through some parts of her book that I found especially interesting, sometimes upsetting. And I want to start with your basic description, because it’s hauntingly evocative of what we’ve been living through.
Your basic description of how fascism rose in Europe, in the 20th century, in the 1920s. And you write, “Fascism came into being early in the 20th century, a time of intellectual liveliness and resurgent nationalism, coupled with widespread disappointment at the failure of representative Parliaments to keep pace with the technology-driven Industrial Revolution.” That political dysfunction that Europe experienced sounds an awful lot like what we’ve been seeing. We’ve had a broken congressional system now for some time.
I’m wondering how you see the ground on which Hitler and Mussolini built? The ways it’s similar, the ways it’s different, but just how you’d assess that.
Albright: Well, I think that in doing the research for this book, I have to say that even though I knew a lot of the history, the echoes of what had happened in that period certainly came through loud and clear. I think that what is very similar is the fact that there were more and more divisions in societies between the haves and the have-nots. Something to do with employment, and the extent to which technology had made certain jobs more difficult, or fewer jobs. The other part, I think very much a disappointment by some people in terms of how various wars has been carried out, who were the victims in terms of the people that were coming back, that were not reintegrated into society.
I think also, in Europe specifically more than I think it’s happened here, is a lot of the governments were new. They had come into place after World War I. And they, in fact, were really not dealing with the issues particularly well because they were so complex in terms of the divisions in the society that were there. And then I think the fact there, all of a sudden, became leaders—this was true with Mussolini at the beginning—who exacerbated the divisions instead of trying to find common ground. And I think that is a similarity.
Something that applies now—and I have to admit that this is a purely plagiarized line that I stole from Silicon Valley—which is that people now are talking to their governments on 21st century technology. The governments are listening to them on 20th century technology, and providing 19th century responses. [LAUGHTER] And so there really is no faith in institutions. And I think that was one of the things that happened in the ’30s.
So, all of a sudden, some leader comes up who has fairly direct and simple slogans to say, “I will take care of you.” And there was this identification with nationalism or tribalism, and a way of excluding those that did not, in fact, fit into whatever image there was of that tribal, national group. So patriotism is one thing, but nationalism, hyper-nationalism is very dangerous. And that was basically how it started. A tribal group that was really elaborated on and promised more things, too, by this leader, who was a demagogue, at the exclusion of other people.
And then the part that I think goes a little bit back to the immigrant story, and then finding scapegoats—foreigners of various types—that were responsible for some of the problems, by taking away jobs or being seditious in some particular way.
Ignatius: Part of the mystery when we read this history is that Germany prided itself on being the most civilized country in Europe with its traditions of music, of philosophy, of science, just the level of distinction and cultivation. And what’s striking as you replay this story is the way in which Hitler, with his kind of ragtag band of followers and strutting, shouting style, broke through the barriers that most Germans probably thought were there. And there’s a passage in your book where you talk in particular about the German business establishment, and what it did. And I just want to read that passage, which, again, I found haunting.
“The country’s political establishment, big business, the military and the church, had initially dismissed the Nazis as a band of loudmouthed hooligans who would never attract wide support. Over time they saw value in the party as a bulwark against communism, but nothing more. They underestimated the man, Hitler, because of his lack of schooling, and were taken in by his attempts at charm. He was, to member of the old guard, clearly an amateur who was in over his head and unlikely to remain popular for long.”
There is a way in which elements of our business establishment have decided with all of the disruption, all of the loud and troubling comments that come out of this White House, to make, in effect, a tactical alliance. They like the tax plan; they like this and that. I’m wondering, when you’re with longtime Republican friends on Capitol Hill, who are people in a sense who hold the balance right now, in terms of how this story plays out, what do you tell them? And, do you ever reflect back on what happened with the German establishment in a similar situation, so long ago?
Albright: I think that what is interesting to me is that—and I do have Republican friends—is that they are in some ways hoping this will go away, and that there are certain advantages, because there is a difference, I think, between Democrats and Republicans about the role of government, generally, and so I think that there are certain that prefer not having a lot of regulations and government intrusion, and certainly like the new tax plan. And so, it’s kind of this’ll go away. And there are those that I think to a great extent are part of what I call normalizing what is going on, and of thinking we’ll get over this.
And I do think that what needs to happen more—and I kind of made up—you know, we all know the statement, “See something—say something.” I have added to that, “Do something.” And I do think that one can’t just kind of assume that because—I mean, what I find interesting—the unemployment rate is down, and the stock market seems to be booming. The bottom line is, actually, the unemployment rate was going down under President Obama—but the bottom is, there is this sense that economically things are not so bad. And especially if one forgets about how bad they are for other people.
And so, I think there is this kind of approach of, we’ll get over it—which I think makes me very nervous. And you were talking about Congress. I have spent a lot of time up there recently, and I keep telling them it’s Article I time—the first article of the Constitution is about the power of Congress, and we are about to have elections. And so, one of the things that I have on my to do list is for people that disagree with this to get involved. To either—I’m not saying this to the Republicans, but to others—to run for office, you know.
But I do think that part of what bothers me—and I’m not saying this just because I’m sitting at The Washington Post, but the disrespect for the press. Freedom of the press is a basic aspect of democracy, invented by Americans. And by talking about the press as the enemy of the people, it’s outrageous, and I think that’s where people, whatever party, have to start saying that is not normal, that cannot happen. Because if you go back to the ’30s, part of what did go on was just pure propaganda, and this amateur—Hitler—really being able to find some professionals like Goebbels, in order to use the media to enlarge his story, and then to build on this nationalist part.
What is interesting when you talk about intellectual Germans, a lot of them liked really very nationalist literature and music, and so, while being intellectuals, they were able then also to kind of integrate it into a picture that they wanted, that suited Hitler in terms of the grandeur of the German nation.
Ignatius: Another part of our democratic tradition, I would say, which you can see in almost all of our greatest presidents, is empathy, the ability to empathize with other people. That’s a striking quality in Abraham Lincoln; it’s visible even in President Washington; it was part of Harry Truman—a simple haberdasher—it was part of Eisenhower. Go down the list and you find even sometimes imperious personalities have that ability to see like through others’ eyes.
You and I on Friday were at Radcliffe for a ceremony that was really honoring Secretary Clinton, your successor at the State Department, and one of the themes that was most poignant in that discussion was her description of how she learned to be empathetic as a young woman. So, I say all that as a prelude to something, again, that just leaped out at me, talking about Hitler and what made Hitler so toxic, so different and dangerous. And you quote him, saying—in August 1939, when some of his generals weren’t sure about going to war, and Mussolini wasn’t sure that Italy was ready, and Hitler says, “Close your hearts to pity and do it, and move forward.”
Maybe you could just speak a little bit about that quality of empathy, and the ability to see the suffering of others and bring that into presidential leadership, and its importance.
Albright: Well, I think it’s an essential part of presidential leadership, or any leaders, to be able to understand what is going on with the people, and why, instead of what Hitler did and what Mussolini, in terms of identifying with those already that didn’t have any respect for those that were on the outside. And so it’s the opposite of empathy. By the way, I can’t resist saying this, because I’m chairman of the Truman Foundation, and I don’t know how many—you’ve been to Independence—and going to the house that Harry Truman came from and returned to after he was president doesn’t look exactly like “Margo Largo,” or whatever it’s called. [LAUGHTER]
Albright: And so—
Ignatius: I’ve been thrown out of Mar-a-Lago.
Albright: But I do think that there has to be some aspect of really understanding, and it goes to the very basis of this, David, which is the idea that this demagogic leader—Hitler, Mussolini, and the others I talk about in the book—identify themselves with a nationalist group that then has to close their hearts and their minds to anybody that isn’t the same, and make up about that they ultimately will be even more victorious if they stick with this leader and begin to believe a myth about what they can do, and then really denigrate everybody else, and exclude them in terms of any rights. It’s that division, I think, that is at the basis of fascist power.
Ignatius: We have a question that was sent to—again, the hashtag is #SecuringTomorrow—a question from a viewer on Twitter for Secretary Albright. Have you been in contact with Hillary Clinton lately? How is she doing? I happen to know that you have been in contact with her recently, because it was just last Friday, so maybe you could share your impressions of Secretary Clinton a year and a half after the—
Albright: Yeah. Well, it was great to see her. We stay in touch. We went to the same college—she’s 10 years younger than I am—
Ignatius: That would be Wellesley?
Albright: That would be Wellesley. And I, obviously, stay in touch with her. I think she is still—what is interesting, because I gave a talk there, and we talked in my introduction to her, that she’s clearly the better diplomat, because she started out her book title is What Happened, and mine is Fascism: A Warning.
But, I think in many ways she is trying to analyze what happened. And I think what she’s trying to do is to in many ways build on her own experiences, and has put together this Moving Forward Together movement, trying to really be as helpful as she can to the group that is being excluded, frankly. I think her instincts, as was evident from when I first met her, when she was head of the Children’s Defense Fund, is really to reach out to people.
I think she is sorry—there’s no question—about what happened. And I think she is still working through it. But, we talked about this. I think she had a very nice day with all of us last Saturday. But, it’s not simple, obviously.
Ignatius: This follows, at least in my mind, slightly from talking about Secretary Clinton, you write in your book about leaving Prague, leaving Czechoslovakia after the communists took over, and you say, “The story of the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia holds lessons that still need absorbing. Good guys don’t always win, especially when they’re divided and less determined than their adversaries.”
Would you just speak a little bit about that issue, that good guys don’t always win, and when they’re divided and don’t have that intensity and passion that the other side does, that they go down in defeat. That could be, some would argue, a capsule description of our 2016 election.
Albright: I think it is central to what we’re talking about, which is that democracy is obviously about a lot of different voices, and we respect the fact that people have different views, and there is a real value to discussing those different views. The problem that I saw, frankly, in Europe now—what has happened is that he opposition parties are all divided. They are busier disagreeing with each other than trying to form some kind of a coalition.
And one of the aspects that did happen and it’s happening in the United States now, I think, both political parties have extremes, and there are a lot of divisions. I do think that one of the things that has to happen is to find—to me, one of the issues it trying to find common ground, and compromise is not a four-letter word. So, the question is how, in fact, to elaborate on discussions and to find out what the differences are, and then try to find some common ground.
But it is very frustrating when you’ve got more problems trying to get your party together on some kind of a common line, and then let the opposition, those that are in the other party, pick you apart because there is opposition. And it’s very true in Europe, and to some extent it’s obviously true here. And so—but it’s very hard to say you all have to think exactly alike. So, the question is how to air the differences and then try to be pragmatic, and come together in some way that you’re not killing each other off.
Ignatius: There’s a very lively debate going on now in the Democratic Party between people who say we need to learn the lessons of the past and take a harder left position, to be as tough—I want to say ruthless, but that’s not quite the right word, but as tough in pushing our views as those on the right have been. And there’s another side in that debate that says we have to learn the lessons of the past, and we have to hold on tight to the broad center, where most Americans are, and not go to the extreme wings. In that debate, that’s going on in the party, where’s Madeleine Albright?
Albright: I am definitely a centrist. And I do think that it’s important to know what the views are, but I have found, my career plus my thinking has been to be a centrist. I would definitely, if I had to choose one direction or another, I would move towards the left, not towards the right. But I do think that it is important—the problem is, just the vocabulary, the middle way sounds kind of wimpy—but the bottom line—
Ignatius: Mushy, it is usually described.
Albright: Yeah. But I do think—I like to hear what the ideas are. I wish there were a sway to have-one of the things that I call for that’s on my to do list is how to talk with people that you disagree with. I don’t like the word tolerance because it’s from tolerate, put up with. I prefer respect. And I want to know what the left and the right have to say, but I’m also somebody that tries to bring people together and find that, as I said, compromise is necessary. A lot about democracy is compromise, but it has to be done on the basis of understanding what the position is, putting yourself into the other person’s shoes, and trying to find something where you can bring people together, because you lose. I think if you’re an extremist, wherever, you end up losing, and then also going further to an extreme than you had intended in the first place, I think, because you’re bound and determined to persuade somebody that they’re stupid and you’re not.
Ignatius: We’re now as a country among many other things struggling with an investigation of Russia’s attempts to manipulate our politics in 2016, through hacking, through what’s called weaponized information. And the person directing that is, by our intelligence community’s account, Russian president Vladimir Putin.
You have a passage in your book where you go to meet Putin in Moscow in 2000. He’s just come in as Russia’s president and you’re meeting him after the Yeltsin years, and flying home you write a little memo to yourself, and I’m going to read it, because it’s pretty riveting, and then ask you to explain what you meant by the language. You wrote: “Putting is small and pale, so cold as to be almost reptilian. He was in East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell and says he understands why it had to happen—a position built on walls and dividers couldn’t last—but he expected something to rise in its place, and nothing was proposed. The Soviets simply dropped everything and went away. He argued that a lot of problems could have been avoided, had they not made such a hasty exit. Putin is embarrassed by what happened to his country and determined to restore its greatness.” That’s writing in 2000, 18 years ago. So, tell us how that story is played out, and tell us how we should best deal with the person you described as so cold as to be almost reptilian.
Albright: Well, first of all, President Clinton and I first met Putin before that when he was kind of acting president. This was at an APEC meeting in New Zealand. And at that stage, Putin was trying to be very ingratiating, and trying to make new friends. He was still cold and reptilian. The issue about him is he is very smart. And in these meetings he did not have talking points and he took notes himself. He also is somebody—I have to describe this because they actually did kind of a jazz concert for President Clinton—and President Clinton’s jiving around and Putin is sitting there like this, no rhythm whatsoever—but the thing that is interesting is how smart and directed he was.
The think that I’d like to speak to more is something that happened before that. In ’91, when the Soviet Union had fallen apart, I was running a think tank and I was asked to participate in a big survey of all of Europe after the end of the Cold War. And we had questionnaires and focus groups and things like that. And the focus group I’ll never forget is one outside of Moscow where this man stands up and says, “I’m so embarrassed. We used to be a superpower and now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.” And what I think happened—not so difficult to really deduce this—is Putin identified himself with that person who felt that he dignity and the grandeur of Russia had been lost, and he is bound and determined to restore that in every single way.
And what he’s done is reinterpret history in order to say that we never respected Russia, that the expansion, everything that we were doing was opposed to Russia, and that it is his duty to bring everything back. The other part—and I’ve done a lot of reading about him in addition to meeting with him—he is a KGB agent. He knows how to—he has played a weak hand very, very well, and he is very good at propaganda. And when you control everything, he has weaponized information. His goal is not only to restore Russia, but to make sure that the United States’ position in Europe is undermined by having a separation of the other democracies from us. We can see the effect of that—Hungary is definitely the main exhibit on this.
But generally using information. And then, using information to get involved in our election process. He’s an expert at this kind of thing. But he is determined, and he has a goal, and he is smart, and we cannot underestimate him. He is playing, as I said, a weak hand very well.
Ignatius: So, what does your experience tell you about how the United States should deal with this ex-KGB officer—very risk tolerant willing to push right to the limits, and then past? What’s wise strategy is the word I want to choose in dealing with him?
Albright: Well, first of all, I do think that we need to—we can’t have an adversarial relationship. I think the art of diplomacy is trying to figure out where are the areas that we can cooperate, and where do we have to really stand up for what we believe in. And there are areas in which we should be cooperating—climate change; dealing with some terrorists that we agree are the real terrorists together—and then trying to figure out a number of different—how to deal with world health problems, any number of things that require multilateral cooperation. Nuclear proliferation, for one.
But them, really stand up for what we believe I, in terms of our values, and understand that while Putin is the leader, and we have a president, that there are bureaucracies under that, in terms of trying to figure out what the various relationships are. The think that makes this all complicated—we were asked at the end—by the way, I think it was a mistake for us to say we won the Cold War. They lost the Cold War. That is not just a semantic difference. The communist system failed.
But what has happened it, Putin has said is the greatest disaster of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I mean, given what happened in the 20th century, that would be a slight overstatement. And so, I think that we have to understand where he’s coming from and push back where we have to. And we have been asked to do something that had never been done before, which is how to devolve the power of our major adversary. And we’re still trying to kind of figure that out. But I do think that it’s terrible if we don’t stand up for our values, and if the President of the United States goes and stands next to a Polish leader that is trying to get rid of his judicial system, and praise him—that doesn’t exactly help our case. And so, we have to know what we believe in, and try to push back what the Russians are doing to undermine all those countries, and at the same time, find areas where we can cooperate. It’s not simple, but I think there needs to be a strategy.
What I actually think, the new defense strategy of the United States has now said that Russia and China are our major adversaries. I think that is a gift to Putin, because they are not the equivalent of China. China is really a power that is evolving in a very big way, and penetrating various places. The Russians aren’t there, but Putin was very happy to read that.
Ignatius: So, in this final question—because we’re approaching 10 o’clock—I want to ask you the central puzzle of this book, Fascism: A Warning, and I’ll quote something you write towards the end of the book. “Given that fascism tends to take hold in a step-by-step manner, rather than by making one giant leap, could it every proceed very far in America before being stopped? Is the United States immune to this melody, or susceptible?” You posed that question so directly, I want to ask you for your answer.
Albright: Well, first of all, the best quote in the book is from Mussolini, which is, “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time you don’t notice it.” We are plucking a chicken, and this is a warning, in terms of steps that I think are there that make me very—by the way, I do not say that Trump is a fascist. I think Trump is the most undemocratic president in modern American history, and I do think he does not respect the institutions and thinks he’s above the law, and does not, in fact, and uses the media in a variety of different ways.
I am concerned—my issue—I’m often asked if I’m an optimist or a pessimist. I’m an optimist who worries a lot, which is why I decided to write this book, because of the steps that are there. And, to go back to something that my father said when we came to the United States, he was worried about the fact that Americans took democracy for granted. And I think we can’t do that. And so, on my to do list is basically to worry about the fact of discriminating against one group, of the attack on the press, the lack of respect for other institutions. And I think that we have to—it is an alarmist book in that particular way.
I basically don’t think it can happen here, but I decided it was worth laying out what the steps are, what the chicken feathers, what they’re adding up to, and to try to figure out how we go back and strengthen our institutions, have people speak out. And there’s not a book or a speech that’s ever been given that doesn’t quote Robert Frost. So, Robert Frost said that the older he gets, his teachers are younger. And so now, it’s the high school students in so many ways that are out there wanting our institutions to work so that they don’t have to go to school with flak jackets on.
And so, I think we need to be supportive of those that want to make sure that our democracy works, that we can find common ground, that we don’t have leaders that exacerbate the differences, but are people that can bring us together. So, an optimist who worries a lot.
Ignatius: So, that is a superb answer. One question just came in on Twitter, and I’m going to ask it because we have a minute and 59 seconds left. This questioner says, “You have a famous collection of brooches and pins. You even wrote a book about them in which you said you use them as tools of democracy, of diplomacy.” And this person asked on Twitter, “What is the significance of the brooch that you’re wearing today?”
Albright: Well, it’s in your honor, David, because it is a writer’s pen, and I so admire what you write and what The Washington Post does, so I thought I would wear that. It’s one of my more pleasant pins, [LAUGHTER] and one that kinds of fits in with our Russian theme. When the Russians were bugging the State Department when I was secretary of state and we found the guy listening, and did what diplomats do, is demarche Moscow about not doing that—but the next time I met with the Russian foreign minister, I wore a huge bug, and he knew exactly what I was talking about. [LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE]
Ignatius: So, Madame Secretary, thank you for being with us. It’s been a wonderful conversation. The book, again, I really commend. I don’t put yellow post-it notes in all the books that I talk about here, but this one is a very powerful read. Thank you so much for joining us.
Albright: Thank you. Thank you all. Thank you very much. Thanks.