The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Madeleine Albright: ‘We are like the worst possible example of things. And it is hurting us.’

Madeleine Albright was the first female secretary of state for the United States.
Madeleine Albright was the first female secretary of state for the United States. (Lauren Bulbin/For The Washington Post)
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Madeleine Albright, 83, served in the Clinton administration as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and as the country’s first female secretary of state. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Her latest memoir, “Hell and Other Destinations,” was published earlier this year.

You allude in the title of your latest book to something you’ve said many times over the years, that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” You’ve gotten flak for it, been applauded for it. Can you talk about where that came from in your own experience, what you’re hoping to convey?

It was the single-most famous thing I ever said; it ended up on a Starbucks cup. So this is where the story comes from: I'm working on a PhD. My twins are between 1 and 2 years old. And other women would say to me, "Why aren't you at home with your children? Why are you in class?" And then, as the children got older: "Why aren't you in the carpool, waiting for your children?" "My hollandaise sauce is better than yours." And I thought: This is the problem, that women are very judgmental about each other; we're not supportive of each other. Another part I noticed was what I called the queen bee syndrome. You know, if there's only going to be one woman, then I'm going to be it, and I don't have room for you. I learned, in my own experience, that it was important to have more than one woman in the room. We need to support each other. And I think women have to learn to interrupt. Because, if you raise your hand, sometimes you don't get called on until it's not germane. And so when I went to teach, I told everybody — because it's a coed class — that nobody can raise their hand; everybody has to interrupt. Most of my classes were a bit of a zoo.

As somebody who has served as a diplomat at the highest level, how do you assess the state of civil discourse in our country today?

I think, at the moment, we have proof that it’s been a disaster. Having a leader pitting one group against another instead of trying to get a common answer. By the way, the book that I wrote just before this one was called “Fascism: A Warning.” The reason I decided to write it was because I was seeing the rise of authoritarian leaders in a variety of places in the world and was trying to figure out why that had happened. So I went back, and obviously looked at Mussolini and Hitler. Interestingly enough, both came to power constitutionally. Mussolini was an outsider who was a good speaker and a mobilizer. He took advantage of that by identifying himself with a group at the expense of another.

The best quote in the book was from Mussolini, who said, “If you pluck a chicken one feather at a time, nobody notices.” I was noticing an awful lot of feather-plucking going on. Obviously in some of the countries in Europe or Philippines or Venezuela, but also in the United States in terms of groups that were deliberately setting each other against each other. That has had something to do with discourse, obviously. And by the way, authoritarianism and fascism are not ideologies. They’re a process for taking power. A leader who identifies himself with one group at the expense of another [group] that then becomes a scapegoat, who thinks he’s above the law, criticizes the press, and is part of a group of other leaders like that who support each other.

It’s been two years since that book came out. Do you see democracy in this country being able to self-correct, or do you see a continued slide toward fascism?

Well, I do think that we have an opportunity, and it is the election, and it is also the kinds of things we've seen [recently]: peaceful demonstrations, people talking to each other, trying to look for solutions and listening. So I do see things. But it's going to take active desire to change, to self-correct.

If you were serving as secretary of state in this administration today, what would you advise the president to do? And what do you do when you disagree?

First of all, talk about a hypothetical! But anyway, I think we are in a precarious position in terms of America’s image in the world. Diplomacy is the major way that we talk to not just our friends, but those with whom we disagree. We either do it bilaterally or multilaterally, but it often does need the support of the economic tools, or even the threat of the use of force. And looking at what the threats and the opportunities are requires some kind of cooperation among the departments. The National Security Council organizes a meeting, called Principals, where the Cabinet members come in. A really good national security adviser will try to elicit what the differences are. I call it cracking the eggs. And then what you try to do is get some common understanding — make an omelet out of it and give it to the president. If you can’t do it in that setting, then you give the egg mess to the president. And you have this discussion in front of the president. And there is respect for the diversity of views.

I believe that what has happened at the moment is the secretary of state is not voicing how the State Department feels about things. He doesn’t seem to be disagreeing with the president. I really don’t know to what extent there are discussions where [Mike] Pompeo might say, “I have a different view, and you need to look at this.” I have no idea. But I think it’s [his] responsibility. And by the way, the secretary of state is the senior member of the Cabinet to voice those views and to understand that there’s some issues that have to be solved diplomatically. Which means you have to put yourself into the shoes of the country that you’re dealing with. And so there are any number of aspects that I would do differently. Also, you can’t do diplomacy without diplomats. You can’t denude the State Department of people that know how to do that.

Can you talk about instances, whether as secretary of state or ambassador to the United Nations, where you strongly disagreed with a policy or a decision, and how you handled it?

When I was a low-level staffer at the NSC back in the Carter administration, Cy Vance resigned over the hostage rescue mission. And when I went to his memorial service, the only thing that people really said about him was that he'd resigned. Which made you think, "Is that what you really would want to be remembered for?"

But I do think that you need to know how far something goes before you would resign. I, fortunately, didn't have that kind of a situation. I did voice concern about things that I disagreed with. But I was able, both at the U.N. and as secretary of state, of having the possibility of presenting my views to President Clinton. You have to know what you're talking about and be prepared to defend your point of view. But if the president disagrees with you and adopts another view, you either have to agree with it or then you do resign. But if it has gone through the decision-making process and you have been heard fairly, and you have lost the argument — and the other is not totally converse of what you believe — then people go along.

You’ve talked about the importance of establishing an [international] atrocities prevention board in the United States. With more evidence recently of the systemic violence against African Americans in the United States, unequal rates of incarceration, and increased vulnerability to covid-19, do you think there’s a case to be made that the United States needs to think about the treatment of some of its own people in that light?

Definitely. The situation has been so clarified in terms of the horror of the discrimination in this country and the racism that exists, and I think it needs to be examined — not just the history, but what is happening right now.

Then also — and this is the part that I just can't get out of my mind — there's no question that the virus has affected the African American community more than others. And that now, with the demonstrations, and everybody not practicing social distancing, it's going to go up again. And that same community is going to be affected. And unless we have a better way of dealing with the virus as well as the virus of racism — how is this going to work? So I think we are at a key moment. I can't even think of the word — depressed or horrified or stunned — about some of the language that's come out of the White House.

Seeing protests around the world in support of George Floyd, it seems that the United States has lost its moral standing in calling out the atrocities of other governments or regimes.

No question about it. And not that I, as a representative of the United States at various times, thought we were perfect. We weren’t. But we were talking about how we were dealing with the immigration issue and definitely about how minorities were treated with a recognition that we had work to do. But at the moment, we are like the worst possible example of things. And it is hurting us. One of the issues where this all comes up is what’s going on with Beijing and Hong Kong, for instance. Talking about human rights there, or how the Chinese treat the Uighurs, there are those who say, “How can you be telling us what to do given what you’re doing?”

There will be disagreements in every society. The point is to have discussions with people with whom you disagree, trying to respect what other people are talking about, why they believe what they do — some way to find a common answer.

So how would we do that today?

Spend time with people with whom you disagree, and not yell at each other. Set up groups to talk to each other, to try to figure out the basis of the disagreement. But — and I think this has been deliberate — Trump has decidedly taken on identifying with one group at the expense of another. It has exacerbated those differences and makes it harder to have respectful conversations, especially if you act as if the others are responsible for everything. So I think it’s harder. And with the virus and the racism, it is essential for people to talk to each other and to have an understanding of what others’ needs are. Empathy. Or we’re going to wake up and the chicken is going to be bald.

Can you talk about your finest moment in public service?

Well, I have to say, it never occurred to me that I would have the kind of positions that I had. One of the things I love to do is to give people their naturalization certificates. The first time I did it was July 4, 2000, at Monticello. I figured, since I had Thomas Jefferson's job, I could do that. And I gave this man his naturalization certificate, and he walks away, and he says, "Can you believe it? I'm a refugee, and I just got my naturalization certificate from the secretary of state." And I go up to him, and I say, "Can you believe that a refugee is secretary of state?"

How does it feel to have gone from having a massive microphone and bully pulpit to then being a private citizen and figuring out how to still be influential? Is it frustrating?

Well, I would have loved to have been secretary of state forever. I did have to be dragged out. But I think that what has motivated me in this part of my life is to use what I learned and to actually be able to speak out. And I haven't been frustrated until now. Mainly because I'm a total extrovert and I feel as though I'm under house arrest [due to the coronavirus pandemic]. So that's the part that's frustrating. I mean, I've done a lot of Zooming. But Zooming doesn't give you the kind of energy you get from being with people.

As you think about this stage of your life, and making the most of the time you have, is there something burning that you would like to see accomplished, that you would like to be a part of?

I would like to be a part of restoring America's reputation. Because I so believe in the importance of America being a partner in what is going on in the world. Watching what's been going on has been so stunning. I mean, the propaganda photo, or misusing religion, or misusing the military. There are an awful lot of things to point out now, and I'm not going to be quiet. Democracy is not a spectator sport. We need to participate. And the biggest thing now, which would deal with what's happening in the United States as well as our reputation abroad, is the election in November. So that's what I'm going to use my voice for now.

This interview has been edited and condensed. KK Ottesen is an author and regular contributor to the magazine. Twitter: @kkOttesen.