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6 May 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 2:39pm

Madeleine Albright: “The US cannot solve the crisis by itself”

The former US secretary of state and ambassador to the UN on pandemic multilateralism, Iran, and American decline under Trump.

By Emily Tamkin

A US ship containing a humanitarian package on its way to Venezuela is captured by the Venezuelan military. Policymakers have to act quickly; can they forge an opportunity out of crisis?

This was the invented scenario that Madeleine Albright’s students at Georgetown University in Washington, DC recently staged over Zoom. “Given the circumstances, I said they were doing something new and revolutionary,” Albright told me over the phone.

Between 1993 and 1997 Albright served as Bill Clinton’s US ambassador to the United Nations, and was then secretary of state until 2001. But it is her career since then – founding a global strategy consulting firm, sitting on the advisory board of the New York Stock Exchange, and inventing crisis scenarios for undergraduates – that is the subject of her latest book, Hell and Other Destinations: A 21st-Century Memoir. The title comes from Albright’s most famous line, “There’s a special place in Hell for women who don’t help other women.”

Albright mentioned Venezuela after I raised the issue of sanctions. In 1996 CBS anchor Lesley Stahl asked Albright whether the death of half a million children in Iraq as a result of US-led sanctions was worth it. “I think this is a very hard choice,” she answered, “but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”

“Better I had cut out my tongue,” Albright writes in the book, noting that she has apologised “a thousand times” and citing discrepancies in the numbers of those who reportedly had died. I didn’t ask her to apologise again. But I did want to know what she thought about Donald Trump’s use of sanctions, particularly on Iran.

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“I think that there is value in sanctions because it’s about changing the behaviour of the sanctioned country. But what we’ve discovered is that [as a tool] they are more complicated to use than one thinks because they affect the country that is doing the sanctioning as well as neighbour states… I’m sorry, I do sound like Professor Albright.”

Albright offered another caveat beyond unexpected complications. Although the US publicly withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) in 2018, it still claims to be a party to the deal under the auspices of the United Nations to reimpose multilateral sanctions on Iran. “The United States is acting in a way that’s very hard to follow internationally. What is it we want? You can’t be unpredictable all the time, and that has made it hard for others to figure out what we want. And if sanctions – removing sanctions or enforcing them – are going to work, it’s better if they are multilateral.”

The emphasis on multilateralism is especially pertinent in the middle of a global pandemic. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Albright said that a renewed appreciation for multilateral relations between states could be one good thing to emerge out of the crisis. But is that actually happening? Is the opportunity to forge global alliances in the pursuit of common endeavours being grasped or lost?

“It is being grasped by those who understand the international system, but not particularly by the US or by some of the other countries that are more concerned about themselves than about how to solve the problem that knows no borders,” she said. “No matter how powerful the US is, there is no way that we can solve this crisis by ourselves.”

Albright was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937. She was secretary of state when the Czech Republic joined Nato in 1999, and she could be considered a living testament to the hegemonic role the US once played in the world. But with American supremacy being challenged from without by China, and undermined from within by Trump’s doctrine of “America First”, is the US now a declining power?

“I think it is overstating the Trump administration,” she said, adding that the US’s natural role is not to dominate. When Clinton and Albright helmed US foreign policy and talked about the US being indispensable, they did not mean acting alone. “I still believe in the importance of partnerships. For the US to be Awol is so counterproductive and destructive to our own people and [to solving] the problems of the 21st century.”

I asked Albright about one of the more curious episodes in her book: the moment when Mike Pompeo, then director of the CIA, fired her from the agency’s external advisory board in 2017. What did she think about that? Albright said that, as director, Pompeo had every right to do it. But what has surprised her is the lack of communication she’s had with Pompeo since he became secretary of state in 2018.

“I spent a lot of time talking to my predecessors, James Baker and George Shultz, and then with my successors Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.” All four served in Republican administrations. “I believe in kind of seeing things in a bipartisan way.”

Albright has made cameo appearances on Madam Secretary, a US television series about a fictional female secretary of state. The last time she appeared on the show, she did so alongside Powell and Hillary Clinton. The premise of the episode was that they had been called in to offer counsel to the fictional secretary. “And everything was scripted. But I managed to get a line in when I said, ‘Isn’t it great when the current secretary of state calls her predecessors to consult?’”

The directors left it in.

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This article appears in the 06 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Remaking Britain