Does Madeleine Albright wish she were still in charge of U.S. foreign policy? Maybe, but she certainly doesn’t envy the complex series of global challenges facing today’s crop of leaders.
Reflecting on her own storied diplomatic career, the former U.S. secretary of state argued that the Cold War and its immediate aftermath was in many ways a much simpler time. At least you knew who you were dealing with – and where the biggest threats were coming from.
“The problems today are more complicated than they’ve ever been,” Ms. Albright said at a dinner Thursday night hosted by Handelsblatt Global Edition and the American Council on Germany in New York. “The hardest part today is trying to figure out who the enemy is.”
Her comments were part of a 90-minute discussion together with Germany’s former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg. Both former politicians took the time to offer an honest and at times playful reflection on their days in the halls of power – and called on today’s policymakers to do a better job of challenging populism and managing the many global challenges.
Ms. Albright, once the chief U.S. diplomat under President Bill Clinton, recounted why she famously wore custom-made pins that would reflect her mood or discussion topics with leaders of the day: It came about as a defiant statement after Iraqi papers labeled her a “serpent” in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. She began wearing a snake pin in response during her future dealings with Iraqi ministers.
For his part Mr. zu Guttenberg, who was forced to resign as German defense minister in 2011 after he was stripped of his doctorate over plagiarism, sounded remorseful of his checkered past, describing himself simply as a “jerk” in 2011 and joking of his clean and coiffed appearance during his days as a rising star of German politics. He cringed looking at a picture of himself in a tight-fitting suit standing among German soldiers in Afghanistan, saying he “probably shouldn’t have stood before them in that suit, with so much gel in my hair.”
But there were also more serious lessons offered from the past. Ms. Albright, recounting her first experiences of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he began as a policymaker who “was very ingratiating” to other world leaders. That may since have changed as Mr. Putin’s power and confidence as Russia’s leader has grown, but he remains a smart man and master tactician.
What does Mr. Putin want? To restore a “grand Russia,” she argued, and warned that he has been achieving some success despite Russia’s own dwindling power base: “He has been playing a weak hand very well,” she said.
Ms. Albright, who has been campaigning for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over the past few months, suggested she was deeply worried that the U.S. political establishment has lost touch with the voters on issues like immigration and globalization. She called for the United States to become to a more welcoming society again.
“We need to see refugees as an asset, not as a liability,” she said, arguing the United States should take in more refugees from abroad.
“I’ve flown over the United States a number of times. It’s a large country. We have a lot of room,” she quipped.
Mr. zu Guttenberg argued that the rise of populism in the United States was not so different from what has been striking Europe over the last few months and years. He suggested that the only hope might be that bringing some populist leaders near the halls of power could serve as a “cathartic element” that forces the establishment into a change of course.
Despite the populist unease, the former defense minister also argued that Europe needs to stand for what it believes in and continue to push for continental solutions.
“Even in an environment of dramatic de-solidarization….the effort to seek a European solution is correct,” he said.