Santa Clara University


God and Diplomacy

An Interview with Madeleine Albright

By Steven Boyd Saum

In May 2006, Madeleine Albright was in Santa Clara to speak to The Commonwealth Club / Silicon Valley. Santa Clara Magazine managing editor Steven Boyd Saum sat down with her to discuss religion and politics, history and diplomacy—and Czech dumplings.

Turn back the clock to May 1997, five months after Madeleine Korbel Albright had assumed office as U.S. Secretary of State. She stood before the graduating class of Mt. Holyoke College and assessed the world, which beckoned the young women assembled before her:


America has arrived at the threshold of a new century strong, respected, prosperous, and with no single powerful enemy against whom we must lock our gates.

Hitler is dead. Stalin is dead. Lenin is dead. And the only Marx that still matters is on late-night television shooting elephants in their pajamas.

The temptation is to coast. To sit back, avert our eyes, and assume that what does not affect us immediately will not affect us ever.

Madeleine Albright
Madeleine Albright
Photos: Paul Eric Felder for The Commonwealth Club

It would be more than 14 months before bombings at U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania would explode across the conscience of a nation, and the world. And it would be more than four years before the perfect blue sky of a September morning would be rent by pillars of smoke rising from toppled towers in New York, from a charred building on the banks of the Potomac, and from a Pennsylvania field. With the horrific, irrefutable reminder that averting our eyes was no longer an option. And as Albright has acknowledged of late, there remain new lessons to be learned, as well.

Note to myself: Learn more about Islam

When former Secretary of State Albright was sitting down to write her memoirs, she found that she had scribbled in the margins of official minutes, or in notes that she had taken herself during meetings, a personal reminder: “Learn more about Islam.”

In the years since she left office as secretary of state in 2001, learning more about Islam, and understanding the role of religion in international relations, is one of the tasks Albright has set for herself. A fruit of that labor is the volume The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs. Albright was in Santa Clara recently to address The Commonwealth Club / Silicon Valley, and during her visit, I had the chance to sit down with her to talk about politics and religion, Tomáš Masaryk and Nikita Khrushchev, and dumplings and stewed cabbage. (As for the last pairing: she is, after all, Czech.)

Her Czech birth also means that, while representing the United States of America as ambassador to the United Nations during the first Clinton administration, or as its diplomat-in-chief during Clinton’s second term, she informed reporters, “Munich is my mindset.” Munich has been invoked incessantly in American foreign policy since the end of World War II, generally as a synonym for “appeasement,” and as a reminder of the dangers of showing weakness in the face of aggression. Though for Czechs, there’s a little more to it than that. They weren’t the ones who signed the pact; that was the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Germany.

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is,” Neville Chamberlain said in 1938, “that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Chamberlain was, of course, speaking of Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the “quarrel” over the Sudetenland—about as far from London as New York is from Chicago, and the consequences would soon enough include the dismemberment of the 20-year-old nation of Czechoslovakia.

Reading, ’riting, ’rithmetic, and religion

Albright makes the case that a secretary of state has economic advisors; no one would argue the merits of understanding how the drumbeat of jobs and trade set the rhythm of the diplomatic dance. In addition to understanding that it’s the economy, stupid, she has called for diplomats to receive better training in understanding religion, and for diplomats to have religious advisors.

After his career in the Czechoslovak diplomatic service, Albright’s father, Josef Korbel, taught at a Jesuit university, the University of Denver, where he founded the university Graduate School of International Studies—and counted among his students a one-time music major and aspiring concert pianist named Condoleezza Rice. Madeleine Albright teaches at a Jesuit university, as well. But we don’t wait until graduate school to begin teaching civics. So in addition to talking about needing to reform the training of diplomats and bureaucrats, in terms of understanding religion, I asked how Albright would say the education system reaching further down needs to be affected.

“I teach at Georgetown,” she says. “There is a lot of religious education, and more people major in religion and study religion, even if they are in the school of foreign service. But there needs to be much more study of religion. The question is how to do that without making it seem to end the separation [between church and state]. And I think that it needs to happen in high school. We need to broaden the basis of what we study so that we have a better understanding of religion.”

Which sounds very straightforward. But I took us back to the notion she’s raised of having religious advisors. Especially under the current Bush administration, one can’t help but wonder that there would be fairly widespread suspicion that ramping up the role of religion in informing diplomatic work is in fact an attempt to give foreign policy an ideological seal of approval by the Christian Right.

Madeleine Albright

“I imagine there would be that suspicion,” Albright acknowledges. But she is quick to remind that religious tolerance is a concern of the Right and the Left, and that while Clinton was in office, Congress created a commission to address issues of tolerance. “President Clinton sent Archbishop Theodore McCarrick and Rabbi [Arthur] Schneier and Donald Argue, a Protestant, to China,” she said. “I had a religious advisor, Ambassador Bob Seiple”—who was the first American ambassador-at-large for religious freedom. “What has to be made clear is that this is not a derogation of separation of church and state.”

Albright takes the Bush administration to task for going, as she says, “over the top” when it comes to invoking God as a “validator” for the actions of the United States on the world stage. She notes that the president’s invocation of God is far from an anomaly; every one of his predecessors has invoked the Almighty. “There is a difference, however,” she says, “in the way that God is part of what is happening at this stage in American history.… If we think that God is on our side, then anybody who disagrees with us is picking a fight with God…. That has influenced some things that are going on in world today.”

Albright quote

In terms of her prescription for American diplomacy, to her Santa Clara audience she offered this passage from The Mighty and the Almighty:

         Ours is a country of abundant resources, momentous accomplishments, and unique capabilities. We have a responsibility to lead, but as we fulfill that obligation we should bear in mind the distinction pointed out by John Adams. Liberty, at least in the sense of free will, is God’s gift, not ours; it is also morally neutral. It may be used for any purpose, whether good or ill. Democracy, by contrast, is a human creation; its purpose is to see that liberty is directed into channels that respect the rights of all. As the world’s most powerful democracy, America should help others who desire help to establish and strengthen free institutions. But, in so doing, we should remember that promoting democracy is a policy, not a mission, and policies must be tested on the hard ground of diplomacy, practical politics, and respect for international norms. Our cause will not be helped if we are so sure of our rightness that we forget our propensity, as humans, to make mistakes. Though America may be exceptional, we cannot demand that exceptions be made for us. We are not above the law; nor do we have a divine calling to spread democracy any more than we have a national mission to spread Christianity. We have, in short, the right to ask—but never to insist or blithely assume—that God bless America.


Albright sets out to make four basic points in her latest book. First, and most important: “The United States needs to have a moral foreign policy,” she told her Santa Clara audience. “We are a country that stands for a lot of things, including the fact that we are for diversity, we are for tolerance, a nation of immigrants, with a real sense of purpose.” But how well does idealism jibe with realpolitik? “I always have found that kind of a phony division,” she said, “because you have to do both. On any given day, I call myself either a ‘realistic idealist’ or an ‘idealistic realist.’ I do believe in a moral foreign policy but not a moralistic foreign policy. The difference is: moral is when you know your own values and you live by them; moralistic is when you go around lecturing everybody else.”

Second, acknowledging the quality of the atmosphere in the capital these days—“toxic,” said Albright—she has sought “issues on which Right and Left can work together.” And in that work, the longtime advisor to Democrats has found an unlikely ally: Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a conservative Republican. Last November, the pair co-hosted a conference in Washington on “Bipartisan Action on Human Rights,” with panel discussions on stopping genocide, protecting religious liberty, helping refugees and the displaced, and putting an end to human trafficking.

Third, Albright is quick to dismiss scholar Samuel Huntington’s oft-cited argument that we are involved in a clash of civilizations. “I don’t believe that,” she said. “I do believe, however, that there is a battle of ideas going on…very serious questions that need answers—questions about justice and poverty and how we relate to each other, and how God is involved in our lives. Osama bin Laden and his ilk are terrible people, and if there is evil, they are evil; the purpose of trying to destroy innocent people is horrifying to us all. But they would be totally irrelevant if they were not in effect addressing some of those issues that need discussion in the 21st century. We need to talk about where we stand in this battle of ideas, and instead of saying what we are against, we need to be clearer about what we are for.”

And fourth, “In the end it’s the individual that counts. Our group labels in many ways artificial and sometimes temporary. I use my own life as an example: I was raised Roman Catholic, married an Episcopalian, and found out I was Jewish…. As a result of choices my parents made, my life is quite different. I might have ended up going to a synagogue instead of a church. If the Communists hadn’t come into Czechoslovakia and my father hadn’t decided that he had to leave and seek political asylum in the United States, I wouldn’t have been an American…. The truth is that you can change your group, it can be changed on your behalf. In many ways the group identifications are artificial. Things that don’t change are the centrality of the individual. A lot of people, when I raise this, say: being for individual is a Western concept. But it’s not. Every single one of the Abrahamic religions, as well as philosophies and various other writings I have read, have in some way respect for individual and some interpretation of what we know as the Golden Rule, which is to treat others as you would like to be treated yourself.”

That rule comes into play when you ask Albright (as one audience member did in Santa Clara) about the apparently declining role that moderate or progressive religious leaders seem to play in steering debates about faith. “You always hear more about the extremists,” she was quick to point out. “We have a tendency to judge what religious activity is according to those making the most extreme statements and to make generalizations out of that. And we have to be very careful.… We have certain images in our mind, and we don’t know about the peaceful aspects of Islam. You can read through Koran or the Old and New Testament and find some pretty bloodcurdling parts in all of them. But you can also find common themes of love and justice and charity and peace. We need to understand that that is present in all the religions. We would not want Christianity to be judged by the KKK or Judaism to be judged by the man who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin. We should not judge Islam by some of the most extremist statements. What needs to happen is that the moderates in all the religions need to be more forward leaning and express themselves better.”

That’s not to say it’s simply a matter of putting extreme statements in perspective. “We can’t make the moderates in some other religions speak out and work on reforming their religion,” Albright acknowledged. “That has to happen from within.”

Jesus, not Caesar

The first time I met Albright in person, it was when she was visiting her homeland. At the time I was working with Masaryk University and conducting research on the first decade of post-communist development of the Czech nonprofit sector. It was March 2000, one year after NATO planes had begun an 11-week bombing campaign against Serbia in an attempt to put an end to the slaughter in Kosovo. After visiting Prague and meeting with Václav Havel, Albright traveled to the city of Brno, where Masaryk University presented her with an honorary degree and the Grand Gold Medal of the University. Named for the founder and first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the university hosted the ceremony in the law school’s grand hall—a building which, under Nazi occupation, was transformed into a place of execution.

While religion wasn’t front and center in Albright’s remarks in Brno, militant Islam was arguably at the core of a concern she did raise before the assembled crowd: Iran’s construction of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr. What did this have to do with the Czechs? Less than it had before her visit. To the relief of the United States, Czech President Havel had just pledged to cancel the sale of cooling duct parts for the reactor from a Czech company to Iran. While Iran had (and has) repeatedly said that it was interested in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, the United States has long maintained that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. "To keep the best technology from falling into the wrong hands, American firms are required to forgo many potentially profitable contracts,” Albright told her audience in Brno. “But a similar responsibility rests upon the shoulders of all who pledged to defend the best interests of the Euro-Atlantic community." Indeed, one year before—just weeks before the bombing of Serbia began—the Czechs had officially joined NATO.

Albright herself was assaulted in the foyer of the grand hall after her speech—by a couple of anarchists howling against "U.S. imperialism." They threw a few eggs, though her bodyguards, as well as the university rector—a big bear of a man named Jiří Zlatuška (who also happened to have invented the first Czech word processor and found the first school of informatics in the nation)—shielded his diminutive guest from some of the projectiles. Naturally, the egg-throwing incident earned international headlines; and in one of the great all-time highs of Web journalism, even carried a click-through to a close-up photograph of a broken eggshell on the floor. For her part, Albright took it in stride. "It's no big problem," the Czech press quoted her as saying. "It happens that some people wash their hair with eggs."

After establishing the state of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk expressed his vision for a “New Europe” as one no longer ruled by great powers. “Jesus, not Caesar,” he wrote, “is the meaning of our history and democracy.” His contemporary George Bernard Shaw opined that Masaryk “should be the first president of the United States of Europe,” while more than 50 years after Masaryk’s death, Václav Havel spoke of restoring his concept of politics based on morality. Albright cites Masaryk’s humanist philosophy as playing a fundamental role in informing her father’s ideas—and, in turn, her own ideas—about right and wrong, good and evil. She also cites Masaryk’s admonition that “war is not the greatest evil. To live dishonestly, to be a slave, to enslave, many things are much worse.” And Masaryk did not even live to see the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, the second World War, the mass arrests of Czech students and professors, or the Holocaust. He died in 1937.

One of the conversations I’ve had at various times with Czech sociologists is about the role of religion in their country. Prague is the city of a hundred spires, and every village lays claim to its church. Statues of Catholic Saint Jan Nepomuc, his head surrounded by a halo of stars, mark crossroads throughout the land. And the motto of the nation is that of religious reformer Jan Hus: “Truth prevails.” But a few years back, surveys marked the Czechs as the most atheistic people in Europe. Certainly the legacy of the Hapsburg empire played a role in that; the Church was allied with authority that oppressed aspirations for Czech nationalism. Forty years of communism played a part, too. So when Albright was writing this book and spoke with Havel, I wondered whether they wound up talking about religion in a formal sense, or more about ethics in general, whether religious or not.

“First of all,” Albright says, “I think the Czechs are very confused in their religion. Bohemia was seat of Holy Roman Empire. And clearly the majority of people were Catholic. Then Jan Hus, a precursor of Martin Luther, burned at the stake—was a great national hero.” Indeed, even the Communists did their best to turn Hus into a proletarian figure. And those statues of Jan Nepomuc that dot the land were put there as part of a post-Hus campaign to give the Czechs a home-grown Catholic martyr in place of a religious dissident.

“The interesting thing is, to be a good Czech, you had to be pro-Jan Hus,” Albright says, “which didn’t get you very far in the Catholic church. So, confusion. Also, a lot of mixed people: Prague was a very cosmopolitan city, it has the oldest Jewish cemetery—a very interesting kind of mixture.”

In Albright’s 1983 volume Poland: The Role of the Press in Political Change, she chronicled the rise of solidarity in 1980-81—which came on the heels of the visit by Pope John Paul II to his homeland. Noting her understanding of the role religion had played in Poland, she says, “In the ’80s, when I went to Prague at a certain stage, there were various elements of the clergy that were helping us.… There was kind of a revived interest in religion, though never to the extent of anything that happened in Poland. It was very interesting to see that religion did not play that big a role.

“When I had my discussions with Havel, they were not really done on a religious basis but more on an ethical basis. I asked him about it, and did he believe in God? The way he put it was that he believed in ‘the great eye,’ that really we were being watched in terms of moral and ethical behavior. But I think he was very surprised that I was writing this book.

“Most of the Czechs that I know that are inteligentsia are not particularly religious. My parents were not religious. I don’t know whether you’d call them an ‘atheistic’ nation, but they just are not actively religious, in contrast to their neighbors. The Poles are very religious, and the Slovaks are more religious.

“The interesting part is to go back and read Masaryk. In the conversations with [Karel] Čapek, he has a whole section on religion and the role that religion is supposed to play. I love Masaryk for many reasons, especially for that combination of religion and humanism. He is probably, the more I read about him, more religious than I knew initially. But I think that humanistic approach that he takes to religion is very appropriate.”

Mr. K and Armageddon

Madeleine Albright graduated from Wellesley College in the spring of 1959. It was just a few weeks before Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to Moscow and, in a General Electric-sponsored model home, famously engaged Soviet Premier Khrushchev in the impromptu “kitchen debate” on the comparative merits of capitalism and communism. In retrospect, one of the characteristics that defined Mr. K, as some American journalists at the time took delight in calling Khrushchev, was that he believed in the system he was trying to reform—and propagate. So, I asked Albright, what kind of impression did Khrushchev make on her?

“It’s in looking back at Khrushchev that he seems like such an interesting figure,” she says. And in her face I see Albright take stock of the past half century as she begins to answer, and to explain that what we know now is not what we knew then. “At time that I was in college, people saw him as this vulgar guy who was at the U.N. beating his shoe and doing a little dance—and somebody that was more transitional, in many ways. In retrospect one sees more clearly.… I spent more time looking at him when I went to do graduate work, because I was at the Russian Institute, and taking a great course from Brzezinski in ’63—an amazing course, comparative communism, which was really groundbreaking, because mostly people thought of communism as monolithic. We began to look at the differences. And what Khrushchev had done with the secret speech [in 1956] was something that was very interesting.…

“When I was in college it was very diferent--because Stalin had just died in ’53, I started college in ’55. People were just unclear about what Khrushchev was up to.”

During the Cuban missile crisis, it seemed that what Khrushchev was “up to” was bringing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. Get Albright talking about the influence of the Christian Right in politics and policies and, after she lauds the uplifting messages of Joel Osteen and Rick Warren, she also credits Christian missionaries with being among the first Americans to work toward helping alleviate suffering caused by the civil war in Sudan. But queried by one Commonwealth Club questioner, she warned, “There is a negative aspect to those more in the apocalyptic school who really are looking for the end of the world. What has been interesting politically is that some of the members of the Christian Right have in fact formed alliances with some of the Jewish-American groups, because in the Bible there is sense that the land of Israel, that particular area, belongs to the Israelis. And also the theory that Messiah will not come until Temple of Solomon has been rebuilt. There is some kind of a political alliance. But even this is not new.

“At end of 19th century, American Christians and some of the more Christian motivated groups had united with Zionists in order to talk about the need for a home for the Jews. The part that is worrisome in terms of policy is, if you really believe it would be better if the end of the world came, you then don’t think enough about what to do before that happens and have some positive policies.”

Give the Pope credit

Nikita Khrushchev presided over half of the chessboard during the darkest hours of the Cold War. When it came to ending that long twilight struggle, Lech Walesa has argued that Pope John Paul II doesn’t get enough credit.

“I agree with Lech Walesa,” Albright says. “I think that he really was one of the major reasons that communism ended.” She recalls the Pope’s first trip back to Poland and says, “It was very evident that the fact that the regime made a huge mistake by not taking the visit seriously. What they did was turn over all the logistics to the local parishes, so local parishes could feed their own networks, and they actually could do things. That gave them a lot of power. When the Pope got them all in the square, what happened was (while it’s not an English sentence): He made them realize how many of each other there were. Because in a communist society, everybody was totally atomized. That was very powerful.

“His spirit continued, and he went back and forth. He did it in other countries—never quite to the extent that he did it in Poland. But he tried to have some effect on Russia. The fact is, they didn’t want him there.”

Pope John Paul II never made it to China. But Albright has mentioned that one of the great coming challenges facing China’s leadership is how they will deal with the religion. I asked if she could expand on that.

“There are unofficial or kind of underground churches that exist. I don’t know the numbers, but there are a variety of religious movements. We’ve now had this very interesting case about the bishop who has been named by the Chinese government; there is this official church. The same thing happened in the Soviet Union, with an official church. But I find interesting the extent to which there is a desire among the Chinese to join some religion. The truth is, that the Communist Party itself is so confused they now are saying they are basically Confucian. So there is this attempt to find something beyond just pragmatic politics.”

What might have been

During Albright’s visit to the Czech Republic in 2000, Václav Havel used the occasion to get in a dig at the Social Democrat government then in power. Here was Madeleine Albrightová, as the Czech press referred to her—a native daughter who had risen to the highest position of power in the United States that someone not born in that country can hold. And here was the Czech government composed entirely of men—apparently unable to find a single qualified woman to head a cabinet post. Havel proposed a solution: Albright would run for the Czech presidency when he finished his term in office. She declined.

That didn’t stop her, however, from making the list of top 100 greatest Czechs of all time in a poll that was conducted last year. She was voted number 69, well behind top finishers Emperor Charles IV, Tomáš Masaryk, and Václav Havel—and behind current Czech President Václav Klaus (No. 18)—but ahead of hockey player Dominik Hašek (No. 73), tennis player Martina Navrátilová (No. 81), writer Milan Kundera (No. 85), and Sigmund Freud (No. 98).

Another superlatives that Czechs lay claim to is that, per capita, they drink more beer than any other people in the world. So, as one of the greatest Czechs of all time, what brew would Madame Secretary name as her favorite?

“I don’t like beer,” she admits, without hesitation. “I’m the only Czech that doesn’t like beer. It’s pathetic.” Though, truth be told, she doesn’t sound too embarrassed about it. And, instead of letting the question fall flat, Albright turns it on me: “What is your favorite Czech beer?” she asks.

It’s a topic I’m more than happy to discourse upon. “A wheat beer that’s only brewed in Brno,” I say, “from the Pegas brewery.” I know I’m not alone in my appreciation for the beer, and the pub, whose foundations date back to the 14th century. The one time I saw Havel in Brno, he was holding court at the brewery, which proudly displays on its Web site a photograph of a perfectly poured half-liter of wheat beer.

Steven Boyd Saum

Steven Boyd Saum
Photo: Rebekah Bloyd

“We can talk about Czech food,” Albright offers. “My favorite Czech food is fruit dumplings. We used to have these every Friday night, when there was fruit.” And I can see in the eyes of Albright the Czech grandmother that she’s tasting the memory. “It wasn’t just the dumplings. It was the melted butter and ground nuts, and sugar—very fattening but very good. Or, alternately, somewhat less fattening, and equally something that I love, is the zeli, the cabbage. And the bread. And the pork…. It’s all very greasy and good. When I say what I might have been, I might have just been a roly-poly little Czech, teaching history at Charles University.”

Want to hear more from Madeleine Albright? Listen to her May 2006 talk in Santa Clara to The Commonwealth Club/Silicon Valley.

—Steven Boyd Saum is managing editor for Santa Clara Magazine.