Economy and security in the 21st century

A President’s Speaker Series address by the former secretary of state. Diplomacy is no game of chess today, she says. Think billiards.

After serving as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright became, in 1997, the first woman to don the mantle of SECSTATE. Her visit to campus May 5 included a student Q&A and a conversation with Santa Clara Magazine—and the main course, which we offer here. We pick up right after the introduction by Elsa Chen, an associate professor of political science who heads SCU’s Washington Semester Program.

Thank you, Dr. Chen, for your very kind introduction. And thank you for telling everybody who I am, because not everybody always knows. Not long ago, I was coming back from China, and Chicago is the first port of entry. And I was there, getting undressed for the security people and I put my stuff down on the conveyor belt, and the lady behind me said, “So, where’d you get all those screw-top bottles? My bottles all leak.”

And I said, “I bought them at the Container Store.”

And then, as I was going through the magnetometer, the TSA guard looked at me, and he said, “Oh, my God, it’s you. I’m from Bosnia, and we all love you in Bosnia. If it weren’t for you, there wouldn’t be a Bosnia, and you’re always welcome in Bosnia. And can I have my picture taken with you?”

And I said, “Sure.”

So, we’re having our picture taken. It was a complete mess, and it was crowded. I went back to get my stuff, and the lady with the screw-top bottle said, “So, what exactly happened here?”

I said, “I used to be Secretary of State.”

And she said, “Of Bosnia?”


I’m really delighted to be here. As a professor, I love academic surroundings, and since I teach at Georgetown University, I do have a particular appreciation for Jesuit institutions of learning. But even among the ranks of Jesuit schools, Santa Clara stands apart, and your campus is gorgeous, and your reputation is sterling. And as California’s oldest operating institution of higher learning, your history is venerable.

Moreover, Santa Clara’s emphasis on the service and scholarship has helped its alumni make an outside impact on local, national, and international affairs. In fact, Santa Clara is known in Washington as sort of a farm team for top-notch public service, with Jerry Brown, Janet Napolitano, and Leon Panetta, among the most outstanding leaders who proudly call themselves Broncos.

I have to say that if the quality of questions I received from the students earlier today is any indication, we will be adding many more accomplished alums to this list soon enough. There really were fantastic questions. So, let me congratulate this university and the broader community both on your public mindedness and your engagement in manners of local and global significance and let me wish you many, many more years of success.

Now, given everything that’s going on in the world today, we have an awful lot to talk about this evening, and I will look forward very much to questions. And which, since I’m no longer in the government, I’ll actually be able to answer.

Many of you are students, and so, let me begin on a personal note and say that, believe it or not, I once was a college student myself. I attended Wellesley, which, as you know, is a women’s school in Massachusetts. And back then, the world really was different. The pace wasn’t that fast, and our phones had cords, and our mail had stamps, and we found a web not by clicking on a mouse but by dusting our room.

Today, in college classrooms, if you hear a lot of clicking noise it may just be a student using their laptop to take notes. In my day, believe it or not, the same sounds came from knitting needles we used to make socks for our boyfriends, or at least until one of my professors got so irritated that he said that thenceforth he considered knitting a sign of pregnancy.

I loved my college years, because it was the first time I truly felt that I fit in. As you may know, I was not born in this country. My first real home in the United States was in Denver, where my family moved when I was 13. I was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia. We drove out West; my parents had absolutely no idea where Denver was, followed by a Mayflower moving van so my father could always claim that we had arrived on the Mayflower.

Because of my childhood in a very turbulent era, and also because my father had been a Czechoslovak diplomat, I could already speak four languages, including English. It’s just that I didn’t speak American. And when I went to school, I only had one ambition, which was to fit in with my classmates and become a genuine American teenager. And that meant losing my very British accent, and reading mountains of comic books, and chewing wads of bubble gum, and begging my mother to have sleepovers, which was a concept that was hard to explain.

And the truth is that my parents were absolutely no help in the blending in department. I had a wonderful, dedicated mother, but she was kind of a delightful nut. And what she did as a hobby was to read people’s palms at dinner parties. I would always sit next to some man whose wife was sitting on the other side, and she would say that he was going to have many terrific affairs.

As for my father, he was very old school and truly serious, but he also wanted to fit in, in Colorado, which actually meant fishing. The only problem was that he fished in a coat and tie. And when I went out on a date, he followed along behind in the family car, and then offered the boy milk and cookies. And so, I didn’t have a lot of second dates until I was on my way to college.

But despite all this, I obviously admired my parents enormously and was deeply influenced by the values and lessons that they taught me. My family had come to America because we’d been forced to leave our home in Prague not once but twice: first when I was an infant, and the Nazis invaded, and then after the war, when the Communists took over.

So, when my parents arrived in the United States, they truly cherished the liberty that they had found. And even many years later, my mother would call on the Fourth of July to make sure that her grandchildren were singing patriotic songs. And meanwhile, my father wrote books about the dangers of communism and the importance of defending freedom.

Given this experience, I understood early that international affairs was not just an academic subject that affected people far away; it was a matter of life and death for real people whose fate could be determined by the moral and policy choices that we make. And perhaps that’s why whenever I entered a new school, I started an international affairs club and made myself president. I never considered for a moment that I might one day become secretary of state. And it’s not that I lacked ambition, it’s just that I’d never seen a woman secretary of state.

And I will never forget actually being sworn into the job and then walking into my office in the State Department. To get there, you had to walk down a very long hall lined with the portraits of all the former secretaries of state that only differed from each other as to whether they were clean shaven or had beards. And I imagined that I could feel the walls shake just a little bit.

As it turned out, this would be a pivotal moment in history, because given what has happened since, with Secretaries Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton, we might now say that John Kerry is a source of inspiration to little boys everywhere.


So, there’s no denying that times have changed and that each day it seems the world is changing faster than ever. We people often like to compare diplomacy to a game of chess, with two people sitting quietly and pondering their moves. Today, I think it’s more like billiards or pool. The game is dynamic and always unpredictable. In billiards, as you know, there’s some balls in the middle of the table, and then a player picks up a cue stick and hits a ball in an attempt to get it into the pocket on the other side.

Along the way, that ball hits a lot of others, changing the arrangement on the table. And the player with the steadiest hand and most skills envisioning future alignments will do the best. But it is unpredictable, and this is also true of diplomacy.

As for billiards, it seems to me that there are forces evident in the international system that add to the pressures and the spin. And those forces are different from what many of us grew up with and got used to in terms of the international infrastructure. Their impact can be positive or negative and sometimes both at the same time.

And these forces, which are often called “megatrends,” will affect the future profoundly. And while it’s fair to say that there have always been megatrends, what I think makes this period especially complicated is the contradictions that they are creating in the international system. They prove that Sir Isaac Newton’s third law of physics applies to world affairs as well: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.


Take the first megatrend, which is often referred to as “globalization.” We’re interdependent as never before. And this can be a stabilizing force, because it increases the cost of conflict. We see this in the U.S.–China relationship, where our tendency for rivalry is constrained by the fact that each of countries has an enormous stake in the other’s success.

But interdependence also means that conflict and crisis are impossible to contain. Trouble anywhere can quickly morph into problems that affect us all. We’ve seen, over the past year, with the upheaval in Ukraine, which started in the square of Kyiv, has metastasized into one of the most significant geopolitical crises of our time. So much is at stake: Ukrainian sovereignty and the future of its economy, Russia’s relationship with the West, European energy security, transatlantic unity, security for NATO’s Eastern European members.

As President Putin has embraced a worldview that is colored by toxic fictions, he has acquired territory but lost credibility and betrayed Russia’s best resource its people. I think that is, in part, because Russia is undergoing an identity crisis. I’ll never forget when, in the early 1990s, one Russian gentleman, in a focus group I was running, lamented and said, “I am so embarrassed. We used to be a superpower, and now we’re Bangladesh with missiles.”

For the past year, the challenge has been how to support Ukraine on the one hand and sanction Russia on the other. Europe and the United States have taken meaningful steps, but again, the challenge of globalization is that everything affects everything. Economic pressure on Russia results in problems for financial markets in London. It affects military sales in France, energy flows in Turkey, not to mention creating the risk of Russian retaliation against its closest neighbors.

Thus, even as globalization binds our fates, it can complicate our efforts to stand together. There’s another way in which globalization forces are at odds with themselves. On the one hand, we see convergence toward an increasingly global culture, and we know and appreciate more about one another’s countries than ever before.

And yet, the prospect of a world without borders can be unsettling also. Some people are afraid they’re gonna be left behind, or worse yet, pushed aside by forces they don’t understand and faces they don’t recognize. And as a result, they cling ever more tightly to the ethnic, religious, and tribal identities that separate us from them.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with pride in your own identity. But when pride curdles into hate, and you act as though you cannot live with or compromise with others, you have created a horrendous problem. Just look at Syria, which is broken apart on sectarian lines. The civil war there has now been going on for more than four years, destroying entire cities and families and displacing more than half of the country’s population, or 11 million people. And the inkblot is spreading to Iraq and Syria’s other neighbors.

Or consider South Sudan, which has been torn apart by political competition translated into tribal conflict. Even in Europe we’ve seen the rise of rightwing parties and politicians, from Greece to the Netherlands, taking positions that are anti-immigrant, anti-Jewish, anti-Roma, anti-other. When people become consumed by their differences, they lose sight of our common humanity. And when people lose sight of our common humanity, the unthinkable becomes thinkable after all.


The second megatrend and the contradictions it brings has to do with information technology. It used to be there was not much information out there. During the Cold War, we used to scrutinize the portraits on the walls of the Kremlin to determine who was up and who was down.

Today, our children learn how to swipe their fingers across an iPad before they can tie their shoes. We have invented new industries, like Big Data, simply to develop ways to keep up with the exponential growth in information.

Of course, information technology has been an incredible gift in countless ways, in this region perhaps more than any other in the world, has benefited from the tremendous new economic opportunities it has unlocked.

But we still don’t know whether information technology is simply the latest in a line of advances that have helped to modernize the world without doing much to civilize it. Consider these words, and I quote, “It is impossible that all prejudices and hostilities will continue to exist now that an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought among all the nations of the earth.” Now, that’s a very bold prediction, but it was not made during this century, nor even in the last one. It celebrated the opening of the transatlantic cable in 1858.

Technology by itself is no substitute for leadership. We should remember that in the 1930s, Nazi propaganda resulted in the power of radio to bring people under the spell of a single monstrous ideology.

In the 1970s, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini used cassette tapes to spark a bloody and vengeful revolution. In the 1990s, hate broadcasts helped ignite mass killing in Rwanda. More recently, ISIS has adeptly deployed social media to recruit thousands of foreign fighters from across the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States.

Technology has also revealed the gulf between information and wisdom. We’re constantly flooded with news. So, to cope with the onslaught, we customize the sources we follow. But too often that means that we’re consuming information that confirms what we already believe. And this means instead of broadening dialogue and discussion, we risk a narrowing and hardening of worldviews, to the point where the compromises necessary for progress become impossible.

Personally, I hope to avoid this phenomenon by listening to rightwing radio as I drive around the streets of Washington. By some miracle, I have not had an accident or been arrested for talking to myself.


So, what do these megatrends and their contributions mean for governance in the 21st century? First, many of the institutions on which we’ve long depended are beginning to show their age. Back when I was U.N. ambassador, I was besieged by members of Congress who worried about our sovereignty, and that it would be trampled by a world government. They thought that the U.N. had Black Hawk helicopters that swoop down in the middle of the night and steal your furniture. Then others complained about the fact that the U.N. was full of foreigners, which frankly can’t be helped.

Today, it seems to me the chief concern is not with these institutions’ power, but their lack of it. Our post-war institutions simply move too slowly for a world that spins at Internet speed. If these bodies are not to become obsolete, they must be continually updated, streamlined, and reformed.

Whether we’re talking about the U.N. or the global financial institutions, we must take into account the rising influence of nations in Asia and Latina America, the evolving nature of threats to international security, and the need to select leaders who will demand excellence and get results.

Meanwhile, national governments are finding their authority under strain as well. Democracies in particular are encountering tough challenges. Having traveled the world, I can testify that although people like to vote, they also want to eat. Democracies have to deliver. Take Egypt, for one example. Four years ago, a long-time autocrat was removed from office because of anger in the streets. He was replaced by an official from the previous outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The new president was democratically elected, but unable to control the payoffs, as the economy tanked, and people once again took to the street, this time with military support. Today, the elected president is out, and a new one has taken over, promising to restore order, and protestors have been shot or carted off to jail.

The next chapter is still unclear, but I learned recently that there have been some 10 million children born since the uprising moves began in Tahrir Square. That is an incredible number, especially when you consider how little has been done to build new schools that this growing population will require.

Across the Middle East and elsewhere, the reality is that demographic challenges and economic dislocation are here right now, while educational institutions and other pillars of democracy take many years to build and take hold. One result is that autocrats, who insist that order precedes prosperity, are gaining ground against democrats who believe that liberty is the only sustainable engine of growth.

To ultimately win the argument, advocates of freedom have to admit that although elections matter, they’re not enough. Elections are necessary but not sufficient to put a society on the path toward peace and prosperity.

In countries such as Nigeria, which recently held successful presidential elections, people still have to gain confidence that if they work hard and act constructively, they will be able to improve their lives and live free from violence and harassment. If that constant confidence is lost, the rule of law will be replaced by the rule by law or by no rules at all.

And that’s why our government should do everything possible to help new and struggling democracies to earn public trust by providing basic services, fighting corruption, investing in their citizens, and building infrastructure, including educational institutions that enable prosperity to happen.

Democratic leaders must also ally themselves with the rising generation whose members may be inpatient with any government, but whose allegiance belongs on the side of free expression and the unfettered pursuit of truth. So, the world is a mess. That’s a diplomatic term.

We are struggling with conflict, with stagnant growth, with a massive inequality gap, and with global problems that demand global solutions. Given these realities, it’s no surprise that not everybody likes the idea of living in a global village. Some wish they could retreat to a personal penthouse, far from the madding crowd. We’re certainly seeing this desire for disengagement here in the United States.

According to Pew, more than half of Americans say the United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own. There’s no denying that after more than 13 years of continuous warfare, the longest in our nation’s history, the American people are tired and turning inward.

The challenge, of course, is that we can’t escape the world. Two massive oceans were not enough to keep distant conflicts from our shores in the 20th century. When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, Americans learned again that we cannot wall ourselves off from ailments of far-off quarters of the globe, because problems do eventually come home to America, and we are the only country blessed with the power to lead and the ideals to do so in a direction that most of the world would prefer to go, toward fulfillment of that singular pleasure of liberty and justice for all.

We need not do it all alone. In fact, we should not do it all alone. But I firmly believe that the United States is the indispensable nation. And as much as the American people are wary of open-ended military ventures, they also don’t like sitting around and doing nothing.

When something happens in the world that stirs our conscience, we expect our leaders to act. And when threats to global stability emerge, the world expects the United States to lead, as we are doing in the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and in the work on a new climate change accord.

Obviously, there is great distance between the war-torn streets of Aleppo and the tree-lined neighborhoods of Santa Clara. That makes it easy for an American leader to say that we shouldn’t care about people in distant places with unpronounceable names. But I believe that would be a tragic mistake.

And I know this firsthand because of what happened in the land of my birth. When Hitler’s armies threatened Czechoslovakia in 1938, its two allies, Britain and France, capitulated. Prime Minister Chamberlain, as he put it, wasn’t prepared to risk war because of the horror in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing. Of course he was not avoiding war, only delaying it. And when that war came, it destroyed an entire continent and millions of lives.

I’ve spent my life thinking about how events might have differed had these nations stood firm against Hitler. But in researching my most recent book, Prague Winter, I also learned more about the British and French decision makers and what motivated them. The truth is, their nations were still exhausted from World War I, and they would have done anything to avoid another armed conflict.

The lesson to me is that terrible things happen when great nations grow weary. Today, America remains a great nation; we cannot become a weary one. Of course we should also recognize our own limits, which all nations have. I have always said that Americans are the most generous people in the world, with the shortest attention span.

Americans learned long ago that the challenges we face in the world are relentless. There are few final victories, and many of the remedies we come up with are like Band-Aids that may stop the bleeding temporarily, but not last very long. And this means that there will never be a shortage of work for top diplomats, military leaders, or a commander-in-chief.

But in my lifetime, I have seen America and Americans confront the challenges posed by war, terror, assassinations, and each with economic crisis, epidemic disease, and political and racial divisions. Many of the lessons we have learned have been incredibly painful, and some, as the present climate of partisan discord reflects, are still not fully absorbed.

There is no question that our democracy can be noisy, inefficient, and at times exasperating. But it has also been tested over and over again. Our democracy’s great advantage is its ability to correct its own faults through the exposure of misinformation, the shaming of bigotry, the development of innovative ideas, and the periodic emergence of new and visionary leaders.

Our democracy’s great vulnerability is that it cannot succeed without citizens who care enough to participate in the process by organizing, voting, and working together on behalf of the common good. But above all, democracy depends on moral courage, something that is an individual quality, but I believe it can also be a national aspiration.

As a child of war-torn Europe, I learned early in life that there is great evil in this world. But I also learned early about a country across the sea, where freedom is cherished and freedom is analyzed, helped, and defended. At the age of 11, I sailed, like millions before me, past the Statue of Liberty to New York Harbor, with no other desire in my heart than to become and American. Because of this nation’s generosity, I was given the chance to grow up in freedom and to serve in the best job I could ever imagine.

Of course, during my years as Secretary of State, I had many good days, but there were also times that I faced a lot of criticism. I was picketed over sanctions in the Persian Gulf. People threw stones at me in the Balkans. The Serb press referred to me as elderly but dangerous. Everyone in the media thought that they could do a better job than I could. And when our campaign to defeat ethnic cleansing in Kosovo began but badly, everyone was calling it Madeleine’s War, and not in a flattering way.

And this was about the time I began telling friends that the reason that I look fatter is that I’ve grown a thicker skin. After a while, you learn to cope, and there’s no question that I loved the job. And when my time was up, I thought they’d have to drag me out by my heels. But I have long since realized that leaving just meant the chance to start something new, and in my case many new things: teaching, and writing, and founding a business, and traveling, and speaking, and listening.

The one thing I refuse to do, however, is become silent. Because when I look around this messy world, I can see that we need every available voice speaking up for democracy, human rights, and peace. And whether here in Santa Clara or in nations abroad, we need every voice encouraging young people to believe they can be anything they want to be, as long as they are willing to work hard.

In closing, I want to salute this university and this community for everything you do to prepare the future generation of leaders.

post-image View full image. Photo by Charles Barry.
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