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Madeleine Albright on evil, Putin, Trump, Syria and diplomatic kisses

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Madeleine Albright on evil, Putin, Trump, Syria and diplomatic kisses


She was the first woman to hold the post of US Secretary of State, in office under President Bill Clinton. Since then, she has kept a close eye on global affairs and is championing another Clinton – this time Hillary – in the race to the White House.

Madeleine Albright spoke to the Global Conversation’s Isabelle Kumar at the Globsec security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia.

She revealed that Vladimir Putin once got “mad” at her for suggesting one of his policies was evil but that she hasn’t changed her opinion.

And she urged the US to become more involved in resolving the crisis in Syria.

A fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton, she explains why Trump has gained so much momentum in his presidential campaign and also reveals the secret behind “diplomatic kissing”.

Isabelle Kumar, Euronews: As we’re at a security forum, let’s begin with some of the issues that are being highlighted here. And if I ask you to take a step back, it does seem that the world is being bombarded at the moment by multiple crises. But do you think we’re in a worse situation now than when you were Secretary of State?

Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State: “I think we actually are in a worse situation than when we were in office, which was during the 1990’s when there was a great deal of hope and excitement about the end of the Cold War – looking at how Europe could in fact be a part of NATO and the European Union, and a sense that the United Nations could operate. I think it was really a time of a lot of hope and excitement.”

Isabelle Kumar: If we look now then at the situation now in Europe – I would like to remind our viewers that you, yourself, were a refugee, you left what was then Czechoslovakia because of the Nazi occupation. And at the moment, we see a rise in populism across Europe. Do you hear echoes of the dark days of your early childhood?”

Madeleine Albright: “Well, I think it is different, but I do think that populism / nationalism are very dangerous forces, because they seem to be filled with not just extremism, but based on the fact that you hate somebody else. It’s one thing to be proud of who you are, your identity. It’s another to decide that the people who live next door to you are unacceptable.”

Biography: Madeleine Albright

  • Madeleine Albright took office as US Secretary of State in 1997
  • She was the first woman to ever hold the post in the US
  • Albright was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937
  • She lived in exile in England with her family after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939

Isabelle Kumar: One of the problems that is causing this rise in populism – and Europe has really struggled to find a way to deal with it – is the refugee crisis. As a former refugee yourself, would you appreciate Europe’s policy, which is, to put it very simply, one Syrian deported from Europe equals one refugee resettled in Europe?

Madeleine Albright: “It sounds very good mathematically, I think the question is how it is carried out, how are the people chosen and why is it that people leave in the first place. I think most people do in fact want to live in the country where they were born. How the people that are chosen to go back are then exchanged for those who are acceptable, I think, creates a judgmental issue that is very hard to deal with.

“I do think – and I was actually a refugee twice, once during World War II with my parents, when the Nazis had taken over Czechoslovakia, and then in the United States after the Communists had taken over – and I think the question is: how are refugees treated? It makes a great deal of difference. When we came to the United States, people said, ‘We’re so sorry your country has been taken over by a terrible system’, ‘How can we help you?’ ‘You’re welcome here’, and ‘When will you become a citizen?’ We’re are not hearing that very much anymore.”

Isabelle Kumar: So what’s your judgement of Europe’s response?

Madeleine Albright: “I find it very difficult to be critical because I think that the United States should be doing more, and it’s hard for us to tell people what to do if we aren’t taking in more people. But I do think that I wish… and this may sound very peculiar to people now… people would see refugees actually as an asset. A lot of the people coming out of Syria are educated and skilful and entrepreneurial.

“I think that if you begin with people being treated like dogs and not recognised for their humanity and then settled into places where they are just one group of people, it kind of defies the multi-ethnicity that should be the hallmark of the 21st century.”

Peace takes time

Isabelle Kumar: If we look back again now at your time in office, you were very implicated in finding a resolution to the war in the Balkans – not only as Secretary of State but also as Ambassador to the UN. You must have been closely watching the trials and verdicts that have been taking place recently. It seems that these trials, this court, was meant to bring reconciliation. Some argue that it hasn’t even brought justice. What went wrong?

Madeleine Albright: “Well I think, first of all, I think the courts have operated pretty well. The fact that (Radovan) Karadzic, who was one of the major contributors to this, was in fact sentenced, I think is a very big deal because the purpose of the court was to assign individual guilt and erase collective guilt, so in fact there could be reconciliation.”

Isabelle Kumar: But reconciliation isn’t happening…

Madeleine Albright: “Well some of it, is but not as much as we thought. But the thing that I have finally learned is we want everything to be solved quickly. These are issues that are going to take quite a long time to resolve. I think the hard part for people to accept is when decisions are made, as to the Dayton Accords for instance, they are done with the best possible will of what is going on at the time. Often, things, I think, need to be updated, revised in some way.”

Isabelle Kumar: So they’re no longer fit for purpose?

Madeleine Albright: “They may not be fit for purpose and I do think that some of the way that the different layers of government in Bosnia Herzegovina – the complications of that – then the way that some of the powers for Republika Srpska were interpreted have undermined the problem.

“I think what is interesting is that some of the Serbs in Belgrade have been trying, mainly because of the inducement of EU membership, to kind of look at things differently. But I am not going to defend some of things that are happening. In Kosovo for instance, there continue to be issues between the Serbs and the Kosovars.”

Isabelle Kumar: You mentioned Radovan Karadzic. Some are decrying the fact that his sentence was 40 years, that he should have been sentenced to a lot more. Are you satisfied with that sentence?

Madeleine Albright: “Well, I think 40 years is a long time, especially given his age. I have to say that the War Crimes Tribunal actually worked better than most people thought at the time. It was one of my first votes when I was at the United Nations. People thought nobody would ever be indicted or brought to justice – they were.”

Isabelle Kumar: But one of the problems has been that the trials have taken so very long…

Madeleine Albright: “I wish it had worked faster. I prefer to be positive, and try to figure out where the steps have gone forward. With the War Crimes Tribunal and the International Criminal Court, there is an attempt for there to be a responsible, international approach to genocide and crimes against humanity.”

Mortals facing tough choices

Isabelle Kumar: We’ve asked our online audience to send in questions and it’s about time I brought in some of those. Someone who goes by the name of Sanaa Ben-Hammouda asks, ‘What was the hardest decision you had to make when you were in office?’

Madeleine Albright: “First of all, I never expected to be Secretary of State, or even UN Ambassador, and one of the hardest parts is to decide how you send people to war, what do you do, and the ethical aspect we were talking about in Bosnia and Kosovo.

“It certainly isn’t easy for a mere mortal female civilian to argue for the use of force and to then send troops into war, but I do think making that judgement as to when it is acceptable to use force to get rid of people that are killing somebody else – is I think is one of the hardest decisions.”

Isabelle Kumar: Do you stick by that decision?

Madeleine Albright: “I do, definitely and I know there are a lot of people critical of it. I actually spent time as a child in Belgrade, my father was the Czechoslovak ambassador to Yugoslavia. I am not welcome in Belgrade these days but I really do think that what we did, because of the kinds of things that Milosevic and Karadzic were doing, that they were justified. And to give the opportunity to the Bosnians and the Kosovars to be able to make decisions about how their country should be run.”

Isabelle Kumar: The US did take some time before it did take decisive action in the Balkan conflict. But now if we look at the presidency of US President Barack Obama, he’s often under criticism for taking a back seat when it comes to foreign policy, particularly on Syria. But how do you assess the impact of that decision (not to intervene militarily in Syria)?

Madeleine Albright: “I happen to think that the way that President (George W.) Bush took the country to war over Iraq – and did not follow through on a diplomatic course, on getting a coalition to really work through the United Nations – was then one of the things that there was a real question about the validity of the Weapons of Mass Destruction in a variety of ways. So, President Obama was elected to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was the basis of his election, having thought that it (the wars) was a mistake.

“And I think that what he (Obama) believes is that we should be working with other countries to help solve problems, that the United States doesn’t have to do everything alone, and I think that he was responding to the mistakes of the previous (George W. Bush’s) administration.”

Isabelle Kumar: So you back him in this decision to just pull back?

Madeleine Albright: “I happen to believe that the United States needs to be more involved. The question is when…”

Isabelle Kumar: More involved in Syria?

Madeleine Albright: “In Syria. Well generally. But Secretary Clinton was saying, and she is for a no-fly zone, a safe area, in Syria. I happen to think it would have been easier to do earlier. I do wish that we had sorted out better who some of the rebel groups were earlier. But the hardest part, and I am very careful about this, is that judgments were made about decisions that were made during the Clinton administration, that it’s easy to be on the outside and say ‘X should have happened.’ The people that are in office make decisions based on the information that they have at the time. And I think that… I personally wish that we had done something earlier in Syria.”

“Stupidest thing I ever said”

Isabelle Kumar: You touched up on something which made me think of a question we received from somebody from on our social media audience. And this is someone who goes by the name of ydureiss. And he says: “what should be the role of the US in the world?

Madeleine Albright: “Well I think this is the hardest question at the moment. America is a very unusual country. We are not a colonial power, we don’t want to be the policemen of the world. And in many ways it’s kind of hard to figure out when we should be involved and when we shouldn’t. And we are criticised for both.”

Isabelle Kumar: What would you say would be President Obama’s best foreign policy achievement?

Madeleine Albright: “Well I think he’s had a number of them. I think in terms of the way that he has dealt with… well Osama Bin Laden, that was a very difficult decision. I think in terms of moving towards creating a larger relationship with Asia. I think that generally his attempt, and Secretary Kerry’s, to do something on the Middle East. And then I truly do think that one of the great achievements was what he’s done on climate change. By bringing the countries together in Paris and pursuing that. And then trying very much to show that the United States does and will be involved with partners.”

Isabelle Kumar: If we go back to your time in office, you courted controversy over the sanctions in Iraq: namely over something you said in a TV programme of the death of children – 500,000 being ‘worth’ the cost of sanctions. Now I know you’ve retracted that since, but it’s a question that came up again and again in our social media. And someone who goes by the name of EU Economics says: ‘How can Madeleine Albright justify the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children and still sleep at night?

Madeleine Albright: “I have said that it is the stupidest thing I ever said. I have apologised for it, I have explained it. But there are people who seem to want to keep bringing it up.

“Saddam Hussein had invaded another country. There was a plan to deliver food and medicine to the people of Iraq. Saddam Hussein refused to let any of the people that were to distribute it to come into Iraq in order to do that. It was Saddam Hussein that did the killing of the children, not the United States.

“I was trying to defend, generally, a sanctions policy which had been instituted by the previous Bush administration. But sometimes people say some things stupid, and I wish that everybody that criticises me would think about whether they have ever said anything they regret. It is a stupid statement, but if people keep wanting to bring it up, I can’t do anything about it. I regret having said it.”

Supporting Hillary Clinton

Isabelle Kumar: We’re going to switch topic and look at the US presidency now. And you’re a fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton. Her critics, though, say that she’s sterile, that she’s too stage-managed, and in many respects just is too desperate for the job, and that’s what puts people off. What do you respond?

Madeleine Albright: “Well I think they’re wrong. I think that she is a remarkable woman who has been a very good and dedicated public servant. I’ve known her for a very long time, she’s very smart, she works very very hard and she is better, she has more experience than anybody that’s ever run for president of the United States. She listens to people, both at home and abroad. She as senator was on the armed services committee, knows how that works, and as secretary of state she restored America’s reputation. So I think there’s nobody better prepared.”

Isabelle Kumar: Well you have a saying which is ‘there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other’. If Hillary Clinton was a man, would you be supporting her as strongly as you are now?

Madeleine Albright: “Absolutely. Absolutely. Because I would prefer to support a man that had the right views, than a woman who is opposed to everything. Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person to be president of the United States – man or woman.”

Isabelle Kumar: I’ve got a question here – I can imagine your answer already but it’s from someone who goes by the name of McOuasfi. And it’s about Donald Trump. And he says: is he a threat to the US, or the opposite?

Madeleine Albright: “I think that he is both (she laughs). Because part of the problem is that nobody has any idea what he’s doing or thinking. He talks to himself – he has admitted that, that he gets advice from himself, and I think that he is… I find very difficult as I travel abroad, trying to explain to people the kinds of things that he’s saying, which are very damaging to America and to the World.”

Isabelle Kumar: In Europe a lot of people are scratching their heads trying to understand why he’s so popular in the United States. What has made somebody like Donald Trump so popular?

Madeleine Albright: “I think the press has been complicit in terms of how much he has risen, because he is an interesting story and it has helped the ratings of a number of channels. And I think that is part of the problem. But the thing that we’re reminded of all the time is that he is popular with a very small part of one party. People can’t make up their minds about what’s the difference between a reality show and the reality of running the United States of America.”

Jewellery box politics

Isabelle Kumar: Donald Trump has come into criticism for sexist statements. As first female secretary of state of the United States, your gender must have held you back in some situations, but it must also have helped you. Can you give me a key situation where being a woman was instrumental in a certain situation?

Madeleine Albright: “Well I do think that not all women are the same obviously, but I do think that we make an attempt to develop some kind of personal relationship with people and try to do the following thing: one of the first rules of being a diplomat is to put yourself into the other person’s shoes. And I do think that women are good at that. I did develop the art of diplomatic kissing, I think that that always broke the ice.”

Isabelle Kumar: Please, what is diplomatic kissing?

Madeleine Albright: “Well it’s very complicated, when you arrive in a country, you know. In some countries – the Latins, for instance – it’s more difficult, you can’t visualise my predecessors doing this, but in Latin countries, some kiss on the right cheek and some on the left cheek, but I got that all mixed up, so bumped noses. And then the French kiss twice, and the Dutch kiss three times. And it’s very difficult… Anyway, it’s a good way to begin a meeting.”

Isabelle Kumar: And finally, it’s impossible to interview Madeleine Albright without broaching the question of your brooches. Could you tell me your most significant brooch moment?

Madeleine Albright: “Most significant? Well I have to say there are a number of them. Sometimes I do the right things, sometimes the wrong. My biggest mistake wearing a pin was when I wore the ‘hear no evil, see no evil’ monkeys when I met with President Putin. And we were walking in, and he says to President Clinton: “We always notice what pins Secretary Albright wears. Why are you wearing those three monkeys?” And I said: “Because I think your policy in Chechnya is evil.” He got really mad at me, justifiably. Now I would wear the three monkeys again because I think some of the things that Putin is doing are evil.”

Isabelle Kumar: What does your brooch signify today?

Madeleine Albright: “Well this one… these are two globes and it seemed like the right thing to have for a conference that has ‘global’ in it. So I thought that would be fun to wear.”

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