Home The Washington Diplomat April 2008 Albright: Next President Inherits World of Problems, Opportunities

Albright: Next President Inherits World of Problems, Opportunities


Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright sees a world of problems waiting for the next U.S. president, who will inherit a raft of complex foreign policy challenges and assume the leadership of a nation whose global reputation has markedly declined over the past eight years.

At the same time, she believes these huge challenges also present the next occupant of the Oval Office with a historic opportunity to get the United States back on track, restore the nation’s tattered image abroad, and take the lead in solving international problems that have only festered and worsened since 2001.

Albright told The Washington Diplomat that based on her extensive international travels and frequent contact with global leaders, she is convinced that the ending of the Bush administration will be unlamented in almost every corner of the world. Respect for American leadership, she argues, has plummeted to levels that are difficult to comprehend or overstate.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen the world in this kind of a mess. Mess, by the way, is a diplomatic term,” she said. “The American public needs to understand how difficult it is going to be for the next president. But I think almost everybody is ready to move on.”

And the former secretary of state has plenty of ideas about how to move on, which she details in her new book “Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership.” Breezy and informal yet also substantive and analytical, the book is an excellent primer on the national security tools available to the next president and how they can be used to solve 21st-century problems.

Reviewing the global landscape, Albright says the United States faces a stunning array of foreign policy challenges, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, instability in Pakistan, turmoil in the Middle East, ongoing tensions with Iran, and uncertainty about Russia’s future direction.

Additionally, broader trends are in play, she said, citing the continuing threat of terrorism, surging anti-American attitudes, the erosion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, growing doubts about democracy, the backlash against globalization, and possible U.S. isolationist impulses whenever the chaotic war in Iraq is finally concluded.

To address this complex labyrinth of issues, Albright hopes America’s next president avoids the impulse to orchestrate an elaborate 100-day agenda. Rather, she says an organized, disciplined two-year agenda should be developed, although it could be helpful if the president begins his or her term with several clear and dramatic gestures.

“I do think that Guantanamo has to be closed and it would be very smart for the next president to announce immediately that he or she is going to do that, and is joining or convening climate change talks,” Albright said. “And launching some kind of nuclear non-proliferation set of discussions would be useful. This would be an important way to set the mark about a changed approach to foreign policy.”

According to Albright, that changed approach would entail using the full array of diplomatic tools available to the president, moving beyond the Bush administration’s heavy reliance on the military and its tight focus in waging a war on terrorism.

A strong president, she said, should use robust diplomacy, uplifting speeches, cooperation with international organizations, coordination with other nations’ law enforcement agencies, solid intelligence and, when necessary, military force to advance the country’s interests. “The important thing is to use the right combination of tools at the right time and then make adjustments as events warrant,” she said.

As the top former American diplomat and a long-time student of foreign policy, Albright is an unabashed champion of diplomacy, calling it both deeply interesting and hugely important in the conduct of international affairs. And she hopes the next president feels the same way. “It will be important to have a president who understands all the tools that are available to him or her. The diplomatic tool has not been used very aptly, or frequently, in recent years,” she lamented.

“The world now is so complicated and dynamic,” she added. “Diplomacy is not a game of chess, which is the image people sometimes use of two people sitting in a room, mapping out their moves, taking time between their moves. Diplomacy is more like a game of billiards in which every move causes other things to happen. Like billiards, each move alters the landscape on which future moves are made. It is very horizontal and dynamic. The world is shifting faster than ever before. Every morning when you open the paper there is another billiard ball in play. Events are linked to each other far more than meets the eye.”

Albright’s own personal story reflects the dynamic nature of world events. As a young girl, she and her family fled Czechoslovakia after it was invaded first by Adolf Hitler and then the Soviet Union. Arriving in the United States at the age of 11, she later earned a bachelor’s degree with honors from Wellesley College and master’s and doctorate degrees from Columbia University.

A congressional aide and then staffer at the National Security Council during the Carter administration, Albright served from 1993 to 1997 as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. She then went on to serve as the 64th secretary of state from 1997 to 2001—the first woman ever to hold that post.

Since leaving government, Albright has created her own consulting business with the Albright Group, a global strategy firm, and Albright Capital Management, an investment advisory firm focused on emerging markets. She’s also a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University and chairs both the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the Pew Global Attitudes Project.

According to Albright, the next president’s foreign policy agenda will have to emphasize issues that are urgent and unavoidable, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Middle East and defeating al Qaeda. However, she warned against being consumed by the Iraq war and argues that subsequent events have proven that the U.S. invasion was bungled by the Bush administration from start to finish.

“In Iraq, there are now no good options. There are least worse options. Every day that seems clearer and clearer. I think there has to be a planned withdrawal in a responsible way,” she said.

Albright contends that in the years ahead, Iraq might develop a federal arrangement with a figurehead national government and robust regional ones. The army may also be divided into a central force in Baghdad and three regional components that have absorbed regional militias.

In the meantime, she said the U.S government should lead vigorous diplomacy efforts involving Iraq’s neighbors as well as global powers such as the European Union and Russia.

To that end, the former secretary of state advocates opening diplomatic contacts with Iran, while continuing to insist that it not build nuclear weapons. “I think Iran is dangerous. But we should begin talking to them and seeing if they can be brought into the international system without giving in to their demands. It does require very careful diplomacy,” she said.

The United States, she added, could deal with an Iran that has made a sincere commitment not to build nuclear weapons, even if it continues to enrich a small amount of uranium for use in civilian nuclear power plants subject to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Albright blasts President George Bush’s initial disengagement from the Middle East and then his unilateral plan to try to transform the entire region—a strategy that, she charged, “reduced an imperfect security structure to rubble.”

“In the Middle East, we are better off when we are talking and when the talks appear to be going somewhere, when there appears to be some direction—so the rockets stop and the killing stops,” she said

And a critical component of Middle East peace, according to Albright, is easing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and then securing a peace agreement.

She argues that President Clinton’s peace efforts in 2000 provide the parameters of a final agreement: a Palestinian state with its capital in Jerusalem and encompassing Gaza and most of the West Bank, a compromise on Palestinian refugees, the return of all or most of the Golan Heights to Syria, and Arab recognition of Israel.But Albright admits she is uncertain how to secure such an agreement now, noting that Palestinian leaders would be reluctant to accept a package that Yasser Arafat rejected in 2000, and that Israeli leaders would be unlikely to offer more today than what was offered by then Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

On the global terrorism front, Albright said the United States must continue to confront terrorism but should wage the fight in a more intelligent and strategic way. Specifically, she believes we have inadvertently lent credence to al Qaeda by over inflating the threat posed by the group, which she argues is a radical departure from the central tenets of Islam and will eventually shrivel and die if it is exposed and isolated.

“What we have not done properly is define who the enemy is. We have enlarged the enemy. By lumping all these groups together, we’ve given more credit to al Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden. There has not been enough pointed analysis about who the enemy really is. We’ve been making heroes of al Qaeda and those around bin Laden by calling this a war on terror. We’ve been making them warriors when in fact they are basically murders.”

Albright also advises a different approach to Pakistan, which is where the migraines of the 21st century come together, she said, citing the country’s volatile mix of nuclear weapons, terrorism, the lack of functioning democracy, corruption and poverty.

According to Albright, bin Laden’s relative popularity in Pakistan is due to mistrust among Pakistanis of U.S. motives and policies. Consequently, she said the next U.S. president should emphasize what the United States can do for Pakistan, not just what Pakistan must do for the United States. She noted that it is also important for the new administration to treat Pakistan and India equally and to describe terrorism as a joint problem in which the West has serious responsibilities, as does Pakistan.

The next American president will also have to deal with a resurgent Russia, basking in new confidence fueled by growing oil wealth. Albright said she is uncertain how to read the new Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, but that he’s “an offshoot of Vladimir Putin. Clearly, they made a deal. Putin figured it out. There may be differences between the people around Putin and the people around Medvedev, and it’s hard to have dual leadership, but for the foreseeable future, Putin will have the power. Medvedev is totally beholden to Putin.”

Russia’s power center may not look much different from eight years ago, but that clearly won’t be the case in the United States. Whoever emerges the victor in November’s presidential race, Albright said she is optimistic the United States can correct its foreign policy and win back the esteem and respect of the world.

To achieve that, she has a formidable wish list, hoping for a day when the United States is in full compliance with the Geneva accords, Guantanamo has been closed, a U.S. envoy is working full time on the Middle East, the U.S. Senate has ratified a nuclear test ban, the Pentagon has canceled a new generation of nuclear arms, America’s alliances are reinvigorated, and the U.S. government is taking the lead in fighting global warming, energy, epidemic disease and poverty.

Albright is convinced that the next president would do well if he or she possessed some of the qualities of a former U.S. president from a very different time—Harry S. Truman, a man Albright greatly admires.

Truman is revered not because he had a special gift for envisioning the future, Albright said, but because he brought to his presidency traits such as optimism, resilience, a capacity to adjust to new information, willingness to accept responsibility, wisdom in judging people, patience to listen to differing views, and the ability to inspire cooperation both domestically and internationally.

“I want a president who is confident, but is not absolutely certain about everything,” Albright said. “I want a president who is capable of absorbing new information, a president who has the capacity to listen to a lot of different ideas and elicit opinions with great questions. We need someone who will make decisions and take responsibility for these decisions.”

About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.