[albright at the y]

Topic: Politics

Last night Jenny and I went to see former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speak at the 92nd Street Y. The evening’s format was an interview, conducted by the editor of Foreign Affairs, James F. Hoge, Jr.

Overall, there was little that was particularly surprising in the discussion. Hoge described the Middle East as being at, if not a tipping point toward democracy, then in a “tipping zone,” a phrase Albright picked up and amplified. She pointed to the recent revolutions in former Soviet states — her region of greatest expertise — as having had an influence in the Arab world. On the other hand, she put in a phrase of her own, “managed opposition,” to describe what Mubarak seems to be trying to create in Egypt with his proposal for contested elections, and she made it clear that she didn’t think managed opposition constituted real democracy. She later defined democracy as more than elections, pointing out that you have elections in dictatorships too. To Albright, democracy requires not just one election but the guarantee of future elections, with a realistic opposition party that has the possibility of assuming power. It also depends on some degree of rule of law.

When asked which was the greater threat, Iran or North Korea, Albright did not hesitate to say North Korea. She explained that Iran hasn’t yet got nuclear weapon capabilities like North Korea (note that she didn’t just say “weapons”), and that Iran is more amenable to outside pressures than North Korea. She described the Non-Proliferation Treaty as troubled, and she suggested that Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech of 1953, in which he outlined the principle of giving peaceful nuclear technologies to countries that promised not to acquire nuclear weapons, was misguided, as it overlooked the ease with which peaceful nuclear technologies can be weaponized. On North Korea, she carefully worded a suggestion that the six-party talks are not the best venue for solving the current problems.

The most surprising thing Albright said all evening was that she has no idea what’s really happening in Iraq. This is a startling admission and an implicit accusation against the Bush administration, but fits with what I’ve read elsewhere. Journalists are severely limited in their ability to travel and conduct interviews, so the main source of information is the U.S. military, which is obviously a biased source. Albright’s point was that without better information, it’s hard to know what might happen in Iraq.

What got my attention most strongly, though, came not from Albright but from Hoge. On the subject of Security Council reform, Hoge said something about China having shot down Japan’s bid for permanent membership — I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was unequivocal. To date, of course, China has not made any official statement declaring their absolute opposition, and in a later question Hoge toned down his wording on China. Still, it seemed clear that Hoge considered China’s opposition to Japan’s bid to be a done deal, at least for the upcoming Millenium Plus Five summit later this year. He also repeatedly described the recent anti-Japan protests in China as “ginned up” by the government, and he suggested that when a government starts ginning up nationalism, as China’s is doing with its managed anti-Japanese outbursts and its anti-secession law on Taiwan, it’s often to cover up serious problems at home. Albright said that America has paid too little attention to what’s going on in East Asia and needs to gain a deeper understanding of the current tensions.

The talk ended with a discussion of John Bolton, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to the UN. Albright didn’t mask her dislike. She said that she had worked with him just once, when taking over from the outgoing administration. As under-secretary for international organizations, Bolton briefed the incoming Albright during the transition period, and she described his attitude as utter contempt for the United Nations and multilateralism. In her more charitable moments, Albright said, she sees the Bush administration’s nomination of Bolton as an attempt to shake things up seriously at the UN in the cause of reform; when she’s feeling less kindly, she thinks it’s just an “in your face” from the administration.

On a more personal level, I remember reading once the notion that some people decide to run for president when they meet the current president, shake his hand, and are struck by the fact that he’s an ordinary human being. “What has he got that I haven’t got?” they ask themselves, and if they’re someone like Bill Clinton, the answer may be “Nothing.”

Jenny and I were impressed by Albright’s charm, intelligence and wit, and she remains a compelling role model for both of us. But we also came away feeling like there’s nothing Albright or Hoge have that we couldn’t acquire with the 30 or 40 years of additional experience they have. Albright’s star power and charisma, not to mention a squeaky-clean enough background to become Secretary of State, may be out of reach, but we came away reassured that our dreams of careers in the State Department are realistic, and we could imagine ourselves in relatively influential positions down the road.