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We’ve all benefitted from globalization, in many ways, but it also is a double-edged sword, because people seem to have lost their identity, and a feeling of belonging.
Madeleine Albright is a Czech-born American public official who has the honour of being the first woman to hold the cabinet post of US Secretary of State (1997–2001). She has authored several bestselling books, including Madam Secretary: A Memoir (2003); The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America; God and World Affairs (2006); Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box (2009); and Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 (2012). She recently published her book “Fascism: A Warning” in which she decries the global rise of authoritarianism and talks about Trump, Putin and the ‘tragedy’ of Brexit. Although she is concerned about the possibility of a new rise of fascism in the world, she remains confident in the strength of liberal democracy and its institutions.
In this interview with a famous German publication, Ms Albright talked at length about various issues.
Question (Q): The title of your book is “Fascism: A Warning.” Isn’t that a bit alarmist? Is there really a threat of falling back into fascism?
Madeleine Albright (MA): It is supposed to be alarmist. But I specifically made clear that I don’t think President Donald Trump is a fascist. He is antidemocratic; he does not respect democratic institutions like the free press, which he calls “enemies of the people.” At the end of the book, I say: If people think I’m sounding alarmist, it’s because of the times we live in.
Q: You write in your book that you fear a return to the international climate that prevailed in the 1920s and ’30s. What do you mean by that?
MA: When I wrote this book, I decided I needed to do something that was historical, not emotional. There are striking similarities between then and now that have to do with divisions in society, a sense that there are winners and losers in economic terms, and politicians that take advantage of these divisions. Instead of looking for common ground, they do everything they can to exacerbate the divisions. I believe in patriotism, but I am concerned by nationalism. We’ve all benefitted from globalization, in many ways, but it also is a double-edged sword, because people seem to have lost their identity, and a feeling of belonging.
Q: A majority of Americans thinks Trump isn’t doing a good job, his core base represents only around a third of the electorate. Aren’t you over-estimating the power of populists?
MA: Better to over-estimate than assume all is well when it is not. The fact is that Trump’s approval ratings are rising, not falling. Republican politicians are afraid to oppose him. Week by week, he is changing the nature of political debate, and we need to pay attention to that. I think the best quote in the book is from Mussolini: “If you pluck the chicken one feather at a time people won’t notice.”
Q: Do you think democracy is fading as a grand idea?
MA: No. And just because I see signs of fascism, it’s not necessarily the same fascism as we witnessed during the 20th century. The Third Reich won’t reappear. Democracy goes back to the ancient Greeks and there are various ways that democracy has been practiced throughout history. In the end, liberal democracy prevailed. “Compromise” is a good word, it’s the element of democracy. But there are those leaders who operate on the basis of exacerbating divisions in society for their own advantage. By doing so, they’re destroying the possibility of finding common ground.
Q: Why do you think so many people mistrust their elected governments?
MA: There’s always this argument as to what comes first — political development or economic development. Because people want to vote for their representatives and they want to eat. The bottom line is, democracy has to deliver. And there has been a sense, in some places, that democracy has not really effectively addressed this growing division between the rich and the poor. Citizens demand jobs, a working healthcare system, education. Populists offer seemingly easy solutions, they say “I’ve got an easy answer for you,” and that’s what we’re watching now.
Q: Your own Democratic Party is struggling to deal with politicians like Donald Trump. Why is this?
MA: I believe the social contract that used to keep our societies together has broken. People gave up some of their individual rights in order to be protected by the state, and to have the state also provide a certain number of services to them. What has happened over the years is that neither side has kept its part of the bargain. The state has neglected its citizens, and the citizens evade taxes and are willing to be seduced by populists. I think now we have to figure out how to get the social contract back into some kind of genuine contract where both sides know what they’re supposed to be doing. At the moment we are in that period where both the far-left and the far-right are taking advantage of the divisions and uncertainties to exacerbate them.
Q: As Secretary of State in Clinton administration, you saw a fascist system from up close when you travelled to North Korea in 2000. You met Kim Jong Un’s father and spoke with him for 12 hours. What did you learn in Pyongyang?
MA: Well, first of all, we didn’t know a lot, frankly, about that regime. I said repeatedly that the Kim dynasty really is one of fascists. What they developed there is, first of all, a narrative that they were being attacked by everybody in the world, and, therefore, they were able to use the propaganda to isolate and starve their people completely, while at the same time glorifying themselves. Kim Jong Il was smart, a fascinating character. He had kind of a colourful aspect to him in terms of wanting to be a movie director. He knew all about who won Oscars at the Academy Awards.
Q: Kim Jong-il desperately wanted to meet President Clinton. Why did that never happen – contrary to the meeting between Trump and Kim?
MA: President Clinton was deeply involved in the Middle East peace talks at the time. Ultimately, he wasn’t successful, he ran out of time. But we had been dealing with North Korea over two presidential terms, between 1993 and 2000. Pyongyang threatened to leave the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which they later did, in fact. We negotiated a framework agreement to deal with North Korea’s nuclear programme; we had communication channels open on various levels. President Clinton said he would certainly travel to Pyongyang at some point.
Q: Then George W. Bush was elected and included North Korea in the “axis of evil.” Three years later, North Korea tested its first nuclear bomb.
MA: But when we left office, there were no nuclear weapons. There was some fissile material – we thought just enough to make one or two bombs – and no ICBMs.
Q: Kim Jong Un promised in the meeting with President Trump to end his nuclear programme. Do you think North Korea is trustworthy?
MA: There has to be an independent regime of verification, no matter what. We have to define “denuclearization” and what the parameters of the verification process should be. Which is why it’s so crazy that President Trump tore apart the Iran nuclear deal, which has a very tough nuclear verification process.
Q: Do you see a chance of rescuing the nuclear deal with Iran at all? And, is Trump right when he says that the Europeans were naïve when it came to the intentions of Tehran?
MA: I hope it can be rescued. I’ve made very clear that I was supportive of the deal when it was negotiated, even though I knew that not everything could be dealt with all at once. I wouldn’t say naïve. Iran is kind of putting its tentacles out in many directions, to Hamas in Palestine, to Hezbollah in Lebanon, to Yemen. There are some justified concerns about that. But the US pulling out of the agreement makes dealing with the tentacles harder and more complicated.
Q: The conflict surrounding the Iran agreement is not the only one between the Trump administration and Europe. Trump is waging a trade war against the EU. He speaks about friends as though they were enemies. Nothing seems to help to calm his anger down. Are we seeing the end of diplomacy?
MA: No, I don’t think so. We are all democratic countries, and just in the last days and weeks, some members of the House of Representatives and the Senate came forward to take action and limit the powers of the president in terms of some of the trade policies. We still do have checks and balances. But what worries me is that people will be deflected by those conflicts on the surface from actually trying to solve the underlying problems.
Q: Trump attacks Germany and the German government on a regular basis. At the G-7 in Canada he reportedly threw Starbursts on Merkel’s table and said: “Don’t say I never gave you anything.” What is a good strategy for dealing with a man like this?
MA: Individual relationships at the top, between heads of state and government, obviously make a difference. But foreign policy shouldn’t be based on personality. Even during the Cold War, there were people who really did talk about the fact that it was important to have relationships with the Soviet Union at other levels. The world is in disarray, but I think that there are mechanisms which help to foster a variety of discussions on a technical and diplomatic level.
Q: But what can you do with a president who has such contempt for international institutions like the World Trade Organization or NATO?
MA: Many people still believe US foreign policy comes in four-year segments. But it doesn’t. We’ve had 70 years of good relations with Europe, not always exactly similar. We’ve had many highs and lows, and that’s the way to look at the current administration. Under this president, trans-Atlantic relations are going through a difficult period, but I don’t think we should give up on it. It will persist.
Q: President Trump demands more commitment and more contributions from his European allies, while at the same time, he is cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Do you fear NATO is losing its relevance for European security?
MA: Despite recent controversy, NATO remains the world’s most potent and versatile institution of its type. Every Alliance member has agreed, in the past, to devote at least 2 percent of its GDP to defence spending. In urging support for this standard, President Trump is merely echoing past US presidents, as well as NATO leaders. There is also nothing remarkable about American or European heads of government meeting with the president of Russia. It is vital, however, that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic reaffirm their commitment to a cooperative and productive partnership. The alliance is only as strong as the bonds of friendship and trust that exists between and among its members.