Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks about experiences amidst protest

Albright discussed her 40-year career in international affairs with Maxwell Dean James Steinberg during the eighth annual Tanner Lecture.

Madeleine Albright served as the United States' first female secretary of state from 1997 to 2001 — but to her youngest granddaughter, that’s no big deal.

“Only girls are secretary of state,” Albright recalled her now 14-year-old granddaughter saying at age seven.

Albright had a conversation with Dean James Steinberg of the Maxwell School on April 5 to a packed crowd in Hendricks Chapel as part of the Tanner Lecture Series on Ethics, Citizenship and Public Responsibility. From 1993 to 1997, Albright served as the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and was a member of President Bill Clinton’s Cabinet.

Photo: Amanda Piela
Outside of Hendricks, around 20 people protested Albright's lecture, carrying signs and handing out fliers.

When Albright was appointed secretary of state, she became the highest-ranking woman in government at the time. Albright said many men didn’t think she could do the job. They thought Arab leaders would refuse to work with her, but in actuality she “did not have problems abroad.”

“I had more problems with men in our own government,” Albright said. “Not because they were all male chauvinist pigs, but because they’d known me for a long time.”

It’s fitting that Albright spoke about the importance of academics in governance while at the university. As an employee of the State Department, she said she would often bring her academic colleagues over for “no fault” discussions. Albright, who teaches at Georgetown University, said she uses her government experience to help her academically and vice versa. 

“It is important to be immersed in what you’ve learned and why you’ve learned it,” Albright said. When she travels abroad, she often sees her students use their education to serve their country through the foreign service. In her eyes, foreign service jobs are very dangerous. She cited the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, in which more than 200 people died in attacks linked to al-Qaida. 

“We need to see diplomats as dedicated representatives,” she said.

Albright also emphasized the importance of compromise and differing viewpoints in governance. To her, the most important element of democracy is compromise. 

“You don’t have to agree with somebody on everything, but our system only works when there’s respect and civility across the aisle,” Albright said. When asked about whether she would show a position adverse to that of the government, Albright drew laughs with her answer — depends on who's president.

“It has to be done in a responsible way,” she said. "(In a democracy) there has to be some way of letting it be known that you disagree. It’s useful if people speak on the basis of rational facts, which may not happening all the time.”

As for the refugee crisis in Europe Albright had one word: horrendous. Since leaving office, Albright continues to be involved in world issues. Soon she will be heading to a meeting in Oslo, Norway to talk about the current refugee situation.

“I am a refugee,” she said, referring to her birth in what is now the Czech Republic and her family seeking political asylum in the United States. “I am incredibly grateful for being welcomed by this country.”

“We are a very big country and there’s plenty of room,” Albright said, explaining how she thinks the United States should do more to accommodate refugees. 

Albright kept the conversation lighthearted, even when speaking about difficult topics. However, her presence on campus elicited a reaction that was outwardly inaffectionate. 

Outside of the chapel, protesters from the Syracuse ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) and ISO (International Socialist Organization), protested Albright’s presence on campus. During the lecture, two audience members on the second floor hung a banner painted with the words, “there is a special place in hell for war criminals.”

Koy Adams, a senior women's and gender studies and sociology major described Albright as an “imperial feminist.” He referenced comments made by Albright on "60 Minutes" about U.N. sanctions against Iraq, in which she said the price of the sanctions (which the interviewer described as the deaths of a half a million children) was “worth it.”  

“I see this event itself as being violent because you are inviting Madeleine Albright to talk about ethics,” Adams said. “It’s violent to say that you’re approving of kids being killed. ... This is a person who claims, ‘I’m a woman helping other women’ because her actions have political power and she has political clout. She actually had adverse effects on women worldwide.”

“For me [this protest] is to spread awareness, particularly the impacts of the institutional go-ahead of having an event such as this,” he continued. “There’s a particular perception of SU as being really elitist. You know, you’re so lost in your books that you can’t connect to reality. This [event] kind of proves it.”

William Arlt, who came from a “hour-and-a-half east” of Syracuse also said he was protesting to raise awareness.

“We’re drawing visibility to the often poorly understood fact that the Democratic Party is just as imperialist as the Republican Party,” Arlt said.

Although demonstrations were taking place outside, little mention was made of it during the event. The banner hanging from the second floor was removed before Albright could acknowledge it and the people who brought it left Hendricks Chapel.

However, during the lecture, Albright did acknowledge that she has made “a number of mistakes” in some of her statements. In explaining how during crises, such as the Rwandan genocide, her department didn't have all the information they have now, she said acknowledged a feeling many people experience. "Hindsight is 20/20," she said.

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