Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright spoke of her passion for democracy in front of a large crowd in Rockefeller Memorial Chapel during the Tomás G. Masaryk Lecture on Democracy Tuesday evening.
“The future is shaped not only by what we learn from the past but also by what we forget,” she said.
The lecture honors democracy advocate Masaryk, who spent a summer teaching as a visiting professor to the University in 1902 before going on to advocate Czech independence and become the founder and first President of Czechoslovakia.
“Today the totalitarian ideologies of the past century are in remission,” she said to an audience that included many Czech Chicagoans.
Albright, born in Prague in 1937, was the first female Secretary of State, the highest-ranking woman in the history of American government, and the first American of Czech birth to achieve these honors when she was appointed to the post by President Bill Clinton in 1996. She played a key role in American policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and helped formulate the U.S. policy stance on the Kosovo and Bosnian wars.
Her most recent book, Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership, published in January this year, listed five umbrella issues the next president will have to confront: terrorism, global warming, poverty, the good nature of democracy, and inheriting a two-front war.
She asked for an end to the hundred-day gimmick.
“I think the next president has to level with the American people, assume we have a brain, and tell us the truth,” said Albright, who has endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential campaign.
While responding to a question from the audience during a question and answer session, Albright reminded the audience that her news now comes only from the newspapers.
“I haven’t seen any piece of intelligence in Washington in a very long time,” said Albright. After a pause, the audience burst into laughter and applause.
“We know that terror is a threat to human rights, and human rights and democracy are threats to terror,” she said, although she said she opposed the imposition of democracy. “Imposing democracy, which is what is happening in Iraq, does not work, and gives democracy a bad name.”
As the current chair of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a nonprofit institute dedicated to strenghtening democracy worldwide, Albright brings international experts to countries to aid in the creation of democratic systems suitable for nations’ individual circumstances.
“I’m not one of those who believes we are enmeshed in a battle of civilizations, but I do believe we are in a clash of ideals,” she said, making reference to the war in Iraq as well as other countries facing human rights crises, including Sudan, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, China, Iran, and Burma. Albright said she supported the concept of Responsibility to Protect, which supports foreign intervention when a state is neglecting humanitarian responsibilities.
The Czech and United States’ national anthems played consecutively before an introduction by H.E. Petr Kolár, the Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States. “She also knows how to be tough and stubborn and difficult, if necessary,” said Kolár, a friend of Albright. “Some dictators or enemies call her snake, or witch, or both. We call her Madlenka – our Madeleine.”
Tomas Masaryk, the lecture’s namesake, was a promoter of the right to self-determination and an advocate for the world’s small nations, and his fervor for democracy swept through Chicago in May 1918 when crowds of over 150,000 joined him in support of a democracy for the Czechs.
“I am so pleased to have the opportunity to grow up as a free American,” said Albright, an immigrant, during comments about contemporary immigration issues. “I don’t think we can pull up the ladder just because we got here,” she added, suggesting her support for a humane and comprehensive immigration process.
“Translating conviction into reality is no simple task,” Albright said. As Secretary of State, she expanded and modernized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), leading its efforts to put an end to ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. “You are going to think I’m crazy when I say this, but it’s not easy being the U.S.,” she said, calling the United States’ powerful role a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t position to occupy.
“People either criticize us for not intervening, as in Rwanda, or in intervening, as in Iraq,” she said, warning that those who ignored global norms and liberty in their own countries would look to conquering other nations.
Albright called for liberty both domestically and internationally. “If the Untied States were to lose its passion for liberty, it would no longer be America.”