Uncommon Interview: Madeleine Albright

The former Secretary of State talks about the key moments of her diplomatic career, her advice for current Secretary of State John Kerry, and the importance of studying abroad.

By Marina Fang

In 1997, Madeleine Albright was sworn in as the first female Secretary of State and became the highest-ranking woman in the history of the United States government up to that point. She was former Czech president Vaclav Havel’s pick to replace him in 2002. Now, at the age of 75, Albright is still active in foreign affairs and serves on the Council of Foreign Relations.

Before giving a talk at International House on Thursday afternoon, she sat down with the MAROON to recount some of the key moments of her diplomatic career, to share her advice for current Secretary of State John Kerry, and to vouch for the importance of studying abroad.

CHICAGO MAROON: You grew up during World War II and experienced a lot of the war in Europe. Do you feel like these experiences shaped your career? Do you reflect on them when making policy decisions?

Secretary Madeleine Albright: They very much shaped my life, in two different ways. First of all, as a child, I really did see buildings bombed, and what makes me different from an American that’s the same age as I am is that I can understand what happens when there is fighting in a way that they couldn’t. In terms intellectually, [what] shaped my life was the whole Munich thing [the Munich Agreement] that I knew about all my life, in terms of how large powers make decisions that affect small countries, and the unintended consequences of that. The other part is I knew about the Holocaust. l just didn’t know that it applied to my family. But that did affect the way I thought about what I was seeing as ethnic cleansing in the Balkans; there’s no question about that. And I think we all are people that are the product of our backgrounds. It’s wrong to think that you’re not.

CM: Along those lines, you dealt with a lot of challenging international issues during your career, including the Balkan Wars. Can you recall a particularly pivotal or challenging moment during a negotiation or when you were considering a certain issue?

MA: One of the things I write about a bit in my Madam Secretary memoir is on Rwanda, where I was an instructed ambassador at the U.N., and my instructions were to not vote for increased forces there, and I didn’t like my instructions. So I got up and called Washington and said, “Change my instructions,” and they didn’t. And then obviously Kosovo, which was very hard.

CM: Did that affect you personally, given that you’ve experienced wars involving ethnic groups?

Yes. Very much. Partially we were trying to avoid a war…. Because life is so peculiar, my father had been ambassador in Yugoslavia, so I, I mean, I was a little girl, but I understood the country. And I also felt that what was so wrong was people being killed not for anything that they had done but for who they were.

CM: The new Secretary of State, John Kerry, just began his tenure this week. Were you able to meet with him? Did he ask you for advice?

MA: I was there yesterday. First of all, he lives around the corner from me, so I’ve known him a long time and we’ve talked. But yesterday he had a formal swearing-in ceremony, and I met with him and his family, and it was interesting. It’s always interesting to go back to the State Department. He gave a terrific talk about America’s role having to be engaged, and I thought I was very glad to see him there. He knows more about more subjects than an awful lot of people. But I think it’s a very hard job.

CM: He said he had “big heels to fill.”

MA: Well, he actually stole my line because when I became Secretary of State, I said, ‘I hope my heels will fill Warren Christopher’s shoes.’ So he reversed that.

CM: Are there things that you hope [Kerry] accomplishes or things he should prioritize?

MA: I think the hardest part [is] the priorities. There are an awful lot of things to do. This is where his own background comes in, because he knows what the issues are. So he has to decide which are the ones that are amenable to a Secretary of State doing, which are the ones that can be done at different levels. I think that’s the part that you really learn when you’re a Secretary, which is different from when you’re a senator or any job. It’s that you don’t have to do everything alone, but you do have to deputize people to do other parts of the job. So obviously Iran is a very large problem. It’s hard to decide what the number one issue [is], but that is a very threatening problem. Talks are beginning, as I understand it, in Kazakhstan in a couple of weeks. But he has very strong people…the Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, who’s going to represent us there. But he needs to learn who are the people that he can deploy that are basically following out what he and the President want. So what any Secretary’s issue is to decide where he or she will put their major emphasis, where they will use other people who then confer and report to them.

CM: What are things students can do even while in college to prepare for a career in foreign policy?

MA: Foreign policy is now a huge field. It isn’t just people who are studying political science. There are so many aspects to it in terms of understanding hard science for people who are studying climate change, or people who are interested in health policy or food security, or people who care about education. For me, I teach at Georgetown, and I see that the students have so many different interests. The main thing is to match your passion with your knowledge, because you can’t just be passionate without knowing the facts, and facts are really boring without passion. So I think they kind of have to go together.

The other part that I find: You all are just much more internationally-minded and traveled and knowledgeable in languages than any other previous generation. So many of you are already doing a lot of international relations, I think. I so believe in student networks, and people that either study abroad or come to the United States to study, and the relationships that you all develop. You learn a lot from each other, but you all will see each other again in jobs along the way. And I think that makes a big difference. I so believe in what students can do.