Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Former Secretary of State Albright’s remarks

[Editor’s Note: The following is an unofficial transcript of remarks on foreign policy challenges delivered Aug. 27, 2008, by former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright at a luncheon sponsored by the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, the Council on Foreign Relations and the city of Denver.]

“We are here to explore the challenges that the next president will face. Although it feels as if this year’s campaign began in the Mesozoic Era, there are still five months to go before Inauguration Day. It is possible that the world will look far different on that day than it does now, but I doubt it.

“Even in the best case our next president will inherit a list of headaches beginning with hot wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the global confrontations with Al-Qaida. Because these conflicts are unconventional, they are unlikely to end conventionally through a clear-cut victory or a negotiated peace. They could well drag on, which is dangerous because time is not on our side.

Success in an unconventional war depends on popular backing, and it’s hard for Western troops fighting in Muslim lands to gain support and still be aggressive. Thus it should not be surprising that many Iraqis and Afghanis are ambivalent about our presence while leaders in Pakistan see a gap between their best interests and ours.

“The job for America’s next commander in chief will be to develop a policy that works militarily, but also politically, so that we do not end up creating more enemies than we defeat. That’s easy to say, but hard to do.

“And only the beginning of what our new president will be called upon to accomplish. From the first day, his administration will be tested by an assertive Iran, a belligerent Russia, as we have seen in Georgia recently, a rising China, a splintered Middle East, an embattled U.N. and such inter-related global perils as climate change, high prices for energy and food, and an increasingly corrosive split between the rich and the poor.

“More difficult still, our 44th chief executive will take office at a time when our armed forces have been stretched thin, our alliances weakened, our treasury depleted and our reserves of international popularity drained. The new president must therefore come to the Oval Office equipped not only with some brilliant new ideas but also with the necessary temperament to handle the world’s most stressful job. He must adapt to changes that are occurring across the globe, which means updating our understanding of America’s international role.

“Ever since I’ve been in public life, I’ve heard presidential candidates refer nostalgically to the period right after World War II. This is when American power and prestige were at their highest. We had defeated Hitler, founded the United Nations, forged NATO and launched the Marshall Plan.

“We’re told now that our goal should be to recapture that golden moment, but we can’t, for nostalgia is no substitute for strategy. Back in 1948, Japan and Germany were occupied by foreign troops. Europe was in ruins, China was engulfed in a civil war and much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East were still under colonial rule. Americans might want to revisit the era of Truman and Eisenhower but the world has other dreams.

“To young people across the globe, the Cold War — let alone the Second World War — is ancient history. The conflict that has made the deepest impression on them is Iraq and the image of America many now carry in their heads is shaped less by Omaha Beach than by Guantanamo Bay. Today, few countries are sitting around waiting for America to lead.”

“Consider that recent Middle East diplomacy has been brokered by Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. That France negotiated a ceasefire in Georgia. That India and Brazil determined the fate of world trade talks, and that Iran, whose government we are trying to isolate, recently hosted a nonaligned summit that represents a majority of the world’s population.

“Meanwhile, the economic center of gravity continues to shift away from the United States and toward countries that are rich in energy and cash. All this is why the next president must do more than reminisce about our nation’s history. His mission will be to enhance America’s ability to meet in a future with numerous centers of power and multiple sources of danger. To succeed he must be patient. We will not recover all the ground we lost in the first 100 or even the first 1,000 days of a new administration.

“It will take time to get our fiscal house in order, to extract ourselves responsibly from Iraq, and to develop a more effective response to violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will take time to formulate innovative policies toward each of the many trouble spots around the globe, from the Caucuses and Middle East to Sudan and Congo. And it will take time to restore out nation’s reputation as a champion of human rights and international law and to show a renewed commitment to fighting the Axis of Evil: poverty, ignorance and disease.

“It will take time to convince skeptics that the promotion of democracy is not a mask for imperialism or a recipe for the kind of chaos we have seen in the Persian Gulf.

“Promoting democracy in Iraq has been a real problem, and there are not a lot of other countries in the region that look at Iraq and say, ‘I want my country to look just like that.’ And it will take time to establish the right identity for America in a world that has grown suspicious of all who claim a monopoly on virtue and that has become reluctant to follow the lead of any one country.

“It will take time for the next president to succeed, but the opportunity will be there. The world may not be clamoring for American leadership but there is no doubt that a guiding hand is needed. That direction is unlikely to come from radical populists, aggressive nationalists, autocratic modernizers or the apostles of holy war.

“America makes no claims to perfection and we have no interest in domination, but we do have a conviction to offer the world. That conviction is not confined to any particular period of history or area of the globe. It is valid now and always will be and that is a belief in the fundamental dignity and importance of every human being.

“This is the principle that is at the heart of every democracy. It provides the basis for the kind of leadership that could restore international respect for America. It creates the foundation for unity across the barriers of geography, race, gender and creed. And it can serve as a useful starting point for discussions about every major issue that will confront the next president of the United States.”

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