Madeleine Albright on fascism, democracy, and diplomacy

By Maggie Tennis

What can the history of fascism teach us about democracy today? In her latest book, “Fascism: A Warning” (HarperCollins, 2018), former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright writes that a fascist “is someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goals he or she might have.” She argues that fascism now presents a more virulent threat to peace and justice than at any time since the end of World War II.

On September 7, the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings hosted a conversation with Secretary Albright and Strobe Talbott, distinguished fellow in residence and former Brookings president, on the threat of fascism and how we can avoid repeating the tragic errors of the past. Talbott also served as deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, including under Secretary Albright.

Democracy under attack

Talbott asked Albright about her personal and professional experiences with fascism, both as a child in war-torn Europe and in her celebrated career as a diplomat and scholar. “You have in various ways been living with the subject that we’re talking about,” noted Talbott. “When did you become concerned that American democracy is on its back foot?”

“When we came to the United States my father said he was very worried about the fact that Americans took their democracy for granted. And so I kind of grew up with that concept that it was a gift, but that we had to really cherish it and do something about it,” said Albright.

As chairman of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Albright has traveled the world to advocate on behalf of democratic values and institutions. Increasingly, she has faced questions about American methods. She emphasized that “you can’t impose democracy, that’s an oxymoron.” Instead, the focus should be on promoting elements of democracy such as coalition-building and compromise, two ideals that American democracy efforts have not always prioritized. Albright worries more each day that Americans take democracy for granted and do not prize compromise or consider “how democratic systems and the economy work together.”

Talbott referred to the recent erosion of democratic principles and institutions in the West, especially trans-Atlantic alliances such as NATO and the EU. Albright argued that two “megatrends”—globalization and technology—are primarily responsible for this phenomenon. Although positive in many ways, each trend has weakened public support for democratic values. Albright described globalization as “faceless,” blaming it for making people “feel that they have no identity.” A dangerous emphasis on national identity in politics has emerged as a result. Technology, meanwhile, disaggregates people’s voices and enables both the rapid spread of disinformation and organization of non-democratic movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Albright argued that a lack of technological innovation is partially responsible for people’s dissatisfaction with democratic government. She illustrated her point with an idiom from Silicon Valley: “People are talking to their governments on 21st-century technology. The governments listen to them on 20th-century technology and provide 19th-century responses.” When governments are unable to respond to the divisions caused by globalization and technology, and if a leader emerges who wants to “exacerbate those divisions instead of somebody that wants to find some common answers, it leads towards authoritarian governments and ultimately fascism.”

Diplomacy under attack

Albright lamented the vacancies at the State Department as well as plans in Congress to reduce funding for democracy support overseas. “Foreign policy is just trying to get some country to do what you want. That’s all it is. So what are the tools?” She went on to say: “Diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral, is a bread and butter tool. And you can’t do diplomacy if you don’t have diplomats.“ Albright has visited the Hill to talk about protecting funding for democracy programs. She believes that “the people of the United States are better off if other countries are democracies.”

Talbott asked Albright about the role of bipartisanship in strengthening the State Department. She responded that bipartisanship is important to protecting diplomatic efforts and democracy promotion abroad. As chair of the National Democratic Institute, Albright worked closely with the late John McCain, who served as chair of the International Republican Institute (IRI). While monitoring elections together in Czechoslovakia in 1990, the two became close friends and partners. “There are many Republicans who fully understand the importance of [a strong State Department],” said Albright.

Talbott questioned her about the professional aspirations of her current students at Georgetown. Albright responded that many are interested in the Foreign Service, yet are skeptical of association with the current administration’s policies. “I urge them to go and be a part of what is a great history of our diplomatic service and our civil service. I do tell them they won’t actually be accused of being part of the policy,” said Albright.

Defining fascism

Talbott noted that the first and last word in Albright’s book is that “fascism does not cover all forms of tyranny.” Madeleine agreed, replying: “Not every dictator or authoritarian is a fascist, but every fascist is a dictator or authoritarian.” Writing the book was an exercise in defining fascism. “It’s not an ideology, it’s a process for gaining and keeping control,” she explained. Exacerbating societal divisions, encouraging tribalism, and the use of violence to maintain control are all elements of fascism.

Talbott asked Albright what she has learned from talking to people while traveling for her book tour. She replied:

“When I’ve gone around to talk to people they really do see that there is an elite group in the United States, that there are people that don’t have jobs. And this is the part that really does worry me, if you have a leader who then blames it on somebody else, because part of the whole fascist aspect is you always have to find a scapegoat.”

In the United States, she added, President Trump portrays America as a victim, while scapegoating foreigners and immigrants. However, Albright would not call Donald Trump a fascist. Instead, she described him as the most un-democratic leader that the United States has ever seen.

Albright ended the conversation by talking about her “to-do list,” which includes talking to people with whom she disagrees and supporting the young people in this country who are marching for change. Her own work is to spread a message about the fragility and resiliency of democracy.

At the end, she added: “It took me a long time to find my voice, and I’m sure not going to shut up.”

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