Don’t Take Democracy for Granted

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned against the continued danger of Fascist thought in today’s world during a BBTI conversation at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. Albright talked about the topic of her book “Fascism: A Warning” and is deeply worried about the resurgence of nationalism and strongmen leaders around the world.

Sabine Muscat | September 2018
BBTI Madeleine Albright Header
Chris Williams, Zoeica Images

Madeleine Albright discussed fascism with Strobe Talbott, who served as her Vice Secretary of State in the Clinton administration.

It is an unwritten rule in Washington, DC that an event with Madeleine Albright cannot conclude without a question about the meaning of her brooch. The former U.S. Secretary of State is known for setting her motto for the day with her choice of costume jewelry. For the discussion on the topic “Fascism: A Warning,” at the Brookings Institution, she had decorated her teal green suit with a pin depicting a Roman god. “Today, I am wearing Mercury, the messenger,” she said. Her message – or rather warning – to the audience: Don’t take democracy for granted.

“We all must pay attention to this warning so that future historians will not write that we failed to see the signs,” said Christian Hänel, Senior Vice President America and Asia at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, in his welcome remarks. The conversation with former Brookings president Strobe Talbott – who served as Albright’s Vice Secretary of State during President Bill Clinton’s second term – was part of the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative, which promotes transatlantic dialogue and cooperation. In his introduction, Brookings president John R. Allen praised Albright’s career from a member of the National Security Council to U.S. ambassador to the UN to the first female Secretary of State, adding that the 81-year old stateswoman, “continues to make a difference on the world stage every single day.”

Albright’s book presents a stark comparison between the current rise of strongman leaders around the world and the developments that led to Fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, but also to the Soviet version of totalitarianism. The dark chapters of 20th century European history are closely connected with Albright’s personal story. As a child, the daughter of a Czech diplomat and democrat had to flee twice, first from the Nazis, then from the Communists.

Albright said that today she worries that the economic and social divisions created by globalization and the technological revolution facilitate the rise of aggressive forms of nationalism and societal fault lines within countries. “These divisions are exacerbated if a leader identifies with one group at the expense of another,” said Albright. According to her, this trend is visible in countries from Turkey to the United States.

The divisions are exacerbated if a leader identifies with one group at the expense of another.

Albright expressed deep concern with the situation in the United States where the ability to compromise and build coalitions seem to have disappeared. “We are the world’s oldest democracy, but all of a sudden we are no longer the example of how democracy should work,” she said.

She expressed her hope that the U.S. would not only restore its democratic traditions and institutions but also keep promoting them around the world. “I believe that the people of the United States are better off if other countries are democracies,” she said.

Albright said that as a professor of diplomacy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service she encourages her students to enter the U.S. foreign service despite the challenging times for international diplomacy.  Her trust in the next generation led her to end the conversation on a cautiously optimistic note: “I believe in the fragility of democracy, but I also believe in the resilience of democracy.”