Derek Mitchell & Secretary Madeleine Albright on her past and democracy's future

NDI Board Chairman Secretary Madeleine Albright

NDI President Derek Mitchell and NDI Board Chairman Secretary Madeleine Albright talk about her new book Hell and Other Destinations, and her experiences as Secretary of State. She reflects on U.S. foreign policy, democratic trends, and her hopes for the future. 
This podcast was recorded May 27, 2020, prior to demonstrations in support of racial equality across the United States.
Find us on:  SoundCloud | Apple Podcasts | Spotify | RSS | Google Play
Derek Mitchell: Hello. Welcome to DemWorks. My name is Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute.

We indeed are honored to once again to have Secretary Albright join us. Madam Secretary first, thank you again very much for doing this. Do you want to share some opening thoughts? I want to turn it over to you. Perhaps some things that have happened since we last got together about a month back.

Secretary Albright: Terrific. Thank you very much, Derek. Two important meetings I've participated in the past weeks. What was very interesting, it was the ... First was a virtual hearing convened by the house foreign affairs committee. They couldn't have testimony, so this was a briefing, and I did it alongside Derek and Dan Twining from IRI, and the subject was authoritarianism, disinformation and good governance during COVID-19. And this was the first time that the committee had done this kind of a hearing, And I think it's a very important signal that they chose to focus on the subject of democracy. And I think that it's a great tribute to NDI that we were the first organization asked to debrief the committee.

What is very, I think, positive is that leaders in Congress, both Republicans and Democrats recognize that good governance is critical to responding to the pandemic. And they know that NDI therefore has a key role to play in helping the world overcome the challenge and others like it.

DM: We discussed it at that last town hall, featuring our chairman about how she was on the cusp of releasing a new memoir about her life. This one being about her very eventful life after leaving her job as the first woman vice secretary of state. Hell and Other Destinations was released in mid April. During my time in doors last month, I read her book and it really is funny, a funny and fascinating read. So my intention today is to open up another conversation with our chairman and do so first by asking some questions based on themes from her life that she discusses in her book.

You said in your book that everyone should write a memoir. Why do you say that? And do you, or did you, have you kept a journal yourself?

SA: Well let me say this. I have thought, because basically I come from an academic background that when one looks at what happened in a certain period of history, it's very important to read people's memoirs. Now what I have found as I've analyzed memoirs, and I have, is that people write it from a different perspective. And so it's important because often we disagree on the context or what we did or what our role was. But I think it is interesting to kind of have the memoirs and it's really worth the doing. And I think especially people that have been in public positions, but everybody, I think in terms of ...

So let me just say, I have tried over the years to keep a journal. And I haven't really, because at a certain stage I was made much ... Obviously when I was young and had met a lot of people, I thought, "Isn't this great. I have to write about it." And then it always kind of stops after one month. Then, I did actually not keep a journal when I was in the government, because as we know ... I don't know if you remember, everything was being subpoenaed. But I had a lot of scratchy notes. And then what happened as I was writing Madam Secretary initially, was that when I found the schedule it was like the Rosetta Stone, because I could identify what the scratchy notes actually has something to do with. But embarrassingly, my mind would wander, and all of a sudden in the middle of my scratchy notes it was say, "Buy yogurt." And so I was multitasking even then, but I didn't keep a journal. And in many ways I wish I did, but there are so many records of the kinds of things that we all did together that I think my memoirs have been fairly complete.

DM: I felt one of the most poignant chapters in the book was the story about how you discovered your maternal grandmother's journal. It was about five or six years ago while you're going through your father's artifacts. And it turned out your grandmother had been killed in the Holocaust in 1942, and the journal, you have excerpts with the journal in the back of the book and it was written as a kind of dialogue she had ... She wanted to have with your mother and maybe with you while you're all in England. It also reads like kind of a lonely mother who wanted to connect with an absent family alone and isolated and Czechoslovakia, as things happened around her. Dangerous world was swirling in 1942 ... Well, really it started in 42 for her in that journal.

Can you talk a bit about the experience of discovering this journal, and through it your grandmother, so late and what it meant to you? Because we're also being isolated with things swirling out our doors, but also just what it meant to you to discover this and discover your grandmother so late.

SA: Well, thank you for asking that. And I ... Just for people that don't know my story, I was raised a Catholic, married and Episcopalian, and found out I was Jewish. So I can have my religious discussions sitting in a corner. But basically, I did not know about my Jewish background until 1996. And I had gotten a letter from somebody that had the names of the villages and my grandparents' names and dates right, and that was just as I was being vetted to be secretary of state, and the White House lawyer asked all the questions about taxes and nannies and stuff, but then he said, "We always ask this question of everybody. Is there anything you'd like to tell us that we didn't ask you?" And I said, "Well, it's perfectly possible I'm of Jewish background." And they said, "So what? The president is not antisemitic."

And it was only later when I was already an office that I was visited by some reporters who started giving me this disgusting index cards. These Nazis were very good record keepers and they had names of my relatives that have been sent to concentration camps. So to get to the journal part of it is my parents, we left Czechoslovakia in March, 1939, or escaped frankly. My father was in the Czechoslovak diplomatic service, and we escaped to England. And they ... When I think about all the things that happened, I find it harder and harder to get my head around it.

My parents were in their 30s, they left their families behind and went to England, where they were isolated in many different ways. We came back and I won't go through the whole story, but my father died in 1997 and he had lots of papers, and then my mother moved to Washington and she brought all his stuff with her. And when she died, all of a sudden all of it got transferred to me. And I had some hesitation in looking at anything, frankly, because of how the memories, but then what happened is when I became a public official diplomatic security moved into in my garage and were around all the time and there were all these boxes. And they said, "You've got to put these in storage." So I put all these boxes into storage and I didn't look at them, and it wasn't until 2015 that I had to find something and I went to the storage and I start poking through the boxes. And all of a sudden, there's this old envelope, and inside it is a diary. A journal. And it kind of blows my mind.

I look at it, obviously it's a ... And it's from my grandmother, and it is something that she wrote to ... They were letters to my mother describing what was going on. And it was kind of an interesting mixture of just day to day kind of things. "I did this, I washed my hair and I went shopping." And then all of a sudden it began to say things like, "They're talking about Aryans and non Aryans. I've never heard that distinction," she says. And goes through the kinds of things that the Jews in the town we're not able to shop in a variety of places. Oh, they had to give up all their warm clothes to the Nazi soldiers, and ... Just stunning. And in the middle it would say things, "How was it [Mudlanka 00:08:45]?" Which was me. "She's so cute." And it just was unbelievable.

And it was really like a message in a bottle where all of a sudden it's hearing from a previous generation in terms of their hopes and their wishes. And obviously in the most incredibly complex time. And the other thing I try to figure out, how my mother even got this and I've tried to put together what the path of it was and how stunned she must've been when it showed up. And so I have translated it, and it is in the book. But it's really very meaningful and it has hope in it, which I think is such an important part. And one of my messages just generally is that we can't control everything around us. We can only control our behavior. And I think that that's something that also came through in my grandmother's journal.

DM: It also is you talked about the various identities you have in a way as a Catholic Episcopalian Jew, in terms of heritage. And that issue of identity is a big one that we work with at NDI. And there's a big question for nations nowadays, given your past and your family, that of your family, how has the question of identity shaped you?

SA: Well, I have definitely been a lot of different things. As a child, we spent the war in England then went back to Czechoslovakia briefly, and then my father was made ambassador to Yugoslavia. I think some of you've heard me tell this. The little girl in the national costume that gave flowers at the airport, that's what I did for a living. My father didn't want me going to school with communists, so I had a governess. And then I got ahead of myself, and as people know in Europe, you have to be a certain age to get into the next level. So my parents sent me to school in Switzerland, where I was finally told how I should spell my name, because my mother used to pronounce it [Mudlan 00:00:10:44]. And so anyway, I have the French spelling and I learned to speak French. And then we come to the United States.

And so I was recently asked to describe myself in six words, and it is, worried optimist, problem-solver, and grateful American. And I think those are my identities and I'm grateful to be an American, but I'm also grateful for the background that I've had in terms of trying to understand how other people see themselves. I do think identity is important. I think we all want to know who we are. We may get surprised, but it's worth it knowing. What I don't like, and this is what troubles me and I wrote about this in my previous book on fascism is when my identity hates your identity, because that then is obviously very divisive. And it's one thing to be proud of your identity, it's another, hyper nationalism, which we're seeing that is undercutting everything. And we know that the virus knows no borders. So there are an awful lot of paradoxes that are going on now in terms of wanting to know who you are, but not thinking that you're better than everybody else.

And my, as I describe, authoritarian leaders and fascists, I begin with Mussolini. It's a matter of the leader identifying himself. And by the way, they're all his, with one group at the expense of another and makes them scapegoats. And that's why I'm very troubled by the divisions that are being exacerbated now.

DM: There's individual identity and there's national identity. And the national identity, as you say, that's most pernicious is an exclusive identity, rather than an inclusive identity, which is what we're all about. We're all about an inclusive identity. We're all treated equally. And these authoritarians are about identifying those exclusive identities, us and them, that tear countries apart and create the instability and insecurity that results. So this is a key part of what we do, I think absolutely.

During the writing process, we you able to identify the moment in your life when you knew what your life purpose was? At what point did you know what Mark you wanted to leave in this world?

SA: And it's a hard question to answer, because I do think that one of the things that was a motivating factor for me growing up was that I was, and am, a grateful American, and wanted to give back in some form. I also ... My father had, obviously, a great influence on me. So did my mother, and my father kept saying that Americans are taking democracy for granted. We had just left the country of our birth twice. Once because of the Nazis and then because of the communists. And the fragility of democracy. And so I looked at trying to figure out, in looking back, what were the different methods that I thought I could use to give back to America?

By the way, it never occurred to me that I would be secretary of state. There's some people who think I planned that. Never. But I do think that I wanted to have some kind of a role where I was able to talk about the necessity of supporting democracy. And I got fascinated by the UN because that's what brought us to America. And so kind of looking at institutional structures, but it never, never occurred to me. Nor did it occur to me, frankly, that I would be able to have a post secretary of state life, where I was able to put together the various things that I was interested in.

What I tried to do always is to make whatever I was doing next more interesting than what I'd done before. Not easy if you've been secretary of state, but the reason I wanted to write this book was to show how the various things that I got involved in related to each other and how I learned from one thing to another. My greatest talent, frankly, is dot connection, of trying to figure out how one thing relates to another.

I do want to talk about one specific moment that's so stands out. My favorite thing to do is to give naturalization certificates at the ceremonies. And so the first time I did it was July 4th, 2000 at Monticello, and I'm handing out a certificate and I hear this man. He goes away and he says, "Can you believe I'm a refugee, and I just got my naturalization certificate from the secretary of state?" And I go up to him and I say, "Can you believe that a refugee is secretary of state?" And I so believe in what America stands for and what we can do to be helpful to others, which is why I say that at this moment, the statue of Liberty is weeping.

DM: Our research in Ukraine has uncovered historical memory as a significant target of Russian information attacks. Ukrainians appear to be vulnerable to attacks that speak to evoke nostalgia for the economic stability of the Soviet period. These attacks exploit an actual democratic challenge for Ukraine, which is an economy that is not working for all citizens. In the US, what vulnerabilities do you worry similar information attacks could seek to exploit.

SA: I do think that I have been ... I love history. When I teach at Georgetown, I always try to put everything into historical context. And I have to say what I was just doing before we started this discussion was watching a program about a project in the United States about slavery. And there's ... The New York Times was doing something called 16 19, and there were some very strong arguments on Morning Joe this morning about this, between those who recollect history differently, or are trying to use it in particular ways for political movement, which we do. And I think people do that in terms of understanding what their history means.

And then one of the people there said, "History is to be argued about," which I find interesting because you kind of think, "Okay, well, we know what history is." But it goes back to your first question, Derek, about writing memoirs. Because people have different ideas of their history. I think the question is, do you have a society where you can dispute the history? And the Ukrainian one is clearly unbelievably complicated, in terms of that a modern Russia comes out of Ukraine, and that that relationship and Ukraine itself is a complicated country in terms of East and West and religion, and the aspect of communism that gave people a certain sense of understanding what the system was. They might not have gotten the kinds of things ...

Not everybody just wants the freedom to talk. Some of them want to be able to what their history is about. Are they going to have retirement? What group do they belong to? Can they send their kids to school? And I found this in a lot of research that I did about central and Eastern Europe at the time, right after the fall of the wall. What is it that the people thought that they ... What was communism and what were the possibilities of democracy? And I do think that Ukraine is one of the more complex countries, and the fact that it has been invaded, and the fact that the economic situation is something that is being pushed by the Russian hacking and the way that they operate, and their way of trying to divide us and divide Ukrainians from each other.

DM: Rebuilding a United Europe was one of the success stories of the second part of the 20th century. The last few years have seen the foundations of Europe shake with Brexit and the rise of authoritarian populace. How do we ensure that the European project continues as a liberal democratic one?

SA: I think that it is something that I ... I keep going back, trying to figure out what went wrong. Why did this happen? And I think partially we didn't appreciate enough the problems of societies that had been under communism for 50 years, and that it was much ... We spent a lot of time, I think, with a lot of the wonderful dissidents and intellectuals, and didn't think enough about how it affected the people that had had jobs. I mentioned that a little bit. And I think that also there are the issues now of this identity and the hyper nationalism, and that has been created to some extent in Europe, by the differences in the economic lives of, initially, Northern and Southern Europe, and trying to figure out why some were doing better than others, which then did lead to the fact that there were some leaders like Orban and the Poles that started blaming the other. And that was the most evident in many ways in why Brexit happened.

So these are big trends. I happen to believe in a European Union, but I think that as a structure, it also needs some fixing in terms of how it works with the different economic situations in the central and eastern European countries.

DM: In your book, you speak about how you dealt with misogyny as you progressed in your career. Can you share what helped to keep you steadfast in fighting this prejudice?

SA: I think that what is interesting ... And I often say that I went to college sometime between the invention of the iPad and the discovery of fire, but here it was a women's college. And basically we were told by our commencement speaker to get married and raise children. And I think that what I've been trying to do is to understand why women, why we're so hard on ... Tough on each other in terms of being very judgmental or finding our own inadequacies and other women. And so I have been very much for having ... Creating groups of women that can support each other.

And that is why I think it is so important, the kind of things that NDI is doing, in terms of working with women, to make sure that they are participants in society, run for office, and are respected. And I'd love talking about the fact now that the countries that are doing best on dealing with the coronavirus are ones that are run by women. New Zealand, Taiwan, Finland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Iceland. And I think trying to make clear what the characteristics are of women that make that possible in terms of multitasking, of caring, not setting their children against each other, but you have to keep ... I do think that what is important is for women to support each other, and so that you're not the only woman in the room.

DM: Sometimes moments of crisis and trial like this pandemic lead to better things. What are your hopes in that regard? And also what is the significance of today's pin?

SA: My hope, this is where my optimism comes from, our young people. I love learning from my students, and students that are particularly interested in foreign policy and diplomacy. Many of whom have traveled and they speak different languages and they certainly are tech literate. And I think that they question ... I think the important part for all of us as a democracy organization is to make sure that they participate, that they do vote, that they are interested in the institutional structures in the countries where they are. But that is definitely what gives me hope. And not ...

And I think it's very important, and I say this wherever I can, that democracy is not a spectator sport. It is something that the people need to be involved in. They need to be informed. They need to be respected. And I think the other part that I often talk about, and this is so true of NDI activities, is to spend time with people with whom you disagree and try to figure out where they're coming from, and understand what their needs are, and have a dialogue with civil society, and then understand the various institutions that are important. But definitely what makes me hopeful, our young people.

DM: On this issue of hopes of how moments of crisis and trial can lead to better things, I do think that's a very important question. I really hope that moments of trial by fire are sometimes very important, to set priorities to remember what's important, and to tell you how precarious things always are. I think we can get kind of complacent about things, as we are as a country, or we as individuals, that everything is going to be simply easy. I'm sure it's not easy for any of us. I'm sure many people have gone through lots of trials in their lives, as we all have. But crises can be moments where we focus on how ... Okay, we take stock of where our priorities are, and what kind of choices we want to make, which is what Madame Secretary said. Not just ... Crisis don't just happen to you, you also have a choice in how you respond to that crisis, both individually and as a collective, as a country, as a unit.

So I do think it's an opportunity and I'm certainly seeing that NDI of having better communication and doing more to force change, even potentially in culture because of this moment that's quite different than we've ever experienced. So we should be thinking in those terms. What are the things that we can do to take advantage of this moment, even when there's a lot of stress and anxiety? To take advantage of the opportunity as well. And that's my hope for all of us at NDI, again, as an organization and individually, that we can do that. And I think we can come out better on the back end if we go through it together on those terms.

SA: One of my heroes was Harry Truman. He was my first American president. We came to the United States, November 11th, 1948. He is the one that understood, to a great extent, America's role in the world, a democracy. And understand linking domestic to foreign policy. But I think there's so many other people that I have admired. I admire the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk, who married an American. And the first Czechoslovak constitution was modeled on the American one with one difference. It had a women's rights in it in 1918.

And so I think that one can have more than one hero, and I think it's important to point them out and to understand that people have gone through very difficult periods before. And I do think that what is important is to really be proud of things that we can do, and the thing that I personally am proudest of, because it put things together and how I used representing the United States was what we were able to do to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. And going there with President Clinton made a big difference cause they kept saying, "We were just there. We are so grateful to the United States."

DM: Well Madam Secretary, let me just close the book conversation with a quote from the book that I saw that I just want to share with everybody that you say at the end. I think it's in the acknowledgements at the end. The central theme of this book is about how people of all descriptions can work together for common goals against the background of accelerating history. It is about trying to make sense of the world we have while attempting to contribute to something better. Madam Secretary and everybody out there, stay safe, be well. Thank you all. Have a good day, and we'll talk again soon.

SA: Thank you so much for everything that you do. Thank you.

DM: Please visit our website at Thanks very much.