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Q&A: Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talks about Congress' role in foreign policy, fascism

Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State and ambassador to the United Nations, came to Duke to discuss her career in public service and reflect on current national issues. 

Prior to her Thursday evening talk, Albright sat down with The Chronicle, the Sanford Journal and Duke Political Review for a question and answer session. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sanford Journal: What is your intention of wearing that broach, and what does that mean for today?

Madeleine Albright: I did not have a Blue Devil. Usually, I try to wear whatever the color of the university is. I do like to wear symbols of America. This is an eagle. I think we are going to talk about some national security policy. Do you know how it all got started? I like jewelry, so when I went to the United Nations, one of the first things that came right after the Iraq War—the Gulf War—the cease-fire translated into a series of sanctions resolutions and I was an instructed ambassador and my instructions were to make sure the sanctions stayed on. So every day I said something terrible about Saddam Hussein which he deserved, he invaded Kuwait. 

There was a poem in the papers in Baghdad comparing me to many things but among them an unparalleled serpent. So I had a snake pin. I wore it anytime we talked about Iraq. The press kind of picked it up. 

I thought this was fun so I went out and got a lot of costume jewelry to depict whatever we were going to do on any given day. On good days I wore flowers and butterflies and balloons and on bad days I wore carnivores, animals, spiders and things. The other ambassadors wanted to know what we were going to do and I said read my pins. And that is how it all started.

The Chronicle: Given how your early life was shaped by fascism and after serving as the first female U.S. secretary of state, what do you think of the current rise of nationalism in the United States?

MA: Well, I am concerned about it, and that is why I wrote "Fascism: A Warning." Some people think the book is kind of alarming and it is supposed to be. I did a lot of research on how fascism got started. Interestingly enough [former Italy Prime Minister Benito] Mussolini was the first fascist. It came after Italy had actually been on the Allied Powers side during World War I but was not recognized enough for it. So there was anger about that. There were divisions in society. 

Mussolini was an outsider and he had answers for things. And he came to power constitutionally. Same thing happened with Hitler. Germany was dissatisfied with the end of the Versailles Treaty, with reparations and the financial crisis. Hitler had a lot of answers and he was named constitutionally. And the fascists, or the fascist leaning countries now—Hungary, Turkey, Philippines and Venezuela—all were countries where there were divisions and a leader and instead of finding common solutions does everything to divide people even more. 

I was going to write the book no matter who got elected. Because I was seeing more and more divisions in society that needed to have some kind of solutions. That is why I wrote it.

Duke Political Review: How should progressives balance immigration given the fact that the effects can result in the degradation of liberal values or the rise of right wing populism?

MA: We are a very large country. I have driven around it a lot. We have plenty of room. Every country has a right to have an immigration policy. I testified yesterday on the Hill and I said that Congress needed to work on getting an immigration policy, so there is a legal path and I do think that is important. What I also do think is that there needs to be a humanitarian aspect to it in some ways. 

What has happened in this administration is that the number of refugees that the country will accept in 2019 is the lowest, it is now 30,000, come down from around 100,000. I do think we want other countries to take refugees and it is hard for us to tell “X” country that they have to do it if we are not doing it. 

One, I think we have room. We have a way for legal immigration. I do think there are terrible things happening and all of a sudden to become anti-a-group-of-people—namely Muslims, at the moment—and see them all as terrorists has undermined the way America has approached it. I do believe it is important to develop a comprehensive immigration policy. It is not easy. If you look at a leader that allies himself with one group against another, what happened with Hitler and a real fascist—I do not think anyone was a fascist like Hitler—he not only blamed the minority for everything but made them scapegoats. 

That is one of the things that bothers me. Is that all of a sudden there is some sense that the immigrants, the refugees that are coming into the United States and the immigrants, are actually terrorists or declaring a state of emergency all of a sudden. Using the fear factor against people who themselves are trying to escape some terrible situation where they are subjected to an authoritarian form of government or [narcotics] traffickers.

TC: During the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing yesterday, you mentioned the importance of the role of Congress and foreign policy, and especially how Congress could become more involved at this time. What would that look like, especially in context with the President’s fast-track authority?

MA: The first Article in the Constitution is about Congress, which the Founding Fathers created to try to get away from a monarchy. The power Congress has is quite remarkable; they raise funds, and they are the ones that declare war and any number of different things. I teach a course at Georgetown University, and I say foreign policy is just trying to get some country to do what you want. 

So what are the tools? My course is about the National Security Toolbox, each of the tools in foreign policy—diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral, the economic tools of aid and trade and sanctions and force and intelligence and law enforcement. All of the tools have to be activated by Congress. What has happened at various times in our history is that Congress has given power to the executive branch, and then they do not take it back. The oversight aspect that the committees have, I think they need to be more active. For instance, they have not played a very strong role recently. They are also divided. 

I think it is up to them, for example in immigration, to just start writing the legislation, and to do a lot of consulting with the executive branch. Not easy given some of the things that have gone on. And on trade issues, and I have been on both sides of this, on the Hill and in the White House, with Carter and then Clinton, where you sit is where you stand. I was a legislative assistant for Senator [Edmund] Muskie of Maine, and he was an advisor to the U.S. delegation to the Law of the Sea Treaty conference. And it's interesting to have members of Congress be advisors on arms control agreements because they have some sense of what is going on early. Maine, if you take away all the harbors and rivulets, it has the longest shoreline of any of our states. Senator Muskie says, "Write a letter to President Carter saying we have to do something to help the fishermen as the Law of the Sea Treaty is being negotiated."

So I write this letter, and I put it on the autopen. I then got a job immediately doing congressional relations for the National Security Council. My job was to deal with Congress. I get to my new job, and there is this letter. They say, "From the President’s office, answer the letter." So I write this letter to Ed Muskie from Jimmy Carter saying, "I am so sorry about your fishermen but you have to be concerned about the Law of the Sea Treaty." So where you sit is where you stand. 

The most interesting part of the U.S. government is the relationship between the executive and the legislative branch. Yesterday I really did think what was great was the interest the members of Congress had in trying to find out what all the foreign policy issues were. It was kind of like taking an exam. Their ultimate power is money. Because what has happened is the budget process—the executive branch presents a budget to Congress, and Congress basically adjusts it. And what happened with Trump in the two years he has been in office is he has presented a really low budget for the State Department, and it is Congress that has actually upped the money. 

That is something, that if they really get involved, they have all the tools. I have been going up there and saying it is Article One time.