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Democracy is a natural human need – interview with Madeleine Albright

Published on January 12, 2012 by: in: Politics

LiberteWorld: Poland was a product of the third wave of democratization. Do you think we are seeing a fourth wave now?

Madeleine Albright: I think we are seeing a fourth wave and I think that the effect of it potentially is as important as what happened in the third wave in terms of changing the way that we have looked at the world. And I think that we don’t know how it is moving, it goes back and forth, nothing is just linear, straightforward but I think that it is the fourth wave of democratization but in a very different kind of historical, political and geographical context.

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LW: Exactly, a very different kind but at the same time there are probably some universal mechanisms and truths about democratic institutions in countries. So my second question would be: what do you think the applicable patterns, mechanisms, instruments from the third wave from Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, what could be applied in Tunisia and Egypt and maybe some other countries that step on this path for transformation?

MA: Well, I have thought a lot about this and I want to be very thoughtful in the way that I say this. First of all, I think what is similar, because I have always believed this, is that we are all the same and that people everywhere want to be able to make decisions about their own lives. Democracy is a natural feeling for people and I have never agreed with those who say X country or X area is not ready for democracy. So that is kind of the basis of my approach to this. I think that the history of each of the countries, whether one is talking about Central and Eastern Europe or the Middle East, is different and each one therefore has a somewhat different approach to it. I think that the way that I have described what has happened in the Middle East is that it clearly is viral, the spread from one place to another, but each of the counties is a little bit different. And the truth is that that is somewhat true of that what happened in Central and Eastern Europe. For instance, in Poland there is no question that the role of Cardinal Wojtyła and then later the Pope was very important. The role of the church, that is unique I think. In Czechoslovakia it was a different story in terms of the difference between the Czechs and the Slovaks. So everything was slightly different in those countries, Hungary had been very early. We don’t have to go through all it. What I think is very interesting, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, is that information is power and we know that. I wrote my dissertation on the role of the Czechoslovak press in 1968. And I wrote a book about Solidarity press. And everybody has been amazed at Google and the social networks. But the truth is that information, for instance during the Solidarity period, was very important. Lech Walesa would give a speech in one factory and then there would be a cassette that a courier would take to another factory. The similarity of access to information is something that is true across the board and information is power. I think the issues, then becomes, to what extend the various changes that have taken place can be moved from one place to another. So the importance of movements and political parties, there has to be some organization, I think that is something that is very important. How people organize themselves in a way that they can transmit their wishes to the leaders. It’s slightly different in each country but that concept of structure of trying to figure out how to make that happen. Building coalitions is a very important part, trying to find similarities among different groups so that, as we know during the communist period, the party tried to keep all information in vertical command chains and the interesting part about Solidarity or Charter 77 or whatever was trying to create the horizontal contact. And that is something that is going on in the Middle East. And then I think how one deals with security and the military so there are certain parts that I think are quite similar.

LW: In Poland and in the region, we are thinking about all these things and we are seeing how we can make it work.

MA: Let me say one thing though that I feel, I have been asked a lot about what the differences and the similarities are. I think that one of the differences is that is there, I think there was not at all a question that you in Poland or Czechs or Hungarians or whoever not only wanted the American support but wanted American embrace and being part of what is known as the West. I think that the revolutions in North Africa/the Middle East are not anti American at all as we’ve seen but they are not agitating to be part of the West. They are agitating for dignity and a way to develop their own societies and I think that is something, I don’t know whether you agree with me on this, but that’s something that I see as a little bit different.

LW: Madame Secretary, I think that here in the region we really appreciated the American and Western support when we were in the same position, I mean suffering from autocratic regimes, that are these countries in the North Africa. The question is what should the Western strategy be right now, considering that European voice was divided in the Security Council and America decided to take a back seat in the Libya intervention. Do you think that considering our western and  American values, can we still divide between good and bad autocrats? Can we play the game of being idealistic in some areas and realistic in some others?

MA: Well first of all, let me just say that I don’t think that the U.S took a back seat. I think that the U.S. did in fact lead to get NATO to do this multilaterally. It was different. I mean during the Cold War, the 89′,  the whole 81′ or whatever, take the whole period there was not a military moment in this. That’s very different. But what I was saying is that I do think by virtue of the changes in the world between the 80s and 2010 and 2011 is that there is a different view about what’s the West,  how the West behaves. You know, we can spend hours talking about that but I think that’s the difference. I think it’s hard to analyze but what I think is we, whatever we call ourselves, the West generally, have the sense of recognizing the importance of the individual. And that is something, what I found interesting in the Middle East was this question about the dignity of the individual and, just to tell you, I’ve just met with Mister Jibril who is head of the transitional government in Libya and that’s what he talked about, inclusion, dignity, the respect of the individual. Now, on the question on the idealistic and realistic. I have always said that it was a false dichotomy. Maybe because I call myself an idealistic realist or a pragmatic idealist and I think they go together. You need the idealism really to have a sense about what is right in the world and how we are all the same. And the realism of understanding that each of these country is a little bit different and that they are in a different geographical location. So I’ve never liked this distinction, and the way I describe it is that it really it is one of those helium balloons you need the helium of idealism to get it up and the ballast of realism to find the direction.

LW: Well, considering what you’ve just said. Do you think that actually Arab Spring proves that president Bush’s obsession with supporting democracy was right but the means were wrong and so how the U.S. should support democracy abroad right now when the term supporting democracy was a compromise actually?

MA: Well, I think the following thing: you cannot impose democracy. That is an oxymoron. I think it is very important to be in a position where one supports various democracy movements as the people call for it. I mean, I as you know, I chair the board of the National Democratic Institute and what we have been doing even now in North Africa frankly, and the Middle East, with the help of people from other countries that were helped during the Cold War so that some of you, I don’t know exactly who came from where, but NDI has had people in Egypt that had come from Central and Eastern Europe to come and just talk about what the structure should be. So this is not the imposition of American democracy. And that, I think, was one of the issues. Frankly, I think that militarizing democracy in Iraq was one of the problems. So there is a different approach, I think, in understanding that U.S. is not the only democratic system. That some of you who have gone through the same issue of trying to free yourself of autocrats, dictators have some very good advice to give to the people that are taking part in the Arab Spring. The thing that I think, this is just my view on this, is that I think you all know that this is difficult, that it is not something that happens overnight. There are a lot of people, this was true in Poland, this was certainly true in the Czech Republic, probably true is that there are a lot of people who benefit from the end of a dictatorship but there are a lot of people who seem to be a little bit disoriented because the system is all different and they are not sure whether they are going to get their retirement pay or get free health care or whatever it was or be able to earn a living. So they are a little bit lost and it takes a bit of time for democracy and economic development to do, what I always believe in is that the democracy has to deliver. So if one is reading about Egypt today, I think there are some people who are wondering about what’s next. So I think some of the things that you all can do through the Community of Democracies is to tell people that this is not an overnight process.

LW: Madame Secretary, I think we actually here in Central and Eastern Europe and here in Poland we exactly know what kind of moral obligation do we have and how difficult it is to create the democracy and to inherit democracy. But now you have to create democrats and citizens and that’s actually understandable and we’re very happy to support it from Polish perspective.

We took off talking about a totally new environment and the reality today is the economic hardship so we will be striking the balance between engagement and restraint. So I wonder how optimistic you are about achieving all we have talked about in these new, as it seems tougher, realities?

MA: Well, you are talking to a general optimist, I am always an optimist, but I think what has to happen and this is a difficult part at the moment, is there needs to be economic development in these countries that creates jobs. Because what we’re seeing is a young population that is mixed, but many educated young people in these countries who do not have jobs. Then you also have divide, as is an often true, between urban and rural parts of the countries. And so I think it is up to the democratic countries in the world to try to figure out some way to get economic assistance into these countries and projects that will help to create jobs. And also at the same time work on democratic structures like the rule of law, civilian control over the military, creation of political parties. But I do think that there’s a lot that could be done in terms of economic assistance, difficult in terms of what is going on in Europe, of economic problems, and the same in the United States. But what was so interesting about talking to anybody from this region is the dignity of work, the dignity of the individual.

LW: Madame Secretary, we are just ahead of Poland taking over the EU Presidency the 1st of July. What would be your advice for us, here in Poland and in the region? How we can end this deadlock that EU found itself after being being not capable of having a strong unified voice, in the response to the turmoil in North Africa?

MA: First of all, I am delighted that Poland is going to be in the Presidency. What I find so interesting and something that I am personally happy about is that Poland’s position is pretty good. I think that people have recognized your importance, the viability of your economy and the leadership. I think it’s very important. It is very important to understand. I think the EU situation is quite complicated. I have to say this: I wish so much that Foreign Minister Geremek was with us. He is somebody that I loved, we were really good friends, he was also part of my group of Former Foreign Ministers and we are about to have a meeting in June and we are going to talk about how the institutional systems are working at this point. Very complicated. I think the EU is a grand experiment which is going  through some difficult problems. And I hope that Poland can really take a leadership role in terms of explaining how important it is to be a Europe that is “whole and free”,  and that divisions in Europe now are complicating everybody’s life, certainly in Europe as well as, the United States. I think, and again I speak only for myself, I am not a part of this administration, that the thing that I have told my European friends over and over again, is that the United States sees Europe as a partner and we want Europe to be strong. We have so much to do in the rest of the world that we want to see a strong Europe and a strong EU. So I hope that Poland is able to do that.

LW: Let me actually make a personal digression [Michał Safianik]: when I was at the College of Europe and I was studying in professor’s Geremek class I took with him an oral exam and we spoke about the importance of dignity, that was my exam. And when I wanted him to participate in a meeting with Belarusian students to also talk about the importance of this he took his calendar and said: well, I cannot do this on this date because I’m going to see Secretary Albright within this Foreign Ministers Group. I can do it on a different date. It was 2005 but these things are coming back and we definitely share that common experience with professor Geremek.

MA: I love that. And what I liked so much, I talked about when we started the Community of Democracies and did the Warsaw Decoration and he said: I want Warsaw as an adjective to be associated with something other than a Pact. And it was very clear that the Warsaw decoration put Poland in the center of the democracy movement.

LW: And actually building on this: a crisis usually creates opportunities for grand visions and big institutions. Do you think that this crisis actually necessitates a new type of Euro-Atlantic institutions or maybe new institutions in the North Africa?

MA: The truth is that I don’t know which is why we’re having this meeting. What I find at the moment, and I say this more as a political scientist and as a former minister, the reason that we are gonna do this subject, let me actually just diverse a little bit here, we are gonna meet in the Hague with Jozias van Aartsen who was the Dutch foreign minister but is now a mayor of the Hague. And obviously there are a lot of international institutions in the Hague and we are going to be talking about whether the current institutions are serving the purposes of the 21st century and especially some of the upheavals that we are seeing in the North Africa. And it builds also on the work that I did on developing the strategic concept for NATO. So I think these are all our questions: does the EU work properly, is the EU really doing what was hoped or is there a problem when there are economic issues, whether people go back to nationalism rather than seeing it as an all European system. This is gonna be an issue that Poland is gonna to have to deal with. Or the issue that I am reading about now  which has to do again with the Schengen agreement and open borders and immigration. That’s obviously gonna to be one of the subjects that you all will have to deal with. And is the EU flexible enough to deal with what are some of these new issues and from an American perspective, I always say this and I think you’ve all heard me say this, I see myself as the symbol of the Euro-Atlantic alliance because I so believe in America and Europe together. And it’s important for Europeans to know that the U.S. needs Europe as a partner and I know, people have said this to me, there are Europeans who think that the U.S. is not paying enough attention to Europe. First of all, I don’t agree with it and second, you need to be part of a solution and you are no longer the problem. You were the problem all through the Cold War. So this is a time when people are looking for Europe, and especially Poland,  I think to be a part of the solution.

LW: Madame Secretary, what we know here in Poland and Czech Republic and Slovakia is how to build civic society institutions when needed. The question is: how do you see these civic society institutions there in the region, in North Africa? You’ve just met with some leaders, do you think there are partners for organizations here in Europe to work with in North Africa? And just a follow up on this: how do you see the religion role there? Religion played a very positive role here in Poland, how do you see it there in North Africa?

MA: First of all, each one of these countries is a little bit different. So what people have found is for instance in Egypt and Tunisia, there were some kind of structures and to some extend some beginnings of political parties. So there are partners to work with, again, NDI is in all these countries and are looking for some of you to be a part of these partnerships, trying to figure out where people can work, where they can give advice on some constitution writing and coalition building and there was some infrastructure there. Libya is a different story. And I have to tell you in terms of this meeting with these people, Minister Jibril said something truly remarkable to us two days ago. The people that are now composing the transitional government did not know each other at all. Completely different from of all you in Solidarity who had worked together in different places or Charter 77 where dissidents of various kinds have come together and had known each other. So these people don’t know each other and there is nothing… And they have actually put together  transitional government with a number of ministries, and they’re trying to figure out… And they also don’t have control over the whole country. So in that regard that is harder. In some of the other countries, and as I said each of the countries is a little bit different, as awful as what happened in Central and Eastern Europe you didn’t have a sustained shooting of people by the government of the people. I mean the big thing in Poland was the military ultimately wouldn’t shoot at the people, so there are major differences there. I think that the religion issue is more complicated. First of all, Poland is unique in terms of  the role of the church, and laws and things like that. There needs to be more of an understanding of Islam as a religion than many people have. You can’t just say: all Muslims are extremists.  There has to be a different way of understanding. It’s a different situation.

LW: Do you think that the situation in North Africa and Middle East gives us something to work together for Central/Eastern Europe and the United States?

MA: I’m sure. I think that the President would  appreciate knowing… First of all, what you have just said about Poland being now a donor instead of just a recipient and then I think talking about what could be done in terms of unifying the EU to be supportive of what is going on in North Africa. I would say that what is one of the really interesting parts about President Obama is that he believes in partnerships. He believes in the fact that there is a co-responsibility and partnership is really what he likes to do. So I think that would be a very strong subject for discussion.

Interview by: Leszek Jażdżewski i Michał Safianik, 13.05.2011

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About Madeleine Albright

United States Secretary of State between 1997 and 2001, currently a Professor of International Relations at Georgetown Univeristy's Walsh School of Foreign Service.

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