On Thursday Afternoon, the Columbia community poured in to see the first female Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, speak about anti-communist, Czech President Vaclav Havel. Ezra Lerner, Staff Writer and political junkie, went to cover and provide belated coverage.
Columbia wasted no time getting the lead out for the World Leader’s Forum finale—a commemoration of the former playwright, anti-communist revolutionary, and Czech President Vaclav Havel, featuring Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. First to speak was the Dean of SIPA, Merit Janow. Her punctuated voice, practiced at storytelling, gave brief introductions of everyone speaking.
Up next was Professor Jan Svejnar to offer compassionate words about Havel and introduce Lee Bollinger. Svejnar talked about previously working for the Columbia President at the University of Michigan. Peppering his introduction with jokes, he set the event up for President Bollinger, whose pronounced steps were loud as he strode confidently onstage. Glasses firm in hand, Bollinger relayed his successful efforts to bring Havel to Columbia for a two-month residency in 2006. Transitioning to the Secretary of State, Bollinger spoke fondly about Albright’s former work, and current stature, stressing the need for her voice during these “trying times.” Then up came the former Secretary of State.
Former Secretary Albright spoke with a booming voice, polished and practiced at the art of public speaking. She painted her friendship with the late Havel as one of honesty, humor, and respect. The first introduction between the two former public servants began with Havel getting her name wrong. “You’re Ms. Fulbright?” “No, I’m Ms. Albright,” she explained, conveying the kind, brusque tone she clearly used upon meeting the former Czech President.
True to form as an American public servant, Albright’s tales of their work together gave way to an assessment of how Havel would see the current state of American affairs. (Though she was sure to note that she had “enough memories of Havel” to continue the conference “through the night.”) Albright expressed frustration with the “hyper-nationalism” that she saw in certain political circles today. Havel, she said, would have had “had no interest in the kind of political rhetoric that divided people into one camp or another.” The current American President was among those, in her view, responsible for such vitriol. Chastising Trump as someone who “scorns American democracy and the rule of law,” Albright said that Havel “would have been disturbed” by him.
Even beyond America, Albright did not mince words or spare criticism where she felt it was due. Expressing frustration that “the social contract had been broken,” she singled out the ineffectiveness of the United Nations as a governing body, and Russia’s continued attempts to hack and disrupt the United States election process, as international governmental failures. (Though she was sure to note her feeling that “neither side” of the tacit agreement was “fulfilling their responsibility.”)
Her solution: citizen action. With her gift for weaving words into stories, Albright spoke about her belief that young people “do have an obligation to get involved,” either by becoming political candidates or supporting them. “Complacency,” she explained, “was not in Havel’s vocabulary.”
Regrettably, she expressed frustration with her generation. Her interest in young people running for office came, in part, from her feeling that “we screwed up,” referencing her contemporaries. Bringing it back to Havel, Albright regretted that Americans had not done more to prepare countries for democracy when they rid themselves of communism throughout the latter part of the 20th century. She implied that the current pockets of far-right nationalism in certain European countries were due, in part, to this lack of preparation. One of America’s most important jobs on the global stage, she explained, later on, was being a role model for other countries.
No matter one’s feelings on Albright’s politics, her passion, humor, and turn-of-phrase cannot be denied. The beginning of the student Q and A was marked by a contentious exchange with a graduate student, who read off a series of tragic international events from his phone for which he blamed the Secretary of State. To a charge concerning the removal of UN Peacekeepers in Rwanda, she simply shook her head. Silent, but firm, the gesture was a placeholder until she could respond. “Thank you for the kind question,” she said to laughter from the audience, before going on to defend that decision, while accepting responsibility for others. “It was stupid,” she said in reference to her comments in a 1996 interview that the UN sanctions against Iraq were worth the roughly 500,000 children who died as a result. “I apologize for the things I did wrong, and am proud of the things I did right.” Even with herself, she pulls no punches.