Albright, Rice, Clinton, and Kerry discuss U.S. role on world stage

Four former U.S. secretaries of state shared a stage at Woolsey Hall on April 18 and offered their insights on the state of democracy both at home and abroad.

Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton ’73 J.D., and John Kerry ’66 B.A. — four of the nation’s last six chief diplomats — had a nuanced conversation, which Kerry moderated, that touched on a range of issues, including the degree to which political polarization has affected America’s ability to advance its interests, protect human rights, and promote democracy across the globe.

The discussion was part of “Challenges to Democracy at Home and Abroad,” a two-day conference hosted by the Kerry Initiative at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, an interdisciplinary program that Kerry founded in 2017 to tackle pressing global challenges through teaching, research, and international dialogue. The conference brought together political leaders, journalists, and scholars to approach the problems facing democracy from a variety of angles.

Albright, who was secretary of state from 1997 to 2001 and the first woman to serve in the role, expressed concern that people around the world are losing faith in democratic institutions. Referencing her latest book, “Fascism: A Warning,” she noted that Mussolini and Hitler seized power constitutionally and that present-day authoritarian-style leaders in Turkey, Hungary, Philippines, and Poland all were democratically elected.

“The best quote in my book is from Mussolini: ‘If you pluck a chicken one feather at time, nobody notices.’ I think there is a lot of feather plucking going on now,” she said and quipped, “By the way, you can’t say those two words too quickly together.”

Albright reminded the audience that the post-WWII international structure was built on rules and partnerships.

“I think at this point we’re unclear about what the international structure is, how we operate within it, and what the role of the United States is at all,” she said, adding that NATO should reassert itself as an alliance of democracies with the United States in the lead.

Rice, the first African-American woman to serve as secretary of state, agreed with Albright that the rise of authoritarianism is a concern, particularly in younger unconsolidated democracies in Eastern Europe.

She asserted that the political dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is only one aspect of American democracy.

“The brilliance of the founding fathers was not only to produce checks and balances at the federal level, but to create myriad institutions throughout the society and the governing structures that could check one another,” she said. “Perhaps, I’m a little bit more optimistic, but, yes, people abroad are worried, and I think it’s awfully important not to let them think that American democracy is only characterized by what’s going on in Washington.”   

Clinton, who was secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, said the United States must recommit itself to its fundamental values and champion revitalizing democracy.

“The lack of leadership, or shall we maybe say the confusion of leadership — diplomacy by Twitter — has bewildered our allies and delighted our adversaries,” she said.

Clinton asserted that America’s retreat from the world stage has created a vacuum that other countries, including China, Russia, and Iran, will seek to fill to their advantage.

“Nature and politics abhor a vacuum,” she said.

Kerry, who succeeded Clinton at the helm of the State Department, asked the panelists to weigh in on the rise of China as a global power and the idea that the Western liberal order is in decline — a narrative embraced by China’s leaders.  

“Is there any truth to what they’re saying? Is there any aspect of our behavior or our inability to project that is feeding this or is this just their narrative and we can dismiss it?” Kerry asked.

Rice suggested that it is important not to lose sight of the fact that China faces its own significant challenges.

“I don’t envy authoritarianism and I don’t envy the Chinese,” she said.

Rice asserted that there are nuanced ways to manage the rise of China without overestimating its capacity to dominate the globe.

Albright agreed with much of Rice’s perspective, but argued that the United States’ absence on the world stage is enabling China’s rise.

Kerry expressed concern that political polarization in the United States is hampering the nation’s ability to lead internationally.

“I think it undercuts us in every way,” Albright agreed.

Rice noted that polarization has existed for years and did not prevent the country from achieving success in the past, citing the bipartisan effort on AIDS relief during the administration of George W. Bush.

Polarization is intensifying because Americans get their news from websites and networks that cater to their beliefs and no longer have respectful conversations with people from the opposite side of the political spectrum, she said.

“I tell my students all the time that you do not have a constitutional right to not be offended,” said Rice, who is on the faculty of the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Clinton asserted that polarization plagues our governing institutions.

“Some people would rather have a problem to continue to exploit for political advantage than to do the hard work of democracy and, frankly, the hard work of compromise,” she said. “And now on both the right and the left, you are condemned for compromise.”

Other events during the conference included a conversation at Woolsey Hall between Kerry and Stacey Abrams, who discussed election irregularities in her narrow defeat in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election. Abrams emphasized the need to protect voting rights and improve people’s access to the ballot.

“The answer to the call to action is to talk to other people to let them know their voices matter,” she said. “You have to ask people to vote. Do not assume they will do it because they’re as worried as you are. In a lot of communities, they are worried every day. This is just another worry. You have to connect the dots. And you can connect the dots through every person you touch and every organization you touch.”

The conference began on April 17 with a discussion in the Yale School of Management’s Zhang Auditorium between Kerry and three former U.S. secretaries of defense: William Cohen, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel. Watch a video of the discussion.