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Obama's Global Opportunity

Madeleine Albright On Obama's Foreign Policy Outlook, His Inaugural Message To Muslims And Clinton's Global Image

This is the first of a two-part interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Read part two.


President Obama has the opportunity to renew the country's standing in the world, but, Madeleine Albright warns, the foreign policy challenges he faces are immense and expectations -- both at home and abroad -- extraordinarily high. These are just a few of the issues she addresses in her latest book, Memo To The President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership, released last fall.

In an interview with's Amy Harder, the former secretary of State weighed in on the beginnings of an Obama foreign policy, what Hillary Rodham Clinton can bring to the State Department and how the president's inaugural speech resonated with the international community. Edited excerpts follow. Visit the archives page for more Insider Interviews.

NJ: What are your thoughts on the foreign policy actions that Obama has taken in his first week of office?


Albright: In terms of reversing the language on the gag rule, on the the "Mexico City" language on support for women around the world being able to find out about family planning -- I think that's a very big deal because the big issues internationally have to do with the health of women and on, generally, the right of people to choose what they want to do, having information. In many developing countries there is huge population pressure, so it is another signal that [the U.S. is] rejoining the international community.

NJ: How do you think the selection of Clinton as secretary of State influences the global perception of the U.S.?

Albright: First of all, I think she herself is a known quantity abroad. When I was secretary and she was first lady, it was very evident that she had quite a large and resounding international role. She was identified with human rights and women's rights and generally showing a very positive side of America. I think she is so well-known abroad, and having somebody that is that well-known is very important. The other part is something that I think is essential, and that is that it is showing what democratic elections are like in the U.S. -- you argue and you run against each other, but you are capable of developing a partnership.

NJ: Is there any piece of advice you would give to Clinton?


Albright: The advice that I would give is, first of all, that being secretary of State of the United States is one of the all-time great jobs representing this country, that she is in a position to be a partner in terms of reformulating American foreign policy; that it is going to be very important....

What she said [Thursday], which I thought was very interesting, is that national security policy is like a three-legged stool -- there's defense, there's diplomacy and there's development, and the State Department is basically responsible for two of those three. I would advise her to really make that a very central part of what she does -- is to make sure people understand that smart power, which she talked about a lot, is the way to show the best side of America.

NJ: You've said that we need to be realistic about the effect a new president will have in improving the country's standing abroad and that right now we're in a honeymoon phase. Do you think there are unrealistic expectations for Obama?

Albright: I think there are very, very high expectations for him. He knows it.... He has managed to do this interesting combination of building confidence for the American people in what he can do and at the same time being very realistic about the fact that not everything can be done in the first 100 days or 1,000 days or immediately. So I think he knows the expectations are high, and he's building on that because he needs to have the American people be with him -- and the world -- but he also is trying to say to people, "Not everything is going to happen at once."...

I actually think that people are ready to see America in a different way, and I think that what happened [Thursday] with the executive order on closing Guantanamo -- which by the way I thought was an essential part of restoring America's reputation -- that's a big step forward....

Again, back to the inaugural address: He made very clear, standing right there with ex-President Bush, that things were going to be different -- that the U.S. would go about things differently. And I think that this will be very much welcomed, both in the United States and abroad.

NJ: Do you think Obama is enjoying a global honeymoon right now, as well?

Albright: Yes, I do. I have gotten e-mails from a variety of foreign leaders saying what a remarkable election this was. And then people who were watching the whole inaugural festivities on television, they called me and they said, "This is what we believe America was really like, this is the America that we want to see," and "weren't the scenes wonderful of all the people," and then the fact that -- a number of people said this -- that power was turned over peacefully; that is a unique thing that Americans do. Absolutely, people abroad see it as a remarkable change.

NJ: What portion of Obama's inaugural address stood out to you as an important message to the international community?

Albright: When he talked about the importance of respecting the Muslim world. Somebody said, rightfully, that the word "Muslim" has never been used in an inaugural address before.... We need to know more and understand the Muslim world; there's just no question about that. And I think that's a very important point of his understanding of what is going on internationally and the importance of reaching out and using diplomacy.

NJ: How do you think that comment resonated in the Muslim world?

Albright: I don't know yet, but I think probably pretty well. And part of the problem, I have to say, in what I said and what he says, is the Muslim world is not monolithic, but you can't spend 25 sentences trying to explain it. So I think there are various parts that received it very well and others that didn't like it because it takes away some of their argument.

NJ: You say in your book that the president's first job must be to "recapture what has been lost and to proceed from there." What has been lost, and what concrete action should Obama take to recapture it?

Albright: What was lost was people seeing the United States as a country that represented a basic set of values about the rule of law and the moral aspect of American foreign policy -- that this country represents a set of values that is an example.... Actually, President Clinton said this at the Democratic convention -- to make clear the power of our example rather than the example of our power.

President Obama has started down this road. The Guantanamo closing, I think, is a very important way to make clear that we believe in the rule of law. It's very hard for the United States to go around and criticize other countries' legal systems or the lack of justice in a country if we have not followed issues of due process here. That is a very important step.

I don't know yet enough about the various things that are going to happen in the next week, but it is my sense that you will soon see that there's going to be active engagement by the U.S. in trying to resolve the issues in the Middle East, a real active interest in that....

You're going to see a set of issues that in fact put the United States back in a position where we are paying attention to other parts of the world. I used to say that the problem with President Bush was not only that he was unilateral, but uni-dimensional, that he was only paying attention to one part of the world with one of the national security tools, which is military force, and that what needed to happen was to pay attention to other parts of the world and to think about using other tools -- diplomacy, development, et cetera.

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