Madeleine Albright Stresses Importance of Democratic Values

Former-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered a powerful message about the importance of committing to democratic values on February 12 when she received the annual J. Raymond “Jit” Trainor Award for Excellence in the Conduct of Diplomacy. The Institute of the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) at Georgetown University presents this award to those who have committed themselves—through their strong leadership skills and effective diplomacy—to fulfill the duties of a global citizen to make a better and more secure world. ISD Director Ambassador Barbara Bodine added that the ISD’s value also lies in public service, which in its simplest form means to serve others. Conducting public service means to understand that an idea of community extends to valuing those whose lives are different from one’s own, having the willingness to acknowledge others as full human beings, and showing empathy with focus and purpose. With her illustrious career dedicated to dialogue and diplomacy and her long-standing commitment to Georgetown University, Albright was the ideal recipient for an award given by the ISD.

Walsh School of Foreign Service Dean Joel Hellman characterized Albright as a pragmatic idealist, an embodiment of America’s best, and an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves. As a professor that teaches one of the university’s most popular classes, America’s National Security Toolkit, Albright was further praised for her commitment to engage and influence the next generation of diplomats.

Upon receiving the award, Albright gave a speech on the importance of democratic values in a rapidly changing world. She claimed, “the wisest leaders of this country understood that America’s foreign policy should be shaped not solely based on what we are against but also what we are for.” When security threats slowly receded in the period following the Cold War, the spread of democratic principles was what allowed the United States to work with allies. Democracy seemed to be going in the right direction by improving development, health, and security, but, in the past two decades, the democratic euphoria has ended and there exist deeper doubts about democracy’s capacity.

Albright added that, under the current administration, America has unfortunately witnessed “pariah” rather than partnership status. Rather than rebutting anti-democratic ideals held by countries such as President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, America has become a source of comfort for these countries. The current administration pulled out of international treaties such as the Paris Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership, moved toward isolationism, and embraced authoritarianism, which Albright claimed will do nothing to improve the world. Major issues ranging from nuclear weapons proliferation, the spread of infectious diseases, illegal narcotics trafficking, and religiously motivated terrorism are all at stake and require international cooperation to effectively solve, making diplomacy an indispensable tool for government’s around the world.

Albright claimed, “We are a peace-loving nation, democratic, economically dynamic, and respectful of the law, that will do better and feel safer in an environment where America’s values are widely shared.”

Regarding whether some countries are not yet equipped to become democratic nations, Albright answered that no country has been more ready for a different system. U.S. intervention in Syria against the authoritarian government of Bashar al-Assad is an example of democratic resilience. Although the eruption of the civil war is a humanitarian crisis, the pursuit of U.S. interests in Syria signified a willingness to spread democratic ideals.

Furthermore, Albright discussed the role of technology and information as diplomatic tools. She alerted the audience to the use of computational propaganda in authoritarian governments, especially in an era where unofficial networks of information are considered more reliable than the government-controlled networks. She specifically noted that many people have not yet developed a healthy skepticism towards what others share publicly and asserted that the U.S. government must take action against these new threats to democracy: a long-term global agenda to protect the integrity of democracy in the digital era. She noted that it was important to to gather information and intelligence showing which communities are the most vulnerable to digital propaganda and prevent the dissemination of false information.

Albright added, “When citizens are speaking to the government with 21st century technology, the government is listening with 20th century technology and giving a 19th century response.” She then encouraged governments to move toward 21st century communications technology that will make for more responsive and flexible institutions.  

Albright ended her lecture by re-emphasizing the importance of democratic values, saying,  “Although we live in a world of change, what matters most does not change. That is the basic commitment to democratic values and our respect for one another and respect for justice and dignity towards every human being. Without these in front of us, we will lose our way.”