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Madeleine Albright Discusses Democracy at Saltzman Forum

At the first annual Saltzman Forum, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that, while the United States should not impose democracy, it "should not be shy about promoting it." It's no accident, she maintained, that terrorists are most present where democracy is most absent. "That's because terrorists cannot flourish in any society where leaders are held accountable and the rule of law is applied."

Albright was the keynote speaker at a daylong symposium, "Promoting Democracy: Opportunities and Challenges in a Complex World," sponsored by the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Recently renamed for distinguished alumnus Arnold Saltzman (CC'36), the institute was started more than 50 years ago by Dwight D. Eisenhower (then president of Columbia) and is devoted to developing methods of waging peace. Albright was recently named the first Saltzman Fellow.

Expressing her fervent belief in the "goodness" of American power, Albright said she had grown up in freedom because her family had fled from communist-controlled Czechoslovakia to the United States. After the Berlin Wall came down, she felt very moved, she said, when several of her Czech friends mentioned their gratitude to the United States for standing up for liberty.

But while the United States plays an important role in serving as a beacon of hope for the world's oppressed, this does not give it the right to "install democracy at the point of a gun," she maintained. Rather, America should support homegrown democratic movements by assisting with the building of democratic institutions from behind the scenes and by openly condemning human rights abuses.

And besides taking steps that directly influence democracy, it is important, she said, to work on a more fundamental level as well, creating the right conditions for democracy to flourish. The United States should in her view "take dead aim at the real axis of evil: poverty, ignorance and disease."

Albright added that President Bush's statement about America's "calling beyond the stars to proclaim liberty throughout the world" made her nervous, as she sees democracy as "more of a down-to-earth proposition," requiring constant vigilance against the forces of government corruption as well as painstaking effort. "Democracy is not an event but a process that takes years, decades, even centuries to take hold," she said, noting that its progress can be measured in "a million acts of quiet courage."

During the question-and-answer period, the former secretary of state expressed concern about America's loss of credibility abroad; about John Bolton representing the United States at the UN (another of her former jobs) without Congressional approval; and about the role of religion in U.S. foreign policy. Concerning this last item, she reported she is now writing a book called The Mighty and the Almighty, exploring the idea that foreign policy can reflect moral values without being moralistic -- but also without falling into the trap of moral relativism.

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Published: Dec 01, 2005
Last modified: Dec 01, 2005

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