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Madam Secretary

Visiting campus in April, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright shared insights from her storied career with students and the University community.

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Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright posing with current Robertson Fellows (l-r) Isidoro Ramirez, Allison Carter Olson, Ana Gabriela Monzon, and Kathleen Hurt.

In the old wood-paneled library on the second floor of Maxwell Hall, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sat at a long oak table and, surrounded by students, answered questions on wide-ranging topics — among them, the refugee crisis in Turkey, Albright’s first meeting with Kim Jong-un in North Korea, the possibility of United Nations codification of LGBT policy, and the current state of Russia.

Albright was on campus April 5 to give the Tanner Lecture on Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility. But first she was sitting in on a combined session of Violence and Reconciliation and Global Markets & International Relations — undergraduate classes taught by anthropologist Azra Hromadzic and international economist Mary Lovely.

Senior Madeline Diorio, an international relations major also minoring in global security studies, led off. (“Is that really your name?” Albright asked the fellow Madeline.) Diorio asked the Secretary about her motivation to intervene in the Balkans amid ethnically based violence there.

Albright’s response — as to all the students’ questions — was a candid and thoughtful combination of personal anecdote, political theory, and high-level diplomatic negotiation, tinged with humor.

She explained that her attitude toward the Balkan conflict was colored by the “baggage” of her own personal history. Albright grew up in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, where her father was ambassador to Yugoslavia. “You know the little girl in native dress who greets visiting diplomats with flowers at the airport? That was my first job,” she said. Her family fled to England during the war and eventually to the United States.

Albright described her approach as “activist” but also emphasized the moral aspects of deciding how best to use American power to stop carnage in foreign lands — decisions that sometimes involve choosing some lives over others.

“Hearing her speak really challenged what I thought I knew about her time as Secretary.”
— Undergraduate Madeline Diorio

“Her insight allowed me to understand how difficult violence and reconciliation are to conceptualize when they are things you live through, both as the victims and as the people who intervene,” says Diorio. “She didn’t feel the need to apologize for decisions she had made, but she did explain why she made those decisions. Hearing her speak really challenged what I thought I knew about her time as Secretary.”

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Albright speaking to the combined undergraduate classes.

The Tanner Lecture Series was created in 2012 by a gift from W. Lynn Tanner ’75 PhD (PA) to explore issues related to ethical citizenship and public responsibility with top leaders in public and private life. When possible, the leader’s visit includes not just a public lecture but direct interaction with Maxwell students, such as the combined classes. There was also an earlier lunch, attended by select graduate and undergraduate students.

The lecture itself took place later in the day, before a capacity crowd at Hendricks Chapel (while approximately 20 students outside protested Albright’s role in the Clinton administration). Albright talked about her career, answering questions posed by Maxwell Dean James Steinberg — who worked with Albright in the Clinton administration and introduced her as a mentor, colleague, and friend.

Albright, who is currently a professor of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, said her alternating stints in academia and the public sector are endlessly fascinating but not necessarily easy. Traveling the globe, she discovers former students putting their education to use in the foreign service, which she loves. However, she noted, those are “dangerous jobs, now more than ever.”

“This is a big country. We have plenty of room.”
— Madeleine Albright

Her own toughest day on the job was August 7, 1998, when U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were destroyed by truck bombs. It was her job, as the bodies of government officials returned home, to explain to families what happened.

In response to a question about the current Syrian refugee crisis from a University sophomore, Albright said she doesn’t think the United States is doing enough for the world’s refugees. “This is a big country. We have plenty of room,” she said, reminding the audience that she herself was an immigrant, and didn’t earn American citizenship until her college years.

Her identification with the Balkan conflict has had a lasting impact, she said. She shared an anecdote about a security line for a recent domestic flight, where she was unrecognized by fellow travelers. The person who most excitedly approached her for a selfie wasn’t a passenger, however, but a Transportation Safety Administration agent who had grown up in Bosnia. (In a similar moment, immediately following the Tanner Lecture a young Albanian woman and her mother who had escaped Kosovo approached Albright in Hendricks Chapel to thank her.)

Azra Hromadzic, whose class Albright visited earlier in the day, also grew up under siege in Bosnia during the Balkan conflict. She remembers how her family kept abreast of the news by watching CNN and the BBC on a small television attached to a car battery, and remembers watching Albright at the United Nations, calling for international intervention.

Hromadzic says it was a “surreal” experience to now host Albright in the classroom. “My parents couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I had to send them a picture.”

— Renée Gearhart Levy

This article appeared in the spring 2016 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2016 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.