by Madeleine Albright
Chapter 1: A mandate to lead
memorandum (personal and confidential)
To: The President Elect
From: Madeleine K. Albright
Date: Election Night, 2008
Congratulations on your success. Well done! You have won a great victory. But with that victory comes the responsibility to lead a divided nation in a world riven by conflict and inequity, wounded by hate, bewildered by change, and made anxious by the renewed specter of nuclear Armageddon.
In days to come, leaders you’ve never heard of, from countries you can barely locate, will assure you of their friendship and offer you assistance. My advice is to accept, for you will need help.
We Americans like to think of ourselves as exemplars of generosity and virtue, but to many people in many places, we are selfish, imperious, and violent. The voters will want you to transform this perception while also protecting us, defeating our enemies, and securing our economic future — in other words, to do as promised during your campaign.
The president of the United States has been compared to the ruler of the universe, a helmsman on a great sailing ship, the Mikado’s Grand Poo-bah, a lonely figure immersed in “splendid misery” (Jefferson’s description), and “the personal embodiment [of the] ... dignity and majesty of the American people” (William Howard Taft’s).
Students of the office have identified an array of presidential roles: commander in chief, master diplomat, national spokesperson, head administrator, top legislator, party leader, patron of the arts, congratulator of athletic teams, and surrogate parent. Your political advisors will want you to focus on activities that will keep your poll numbers high and get you reelected. I urge you to concentrate on duties that will restore our country’s reputation and keep us safe.
On January 20, 2009, you will place your hand on the Bible and, prompted by Chief Justice Roberts, swear in front of three hundred million Americans and six billion people worldwide to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Following George Washington’s example, you will add a heartfelt “so help me God.” The oath completed, you will become the world’s most powerful person. It will no longer be happenstance when you enter a room and the band strikes up “Hail to the Chief.” You have attained our nation’s highest office; the question, not yet answered, is whether you have what it takes to excel in the job.
Eight years ago, as the second millennium drew to a close, the outlook for America could not have been brighter. The world was at peace, the global economy healthy, and the position of the United States unparalleled. The platform on which George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 referred to the era as “a remarkable time in the life of our country.” Colin Powell, the incoming secretary of state, told Congress, “We will need to work well together because we have a great challenge before us. But it is not a challenge of survival. It is a challenge of leadership. For it is not a dark and dangerous ideological foe we confront, but the overwhelming power of millions of people who have tasted freedom. It is our own incredible success that we face.”
Like any inheritance, incredible success can be invested productively or not. Tragically, America’s political capital has been squandered. When comparing notes with former cabinet members — Democrat and Republican alike — I have seen people shake their heads in disbelief at the manner in which presidential power has been misused. The consensus question: What could they have been thinking? From day one, the wrong people were in top positions. The decision-making process was distorted or bypassed. Ideological conformity was valued over professionalism, and falsehoods were allowed to masquerade as truth. Principles that are central to America’s identity were labeled obsolete, and historic errors were made without accountability. Important national security tools, including diplomacy, were set aside. I had hoped that President Bush would salvage his administration during its final years, but the gains made were both belated and marginal. Sad to say, you will enter office with respect for American leadership lower than it has been in the memory of any living person.
As a child in Europe, I hid in bomb shelters while Nazi planes flew overhead. Listening to the radio, I exulted at the voice of Churchill and the wondrous news that American troops were crossing the Atlantic. I was seven years old when Allied forces hit the beaches at Normandy and later repelled Hitler’s army at the Battle of the Bulge. By the time the war was won I was eight, anxious to discover what peace might be like, and already in love with Americans in uniform.
To Abraham Lincoln, the United States was “the last best hope of Earth.” To me, it will always be the land of opportunity. I could not imagine wanting to live anywhere else, nor conceive what the twentieth century would have been like without my adopted country. That is why it is so disturbing to learn of reports that most people in most countries now believe that America “provokes more conflicts than it prevents” and that we have a “mainly negative” influence in the world.
The tragic blunder of Iraq stands out, but there have been others — neglect of our allies, overreliance on the military, allowing the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to be the face of America. Yes, we have an excuse: the world is different now, but that is all the more reason to be mindful of proven strengths. The terrorist outrage of 9/11 was shocking, but we have lived for decades with the knowledge that death could arrive from across the sea. The attacks were cause for grief and anger, and for reassessing our institutions and strategies; they were not good reason for panic or for abandoning our principles when we needed them most.
After 9/11, the Bush administration started well but soon forgot who our country’s most serious enemies were. Many Americans were convinced that we had invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. Thus a majority felt that confronting Hussein would strike a blow against Al Qaeda. Many agreed with the president that the world could be divided neatly into those aligned with the United States and those cheering on the terrorists. Many admired the president’s certainty even as we came to have doubts about what he seemed most certain about.
I am an optimist who worries a lot. The reasons for worry surround us, some hidden, others visible daily on CNN, Fox News, and Al-Jazeera. The turbulence and vitriol may seem overwhelming. The poison of hate is in the air. Still, my overriding message to you as you prepare to assume the presidency is to have confidence in who we are and what we believe, for, even in my lifetime, we have faced graver risks, kept our nerve, and overcome.
We might assume that a memo such as this, if written half a century ago, would have painted a picture of a safe and strong America. After all, Osama bin Laden was, at that time, still an infant. Al Qaeda did not exist, and international terrorism was not a major concern. The United States was the unchallenged leader of the free world. The globe, itself, was less complicated and slower paced. Yet in the 1950s, George Kennan wrote that “Our national consciousness is dominated at present by a sense of insecurity.” Walter Lippmann worried that “We are living in an age of disorder and upheaval. Though the United States has grown powerful and rich, we know in our hearts that we have become ... insecure and anxious .... For we are not sure whether our responsibilities are not greater than our wisdom.” Even my favorite college text concluded gloomily that “Only the most stubborn and obtuse would venture optimistic predictions for the future ... men everywhere are gripped by fear ... man’s technical knowledge and capacity have outstripped his moral capacity.”
This foreboding was traceable not to human failures but to human ingenuity. The advance from the conventional to the nuclear bomb was of a magnitude greater than any since the first short-tempered man picked up a piece of wood and used it as a club. From Hiroshima on, the possibility of immediate, collective extinction became a part of our lives. We worried that the knowledge and means to build nuclear weapons would spread rapidly; some felt it a sign from God that the end of the world was at hand.
We were anxious, as well, that the American dream was not living up to its billing. While a comic book Superman fought for “truth, justice and the American way,” our international adversaries labeled us as greedy and racist. We didn’t wholly disagree. “The superiority of our way of life,” the political theorist Hans Morgenthau wrote fifty years ago, “is no longer as obvious either to us or to the rest of the world as it used to be. To hundreds of millions of people, the communist way of life appears to be more attractive than ours....”