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‘You Have to Stand Up to Evil’: Madeleine Albright on Facing Fascism and What She Worries About Most Right Now

11 minute read

Madeleine Albright has created plenty of history herself — as the first woman to be U.S. Secretary of State, for example — but in the last several years, a different slice of the past has caught her eye. Noticing the rise of a new trend among world leaders, she recalled what she’d learned, through study and personal observation both, about the rise of fascism that started almost exactly a century ago.

Few of today’s forces of power would actually qualify as fascist in her view; more of them fall under the heading of “antidemocratic,” as she dubs President Donald Trump. But Albright knows that fascism doesn’t spread overnight, and she’s troubled enough by what she sees to have titled her new book Fascism: A Warning. On the occasion of the book’s release, she spoke to TIME about how history affects our views of the world, the media’s role in the rise of fascism, her greatest fears about North Korea — and more.

TIME: Your book is called Fascism: A Warning. How did you come to “warning” as the best way to sum up what this book is?

ALBRIGHT: As somebody who was born in Czechoslovakia two years before World War II and then was a refugee during the war as a result of fascism and lost people in my family, I thought that there are certain aspects that need to be warned about. The other thing I thought of as an image is that fascism is a disease and there are symptoms. So I think it’s important to warn about that.

To use the disease metaphor, what was the first symptom you noticed?

The thing that I noticed is that in other countries, where there has been a division among the people, there are leaders who have specifically exacerbated that division and made it worse, and then found somebody else to blame. A perfect example of that is what Viktor Orban did in Hungary. He aligned himself with his own quote national group, made ethnicity a major part of it, and then started blaming everybody that wasn’t, from his consideration, ethnically Hungarian.

You’ve described coming at things in your career with a “Munich mindset,” shaped by awareness of the effects of appeasement, whereas many of your colleagues who grew up in the U.S. might look at them with a mindset shaped by Vietnam. To what extent do you believe we’re bound to act according to our historical contexts?

Foreign policy decisions in so many ways are affected by a number of factors, and one of them is the individuals. Therefore I think it’s always very important to know what the so-called baggage for somebody that you’re dealing with actually is. We all to a certain extent are the product of our background. That doesn’t mean that you can’t shake it off. For instance, my mindset is Munich. It’s basically that you have to stand up to evil. But we have to be open to what other people are saying, to listen and to understand what their mindset is. I have kind of always been ten years older than everybody that I’ve worked with and their experience was Vietnam; a lot of the people who were in the government in the Clinton administration were people who had seen what did become a quagmire. There was a difference. There’s no question about it. When we were dealing with the Balkans, for instance, that was kind of a division line.

Do you have any guesses about how living through this moment in time will affect the way future leaders make decisions?

I’m hoping very much that the young people will be more like the kids who were marching, that felt that they needed to do something. I actually hope that people are affected by what’s happening now and understand that it doesn’t have to be that way.

You write about how radio helped Hitler’s rise to power and then how Joseph McCarthy was also helped by the media coverage he got. How do you see the role of the media in today’s situation?

I have always been fascinated, in an academic as well as a practical way, about the role of media and information in political change. I wrote my dissertation about it. You can’t operate if you don’t have information. It’s the lifeblood of a democracy. So the question is how do you know where the information has come from and how you have gotten it? I do think that is going to be one of the major issues when people go back and look at what this era has been about. It has been about technology and new media, the role of social media in a number of different ways, and the source of information. It’s much more complicated than it’s been.

There is also a passage in the book where you write about how Vladimir Putin has compared possible Russian interference in U.S. politics to the way the U.S. might have interfered in other nations’ politics, and how he seems not to see a difference between intervening to weaken democracy versus intervening to support democracy. However, in history, we’ve seen well-intended actions that backfired. How can a nation know it’s really supporting democracy in the long run? Is it just a matter of intention?

I think the important part, and in terms of the things that I’ve been involved in, is there’s not an ideological content to it. What it is is providing the nuts and bolts, explaining that in order to have a democracy you have to have elections or you have to have the rule of law. It doesn’t say vote this way or vote that way. It’s completely different. And it is usually something that is welcomed by people in that country.

So it’s the difference between having an influence on the content of the politics versus the mechanism.

Right. Literally, we often talk about it as “nuts and bolts.” Working across the spectrum of people who want to know what the tools are, not what to think. It’s not propaganda.

[Ed. note: Albright called back after the conversation to add this to her answer.] The truth is that democracy assistance has nothing in common with cyber hacking and disinformation, and that’s what we’ve been warning about. And to compare them is I think to commit a dangerous false equivalency. It’s a little bit like saying that a doctor who prescribes a cure and a doctor who administers poison are morally equivalent because they both attended to the patient.

You’re one of the rare U.S. politicians to have dealt face-to-face with a North Korean leader. What’s your advice for President Trump going into a summit with Kim Jong Un?

I can tell you from my own experience that Kim Jong Un’s father was very, very smart. We were talking about missile limits and things, and he really knew all the aspects of it. I say that because the main thing is to be prepared. One of the last things that one needs to do is make off-the-top-of-the-head comments. And not to see it as a one-off. Summits either come at the end of a process — especially when you bring the president in to complete the deal, and that’s obviously not what might happen if in fact this meeting happens — or where the leaders meet in order to set the guidelines for it and prepare it, and [one can’t] just decide everything overnight with no preparation and very little discipline. That’s what I think is important. Preparation and discipline.

What are your thoughts about the potential summit?

There’s no way to tell at the moment, because I think that there has been an awful lot of language — “rocket man” and all that kind of stuff — and then there’s some of the things that the South Koreans have been doing, and the whole issue of the Chinese role. Is Xi Jinping where he was before all the tariff and trade stuff came out? And who else are we counting on? Personally I have believed for a long time that it’s important to have talks. It’s certainly better than the military option that was talked about, the fire and fury kind of stuff. But there are an awful lots of ifs here. The thing that worries me the most, frankly, is some kind of a military accident.

A nuclear accident?

Any kind. We don’t have any ambassador in North Korea. Not even in South Korea. So that kind of a thing, something that requires a quick decision to deal with an immediate issue and not having the infrastructure to really make that decision.

What do you think of Mike Pompeo as a potential next Secretary of State?

I’m waiting for the hearings. I think they will be very important.

A record number of women are running for office this year. From your experience as one of the highest-ranking women ever to have served in the federal government, what do you think the policy effects of a more gender-balanced government could be?

First of all, it’s just a matter of fact that women are the majority of the population. It’s the loss of a very important resource not to have women politically and economically empowered, and it’s true in the United States and it’s true all over the world. Making huge generalizations, I do think women have the capability much more to empathize and to listen and to look for some kind of a middle ground. I also think that women are interested in a whole host of issues, with different experience, and it will be a great advantage to have men and women work together. The thing that I think is really missing at this point, in the gender balance but also in the way that a lot of these discussions are taking place, is that they are not really done in a way that is civil and respectful of other people’s views.

You write that generosity of spirit is the best antidote to the qualities that enable fascism. What are personal your techniques for cultivating that in yourself?

I grew up in a lot of different places, whether it was as a child in England or in Yugoslavia or in boarding school or coming to America. What that taught me was that the variety of people that exist and their views contribute to a richness in life, in listening to them. So my technique really is I like to hear people that have different views, and try to figure out, as I said earlier, what is it that has created their view of life. My attempt is to try to understand those with whom I disagree.

Which issues in the world today aren’t getting enough attention?

Climate change. I really believe that and I think that it is something that is hard to grasp, frankly. That worries me. Fighting over water is going to be much more dangerous than fighting over oil. And then since one of the issues has to do with migration these days, a lot of the people who are coming out of Africa are coming out because of climate change and desertification. They can’t live when there is no water and the climate is terrible. What also I think we haven’t gotten our head around is technology. There’s just no question. It is an incredible gift in so many ways but I do think that some of the issues that we’re dealing with now have to do with the loss of jobs because they’re now done by robots. And this is only moving even faster with artificial intelligence.

On the flip side of that, what’s something in the world that you’re optimistic about?

I am optimistic about young people.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com