Today's date:
  Summer 2004

The United Nations: The Indispensable Institution

Madeleine Albright is the former US secretary of State and a former US ambassador to the United Nations. She spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on May 24 before a speech to the Pacific Council in San Francisco.

NPQ | You once famously made the statement that the United States was an "indispensable power," to which (UN Secretary-General) Kofi Annan replied: The United Nations is an "indispensable institution." He now appears to be right.

What does the return of the US to the UN say about the UN role in world affairs, and about the limits of American power?

Madeleine ALBRIGHT | It is ironic that the Bush administration has spent all its time denigrating the UN and now needs it.

I continue to believe that the US is an indispensable power. I made that statement not to irritate other countries, but to invigorate Americans so they wouldn't think "we aren't needed, let someone else do it" when we had to act in the Balkans.

I feel strongly about an activist American foreign policy. But I never meant that America could act alone. Indispensable doesn't mean unilateral. And it doesn't mean ubiquitous or all powerful. It means we need to be there.

The cliche about the UN is true: It would have to be invented if it didn't exist. It is in many ways indispensable as a forum and legitimator. But the UN is just the sum of its parts. The US has to be supportive-both morally and physically-of the UN to make it effective.

It is not a derogation of our own sovereignty to cooperate with others through the UN. Working with the UN and allies is not a Lilliputian tying-down of America; it is a force multiplier.

NPQ | Does the Bush administration's turn back to the UN mean it now shares your vision?

ALBRIGHT | No. Having weakened the UN considerably, it now realizes it needs it.

That is the tragedy here. In the Clinton administration, we were on a path to strengthen the UN and the US position in it. We had worked out a lot of the modalities, for example, about cooperation on peacekeeping, and the UN was becoming effective.

Then you got this group in. Right away, they started acting as if the UN were a burden and denigrated it.

NPQ | Now that the UN is in such a weakened position, it can hardly be a panacea for the Iraq mess. As in other places, it can aid reconstruction and help organize elections. But Kofi Annan has made it clear he is unwilling to do so unless there is adequate security. NATO has balked at this mission so far, as have most of America's traditional allies.

The emerging debate in the US is between those who want to set a certain date for withdrawal-because they see America's very presence as provocative-and those who want to increase American troops. Where do you stand?

ALBRIGHT | I don't know if this administration is capable of fixing the security situation. It may take new leadership so the other countries that need to be involved don't suspect some kind of sleight of hand, patting the UN on the head and doing it ourselves anyway.

There needs to be a sense that the UN really can do the job and that the credibility of the UN, sustained by the US, can be re-created.

It is a real chicken and egg question. I understand why the UN doesn't want to go in without security guarantees. And I do think that if the American face is taken off the Iraq situation, other countries would join in as part of a security force.

The question is: What comes first? Kofi Annan has some faith that if Iraq is legitimized by a UN Security Council resolution and it does become a genuine UN operation, then countries would join in. But the syncopation has to be right.

The American people need to know there is an end to this, but I'm not sure announcing a certain date for withdrawal is a good idea. When we did that for Bosnia, we had to change it. A certain date for leaving also sets a certain date for the enemy: They can lay low and wait it out. What we learned in the Balkans is that it is better to have benchmarks for achievements-for example, a real transfer of sovereignty, preparations for elections-rather than a set date for withdrawal. A date or an ultimatum ends up being a gun to your own head, not to that of the enemy.

If it all comes together-for example, if a NATO core with some Muslim countries attached can be assembled as the Americans systematically withdraw-it is conceivable that America can diminish its presence faster than some date set in the abstract future.

NPQ | You were very much involved in the expansion of NATO. Is providing security for Iraq something NATO should be involved in?

ALBRIGHT | One of the reasons for expanding NATO was so that it could do out-of-area missions. This is one of those missions it should take on. However, even if there is full NATO approval of such a role, it is not necessary that all NATO members participate. With so many countries now in NATO, not everybody has to do everything.

For example, the Germans apparently have some questions about sending troops to Iraq under any circumstances. They are in Afghanistan, though. If they don't want to be a part of an Iraq force, but will allow it to go forward, that would work fine for me.

Conceivably, some key NATO countries could form the core of an Iraq security force that would then attract other non-NATO members, especially from the Muslim countries such as Malaysia or Indonesia or Bangladesh as well as some Arab countries.

NPQ | Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish literary journalist, once summed up the lesson of all those failed revolutions of the 20th century. He said, "There are no shortcuts in history. You can't force a social and political process before its time, or it will fail."

The neo-cons behind the Bush Iraq strategy believed Francis Fukuyama's idea of "the end to history" and thought they could use force to bring free markets and democracy to the Middle East.

Would you agree that there are "no shortcuts to the end of history"?

ALBRIGHT | I've never understood this idea that history wouldn't go on after democracy has spread. But, yes, democracy is not an event, it is a process. You can't shortcut it.

We've learned something in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. We thought that since a country like the Czech Republic had once had democracy and, if you offered it again, you could take the shortcut back. But you can't. Fifty years of communism did have an effect. People prefer to eat and have their pensions rather than vote.

While democracy was attractive to intellectuals, it didn't answer many of the needs of the ordinary people. That is why you've had swing-backs in all these countries to some renamed Socialist/Communist parties. We are seeing the same thing in Latin America.

It is clear that political development can't happen without economic development. You have to have both.

Democracy has to evolve in time. It is not elections. It is the existence of a social program, of a middle class and of effective institutions built over time. You can't shortcut this, in Central Europe or Latin America or the Middle East.

NPQ | So, you can't take this "bolshevik" approach of bringing democracy by invasion?

ALBRIGHT | Definitely not. "Imposing democracy" is an oxymoron. It doesn't work. It can't work. It has to bubble up from the bottom.