New Delhi: Madeleine Korbel Albright, a Czech-born immigrant who rose to become the 64th US secretary of state, was the first woman to occupy the post between 1997 and 2001. Currently, the chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global strategy firm, and chair of Albright Capital Management Llc, an investment advisory firm focused on emerging markets, Albright is in India on a short trip. During her visit, she spoke to Mint about the unfolding situation in West Asia, the US’s ties with Pakistan and the emergence of a multipolar world. Edited excerpts:
Your first thoughts on the Muslim Brotherhood winning the presidential elections in Egypt.
I think Egypt is involved in a massive change, that is what has been going on since last year. The people are seeking to be a part of their system and he (President-elect Mohammed Morsi) was elected in what looks to be a fair election. I think the question is how the governance is going to be. There are so many aspects of the story that are still incomplete, in terms of where is the parliament, what are the other institutional structures, and generally, I know he is part of the Muslim Brotherhood but the Muslim Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization. It has various evolving parts so it’s very hard to tell. I think it’s fascinating that this is the first time that Egypt has had a free election. He (Morsi) didn’t win by a huge margin, but he won. From everything I have read, it really was an open election.
By Pradeep Gaur/Mint
In your speech on Monday, you identified West Asia as one of the possible hotspots. Were you referring to Syria or Iran, or is it the whole region in general?
The area in general, depending upon the evolution of both those countries. It isn’t as if everything in West Asia is a problem. But the questions that one has about Syria is where is it going? The dangers with Syria is that it is a country of a variety of sects and has had an influence on Lebanon. Clearly, it can spillover in a number of different ways, so in that regard it is Syria-centric. The Iran part is dangerous because of the issue of where they are going with their nuclear programme, not just their intentions and capabilities but also their longer-range view, and if they go nuclear, what the effect is on other countries. The Saudis and various people have said they will go nuclear so it isn’t as if the region itself is an issue but it is basically the influence of what is happening in Syria and in Iran.
In this situation, how long can the US hold Israel back from taking action?
Israel is an independent country. We still don’t know what Iran’s nuclear intentions are. They have a nuclear programme but whether they are weaponizing it or not is obviously one of the questions we all have our thoughts on. But the danger is that they are going for enrichment that leads to nuclear weapons. What everyone is concerned about is what Iran’s intentions are. Iran has said some terrible things about Israel. The Israelis have made (it) very clear that they consider Iran’s nuclear programme, especially if they go to weapons—something that is existentially important to them. The United States is committed to Israel’s security but the bottomline is that we in the US have been saying so far that there are other methods of trying to control Iran beyond a military option. But Israel is an independent country and one would hope that they would look at what other methods are there.
Is there a window still open for talks, now that the Moscow talks have failed?
There are technical talks that will be taking place in Istanbul next week. I don’t think the Moscow talks have been declared a failure. I think they have not been declared a success. I think there are going to be continue attempts at dialogues but also making sure that the sanctions regimes work. The Europeans are going to (implement their sanctions) starting 1 July. There is a whole other level of sanctions and I think there is the hope that the international community will stick together to work to isolate Iran and make clear that their behaviour is unacceptable.
The new Egyptian president, one of the first statements he made was reopening ties with Iran. Do you see this complicating matters even further?
I have not heard him. I have been here and in a different time frame so I don’t think people are generally not opposed to talking to Iran. I think that—and let me make clear I only speak for myself—we don’t know what is happening in Iran. That is a problem, so the hope is that we will learn more about Iran. I don’t want to comment on the new president because I haven’t had the opportunity to hear anything that he has said.
That is what India has been trying to argue, that its relationship with Iran is a window for the rest of the world, like its relationship with Myanmar. Do you believe this argument?
I think in the case of India, what the United States wanted was that India be a part of the international pressure on Iran, on the sanctions, on not trading with them. I also think it is wrong to compare Burma with Iran. Burma may have been an authoritarian system but not developing a nuclear potential.
Staying with our thoughts on West Asia, assuming things do spiral out of control or go in that direction, what do you see as the fallout for South Asia?
I hate looking at the worst scenarios but I think what is of concern is that, in fact, countries that have the capability or the knowledge to develop nuclear weapons, what we are concerned about generally, is the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the policy of the United States has been to limit the number of nuclear-weapons countries, so it’s that one (US) is particularly afraid of. I don’t know this to be true or not but the Saudis have said they would, and others in the region have said they would. The last thing we need in an area that has so much potential for change— some positive, some negative— is to add the nuclear aspect. The other part that is out there is that there has been a historic competition between the Persians and the Arabs and so the question is what would that mean in terms of that and who has influence, who does Iran influence? They clearly have a relationship with Hezbollah and the Hamas and so the question is what would that mean? I can play out some pretty nasty scenarios. One of the things that is so important and goes back to the question of India is that it’s been important to see international cooperation on recognizing that Iran is operating in a very dangerous zone and is a threat to stability. So I think it is important for the international community to stick together on this.
The US’s ties with Pakistan are at a pretty difficult stage right now. Can the US afford to let ties drift the way they are?
It’s a very complicated relationship. It has gone through many different iterations but the discussion in the United States is that we can’t afford not to have relations with Pakistan. We need to figure out how to work with them in a period that is very clearly, at the moment, complicated in terms of the things that we disagree on, concern about what is happening in Afghanistan, concern about them not be providing a haven to extremists. But the discussion has really been one that has gone on what is, what does one have to do to not to let this relationship drift, to not go into a more negative kind of approach at the moment.
If you were advising the Obama administration today, what steps would you suggest to help salvage the relationship?
I think they are doing everything they possibly can. I think what is interesting is what secretary (of defence Leon) Panetta was told recently that Pakistanis are very concerned about their sovereignty and he answered what about our sovereignty. I don’t think there is any way to fully explain to people what a traumatic experience 9/11 was. You had your experience here with Mumbai but for the US, in many ways—I wasn’t born there so I can always say these things—I lived through World War II, I was in the blitz as a little child. Most people in America had not experienced seeing buildings fall down or that many people die (at) one time and so what happened was that the whole issue with Afghanistan was in order to go after those people who attacked us on 9/11. And the expectation was that Pakistan as a friend would be helpful in this particular effort and not as we have been finding out be in a process where they have, to some extent, supported extremists or given (them) safe haven. So it’s a matter of national interest to the United States and so my advice is that the United States is doing all it can. And I would hope that the Pakistanis too realize that they have a stake in having a relationship with us.
The pullout of international troops from Afghanistan...do you think this is the right step? You were part of the Clinton administration when the US bombed Afghanistan and Sudan. Do you think if you had persisted with the campaign, the Afghan narrative would have been different now?
It’s interesting to go back. We were in a very different phase. We had not recognized the Taliban, (Afghan president Hamid) Karzai was not in office, there were a lot of different things that were going on. I also think we didn’t have the same weapons systems and one of the things we were working on was to push the Pakistanis to push the Taliban to give us Osama bin Laden. I very much supported President (George W.) Bush’s response to 9/11. Where I think it became a problem was that there was not enough of a focus on Afghanistan and it turned on Iraq. Afghanistan was not the number one priority for a long time and President Obama as candidate had said that we would leave Afghanistan. I think it is very clear that the United States is committed to ending our combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014 but also making clear that we would continue to have a relationship with Afghanistan in terms of a variety of ways of helping Afghans. It has been interesting that some of my discussions with my Indian friends is a very similar approach in trying to make sure that the people of Afghanistan have an opportunity to live some kind of a normal life with a secure structure.
Do you believe that these two campaigns have dented the US’s capacity to react so severely that future campaigns of similar magnitude can be ruled out for now?
I wouldn’t phrase it in that particular way. I think these two wars have been very difficult. The United States has been committed to wars for the better part of 10 years. And, all you have to do is to look at what it has done to our budget and deficit. On the other hand, I think the United States has a military that is second to none, that we are viewed and are a major power in the world. What is interesting is the extent to which our military people are always kind of thinking ahead. And I have reason to know that what they are looking at is a military that is capable of whatever is necessary, what is interesting in terms of study and doctrine is what is known as the rebalancing towards Asia, which means there are different kinds of components to our military force. Where there is a change is for the army. So when you talk about campaigns, I don’t think you envision so much of the kind of land war that we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan but in no way derogating from the power that the United States has and its capabilities. There is evolution. The way you framed the question was is the United States withdrawing. It is not. It is rebalancing. People are very pleased with the defence relationship with India. Also, the American disposition of forces in the region (are) not necessarily permanent bases but kind of moving around and being capable of action.
There was clearly ambivalence on the part of India when secretary Panetta visited here earlier this month and discussed the US’s rebalancing towards Asia. What kind of a role do you see for India in the scheme of things? The whole question is will India stick its neck out to annoy China?
There is all kind of speculation about why the US has rebalanced... There is a sense that we need to be present with partners. It’s not that India has to be actively agitating. I think there is speculation as to what this has to do with China, and obviously China is the growing power that is facing us. On the other hand, the United States is making a major effort to develop positive relations with China, to find areas where we can cooperate, and at the same time signal the fact that we expect there to be protected open sea lanes, not a fight for resources in the South China Sea, but more cooperation in dealing with piracy, trying to figure out how to do rescues at sea, various things like that together. So (it’s) not a matter of India being there poking a finger at the Chinese but India being part of a system in the Asia-Pacific that allows us all to have stability in the region.
So, what kind of a security architecture do you see for the Asia-Pacific region?
I think it is something in the process of being evolved. (US) secretary (of state Hillary) Clinton has talked about more regional cooperation in the South China Sea, trying to figure out regional ways of looking at things. There have been these discussions going on for some time now about how there is not really any kind of regional security arrangement of the kind that was in Europe. I think there are talks generally about what do we all have in common? What kind of an organization should there be? Should there be an organization or should there be just bilateral aspects? Should Asean (Association of South-East Asian Nations) develop a more robust kind of system? This is very much in discussion and it goes to what I have been saying for sometime that there is a shift in the international system. In many ways, we have not yet fully moved to a post Cold War system. We are sorting out what works. Does the UN function as well as it should? Should we concentrate on economic organizations like the G-20 (Group of 20 developed and developing countries)? It is hard for me to answer specifically. I can tell from my experience that there is a kind of feeling out.
What is your vision for a new world order? Will it be bipolar, unipolar, multi-polar?
Multipolar. Definitely. I wrote a book A memo to the president elect at a time when I had no idea who the president would be. I had said that there were five big umbrella issues. I wrote this in 2007 so the economic crisis was not there. The five issues were how to fight terrorism without creating more terrorists, how to deal with the issue of nuclear proliferation so that the worst weapons did not get into the hands of the worst people, how to deal with the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and while there is no direct line between poverty and terrorism it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think that a lot of people alienated are recruitable. Then how to deal with the energy, environment and pandemic diseases and how to restore the good name of democracy. If you just list them you can see no one power can deal with them even if the US were the uni (polar power) or India were the uni. And so just by rational reasoning it’s clear you need more countries working together. So I think a multipolar world is the only way to do it, partially because you need partners for things like this and also because I would not want all the poles in one place. What has happened is that every part of the world is more and more somehow involved in things, whether it is energy or environment or poverty. The question is what the governance procedure will be. Do the poles in the multipolar world become the local hegemons to try and organise their organizations. I don’t see how in this day and age you can have a unipolar world. I don’t think there can be a bipolar world.
You don’t fear chaos?
I always fear chaos. That is why I keep talking about new institution building. Even as we are unclear about what an organizational system is, there is always something that is natural in the system that leads people who are in charge to look for some kind of system, some kind of a systemic organization. It is very hard to operate on the basis of doing things alone. People often ask me if I am a pessimist or optimist. I am an optimist who worries a lot. Because if you worry you try and find solutions to things.