Campaigning for Hillary Clinton in 2016. ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” Albright said. Photograph: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
That she did, but it is scant consolation really.
Germany has had a female leader for more than a decade. Britain is on its second female prime minister. A woman has never been president of the United States. Does America have a problem with women in politics?
“Must have,” she replies. “I don’t understand it, frankly. We are very good at being No 1 in many things and yet we are not in this and I don’t know the answer. Because there are certainly very qualified women.
“When my name came up to be secretary of state,” she recalls, “you would think that I was an alien, you know. People actually said: ‘The Arabs won’t deal with a woman.’”
Her friend Hillary was, in CV terms, one of the most qualified people to run for the White House.
“Ever. No question about it. Right.”
More qualified than Trump or indeed Obama.
“I think she would have been a remarkable president. And I think that it’s very disappointing. It’s something that we all talk about. I don’t know the answer.”
At least part of the explanation for Clinton’s defeat was not to do with gender. It was failing to understand the forces powering her opponent. Clinton notoriously called his supporters “the deplorables”. Albright sounds similarly guilty of seeing the world through an elitist’s prism when she writes in her book: “Globalisation… is not an ideological choice, but a fact of life.”
Opponents retort that globalisation is an ideological choice. It was a very good choice for transnational corporations, for prosperous members of western societies, and for many developing countries which have seen their growth accelerated by free trade and the exchange of technology. Globalisation turned out to be – or has certainly come to be seen as being – a very bad choice for less affluent sections of western societies. Many folk felt dislocated and disadvantaged. Lecturing them that globalisation is just “a fact of life” – so suck it up – was surely one of the incitements for those people who voted for Trump, who chose Brexit and who support the rightwing populists surging across Europe.
“It isn’t just favouring the rich,” she insists. “Most of us are beneficiaries of globalisation, but a lot of people were not prepared for it in terms of their skill-set and we didn’t consider that enough.”
She also concedes that globalisation is “faceless” and “everybody wants to have an identity”.
“But it’s one thing to be patriotic, it’s another if my identity hates your identity and then it’s nationalism and hyper-nationalism. That’s the very dangerous part.”
Albright is a sage woman, but also one taken by mortified surprise by the turn the world has taken. In common with most liberal internationalists, she hadn’t expected the arc of history to bend in this dark direction. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, liberal capitalist democracy was thought to be irreversibly triumphant. Francis Fukuyama even wrote a book entitled The End of History.
History had other ideas. I suggest that it is not good enough for liberal internationalists to simply bewail Trump and his fellow travellers. They need to examine what they got wrong. Maybe there were too many complacent assumptions that the world had become permanently safe for democracy.
“I don’t know whether complacent [is the right word],” she says. “We were all initially enthusiastic, but then we became euphoric.” One conclusion she draws is that “democracy is obviously harder than we think.
“Democracy is not the easiest form of government. It does require attention and participation and carrying out the social contract. And it doesn’t deliver immediately. What we have to learn is how to get democracy to deliver because people want to vote and eat. But it just took me 10 minutes to explain it and that’s the problem.
“The things that are happening are genuinely, seriously bad. Some of them are really bad. They’re not to do with Trump; it is the evolution of a number of different trends. All the various problems that we have, they can’t be solved by simple slogans. But it’s easier to listen to some simple slogan.”
Albright is far from alone in worrying about the future of liberal democracy. This anxiety is felt more acutely by a woman who was born in the time of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin, who reached the peaks of international diplomacy when freedom seemed ascendant and has since observed the unravelling of so much hope. At the end of our conversation, I am left unsure whether she thinks democracy has the resilience to survive this testing time.
“You ask if I’m an optimist or a pessimist,” she responds. “I am an optimist who worries a lot.”
That is probably as sensible a position as any in today’s troubled and troubling world.
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