In the diplomacy business you know you’ve arrived when you are anointed a bevy of protectors whose work uniform includes suits, sunglasses and earpieces.
In 1997 Madeleine Albright most certainly arrived when she became the first women secretary of State in the second Clinton Cabinet. The foreign policy guru landed on the campus of Lehigh University on Tuesday night to present the school’s 2013 Kenner Lecture on cultural understanding and tolerance at a jammed to capacity and beyond Zoellner Arts Center.
Adorned with customary broach attached to her suit, Albright expertly and succinctly weaved a narrative that was equal parts insightful and provocative.
“In the 21st century the pursuit of truth will surely be a global one,” she said. “...And the truth is often hard to pin down.”
In order for different societies to address the most salient issues facing us all Albright noted, a new era of collaboration that impacts every corner of the world must be developed.
“We will not have that cooperation if everyone insists on their own, narrow version of reality,” Albright said. “To me, this is the great divide in the world today. Not between liberal and conservative, rich and poor, or between one race or creed, but it is between people who have the courage to listen and those who admit that they already know it all.”
And that ability to listen to others or browbeat them can manifest itself in many forums across the planet, she noted.
“If you look around the world we know that religion is a source of inspiration for billions of people,” Albright said. “But its doctrines can also divide one group from another.”
Albright added that belief in a divine entity is not the problem. Instead of acknowledging the mystery inherent in any search for ultimate truth she said, people claim to know more than they actually do or that they can prove.
“This makes us defensive and causes us to react passionately to competing claims,” she said. “That is why religion is often compared to a knife that may be used to cut bread for your neighbor or to stab them in the back.”
Developing respect for others, as people, Albright noted, is central to fostering cultural understanding and tolerance.
“I saw this years ago during peace talks in the Middle East,” she recalled. “The Arab and Israeli negotiators who met at the time were unable to reach an agreement. After endless hours of talking they developed respect for each other as people….In some cases they admitted that they would make identical claims if they were on the opposite side of the table. When that happens cooperation may not be inevitable, but it is possible.”
She added that one of the great advantages as serving as secretary of state was the perspective it afforded her.
“I can tell you that the way the world looks depends almost entirely from your vantage point,” she reasoned.
Albright then offered a message for Lehigh students in attendance.
“Those of you who will graduate from Lehigh this spring are probably about 22 years old,” she said. “By comparison South Africa’s beloved patriarch Nelson Mandela spent 22 years in prison as the victim of racism and persecution.”
During that time, she noted, Mandela could have nurtured bitterness and hate toward those who had enslaved him, but instead devoted that time to learning about them. It was the latter desire that enabled him to communicate with them, find common ground with them, forgive them and ultimately, astonishingly, lead them.
“Mandela saw that the surest way to defeat an enemy was not to make them do what he wanted, but to persuade them to want what he wanted,” she said.
Following her address, the former secretary of state answered audience questions, which included her views on hot-button areas of the globe such as Syria, Iran, North Korea and China.