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Excerpt: ‘Memo to the President Elect’

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has advice for next president

Former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has some advice for the next president of the United States, whomever he or she may be. Here's an excerpt from “Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership.”

Chapter 1: A mandate to lead
memorandum (personal and confidential)
To: The President Elect
From: Madeleine K. Albright
Date: Election Night, 2008

Congratulations on your success. Well done! You have won a great victory. But with that victory comes the responsibility to lead a divided nation in a world riven by conflict and inequity, wounded by hate, bewildered by change, and made anxious by the renewed specter of nuclear Armageddon.

In days to come, leaders you’ve never heard of, from countries you can barely locate, will assure you of their friendship and offer you assistance. My advice is to accept, for you will need help.

We Americans like to think of ourselves as exemplars of generosity and virtue, but to many people in many places, we are selfish, imperious, and violent. The voters will want you to transform this perception while also protecting us, defeating our enemies, and securing our economic future — in other words, to do as promised during your campaign.

The president of the United States has been compared to the ruler of the universe, a helmsman on a great sailing ship, the Mikado’s Grand Poo-bah, a lonely figure immersed in “splendid misery” (Jefferson’s description), and “the personal embodiment [of the] ... dignity and majesty of the American people” (William Howard Taft’s).

Students of the office have identified an array of presidential roles: commander in chief, master diplomat, national spokesperson, head administrator, top legislator, party leader, patron of the arts, congratulator of athletic teams, and surrogate parent. Your political advisors will want you to focus on activities that will keep your poll numbers high and get you reelected. I urge you to concentrate on duties that will restore our country’s reputation and keep us safe.

On January 20, 2009, you will place your hand on the Bible and, prompted by Chief Justice Roberts, swear in front of three hundred million Americans and six billion people worldwide to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Following George Washington’s example, you will add a heartfelt “so help me God.” The oath completed, you will become the world’s most powerful person. It will no longer be happenstance when you enter a room and the band strikes up “Hail to the Chief.” You have attained our nation’s highest office; the question, not yet answered, is whether you have what it takes to excel in the job.


Eight years ago, as the second millennium drew to a close, the outlook for America could not have been brighter. The world was at peace, the global economy healthy, and the position of the United States unparalleled. The platform on which George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 referred to the era as “a remarkable time in the life of our country.” Colin Powell, the incoming secretary of state, told Congress, “We will need to work well together because we have a great challenge before us. But it is not a challenge of survival. It is a challenge of leadership. For it is not a dark and dangerous ideological foe we confront, but the overwhelming power of millions of people who have tasted freedom. It is our own incredible success that we face.”

Like any inheritance, incredible success can be invested productively or not. Tragically, America’s political capital has been squandered. When comparing notes with former cabinet members — Democrat and Republican alike — I have seen people shake their heads in disbelief at the manner in which presidential power has been misused. The consensus question: What could they have been thinking? From day one, the wrong people were in top positions. The decision-making process was distorted or bypassed. Ideological conformity was valued over professionalism, and falsehoods were allowed to masquerade as truth. Principles that are central to America’s identity were labeled obsolete, and historic errors were made without accountability. Important national security tools, including diplomacy, were set aside. I had hoped that President Bush would salvage his administration during its final years, but the gains made were both belated and marginal. Sad to say, you will enter office with respect for American leadership lower than it has been in the memory of any living person.

As a child in Europe, I hid in bomb shelters while Nazi planes flew overhead. Listening to the radio, I exulted at the voice of Churchill and the wondrous news that American troops were crossing the Atlantic. I was seven years old when Allied forces hit the beaches at Normandy and later repelled Hitler’s army at the Battle of the Bulge. By the time the war was won I was eight, anxious to discover what peace might be like, and already in love with Americans in uniform.

To Abraham Lincoln, the United States was “the last best hope of Earth.” To me, it will always be the land of opportunity. I could not imagine wanting to live anywhere else, nor conceive what the twentieth century would have been like without my adopted country. That is why it is so disturbing to learn of reports that most people in most countries now believe that America “provokes more conflicts than it prevents” and that we have a “mainly negative” influence in the world.

The tragic blunder of Iraq stands out, but there have been others — neglect of our allies, overreliance on the military, allowing the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to be the face of America. Yes, we have an excuse: the world is different now, but that is all the more reason to be mindful of proven strengths. The terrorist outrage of 9/11 was shocking, but we have lived for decades with the knowledge that death could arrive from across the sea. The attacks were cause for grief and anger, and for reassessing our institutions and strategies; they were not good reason for panic or for abandoning our principles when we needed them most.

After 9/11, the Bush administration started well but soon forgot who our country’s most serious enemies were. Many Americans were convinced that we had invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. Thus a majority felt that confronting Hussein would strike a blow against Al Qaeda. Many agreed with the president that the world could be divided neatly into those aligned with the United States and those cheering on the terrorists. Many admired the president’s certainty even as we came to have doubts about what he seemed most certain about.

I am an optimist who worries a lot. The reasons for worry surround us, some hidden, others visible daily on CNN, Fox News, and Al-Jazeera. The turbulence and vitriol may seem overwhelming. The poison of hate is in the air. Still, my overriding message to you as you prepare to assume the presidency is to have confidence in who we are and what we believe, for, even in my lifetime, we have faced graver risks, kept our nerve, and overcome.

We might assume that a memo such as this, if written half a century ago, would have painted a picture of a safe and strong America. After all, Osama bin Laden was, at that time, still an infant. Al Qaeda did not exist, and international terrorism was not a major concern. The United States was the unchallenged leader of the free world. The globe, itself, was less complicated and slower paced. Yet in the 1950s, George Kennan wrote that “Our national consciousness is dominated at present by a sense of insecurity.” Walter Lippmann worried that “We are living in an age of disorder and upheaval. Though the United States has grown powerful and rich, we know in our hearts that we have become ... insecure and anxious .... For we are not sure whether our responsibilities are not greater than our wisdom.” Even my favorite college text concluded gloomily that “Only the most stubborn and obtuse would venture optimistic predictions for the future ... men everywhere are gripped by fear ... man’s technical knowledge and capacity have outstripped his moral capacity.”

This foreboding was traceable not to human failures but to human ingenuity. The advance from the conventional to the nuclear bomb was of a magnitude greater than any since the first short-tempered man picked up a piece of wood and used it as a club. From Hiroshima on, the possibility of immediate, collective extinction became a part of our lives. We worried that the knowledge and means to build nuclear weapons would spread rapidly; some felt it a sign from God that the end of the world was at hand.

We were anxious, as well, that the American dream was not living up to its billing. While a comic book Superman fought for “truth, justice and the American way,” our international adversaries labeled us as greedy and racist. We didn’t wholly disagree. “The superiority of our way of life,” the political theorist Hans Morgenthau wrote fifty years ago, “is no longer as obvious either to us or to the rest of the world as it used to be. To hundreds of millions of people, the communist way of life appears to be more attractive than ours.”

At home, congressional committees competed to root out communist sympathizers in the State Department and army, quarreling over who was responsible for putting the red in Red China. Soviet leaders boasted of their economic and industrial prowess, predicted that they would bury us, and triumphantly launched into space the first satellite (Sputnik), first dog (Laika), and first man (Yuri Gagarin). Ninety miles from Florida, a communist dictator established a revolutionary beachhead, and threatened to create others throughout the hemisphere. The superpowers were in a race to build and test ever more destructive warheads. Schoolchildren practiced hiding under desks; community planners stocked underground shelters with Spam and chicken noodle soup. Then, as now, America yearned for fresh leadership.

In 1960, America elected a new president. John Kennedy brought with him a tonic he called “vigah” and a dynamic way of looking at the world. His inaugural is well remembered for his brash pledge to “pay any price, bear any burden ... in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” He also spoke of “a long twilight struggle ... against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.” This broad focus reflected Kennedy’s belief that the West could not compete against communism through military might alone. We had to gain the allegiance of marginalized populations for, while America claimed to have a unique and all-encompassing vision, so did the communists. To win converts, we had to explain our ideas to people who had no experience with freedom and only hostile encounters with the West. We had to convince the widest possible audience that we were on their side.

Kennedy’s inaugural responded to this challenge by speaking in turn “to those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share,” then to “those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free,” to “those peoples in huts and villages across the globe striving to break the bonds of mass misery,” to “our sister republics south of the border,” to “the United Nations,” and “finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary.”

In the months that followed, Kennedy honed America’s image by creating the Alliance for Progress, the Peace Corps, and the Agency for International Development; declaring a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear tests; and conveying his desire for “genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living ... not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women — not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”

John Kennedy understood that Americans must practice effective diplomacy on every continent. An early supporter of independence for colonies in Africa and Asia, he was considered a hero in such places as Algeria, Kenya, and Indonesia. The picture of our first Catholic president hung on the walls of huts and haciendas throughout Latin America. JFK won over French speakers by referring to himself jauntily as “the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris.” When the Berlin Wall went up, he asked the people of West Berlin “to lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow, beyond the freedom merely of this city of Berlin .. . to the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall to the day of peace with justice, beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.” Kennedy’s eloquence seemed to exemplify an America sure of its direction and skilled in the art of bringing others along.

An assassin’s bullet brought a shocking end to JFK’s presidency, but not to the demand for global diplomacy at which he had excelled. Lyndon Johnson, though burdened by the albatross of Vietnam, enhanced America’s international standing through his fight against poverty and support for civil rights. Richard Nixon eased anxieties by pursuing détente with the Soviet Union and an opening to communist China. Gerald Ford engineered approval of a means for monitoring and reporting on the status of freedom behind the Iron Curtain — the Helsinki Final Act. Jimmy Carter elevated human rights to the center of U.S. foreign policy, declared America’s opposition to apartheid, and brokered a historic peace between Israel and Egypt. Ronald Reagan emphasized U.S. support for democracy and pushed against the shaky underpinnings of the Soviet empire. The senior President Bush supported German unification and forged a broad coalition to roll back Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

As decade gave way to decade, presidents from both parties created a clear role for America as leader of the international system — as a defender of law and builder of global institutions, a country whose influence was felt in all regions and whose views were widely respected. Though far from unblemished, theirs was a record of profound achievement. The nuclear weapons we so much feared were not again used, and the number of declared nuclear powers paused at five. The division of Europe ended. The Soviet Union broke up. Democracy spread. Old enemies became friends. Civilization itself seemed to be on the move, taking the stairs two steps at a time.

And yet, in the years immediately following the cold war, I surprised my students by saying that I thought the world would grow more perilous. We had become accustomed to the risks of superpower rivalry and had painstakingly developed the means to contain them. The new era, though freer, would also prove less predictable. Nations and people redefined their interests; old grievances resurfaced. We would have to exert ourselves to keep from slipping back.

Thus, in the 1990s, Bill Clinton brought Kennedy-style zest to the task of governing in a time of change — expanding and reforming NATO, supporting debt relief for the poorest countries, promoting democracy without trying to impose it, pursuing peace, and doing more than any other leader to rally the world against international terror.

On the eve of NATO’s intervention to prevent mass killing in Kosovo, Clinton called me at the time he usually did, the middle of the night, because he rarely slept and didn’t think anyone else might need to. Together, we reviewed the steps we had taken to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis. Prior to the fighting, Clinton had pushed us for every scrap of information. Sitting at his desk, trying to ward off a headache by pressing a can of Diet Coke to his temple, he questioned everything — the history, personalities, social and cultural factors, risks to our troops, potential cost to civilians, and whether our post-conflict plans were realistic. He was determined to do the mission right because he knew he could be wrong. He was thorough; that was his style on Kosovo and on every issue that mattered.

To his secretary of state, Clinton’s approach was a precious asset. It was not hard for me to convince people overseas that the United States understood and cared. They already knew, because they had been listening for years to a president who had taken the time to learn about them, who had shown that he was concerned about their futures and who wanted to help if he could.

In his second inaugural address, Bill Clinton referred to our country as “the indispensable nation.” I liked the phrase so much I borrowed it until it became associated with me. Some thought the term arrogant, but that is not how I meant it. Rather, I felt it captured the reality that most large-scale initiatives required at least some input from the United States. I also hoped the phrase would create a sense of pride among Americans, so we would be more willing to invest in overseas projects and less reluctant to take on tough assignments.

Although our country has much in common with others, it has no current competitor in power and reach. This creates opportunities but also temptations. For better or worse, American actions serve as an example. If we attempt to put ourselves outside the law, we invite others to do the same. That is when our moral bearings are lost and the foundation of our leadership becomes suspect. I have always believed America is an exceptional country, but that is because we have led in creating standards that work for everyone, not because we are an exception to the rules.

Today, as you prepare to assume the presidency, the preeminence of American power remains among the major facts of twenty-first-century life, but our ability to control events through the use of that power has eroded. This, too, is among the major facts of twenty-first-century life.

The reasons are well known. We have made a muddle of fighting terror — lacking a coherent strategy and failing to establish a clear connection between the steps we take and the results we desire. Our promotion of democracy has caused unease even among those advocating democratic reforms in their countries — because when we speak of democracy, many people think of Iraq, nobody’s desired model. With our attention focused on the Persian Gulf, we have lacked effective policies toward transcendent challenges such as energy and the environment. We have responded slowly and with an unsteady hand to emerging problems in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Once the premier practitioners of global diplomacy, we have behaved as amateurs.

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