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Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright Discusses Her New Book

May 10, 2006 at 3:45 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Madeleine Albright’s life’s journey took her from being a diplomat’s daughter in Czechoslovakia to becoming America’s first female secretary of state. Her faith journey included being raised as a Roman Catholic, joining the Episcopal Church as an adult, and discovering just a decade ago her Jewish roots.

Now she’s written a new book that covers some of both journeys. It’s called “The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs.”

And, Madam Secretary, welcome back.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Former Secretary of State: Great to be with you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: You talk about questions of faith in foreign affairs, but reveal early on that, when you were first learning to become a member of American’s foreign service, these were not even questions that were being asked by the people who were teaching and learning about how to represent America abroad.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: On the contrary, what was happening was that, when there was a serious issue to either be studied or make some decisions about, people would say, “Well, this is complicated enough. Let’s not bring God and religion into it.”

And so it was pushing away something because we thought that conflicts were serious and then, if you began to talk about how God fit in, it would just make them insoluble. So I have come a long way, in terms of what I’m talking about in this book.

Religion is entwined in policy

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you write, "Religion is becoming entwined with foreign policy in a new way." What's the new way?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, the new way is that we know that issues that divide us on religion are becoming, I think, a factor of increasing exacerbation of the problems that we're having. They exacerbate the issues. And I think that people think they understand something about religious motivation but have not really studied enough what the backgrounds are.

And the new way is that I think we're beginning to recognize that we need to involve religious leaders and need to understand the religious backgrounds of the conflicts and not push it away.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, religion is often treated in the diplomatic realm as a problem, one of the problems on the ground, a maligned force. If you think about the way we talk about Kashmir, or Northern Ireland, or the holy land, not a positive force to be harnessed to help the situation, but something that's got to be solved. Do you see that?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I do, but I think that what I'm advocating -- which I think will probably surprise a lot of people who know me -- is that, in fact, we should use religion in order to find the unifying factors, that, if you study the Abrahamic religions, all of them, in some form or another, speak to some common threads of justice and charity, love and peace.

Instead, what has been happening is people have found the blood-curdling parts of the various holy books and not focused enough on some of the common threads. And so I think that there is actually a possibility of understanding religion enough to solve problems, rather than to make them complicated. Is this easy? Absolutely not.

The Middle East is complicated

RAY SUAREZ: Well, could you give us an example of a place in the world where it could be used and sort of designed into the policy approach as something that could be helpful in solving a problem?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I actually think that, if one looked at -- the Middle East is obviously the most complicated place that we have. But I have often said that, if Jerusalem were just a real estate issue, we could have dealt with it a long time ago.

The fact is that both parties believe that the land was given to them by God. And, therefore, trying to get religious leaders involved much more in dissecting the religious question, so that there is a sense of understanding. It isn't just a bunch of political people saying, "You take this piece, you take that piece," but having religious leaders be able to explain to each other why it is possible to have agreement would help.

I actually think that there are a variety of places that already there are religious discussions going on among leaders. There is a Cordova process, named for the city in Spain where Christians, Jews and Muslims did get along in a certain period, looking at the common aspects.

We could use more of those kinds of processes, then bring the religious leaders in, not specifically at the negotiating table, but then to validate some of the processes.

America is a religious nation

RAY SUAREZ: America's representatives in the rest of the world, though, aren't free agents. They're tethered back to the United States. And what's happening in this country is also acting on how we approach the rest of the world. How does religion enter into that?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, it does, because we are a very religious nation. And we have religious discussions here, and people expect us to take a particular view because we see ourselves as a religious nation.

What is happening, though -- and I think very specifically now -- is the interpretation that religion has been given by this administration, in terms of showing or saying that God is on our side, whereas I think it would be more important to say that we're on God's side, as President Lincoln said.

And the fact that we put it that way tethers us to a policy, which I think has made it more difficult to get supporters. We have narrowed the choice of those who can be with us.

And so, at this stage, I don't think that the way that we're proclaiming our religion is being particularly helpful in trying to solve some of the problems that are out there.

RAY SUAREZ: Hasn't it also brought new players into the process that either haven't been very present or are sort of unexpected new arrivals? And I'm thinking particularly about the north-south war in the Sudan, where America's conservative Christians sort of came to the fore in that issue.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think what's so interesting, Ray -- I mean, this is not something -- I obviously began to think much more about this book after 9/11. But the truth is that, when I was secretary already, there clearly were issues that had a religious basis, obviously, the Middle East.

But what happened was that some Christian high school kids came to see me about Sudan, and they knew a great deal more about the north-south, which to some extent was Muslim versus Christian, in Sudan, and they wanted something done about it.

And, interestingly enough, there is a possibility, I think, of something else going on, which is right and left working together, so that, not only is it a religious way to use religion to get together, but to get the various parts of our spectrum together. And Sudan is a perfect example of it.

So you do have what is mostly known as the Christian right looking at issues in Sudan, which could help to solve some problems there.

RAY SUAREZ: Haven't we been here before, though? When we talked about policy-making during the Carter era, and the president then put a primacy on human rights in international relations that sometimes complicated military and economic levels of relations that we had with other countries.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that it was a very important basis of the policy that President Carter put forward. It did reflect, I think, American values, but I don't think they were as narrowly interpreted as some of the religious aspects are now.

Human rights, actually, is something that is internationally talked about and guaranteed in the United Nations Charter. It's just that, as President Carter put them forward, it seemed to be very -- it put it more central into American foreign policy, but there wasn't international norm or discussion of it.

Religion, as it is currently exhibited, there are real differences. And I think that we need to try to figure out where the common threads are, and we haven't done that yet.

Don't give up traditional diplomacy

RAY SUAREZ: But would it allow us, if we were to integrate the point of view you put forward in your book, more centrally into American policy-making, would we, for instance, be able to pursue the commercial relationship we have with China and not talk so much about Falun Gong, the suppression of the Roman Catholic Church there, and those kinds of issues?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, the thing that I'm saying is that I have not stopped being a practical diplomat and problem-solver. And I do believe that you have to have a set of principles, but you also do have to exist in the real world.

I would not give up traditional diplomacy. And with China specifically, we always used to say it was a multifaceted relationship. You followed certain things that you had to do, in terms of getting trade right and thinking about China's rising role in the world, without ever forgetting that, in those meetings, you would talk about what was going on in Tibet or a variety of religious and human rights issues.

So I think it is possible to do both, and I would hope that that would be the way that diplomacy continued. Traditional diplomacy, but also looking at how we propound our view of religious diversity and finding common threats in what the great religions have in common.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is "The Mighty and the Almighty." Madeleine Albright, thanks a lot.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thank you very much, Ray.