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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Madeline Albright Lecture

Tonight I had the great opportunity to listen to a talk deliverer by Madeline Albright at the University of Chicago. The full title of the event was the Thomas Garrigue Masaryk Lecture on Democracy and it was premised on a deep connection between the University and the Czech Republic, stretching back to an original series of talks given by Masaryk, the founder and first president of an independent Czech Republic, in the early 20th century.

The introduction to the talk was presented by Dean Boyer as well as the  Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States, Petr Kolár. It served to establish Albright's Czech origins and her work in American politics. Though these introductions were longer than Albright's whole talk, there were some light moments. Such as when Kolar jokingly said he and many in the Czech community had tried but failed to persuade Albright to run for President in the Czech Republic, though he didn't hold the fact that she refused against her.


The lecture was held at Rockefeller Chapel, and filled the entire venue.

Albright finally took the podium and presented the lecture with an inspiring air of confidence and composure. One of the main points she pushed across with her talk was the notion of responsible leadership at the heart of a true democracy. She specifically called out China and Russia alongside Iran, as failing their duties to their citizens with regard to adhering to certain standards for human rights. Yet, while the US used to have a moral vantage point from which to make such criticisms, she conceded that the US is itself now no longer in a very positive position. There was especially a lot of applause after her condemnation of Guantanamo.


After her talk, Albright fielded an impressive array of question form the audience. She touched upon everything from the role of the AU to the question of US involvement in Pakistan to her reasons for endorsing Hillary. The most interesting question however, came at the very end, when someone asked her about the legitimacy of the Hamas as a democratically elected party in Palestine. Albright agreed that this was a very difficult question, and began to qualify the definition of democracy.

Her inability to accept the legitimacy of Hamas lay in the fact that the group uses violence to achieve it's aims. Though it has a strong stake in the well-being of the people and the community, the use of violence to achieve its aims ultimately discredited them on an international level.

So again, the this moral element is directly linked to the definition a truly democratic state. While Hamas can be seen as representing exactly what the people of Palestine want - efficacy in pursuing national aims, despite the violence, their immoral means discredit their democratic election to power. Albright's only means of resolving this was ultimately to claim that the opposition party, Fatah, could have offered just as much to the people, without the violence, but failed to do so, thereby failing the democratic process. If indeed there had been adequate choice, then Fatah, the right party, would have been chosen.

Ultimately, questions like this reflect the fact that it really is quite difficult to present an universal description of democracy. I applaud Albright's attempt to do so, yet the notion that democracy should be the ideal system to emerge under any circumstance is difficult to accept given the wide array of regional and historical contexts for all states and their citizens. While the link between economic prosperity and democracy is well established, the push for democratic processes under adverse conditions and in a context that would not support it, can only cause more harm.


Better photographs on flickr c/o victorchen55

Either way though, I'm going to lighten this post up and say that Albright definitely had the best comment of the night. When referring to the White House she quickly quipped that she hadn't seen any intelligence out of there in a long time. In more ways than one.

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