Madeleine Albright: 'All of a Sudden, Diplomacy Is Being Degraded'

America’s former chief diplomat on the state of the State Department

Madeleine Albright sits across from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in October 2000. (Reuters)

Madeleine Albright—who as secretary of state in the Clinton administration presided over one of the last diplomatic breakthroughs with North Korea, visiting Pyongyang to negotiate directly with Kim Jong Il—argued on Thursday that the organization she used to lead is being hollowed out just when the United States needs it most. Today, it confronts a North Korean nuclear-weapons program that, under Kim Jong Il’s son Kim Jong Un, has rapidly advanced to the point of directly threatening the United States.

“All of a sudden, diplomacy is being degraded,” Albright said, in reference to the staff vacancies and proposed budget cuts that have characterized Rex Tillerson’s tenure so far as secretary of state. “I’m really troubled by how the State Department is being treated. … The State Department is, in so many ways, empty in terms of people that are well-trained and want to be diplomats.”

In an appearance at the Washington Ideas Forum, which is organized by The Atlantic, Albright said she understood why the Trump administration was imposing economic sanctions on North Korea and deploying additional military assets to East Asia to deter North Korean aggression. But what she couldn’t fathom was why, for example, the administration had yet to appoint a U.S. ambassador to South Korea or (as far as we know) send envoys for early-stage talks with North Korean officials. “We have not used the diplomatic tool enough,” she said. “You actually need diplomats to do diplomacy”—especially if, for example, the sanctions that the Trump administration has successfully imposed on North Korea have their desired effect: forcing the North Koreans into negotiations over their nuclear program.

This sidelining of diplomacy is why Albright’s “biggest concern” in regard to North Korea is that miscalculation will bring about a war between the North and the United States that neither side wants. If U.S. war planes conduct an exercise near the North Korean coast and the North Korean military tries to shoot them down, the two countries currently have no mechanism, like the Cold War-era U.S.-Soviet hotlines between military and civilian leaders, to help prevent conflicts from spiraling out of control.

Albright said that as a professor at Georgetown University, she teaches her students that the essence of foreign policy is “just trying to get somebody to do what you want.” And that involves a variety of tools: “You have diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral. You have economic tools, which do include sanctions, and then the threat of force and the use of force. And the art of it is to try to figure out which tool you use when.”

“If Donald Trump were taking my course,” she added, “he would fail it.”