Madeleine Albright’s Remarks For WFP USA’s Samuel R. Berger Lecture Series

Published December 8, 2016

As Prepared For Delivery

Washington, D.C. – Thank you, Rick, for that introduction and good afternoon to you all. I am invited to speak publicly on many occasions, but today’s event stands out.

I say that because of the presence of so many dear friends, including Dan Glickman and Susan and Debbie Berger, because I cherished my partnership with Sandy and because I believe so passionately in the projects and purpose of World Food Program USA.

Since its inception, the United Nations World Food Programme has done more than any organization in history to fight hunger.

World Food Program USA provides a vital link between their efforts and the American people, while advocating here in Washington for a vision of a world without hunger.

Today, we act on one of WFP USA’s good ideas, and that is to begin a lecture series in honor of a leader who believed that our national security was directly threatened by the persistence of hunger around the world.

Sandy’s memory inspires us still.

For whenever we are lulled by complacency, we can hear his voice urging us to wake up and start moving because the job of making the world a better place is never done.

As Rick noted in his introduction, Sandy and I had a long friendship going back to the Carter Administration.

Since we are now in a period of presidential transition, I cannot help but recall the work we did together on the transition in 1992, when Sandy was in charge of overall national security issues and I had the NSC portfolio. There was much discussion back then about who would be National Security Adviser. As a longtime friend of the President-elect, it was obvious to everyone that Sandy could have had the job.

Instead, he did the unheard-of in Washington and deferred to Tony Lake, who was more senior and had been his boss in the Carter Administration. It was an example of Sandy putting the greater good ahead of his own, which is how he always lived his life.

Of course, Sandy would go on, in President Clinton’s second term, to serve as National Security Adviser. And he is remembered to this day as one of the most effective that any president has ever had.

As many of you know, I teach a class at Georgetown on the national security toolbox. I tell my students that a principals committee meeting is where different arguments are heard – a process I liken to breaking eggs. The role of the National Security Adviser is to take the broken eggs and turn them into an omelet.

Now there are times when instead of an omelet you end up with an egg mess, and the national security adviser then has no choice but to pass the egg mess on to the president. But that did not happen too often with Sandy.

Instead, we were able to come together during the Clinton administration and work together as one national security team, whether the task was fighting terrorism, protecting civilians in Bosnia and Kosovo, or responding to crises in the Middle East and Africa.

During that period, the international system was in an unprecedented period of change, with the nature of international security challenges shifting before our eyes.

In particular, there was a growing recognition that threats to international security were emerging not only from conflicts between states, but also within states. So we realized we needed to be just as concerned with failed states as we were with aggressor states.

Sandy was ahead of the curve in understanding this point, and that helps explain why he was so concerned in recent years by what he called the “human tinderbox” – the more than 65 million people throughout the world who have been uprooted by conflict and persecution.

He saw in the global humanitarian crisis a direct threat our national security interests. And he believed that the United States had not only a moral obligation, but also a profound self-interest, to alleviate the suffering.

In the year since Sandy’s passing, that suffering has only gotten worse. And what I want to do in my remaining time is take stock of the global humanitarian crisis, while offering a few thoughts on the way forward.

Earlier this week, the U.N. announced a record-breaking appeal for $22.2 billion for 2017 to meet the basic needs of vulnerable people in 33 countries.

This is a staggering increase from just a few years ago, and is yet another sign that the ancient enemies of human progress – poverty, ignorance, and violence – are on the march.

We see this in the Middle East, where the civil war in Syria has unleashed one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since World War II.

Right now much of the world is simply watching as the Syrian regime conducts a scorched-earth campaign across Aleppo with the backing of Russia and Iran. They claim to be fighting terrorism, but they are targeting hospitals and schools, obstructing humanitarian aid, and using barrel bombs and chemical weapons. Their enemy is not Daesh, but anyone who yearns for a Syria free from the grip of Assad.

No one in the West should be fooled, and yet I worry that the new administration will be tempted to make common cause with Syria and Russia in the name of fighting terror. That would be a colossal strategic mistake and an unprecedented moral failure. It would play into the hands of the terrorists and it would be a heavy blow to moderates across the Muslim world. We cannot let it happen, so I will be speaking out on Syria at every opportunity I get.

One such opportunity came last week, when I released a report with Steve Hadley arguing for a New Strategic Approach in the Middle East. The report was the culmination of a task force we led under the auspices of the Atlantic Council, in partnership with a number of different think tanks in Washington and experts from the Middle East. Our report outlined a series of steps that the United States and its allies could take to begin to alter the trajectory of the region.

The top priority we identified was to provide humanitarian protections and to begin to wind down the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya – because we see that as a critical precondition for any progress being achieved on security matters.

This is obviously easier said than done, particularly given the obstacles to achieving the political settlements necessary to end the wars.

But there are other obstacles that are of our own making. They have to do with how we have framed issues of humanitarian relief – not only in the Middle East, but around the world.

For example, we have tended to treat all of these crises – whether in the Syria or Libya or in sub-Saharan Africa or in South Asia – as temporary emergencies. This belies the fact that refugees are displaced for an average of seventeen years, and that those who are displaced in their own countries are displaced for an average of twenty-three years.

Without diminishing the urgency of the problem, we need to reframe the humanitarian crisis as a long-term challenge. Because there is nothing more permanent than temporary solutions. Adopting a long-term lens will enable us to design a system that does not lurch from crisis to crisis, but has the predictable funding and capacity necessary to meet growing needs over the long-term.

As we make clear that there is nothing temporary about this crisis, we also need to dispense with the fiction that humanitarian assistance is only a voluntary, feel-good measure. In fact, it is a useful national security tool that advances our interests and our influence.

It is also, as Sandy once put it, a threat reduction measure – just as those dealing with nuclear materials, biological agents, or chemical weapons. America’s national security policy, and budget, should reflect this reality.

And while I cannot say I am optimistic that the next administration will make its policy on this basis, I would point to an answer General Mattis gave a few years ago when asked by a Senator whether foreign assistance is helpful in providing for our national defense. He said, “If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

There are real consequences for our own security when we fail to meet humanitarian needs, and we need to make that clear. It is beyond the capacity of any single humanitarian organization to reframe the public debate – particularly when they are also responding to the desperate plight of millions of people at a time when emergency appeals are still woefully underfunded.

But what has happened, which is encouraging, is that a wide array of groups – including WFP USA – have come together to argue for a better system of international aid, in part responding to a call by Sandy.

Because even while we do everything possible to provide relief right now, we also need to make sure we are learning lessons and building a better system to respond in the future.

For my part, I have been working with my own network of former Foreign Ministers to support initiatives such as these, and I believe we will have a golden opportunity to reform the system when Antonio Guterres, the former UNHCR commissioner, assumes office next month as the new UN Secretary-General.

Overcoming deficiencies in our worldwide humanitarian institutions will remain a major challenge, but it is another deficiency that worries me just as much – and that is the deficiency of compassion in global politics today.

We see this at work in many different countries in many different ways, but what alarms me the most is how those who are fleeing violence and terror are being demonized.

For me, this has been extremely personal. As most of you know, my family was exiled from Czechoslovakia twice – first because of fascism, then because of communism. For much of my life I have been described as a refugee, which is accurate, but in contrast to many who came to America before and after us, my family was not a hardship case.

We did not have to escape through barbed wire.

We did not have much money, but we did come on diplomatic passports.

So I cannot pretend to know what it is like to endure even a fraction of what so many millions of people are going through today.

But I do know what it is like to be uprooted and to be unable to return home. And I cannot imagine what it would have been like to be turned away at the door, or worse, treated as a terrorist.

My experience teaches me many things, including the important role the United States must play on these issues.

One of the special privileges I have had in life has been to preside over swearing-in ceremonies for new citizens. And I will never forget someone who came up to me afterwards and said, “Isn’t it incredible that a refugee could be sworn-in by a Secretary of State?”

To which I replied, “Isn’t it incredible that a refugee could be Secretary of State?”

I have said that Americans are the most generous people in the world, with the shortest attention spans.

But when it comes to the global humanitarian crisis today, I fear that too many in the United States believe we can insulate ourselves from the world’s problems.

The idea that we can stand aside or wait for others to act is an illusion mocked by the lessons of history.

It would be naïve to expect that a solution to this crisis will arrive soon or that, when it does take shape, it will be implemented quickly and without further pain.

But it will not come at all if we fail to uphold our own standards and values, and the situation will get much, much worse if we withdraw from the world.

This is not a task we can accomplish alone; but it is a responsibility that we cannot in good conscience ignore or refuse to accept.

As America’s Secretary of State, I was privileged to represent my country in nations on every continent. I traveled almost everywhere, and I found there are essentially three categories of countries in the world.

In the first, people work all day and still do not have enough to eat.

In the second, families are able to scrape together just enough food to meet their basic needs.

In the third category of countries, diet books are bestsellers.

Confronted with this hard truth, some people simply shrug their shoulders and ask, why should we care about people in far-off places with unpronounceable names? And why does it matter whether we are fighting poverty and hunger?

I was assured that the task was hopeless, that we could not afford to undertake it, and that we had too many other problems about which to worry. I replied that we had learned over and over again that the gravest dangers to world security have deep roots. Desperation, when allowed to fester, begets violence, ethnic strife, terrorism, international crime and the forced displacement of people.

Humanitarian assistance and development, on the other hand, provides the basis for broader markets, new democracies, stability and peace.

I believe deeply that if the developed world did more to help the deserving, we would see children everywhere become citizens and contributors; we would see young people put down roots and establish a niche in the global marketplace; and we would see whole countries benefit from the energy and skills of all their people.

The good news, in which democratic societies have always believed, is that human security, prosperity and freedom are dynamic, not finite; if we plant the seeds and till the soil, they will grow.

Here an organization like the World Food Programme is essential, for its very purpose is to cultivate, nourish and sustain our faith in each other and in ourselves.

Providing that help is not the job of governments alone or of any one organization.

It is a collective responsibility that can only be met by people from the public and private sectors joining with advocacy groups, professional organizations and NGOs.

And whether our particular purpose is to help those in need or to raise the standard of civilization more generally, three basic principles apply.

First, as Martin Luther King once said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Second, saying the right thing is nice; but doing the right thing is better. In other words – it is not enough to dream – we have to act.

And third, each and every one of us counts, no matter who we are, where we come from, or what our race, gender, or creed happen to be.

When you think about it, these elementary principles are at the core of what America is supposed to be all about. They are the central pillars upon which healthy and united communities can be built. They remain the foundation for the activities of the World Food Program around the world.

I have heard it said that the globe is divided between us and them. I was taught differently – to believe there is only one category, in which we all have a place, a category sometimes referred to as “all creatures here below.”

I know that Sandy was taught the same lesson, and that is why until his final days he was consumed by the idea that the United States can and should be doing more to deal with the dire humanitarian needs that are right in front of our eyes.

As he put it, “We cannot choose not to see. We can only choose not to act.”

As we remember and honor Sandy, let us never forget to act on behalf of peace, the rule of law, and support for the fundamental rights and dignity of every human being.

To these purposes, Sandy Berger dedicated his life.

And for these ideals, World Food Program USA will always stand.

Thank you very much, and I look forward to our discussion.

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