The Aspen Institute is no stranger to hosting some of today’s most brilliant minds in the world, and Wednesday evening’s Leadership in Action Series was no exception.
On Wednesday, the series featured a conversation with David Rubenstein that centered on philanthropy, a panel discussion concerning China and its model of government and a discussion panel with questions directed to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
As they say in show business, it was Albright who stole the show.
Direct and engaging, Albright was candid with her views and opinions. Her resume is too long to list, and it only reinforces her reputation as one of the most powerful political voices in America. In 1997, she became the first female secretary of state and, at that time, the highest-ranking woman in the history of the U.S. government.
In May 2012, President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
“I believe in an active American role (globally),” Albright said. “We have responsibilities in the world, and I believe in the goodness of American power. I also think it’s very important that whatever we do, be in partnership with others. We are the indispensable nation, and there’s nothing in the word ‘indispensable’ that says ‘alone.’”
The panel asking questions featured four distinct voices from different parts of the globe. There was Chadia El-Meouchi Naoum, of Lebanon, a managing partner of the Badri and Salim El Meouchi Law Firm; Kathleen Gan, of Hong Kong, the chief financial and risk officer for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. Hong Kong; Ali Mufuruki, co-founder of the African Leadership Initiative at the Aspen Institute; and Gigi Porras, the former minister of commerce and industry in Panama.
Suzanne Malveaux, of CNN, hosted the forum. The questions dealt mostly with the role of the United States on a global scale.
Albright started the discussions by answering questions dealing with the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the possibility of the U.S. losing its superpower status by 2030.
When Mufuruki pointed out that many young, emerging democracies look to emulate the U.S. as a hub of freedom, opportunity and justice, but that the recent trial of neighborhood-watch commander George Zimmerman revealed that our battle with racism isn’t done, Albright didn’t pull any punches.
“I’m not a lawyer,” she said, “but I was appalled by what happened in that trial. It was a tragedy in every single way, and I was deeply troubled by the decision. But I believe this country is trying to figure it out. If we are a model, it is that we question ourselves. I’m a proud American, and I do believe we’re going to figure this one out.”
Albright then talked about Obama in glowing terms. Despite pulling for Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race, it was Obama’s “Dreams of My Father” speech that made Albright hope he would get elected.
“His story is amazing,” she said. “I think every American should reread that speech. It was remarkable.”
Albright then spoke of the difficult job of balancing relationships throughout Central America.
“Damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she said. “We’re either not paying enough attention — for whatever reason — or we’re paying too much attention and we’re asked why we’re prying into others’ affairs. I believe in the strength of the Americas and operating together. We’re linked by our desires for democracy and a good economic life.”
She also touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s a very complicated issue,” Albright said. “The U.S. needs to be very supportive of a two-state solution, but ultimately the U.S. cannot dictate the terms. The U.S. can set the table, but it’s the parties that have to make the decision. Personally, I think the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people have to be recognized.”
Albright then talked about the difficulties concerning emerging democracies.
“Democracy is not an event,” she said. “It’s a process, and many countries are still learning it, including our own. We are imperfect in that ourselves.”
In a world dominated by instant messaging, quick Twitter blurbs and informal emails, the Aspen Institute made sure the Leadership in Action Series was all about taking the time to ask questions and listen to answers.
“It’s essential in today’s world to have an opportunity like this to talk and listen,” Albright said. “For me, it’s the listening part that has been important here. I have heard so many exceptional questions and opinions. Aspen has been perfect for this forum.”