Albright: U.N. Needs To Show Its Relevance On Syrian Issue

Steve Inskeep talks to Madeleine Albright about the role the United Nations can play in dealing with international crises, like Syria's civil war. Albright was secretary of State when the U.S. took military action despite the absence of a U.N. resolution in Kosovo.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We don't know exactly what the United Nations will agree to on Syria, but diplomats report that the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members have agreed on the core elements of a resolution to rid Syria of its chemical weapons. It's widely expected the resolution will not be backed by a direct threat of force, though it may suggest the possibility of force.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, these negotiations come amid United States frustration with the U.N., expressed by the U.N. ambassador and President Obama this week. Our next guest faced similar challenges during a humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. Madeleine Albright was Secretary of State in 1999. She had earlier served as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. We spoke to her yesterday and posed a question: Is the United Nations broken?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I think the United Nations has an awful lot to offer, but there clearly are times when it seems stuck. It does need to move and show its relevance on the Syrian issue.

INSKEEP: Well, let's be frank, here. The president said: "A failure to act aggressively on the Syrian issue will show the U.N. is incapable of enforcing the most basic international laws." That's a quote. Aren't we likely to actually see that result here pretty soon?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that having been at the U.N. for four years, I think the president did totally the right thing in kind of making that clear, that if the United Nations and the Security Council can't act on this issue, it does make itself irrelevant in that particular issue. I have to tell you: While the situation is quite different - as it was in Kosovo, and it now is in Syria - we determined that the Security Council wasn't going to be able to handle the Kosovo issue for the same reason, because the Russians were going to block it. So we took it out of the system and went to NATO.

INSKEEP: Can you imagine, Madam Secretary, any circumstance in which the United States would go ahead without the approval of the Security Council to try to enforce something on Syria? What is the way the U.S. could do that and say that it is legal?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that there are any number of different ways. Let me go back on something when you say, is it legal. Frankly, again, to go back to Kosovo, kind of the system said that what we did there was not legal, but it was right. I have always believed that we're better off doing something multilaterally than unilaterally. But there are other ways to kind of figure this out and get it out of the cul-de-sac of the Security Council. But, again, I don't think we should prejudge what the Security Council will do. I think that the president made clear what it should do, but it is still going on through a very complicated process of negotiation that Ambassador Powers is involved in.

INSKEEP: The president also, in his speech at the United Nations, laid out a kind of hierarchy of American interests. He talked about core interests. Getting rid of weapons of mass destruction was one of those core interests. And then he mentioned some other things that he said were American interests, but not necessarily core interests, such as promoting democracy and defending human rights.

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think I'm going to sound like Professor Albright. As I teach, we always talk about what are vital core interests, what are peripheral interests. And I think the core interests are always the ones that affect American security.

INSKEEP: So, do you agree, then, with the way the president views the world and views American interests and the way that he described it there?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that the president - what I was very impressed with is that the president made very clear that we were an exceptional nation. I used - and President Clinton and I used the term indispensable. I think when one says exceptional or indispensable, it doesn't mean that we have to do everything by ourselves. I think the president believes in partnerships. He wants to operate with other countries. He does believe in democracy and human rights, and that without us, things do not happen internationally. I fully agree with that.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Madam Secretary. I want to ask about the manner, the style in which the president has acted in recent weeks on Syria, because, as you know very well, he's been criticized. He did appear to change course, threatened to strike, then threw it to Congress. He's had to say he's "not concerned with style points" - that's a quote from an interview. Do style points matter in diplomacy?

ALBRIGHT: I think that they are overrated, frankly. I don't know exactly - I have no problems with the president's style. I think...

INSKEEP: Well, I guess in terms of style points, I'm thinking in terms of those particularly on the right who have argued that he is showing American weakness, that he's allowing other people to seize the initiative.

ALBRIGHT: I fully disagree with them. I think some of the people on the right are exacerbating difficult situations by a kind of rigidity about where the world is in the 21st century. We are not living in the 20th century. We have a very, very complex situation in the kind of adversaries that we have, very different non-state actors, countries that are in the process of changing themselves completely. I think some of the people on the right are making the situation more complicated. On the other hand, what is so wonderful about our country is they have the right to say so.

INSKEEP: Secretary Albright, thanks very much for the time.

ALBRIGHT: Great. Thank you.

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