NEAL CONAN, host:
And now, This American Moment. Since the Democratic and Republican conventions started in August, we've been asking politicians, journalists, writers and thinkers to take a step back and put this election and this campaign season in context. Tell us what's at stake, what this election means to them. In just a moment, we'll hear from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the first woman to be secretary of state, nominated by President Clinton in 1996. Prior to that, she served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Today, Madeleine Albright is the principal of the Albright Group, a team of international negotiators and experienced diplomats. Her book, "Memo to the President: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership," is out today, as it happens, in paperback. And of course, we want to hear from you. We're asking you to step back from partisan politics, it's hard two weeks from Election Day but please, step back for a moment and think about what this American Moment means to you.
Our phone number, 800-989-8255, email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Secretary Albright joins us now from a studio at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and it's nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.
Ms. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT (Former Secretary of State, Author, Albright Group): It's great to be with you. Thank you so much.
CONAN: And everybody knows that you're a Democrat, I don't think it's any secret who you will support in this election. But more broadly at this historic moment, what do you see at stake in 2008?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think this is probably the most important election in my lifetime. I'm 71 years old, and I will never forget my first vote, for John Kennedy. But if you really look at the issues that are out there that the next president is going to have to tackle, it's going to be very, very difficult. And so I see this as a crucial election, and people say that in many ways this, especially now with the global financial problems, that this is as serious as anything that we've seen. And that the country is really in need of very good, new, strong, 21st century leadership.
CONAN: So when people say the most important election maybe since 1932, you don't think that's necessarily overblown.
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Absolutely not. Because I think that, well, we've all studied - not all but most of us - have studied the Roosevelt Era and a variety of issues that were out there in terms of failure of the economic system and various problems for the American population. But added to that, we now have a very serious and complicated international situation. And my new book basically has outlined what I see as the major national security issues. And one has to add the global financial crisis to it. So even before what has been happening financially, I thought that this was going to be a very difficult presidency.
CONAN: Some would argue, of course, one of the major issues in this campaign has been energy and the price of oil. Well, it's come down to nearly $75 a barrel, which seems extraordinary to be thinking about. But nevertheless, some present this as primarily an environmental issue, primarily as concerns about global warming. Others present it primarily as a national security issue. How do you see it?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: I see it as both, frankly because I think the environmental issue is a national security issue. I do think that despite the fact that the price has come down, the questions that continue in terms of energy security, our dependence on oil from a variety of countries that are not necessarily in agreement with us, a transfer of huge amounts of our money to other countries when we need it at home. So I think energy per se continues to be a national security issue and questions as to how long the fossil fuels will last. But it is also an environmental issue, which is a national security issue.
For instance, as the water rises, we have problems of displacement of huge amounts of populations, who then become refugees and add to instability in the world. Or we have issues as to whether demographic changes and the availability of water resources in crucial areas such as in India or the Middle East. Or the fact that I can argue that the problems in Darfur began with issues of global warming, desertification, that pushed the people out of their land. So I do think that it's - the environment issue itself is seen as national and needs to be seen as a national security issue.
CONAN: As you look at the world, America's position in the world has certainly, according to all of the public-opinion polls from around the world, declined over the past several years. Whoever is elected president will come in to some degree with a clean slate. This is not an incumbent president. It is not an incumbent vice president. Both will be presented with new kinds of administrations. Do you see this is a fresh opportunity for the United States?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: I do. And I think that the world - and I've been involved in some of this Pew attitude survey work - is very ready for a new American president. And they have been critical of our policies, and that means critical of the Bush administration, and they are ready for a different kind of president and a different way of operating. I do think, however, one has to be also realistic. There have been many, many issues that are difficult. We have kind of been in a ditch, and it's not going to be easy to get out, and I do think there'll be a honeymoon period. But I think the American public is going to have be patient and make it - really be supportive of the next president because the policies that he's going to have to undertake will not be very easy. But people are ready - people are - the thing that I've said is that people want American leadership. It's just that they've found American leadership wanting.
CONAN: It's an interesting way to put it. We hear from a lot of places that in a way, the American president is the president of their country, too. Is that a cliche? Is that true at all, do you think?
Ms. ALBRIGHT: I think it's true because we see every way that whatever happens in America, in many ways affects people in other countries. Our policies are so pervasive and dominant that in fact, it does affect others. For instance, if you talk about global warming and climate change, that is -our use of fossil fuels affects others. If you talk about the global financial crisis, clearly, that affects other people. And how we react to insurgencies in variety of areas affects other people. What I find so interesting is I obviously do a lot of traveling, and I don't think I've ever seen as much foreign interest in the election.
They - people, you know, it was interesting this winter, I was in India. And they wanted to know what was going to happen in Iowa. And that is only multiplied now as I travel because they want to know about poll results, and what are the battleground states. And I find it absolutely stunning in terms of their knowledge. And it does go with your statement about it's their president, too.
CONAN: It's interesting to be in Poland or Bulgaria or somewhere and then be trying to explain the electoral college.
Ms. ALBRIGHT: It is. It's sometimes hard to explain to Americans, but the bottom line is they are very, very interested in it and it's kind of great. I mean, they're very, very nice in different ways. They say to me, we're not electing your president, you have to elect your own president. But it's very important to us who is chosen. So I just think it is a sign of the vibrancy of American democracy and people's interest in what we do.
CONAN: We're talking with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about This American Moment. Her new book is "Memo to the President: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership." It's out today in paperback. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email, email@example.com. Let's get Jim on the line. Jim with us from Jacksonville in Florida.
JIM (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
CONAN: Go ahead, Jim.
JIM: The question, or the point, that I just heard was how can restore - can you say it again?
CONAN: It's the name of Secretary Albright's book - "How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership."
JIM: OK. And that's what the lady asked me when she took my call. How we can restore America's reputation and leadership? That's done by standing firm for principles, principles of supporting freedom and supporting individuals in their lives. In America and around the world, there's a push and pull between standing with principles and traditions or going with the flow. The other comment I thought of was, this election, this being an election between the two concepts of substance or flash, flash or substance. And America will maintain a position of leadership and good reputation in the world if people of the world can look to America as a country that stands for principles.
What are these given principles, and will America always support the principles or will America say well, we'll really do whatever's convenient right now? If it's convenient today, if we think this will be a popular response either at home or abroad, we'll go with that. We'll avoid controversy and go with whatever is easiest to do. America has to project strength of character, strength of fortitude, the willingness to stand up for life and individual liberty.
CONAN: Jim, that's very articulate. Thank you very much. Appreciate that.
JIM: Thank you for the opportunity.
CONAN: And Secretary Albright, he raised an interesting point about freedom and the United States standing up for freedom, an issue that seemed to be easier to define in the era of the Cold War than it is in the post-Cold War era.
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I very much appreciated what Jim had to say, because I do think America, I happen to believe that we are an exceptional country. I wasn't born here; I'm a naturalized citizen. And I'm very grateful for having been able to grow up a free American. And I do think we have a special place in the world in terms of standing up for various parts of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. I think where we have had problems is that we have asked that exceptions be made for us. And so that sense of example in some ways is undercut by some of our recent behavior.
I don't care for popular, frankly, but I do care if we are respected and our leadership is something that people want to see. And so I agree fully with what he had to say, and I thinkthat it's important to understand that it isn't always easy to stand up for what you believe in. But it is important to know what it is we believe in, and we need to make sure that as we talk about freedom in today's day and age, that we don't just impose our way of life on others but support those in other countries who are interested in making choices for their own kind of form of democratic governments. I believe in democracy. I'm chairman of the board of the National Democratic Institute, and we do a lot to support and promote democracy abroad. But that's different from imposing democracy, which does not, I think, carry out our principles.
CONAN: We're talking with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about This American Moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Zia(ph) on the line. Zia is calling from Glendale in Arizona.
ZIA (Caller): Hi. Actually, I am from Afghanistan, and my name is Zia. I'd like to say hello to you and to your guest, Madeleine Albright. I am a political scientist here in Arizona. Every time that I call back home in Afghanistan - and I have family that lives in Pakistan - this election means so much to them that the first thing - they don't ask how I am, they ask who's going to win the American election. I think this election means reforming the American policy and trying to introduce a new image of America to the world that America is a nation that supports democracy around the world.
Unfortunately, in the last few years, I think that this true image of America hasn't been reflected truly. And I'd just like to make another statement that I think - I have been in Pakistan and I have been in Afghanistan, I have been in United States for a short while - I think Obama has a true understanding of war and terrorism and that two in safe haven as the terrorists in Pakistan. So I think that's the main reason that they have to be targeted here in order to defeat them.
CONAN: Interesting, Zia, do you think Senator Obama has experience of war and terrorism? Senator McCain went through a horrible experience in Vietnam during the war. He was a military aviator. He spent quite a number of years in the military and knows a great deal about war and about terrorism, too.
ZIA: Yeah. I understand. That's a great question. I'm just 22 years old, but I have been on the ground. What Obama says it's a true judgment, it's a true understanding of war on terrorism. But sometime, I mean, for example, in my class, your teachers that have great experience but they cannot make their strategy work better. But your other teachers, they don't have experienced much but they can make the student understand fully what they want the students to understand. So I think Obama's judgment and the way he will work out will be very effective. I mean, sometimes, people do have experience. It doesn't mean that experience will be fully practiced and will be fully effective and efficient.
CONAN: Secretary Albright, I wondered if you had a comment.
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Well, I think this very interesting comment from Zia, and he certainly comes from one of the most troubled parts of the world and a very important one to his own people and to the rest of the world. I think that what I find interesting about Senator Obama is that he has a 21st century approach to these kinds of problems, and he understands what creates terrorists, that, in fact, terrible conditions, and lack of a good educational system, and people being marginalized because they are poor.
Those are all issues that provide very good recruiting ground for people who hate us. And I think that his sense that not only does there have to be some military action against al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, but also that there has to be assistance in terms of developing educational opportunities for people in terms of helping on stabilizing the governments in those areas. Those are all part of fighting terrorism and that, I think, is what Zia is talking about, in terms of a full understanding of what we're dealing with instead of just thinking that military power alone will take care of the problem.
CONAN: Zia, thanks very much for the call and good luck to you.
ZIA: You're very welcome and I do appreciate it. And that's 100 percent true. I know the true knowledge on the ground. And that's - I think, if America chose Obama the president, it will change the whole face of America in the world and in America as well.
CONAN: Thanks very much. Bye-bye. And Secretary Albright, thank you so much for your time today.
Ms. ALBRIGHT: Thank you. Great program. Thank you.
CONAN: Madeleine Albright, principal of the Albright Group, former secretary of state under President Clinton. Her book, "Memo to the President: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership" is out today in paperback. Tomorrow, Roy Blount Jr. joins us at the Newseum, and Murray Horwitz will be there to talk about portrayals of the news media in the movies. Get the front page out. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.