During the 59th John Findley Green Foundation Lecture, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright encouraged the audience not to fall prey to isolationist fears.
"I am no Churchill, but today, I want to issue a call for action," Albright said. "I want to urge everyone — especially the students — to treat this as another clarifying moment in our history."
Lessons in history
Albright spoke Thursday at Westminster College, focusing on the status of democracy in the 21st century. This present moment, she argued, represents an inflection point: Fascism and nationalism are on the rise, threatening to break ties between nations and break democratic governments within nations.
It's a moment that mirrors another within living memory — one defined at Westminster College when Winston Churchill gave his famed "Sinews of Peace" speech in 1946. He warned of an "iron curtain" descending across Europe in the form of the encroaching Communist threat.
"Churchill came to Missouri during what he called 'a solemn moment for American democracy,'" Albright said. "In the aftermath of global conflict, the American people were weary of war and wary of new commitments. But here in the heart of the country, Winston Churchill argued that the security and prosperity of Europe and the United States were closely connected, and that America had a responsibility to lead."
President Harry Truman took that message to heart, planting the seeds of NATO and encouraging the growth of democracy.
That mission endured into Albright's tenure in public service: as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations from 1993-97, and then as the first female secretary of state under then-President Bill Clinton until 2001.
"At the dawn of the 21st century, our overriding goal was to bring nations closer together around some of the ideas that Churchill had talked about in his speech," she said. "We worked to strengthen our NATO alliance and erase any trace of the iron curtain by adding qualified new members from Europe's newly democratic east.
"I will never forget welcoming the foreign ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to Independence, Missouri, where we signed the documents admitting them to NATO on the table Harry Truman used to authorize the Marshall Plan."
But in 2019, that progress toward a more united and peaceful world is under threat.
"The future seems filled with puzzles to which there are no readily apparently solutions," Albright said. "Democracy appears to be in retreat. And the pillars of the postwar international system are weakening."
America's attempts to impose democracy — "an oxymoron" according to Albright — in Iraq shook global faith in democratic ideals, while the financial crisis of 2008-09 built resentment against the international economic system. The already wealthy in Western urban centers prospered, as did certain segments of Asia; traditional manufacturers and farmers in rural America did not.
"This lopsided pattern created massive pockets of resentment in traditional manufacturing and farming sectors and among people without the high-tech training needed to compete in today's economy," she said, adding, "Today, the people who see themselves most clearly as victims are concentrated in such places as the northern cities of England, the former East Germany, and America's industrial heartland."
That set the stage for the current situation, in which countries such as Russia hold disinformation campaigns on social media and radical nationalist groups are gaining steam.
Albright pointed a finger at Russian president Vladimir Putin, whom she said is attempting to "cause NATO to collapse from within," and Chinese president Xi Jinping. China has "become another leading global champion of authoritarianism," controlling its population through technology and abusing global trade.
America isn't blameless in all this, she said.
"For almost as long as I have been alive, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, the world has been able to count on the United States to serve as the rock against which the forces of despotism run aground and break apart," Albright said. "But what concerns me is that we may no longer be able to make that claim."
Albright said President Donald Trump has become "a source of comfort to anti-democratic forces across the globe."
"His central foreign policy theme is to ignore, disparage and dismantle the global system of international problem-solving and law that Americans led in creating," she said. "In its place, the president touts a world in which each country is only out for itself, competing constantly, and valuing material advantage over shared ideals."
What perhaps concerns her the most is Trump's isolationist policies, including his increasing resistance to admitting refugees into the United States.
Albright has personal experience with fleeing to the U.S.: Her family did just that in 1948, when the rise of communism in Czechoslovakia threatened her politician father's safety.
"The best solution by far is to prevent wars, create a healthy global economy and protect the environment so that people do not have to leave their homes in quest of safety and the means to survive," she said. "There are no easy answers, but of one thing I am sure. The situation is not helped when politicians try to advance their careers by suggesting that most migrants are terrorists and rapists — or that families fleeing persecution and war are less than human."
Call to action
Albright describes herself as an "optimist who worries a lot."
As an optimist, she said, she believes the current generation of citizens and politicians have time and a chance to prevent democracy's widespread collapse.
Solutions she proposed include:
Assembling an international coalition to halt Russia's disinformation attempts.
Teaming up with allies to address chaos-causing global problems, such as terrorism, climate change and nuclear weapon development.
Seeking cooperation with China, while boldly calling out its human rights violations.
Albright closed with words of encouragement and warning for her audience, particularly students of Westminster.
"A decade or two from now, you could be known as neo-isolationists who allowed tyranny and lawlessness to rise again; or as those whose solidified the global triumph of democratic principles," she said. "You could be known as the neo-protectionists, whose lack of vision produced economic catastrophe; or as those who laid the groundwork for rising prosperity around the world.
"You could be known as the generation that allowed technology to drive a deeper wedge within and between nations; or as the visionaries who harnessed technology to unite people and expand freedom.
"You could be known as the world-class ditherers, who stood by while the seeds of renewed global conflict were sown; or as those that took strong measures to forge alliances, deter aggression and keep the peace."
Kelsie Slaughter, a Westminster senior and history major who sang the national anthem and Westminster's school song during the event, said she found the talk inspiring.
"This symposium is called 'Breakthrough,' and she symbolizes exactly that for so many women in politics," she said.
Albright's anecdote about conferring citizenship on a Czech man particularly touched her. To paraphrase, the man said to Albright he couldn't believe he was receiving citizenship, and Albright asked if he could believe a Czech refugee could become Secretary of State.
"That was amazing, and that's just what America is, and that's what makes America great," Slaughter said.