Through her many years of international service and experience, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served during the Clinton Administration, learned that Americans have a distinct quirk when meeting people for the first time.
“Try, as an American, shaking hands with someone and not smiling,” Albright quipped as she addressed a full Spangler Auditorium at Harvard Business School. “It’s almost impossible.”
Thanks to her unique blend of intelligence, wit, and dry humor, Albright had most of her audience smiling on Thursday when she met with a host faculty and students from around the University. Her appearance came thanks to a cooperative effort between the American Secretaries of State Project, the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the Future of Diplomacy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. The three-hour discussion chronicled Albright’s experiences growing up in Czechoslovakia, as the first female U.S. Secretary of State, and much in between.
“Given how balkanized Harvard University can sometimes be,” said HBS Dean Nitin Nohria as he introduced Albright, “this is a great example of how a program like [the American Secretaries of State Project] can bring together so many people from different parts of the University.”
Albright was joined on stage by HBS professor James Sebenius, the director of the Harvard Negotiation Project; HLS professor Robert Mnookin; and HKS professor Nicholas Burns, a former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and Director for Soviet Affairs, where he worked closely with Albright. The discussion was broken into two parts, the first led by Sebenius on the Balkans and Russia, and the second led by Mnookin on the Middle East and Asia, all aimed at delving into the art of negotiation, which the professors cover in their jointly-taught class Great Negotiators, Effective Diplomacy, and Intractable Conflicts. Albright spoke candidly about her diplomatic dealings with several current and former world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Slobodan Milošević, Yasser Arafat, and Boris Yeltsin, sharing accounts and insights within the historical context of some of the world’s most famous and tense geopolitical periods.
“The part that’s really weird about being a diplomat is that no matter what, you always have to begin the conversation,” she said.
That presented little problem for Albright Thursday, as she narrated stories such as a first meeting between Putin and President Bill Clinton at a jazz concert, in which Clinton “could not sit still” and Putin “sat ramrod” throughout. She also joked that many of her colleagues referred to the conflict in Kosovo as “Madeleine’s War” because of her empahsis on the need to use force to advance negotiations, but “called it something else after we won.”
Despite her candor and good humor, Albright spoke sternly and definitively about her beliefs on a number of former and current geopolitical issues. She called the U.S. war in Iraq “one of the country’s biggest foreign policy mistakes,” and openly expressed her concern about the strength and longevity of the European Union going forward. But she also made sure to consistently interweave objective leadership and negotiation advice into her opinions.
“The basis of any successful negotiation is to understand what the other person needs,” Albright said. “As we watch any negotiation today, some part must always be a win-win. And when it isn’t, that’s when things fall apart.”