Albright & Powell: Two Former Secretaries of State in Conversation

International Students, Immigration, Diplomacy

May 31st, 2019

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This year’s NAFSA Annual Conference & Expo was held in Washington, DC and wrapped up on May 31st. The highlight of my 2 ½ day attendance besides the fruitful meetings with colleagues and strengthening partnerships with client institutions and organizations was the opening plenary that included two former U.S. Secretaries of State, Madeleine Albright and General Colin Powell which was moderated by Dr. Esther Brimmer, Executive Director & CEO of NAFSA.

The following are excerpts of their discussion on international education, immigration policy, and diplomacy which I’ve paraphrased to the best of my ability based on notes I was able to take:

On International Students:

Secretary Albright stressed that we need to have an understanding of international education and the importance of students from U.S. going abroad and international students coming to study in the U.S.  As a professor at Georgetown University she knows how dire the situation is as the number of international students coming to study in the U.S. has been declining. She sees this as a great loss to U.S. higher education and U.S. diplomatic relations with allies and adversaries.

On the Iron Curtain and the Cold War:

General Powell said when he joined the military 60 years ago, the military had a clear understanding of its mission. His first assignment was to stand guard behind the Iron Curtain. He said the rules were clear. Stopping the Russians was the mission. Both the Soviet Union and the United States knew that they had the capacity to destroy each other, and knew each other’s capabilities. This knowledge had a stabilizing influence. Both countries looked to the Third World and competed for it.  But the Soviet Union started to show cracks. Then the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed on Christmas Day 1991.  “The world as we had known it and the sense of anticipated destruction we’d been preparing for went away,” he said. The President at the time, George Herbert Bush, saw this as a brand new world, but one thing became clear was that throughout the Cold War years the U.S. knew its enemies and was prepared to take them down and defend those western European nations and any one who wished to join the American theory of democracy, equal rights and open economic policy. But with the collapse of the Soviet Union the lid on the proverbial boiling pot came off and what was inside was a scorching stew of sectarianism, different economic positions, and people who still wanted to be autocrats. And, these beliefs were spreading around the world. The U.S. and its allies may have predicted the fall of the Soviet Union but they had never anticipated the sectarian differences and rise of autocratic political systems in countries like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, and Egypt.

On Immigration and Diversity:

General Powell continued by saying that immigration, this wonderful national identity that America upheld for many years, is now becoming a problem in Europe because they did not prepare for it well and have not done a good job in managing it. And now it has hit the U.S. He urged that the U.S. must sort out what its policy should be with respect to immigration and international students. He warned that the U.S. is on the brink of turning into a country that has become more autocratic than any time in his life time. “We have a President who thinks he knows what he is doing,” he said. General Powell was chagrined by the lack of dialogue between the two political parties. He recalled that during his and Ms. Albright’s respective tenures as Secretary of State, they were able to resolve problems by having members of both political parties communicating with each other. “The Republican party is solidly behind the president no matter what he says or does and the Democrats are trying to figure out what they’re going to do,” he continued.  “Immigration has been the life and soul of America. It is who we are,” he added.  General Powell spoke of his parents who came from Jamaica to America on the banana board in 1920’s. His parents met in New York, married, and led a comfortable life. “I grew up in a diverse multi ethnic neighborhood. Born in Harlem, raised in the Bronx, called Fort Apache. It was called a bad neighborhood, but I loved it. I met every ethnicity of the world in that city block. I loved it.  I learned how to live with people who weren’t just like me, except they were just like me. We are human beings, we are Americans,” he continued.  He emphasized the importance of developing a solid immigration policy one that doesn’t make it difficult for young people to come here to study and doesn’t make it even more difficult for them to stay if they’ve succeeded in getting a solid education.  He feared that these young people’s opinion of the U.S., “once the crown jewel of the world,” will not be looked at the same way again. He said that “this image has been damaged but that America is still a country you can believe in, but that we need to sort ourselves out. It’s not about Make America Great Again, America never stopped being great.”

On Technology and Globalization:

Secretary Albright continued with General Powell’s sentiments and said that the world is counting on a U.S. that demonstrates “normal reactions to the problems going on,” but that is not what the U.S. is currently doing. She spoke about technology, both its positive influences as well as how disruptive it can be.  She said there are two megatrends that we are witnessing that have both positive and negative results. The first megatrend is ‘globalization’ and most of us have benefited from it in one form or another and most of it are the students who were able to travel from their country to another to study and saw themselves as a global citizen. “Being a global citizen is not an insult. But there is a downside to it. Globalization is faceless. People want an identity. We want to know who we are and where we come from.  But if my identity hates your identity, we end up with hyper-nationalism. Which is very dangerous and that is the downsize of globalization,” she said. Another megatrend is ‘technology’ which has great benefits, and she used the example of a Kenyan woman farmer who no longer needed to walk for miles to pay her bills and can do so now by using her mobile phone and even get an education online, or start her own business.  But the negative part of technology is that it “disarticulates voices.” She referred to the Egyptian Uprising of 2011 that was part of the Arab Spring movement, where people in Egypt in January 2011 were summoned to Tahrir Square by Social Media. But once the people gathered at the Square they had no sense of what their organizational system was going to be once they had overthrown President Hosni Mubarak. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood was organized and had been organized for many years. In her opinion, the November 2011 elections in Egypt following uprising were held too soon and this is why the Muslim Brotherhood was able to win the election which caused more disruptions since it wasn’t what the people who had gathered in Tahrir Square had wanted. But the continuous disorganization made it unbearable for the merchants and shopkeepers who

were trying to make a living in the marketplace in a city that was riddled with chaos and disorder. They wanted order which led to Egypt having a military government. She sees what happened in Egypt as an example of why people, during periods of rapid change and disorder, call on autocratic leaders.  She quoted a Silicon Valley individual whose name she had forgotten as having said the following appropriate statement: “People are talking to their governments on 21st century technology, the governments are listening to them on 20th century technology, and are providing 19th century responses.”

On World History, Geography and Culture

Secretary Albright then spoke of the importance of learning and understanding the geography, history and culture of countries in order to help share cultural policy. She said she is known as “multilateral Madeleine,” and that Americans don’t like the word multilateralism that it has “too many syllables and ends with an “ism.” She regards international education and cultural diplomacy and learning about the other as the ultimate aspect of partnership. “We need to understand where we come from and none of that will happen if we decide to see ourselves as victims,” she added.

On Post 9/11 Immigration Policies:

General Powell recalled that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. reacted by shutting down the flow of refugees and enforcing stricter visa regulations on international students. No sooner had these regulations been enforced that he began receiving angry calls from university presidents who implored the State Department to ease up on the student visas.  They argued that international students were financially beneficial to U.S. institutions of higher education and helped keep their institutions operational. He said today China has about 400,000 students studying in the U.S. and the current Administration is accusing Chinese students as spying for their government as an excuse to make visa requirements more difficult. General Powell quipped that the U.S. need not worry about Chinese students spying as “there are spies amongst us here.” He blamed TV news and social media as exaggerating events to scare the American people so much so that we cannot have rational intelligent conversations. “They (N. Korea, Iran, China, Russia) are not enemies, but our adversaries. If N. Korea has a nuclear weapon, it wouldn’t use it because it would be assisted suicide. If they were to drop a bomb on a U.S. city, the U.S. would in turn annihilate them,” he said. He found it odd that the current Administration is arguing that Iran is going to build nuclear weapons when this issue was taken care of in the Nuclear Agreement of 2015 which stopped them from further developing their centrifuges. He did not view Russia as a military threat because “it lacks the economic strength to back it up.” As for China, he found this Administration’s fear tactics concerning China baseless in that China is already defeating the U.S. economically and doing so very well. He asked: “Why would they (China) want to attack us, when they have us buying the stuff they make?”

 On Diplomacy:

Secretary Albright stressed the importance of diplomacy but said that “diplomacy means having people who are diplomats and allocating resources to fund the diplomats” and the need to have a State Department that is properly staffed with appointed Ambassadors at their posts in countries around the world. She also stated that the foreign students who come and study here build a network and when they graduate they return home and hold positions in the private or public sector. Some run for political office and some get appointed to be ambassadors of their own countries. She shared that the current Japanese Foreign Minister was her student at the Modern Foreign Government course she teaches. “This is how you build diplomatic relations. The people that you meet at school are people who are going to show up again. It’s an automatic network. Diplomacy works, if you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This can be achieved more easily if there is a basis of understanding of each other’s cultures,” she said. “ One could prove the importance of international education by the mere fact that it works. It helps create friendships,” she emphasized.

General Powell recalled that at every post he had held, one thing he learned that has proven effective is the ability to listen to people and talk to people, and not shout at them.  He also mentioned that today, at City College of New York Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership, the institution he had attended as a young adult, 90% of the student body is a minority and 80% were born in another country. “They are going to be great Americans. This is who we are and this is what makes us great,” he said.

On Immigration (Reminder why America is the Land of Immigrants):

Secretary Albright said that she and her parents came to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia in 1948, Her father had been a Czechoslovak diplomat and she remembers him saying that during WII when they had sought refuge in other countries, people would say “we’re so sorry your country has been taken on by Hitler, you’re welcome here, what can we do to help you and when are you going home?” When she and her family came to the U.S. after the communists took over Czechoslovakia, people would say, “we’re so sorry your country has been taken over by a terrible system, you’re welcome here, what can we do to help you and when will you become a citizen?”  That is what made America different from other countries and she felt that this has been forgotten by many Americans. She saw the anti-immigration sentiments of the past two years to America’s detriment. She said that one of her favorite things to do is give people their naturalization certificates. The first time she did it was on July 4, 2000 at Monticello. She overheard one person say: “Can you believe it…I just received my naturalization certificate from the Secretary of State and I’m a refugee!” She went up to him and said: “Can you believe the Secretary of State is a refugee?” She added, “We are great, we don’t need to be great again, we just need someone who understands this about America.”


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Jasmin Saidi-Kuehnert is the President and CEO of the Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute (ACEI).

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The Academic Credentials Evaluation Institute, Inc. (ACEI), was founded in 1994 and is based in Los Angeles, CA, USA. ACEI provides a number of services that include evaluations of international academic credentials for U.S. educational equivalence, translation, verification, and professional training programs. ACEI is a Charter and Endorsed Member of the Association of International Credential Evaluators. For more information, visit www.acei-global.org.

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