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'American leadership is needed now more than ever': Former Secretaries of State Albright, Powell reflect on careers, present state of the nation

Whatever else may have been said about the country over the past three years, whatever trials the United States might face today, there’s one thing to which a pair of former U.S. Secretaries of State attested Tuesday night in front of nearly 2,500 attendees at Creighton University.

“There is no substitute for the United States of America,” said retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, who served as the head of the State Department under President George W. Bush. “We are still the greatest democracy in the world. We are great today. We were great yesterday. We’ll be great tomorrow.”

For 75 minutes from the floor of the Sokol Arena, Powell and his predecessor at the helm of the nation’s diplomatic efforts, Madeleine Albright, PhD — and prompted by questions from Creighton students gathered throughout the day and moderated by CNN national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux — pondered topics ranging from the news of the moment to the challenges facing the Founding Fathers in the drafting of the Constitution.

“We live in a very complex world,” said Albright, who served under President Bill Clinton as the first female Secretary of State and highest-ranking woman in the executive branch, and now holds a professorship in foreign policy at Georgetown University. “American leadership is needed now more than ever. It’s not this business of ‘we’re a victim and we don’t want to be a part of it anymore.’ Americans don’t like the word multilateralism — it’s got too many syllables and it ends in ‘ism.’ But it’s partnership and American needs to be a part of it.”

Trust and confidence were central themes of the evening’s conversation, the final installment of the Creighton 140 Presidential Lecture Series. Both Powell and Albright noted that the present administration under President Donald Trump has pulled the U.S. back from several agreements and treaties that benefit not only international partners, but the American people.

Citing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear treaty, among others, both chief diplomats examined America’s suddenly shrinking presence on the global stage and what other actors are moving to fill the void.

“I’ve had arguments with the Russians; I’ve had arguments with the Chinese,” Powell said. “That's what diplomacy’s about. That’s what politics is about. You can’t just go your own way in this. It’s always been ‘America first.’ But it’s never been ‘American alone.’”

After a week fraught with violence and vituperative rhetoric that ended in tragedy with the mass shooting of 11 Jewish Americans at a Pittsburgh synagogue and the slayings of two African Americans at a Kentucky supermarket, both Albright and Powell took a moment to reflect on the unswerving American asset and celebration of diversity.

“There’s no way to describe what has been one of the most disappointing, horrible and un-American set of activities that’s taken place,” Albright said. “There are divisions in our society that have come about as a result of technology and the downside of globalization, but we need leaders who look for common ground and don’t exacerbate (division).”

As the interview drew to a close, Malveaux asked Albright and Powell about the coming election and their legacies.

On the election, Powell said: “I’m an American and I vote for the person I think is best qualified to do the job.”

Of their legacies, both diplomats opined on their humble beginnings that eventually brought them to national prominence and service.

“I hope they might say she worked very hard to defend America’s national interests and made people proud of what America is about,” Albright said. “The concept that if you work hard and get a position that you can do something with, can give back with, that’s an American dream and legacy. I want my legacy to be I’m a grateful American and I tried to give back.”

Powell also touched on his military and civilian service.

“As a kid coming from the South Bronx, I could not have dreamed I’d reach the positions I did but I did because this is a great country and I’m grateful to it,” he said. “I hope my legacy is that he was a pretty good soldier, did his duty and loved his country.”


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