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Scott Henrichsen, Photographer

Speaking Out

Madeleine Albright Sounds Off on Ukraine

The former secretary of state gave the crowd a rousing history lesson at Women in the World’s first D.C. event, as an array of other powerful changemakers took the stage.

In keeping with Women in the World’s commitment to see foreign affairs through the eyes of women, Tina Brown launched the first Women in the World event in D.C. with a cocktail reception in Washington Wednesday night featuring an interview with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and an impressive group of Washington’s powerhouse women. Before an audience of mostly women from throughout the nation’s capital, and with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine topping the news, Brown noted that Albright had called Russian President Putin “delusional,” and asked what she meant by that.

Albright said she was building on what German Chancellor Angela Merkel said of Putin, that he was living in some other world, and that she thinks Putin wants to be “the personification of what Russia was as an empire.” She said he wants to restore Russia’s grandeur, and that the Russian people lost their identity when the Soviet Union collapsed and they were no longer the other superpower. Albright recalled doing research at the time and that a Russian commented in a focus group that the country was “Bangladesh with missiles.”

She agreed with Brown that Putin could the Russian version of Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi spokesman who insisted all was well, even as the bombs were falling. “It’s conceivable he’s being fed a lot of crazy facts,” Albright said, imagining Putin returning from Sochi and the Olympics and sitting down with his people and wondering how things had spun out of control while he was gone.

When asked how the crisis could be handled, Albright responded, “A lot depends on Europeans. I have tried to analyze all this in three venues. One is the Ukraine itself—it used to be the breadbasket of the region, now it’s the basket case. It has very rich soil, smart, hardworking people, and the question is how you deal with this crisis....When we were in office, we were waiting for the Europeans to do something about Bosnia, and things that are in Europe you think Europeans would take care of. The bottom line is how to get the EU involved and give economic support....the Europeans have a responsibility here, along with the U.S., in how we get [the Ukraine] back on their feet. 

She offered some fascinating personal insights into Putin, having met him while serving as secretary of state during the Clinton administration. She described him as “a very smart man, very clear about what he wants.” When NATO expanded and she and others tried to persuade then Russian President Boris Yeltsin that someday Russia could be part of NATO, Yeltsin and his successor, Putin, didn’t buy that. “I don’t want to be part of Europe; I want to be Russia,” Putin said.  

Albright recalled joking around with President Clinton and then Defense Secretary William Cohen at a 1999 summit when the three of them struck the pose of the “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkeys. To commemorate the moment, Albright bought monkey pins, and wore them to a summit meeting with Putin the following year. Albright’s penchant for wearing pins that communicated a message was well-known in the diplomatic community, and Putin asked her why she was wearing the monkeys. “Because of your Chechnya policy,” she replied. “He started yelling at me,” she said, recounting the story to an audience not at all surprised by his reaction.

White House advisor Valerie Jarrett kicked off the evening, confiding that the White House does do some polling now and then, and that the most popular line in President Obama’s recent State of the Union address was, “When women succeed, America succeeds.” She announced that early this summer the White House will hold a summit on working families, and it goes without saying that the once traditional definition of a family has undergone dramatic change, and public policies need reform. “Let’s make sure that our voices are heard,” she said to a lively crowd. “Remember, this is going to be a year of action.”

Later, Women in the World and Toyota honored Lauren Shweder Biel, founder of D.C. Greens, which connects communities to healthy food with a focus on the underserved, with the 2014 Mother of Invention Award. To encourage families to consume more fruits and vegetables, she works with a local health clinic that writes “prescriptions” for healthy food that can be redeemed at the rate of a dollar a day per person. “The things that you see them eating are a lot of processed foods, nothing that’s going to give them any kind of nutritional value. This is a process. You’re talking about two generations of lost food knowledge,” she said. “A coordinator from D.C. Greens just today was doing a cooking demonstration with seventh graders, and a lot of them had never cracked an egg before. We’re moving further and further away from knowing where our food comes from. When they can see that you plant a seed and food grows—it’s amazing! And kids are much more likely to try it and like it.”

Another centerpiece of the D.C. event, which served as a preview to Women in the World’s April summit in New York’s Lincoln Center, was an interview with Pakistani activist Humaira Bachal and filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, whose film Saving Face about horrific acid attacks won the Oscar in 2012 for best documentary. “In Pakistan, you are finding people like Humaira who are risking their lives every day to bring change to their communities. They are doing it because they believe strongly that they want a better tomorrow for their generation,” said Obaid-Chinoy. “In the 24-hour news cycle that we have, there is a lot of fatigue about Pakistan. Beyond the headlines, there are percolations across the country. That should be talked about. I think Pakistan's greatest assets are its women,” she added in an impassioned plea to the audience.

Obaid-Chinoy elaborated that when she first found Bachal two years ago, she was teaching 1,200 girls in three shifts in three rooms. Now Bachal is building a three-story school that can serve thousands of children in three shifts, “a shining example in a slum that is ridden with guns, with violence,” said the filmmaker, “and all the gangsters in that area send their children to her school.”

Bachal was only 16 when she built her first school in her home, Karachi. “Education is the most powerful thing which we can use to change the world. Education is the most powerful weapon we can use against intolerance and extremism,” she said. Now she is just 25 years old and seeing her dream come true. “There is nothing impossible,” she said. “If you can dream it, you can do it.”

Pressed to explain how her father resisted her efforts to educate herself, Bachal said, “It was not my father’s fault. He was following tradition.” When her mother defied him and said she would use her own money to send her daughter to school, Bachal said in a torrent of words that her father broke her mother’s arm, “and now he believes like my mother…now he wants to mobilize other parents to send their daughters to school.”

The night was capped off by newly named Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Catherine Russell, who spoke with Tina Brown on the challenges facing her post and the three priorities they’ve identified: strategizing against gender-based violence (including women in conflict zones); women economic empowerment and supporting women entrepreneurs; and concentrating on adolescent girls. “We’re trying to hone in on a certain age group of girls where things can go awry and focus on children marriage and girls’ education,” she said. “We want to keep girls in school; it’s a priority for this administration, the president, and the first lady.” In an evening with many inspirational moments, this was one to remember.

More such fascinating conversations will be heard at the fifth-annual Women in the World summit, April 3-5 in New York.

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