Memo To The President Elect

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2008, 12:00am

Memo To The President Elect

By Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward

Harper HK$216

It is presidential election year in the US, which means voters and hopefuls are focusing on domestic issues rather than international ones. Debates about universal health care and the faltering economy fill the news programmes, and even the albatross of Iraq has temporarily become little more than a sideshow.

This book by Madeleine Albright, who served as Bill Clinton's secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, is a cheery reminder that when the next president opens the White House for business, international politics will loom just as large - or even larger - than domestic issues.

Memo To The President Elect, written in a direct and easy-to-read style, is couched as piece of advice to the next president. Like all those American voters clamouring for 'change', Albright feels America has lost its way in the world under the Bush administration. Allies and other powers have misunderstood America's motives and, with some justification, baulked at many of its recent actions, says Albright. Her book sets out strategies for the new president to set this right.

Much of what is here is sensible, centrist Democratic fare: more and better diplomacy should be used to solve problems, more critical thinking should be applied before setting policy, and so on.

What makes this book stand out from the all the others are its even-tempered approach - it shows no anger at the current administration - and the intricate hands-on detail that arises from Albright's years of governmental service.

Albright sets out the problems facing America early on. These, she writes, are mainly: terror and the rise of anti-Americanism in the Arab and Muslim world; the erosion of international consensus on nuclear proliferation; growing doubts about the value of democracy; and the increasing backlash against globalisation owing to the widening split between rich and poor.

She also writes a great deal about America's loss of standing with its allies, especially in Europe. The rest of the book is her advice on how to deal with these problems. As befits a former secretary of state, this generally boils down to diplomacy, diplomacy and more diplomacy.

The best parts of the book are those that deal with the workings of the US government, such as the relationships governing the 'security pyramid' of the State Department, the National Security Council and the Defense Department. This is important: it was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's ability to override Secretary of State Colin Powell that helped turn the Iraq war into a debacle. (Powell always knew the need for an exit strategy.)

Albright doesn't focus on Iraq directly, but her historical analysis of how the three departments should work together is a valid contribution to the war's continuing political post-mortem examination. The secretary of state should deal with the big idea, the NSC should deal with the day-by-day implementation and the secretary of defence should 'concentrate on running his own department' and see that the president receives good military advice, she says.

Most other salient topics of the US political scene are covered. For instance, today's presidential debates are awash with the idea of 'changing' Washington and the established way of doing things. That's not going to happen, says Albright, because the system is more entrenched than any one person, president or not.

Her advice to the next president is to learn to work the system rather than confront it. One of the benefits of Albright's historical approach is that it shows how the same themes of government come up again and again.

Much of Albright's 'memo' is simply good old-fashioned pragmatism, but the many anecdotes give it a peppery, almost erudite, quality. The fact that, as an adviser to the current Clinton campaign, she may soon be delivering (such memos are never e-mailed, she informs us) a similar memo to Hillary Clinton adds to the book's appeal.