America’s imperial farewell to Madeleine Albright

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When Warren Christopher, Bill Clinton’s first US secretary of state, passed away, someone made the cruel joke: “How can you tell?” Christopher was known for being unexcitable. The same quip would not work on Madeleine Albright, Clinton’s second secretary of state, who never failed to be memorable — all five feet of her. I had the privilege of attending Albright’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday. Other than royal weddings, which have never been my cup of tea, no-one does such pageantry quite like the Americans.

Sometimes I recoil from the undertones of American self-congratulation. Though I was not invited to George HW Bush’s funeral, or John McCain’s, I watched both on TV with one ear blocked. There was too much “only in America” sentiment for my liking, which for those two figures was certainly overstated. In Albright’s case, however, the Americanness of her tale is irrepressible. As almost every speaker observed, including Joe Biden, and both Bill and Hillary Clinton, Albright arrived in New York as a refugee on the SS America and left this life having become America’s first female secretary of state. That, alone, would fill a eulogy.

But as Albright’s very moving farewell progressed, it occurred to me that her story is almost mainstream for America’s senior diplomatic jobs. The German-born Henry Kissinger was the first immigrant to become a US secretary of state in 1973. He welcomed Albright to the fraternity in 1997. (“It’s not a fraternity any more,” she replied.) Then came Colin Powell, who was raised in the Bronx by Jamaican parents who had recently arrived in the US. Albright gave a eulogy at Powell’s funeral in the same venue last year.

As it happens, I was supposed to be meeting Albright some time in April for the biography I’m researching of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser. Brzezinski was known universally as Zbig (people had trouble with pronouncing both his names). Albright had already been generous with her time to talk about her Polish-born mentor, who plucked her from relative obscurity as a Capitol Hill staffer to join his team in 1977. Albright was warned that “Zbig” would make her feel “Zmall”. That obviously never happened. But they shared a characteristic that is common among recent arrivals — Powell had it too: impatience with bourgeois self-obsession.

This quality is perhaps best expressed in their reaction to 1968, which was the height of counterculture movement on US campuses, and the year that Soviet forces marched into Albright’s native Czechoslovakia. As the “Prague spring” was literally being crushed by tanks, American students were railing against oppression at US universities, including Columbia, where Zbig taught and where Albright did her PhD. Neither of the foreign-born figures had much sympathy with the protesters, who Brzezinski saw as suburban brats with no grasp of the meaning of the word freedom.

At one celebrated encounter, which Albright relished retelling, Brzezinski was forced outside his faculty building to engage with a sea of radicals. They had managed to find a live pig on which they had daubed “Zbig” and were yelling “A pig, a pig for Professor Zbig”. Brzezinksi told them he had a few minutes to take questions “then I have to go back to my office to plan some more genocide”. According to Albright, members of the dean’s office, who were nowhere to be seen, failed to call the police. Instead, a local animal protection group complained about the protesters’ mistreatment of livestock. How could the students react against that?

I mention this because there is something quintessentially American about foreign-accented professors telling their trust-fund students they have no idea how privileged they are. It is worth pointing out that I know a number of foreign-born Ivy League professors who are equally impatient with today’s campus spirit, which appears suffused with the idea that free speech is harmful and even a facet of privilege. Perhaps it takes a foreigner to argue America’s case to the world as well as teaching the world to America.

Let us hope there are more refugees in the state department’s pipeline. Rana, I am sure you agree that immigration is part of America’s DNA. My question to you is do we need more immigrants or fewer?

  • My column this week looks at the return of the 20th century’s nuclear shadow. “Without most people yet being aware of it, we are entering the most dangerous period since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis,” I write.

  • My colleague, Jemima Kelly, wrote a deliciously caustic takedown of cryptocurrency proselytisers, whom she lampoons as Ponzi schemers: “Aside from the environmental harm, and the billions lost in outright scams, it is impossible to count the number of people who have been given false hope,” she writes.

  • Also in the FT, my colleague Demetri Sevastopulo has an instructive account of the limits of US diplomacy in the Asia Pacific — all guns and no butter. Let us hope the forthcoming Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) starts to balance that out.

  • Finally, I am not much of a podcast listener — perhaps I don’t go to the gym enough. But this five-part series on Elon Musk’s “extreme capitalism” by Jill Lepore of Harvard and the New Yorker had me gripped for two and a half hours. It was originally produced for BBC radio. I urge you to listen to it.

Join us on May 4 for our subscriber only, Elon Musk Twitter Takeover Webinar. Register here for our free virtual briefing on the consequences of the world’s richest man acquiring the social media platform he describes as the “bedrock of a functioning democracy”.

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, what a softball, especially for a child of immigrants! As I wrote nearly a decade ago, the stats show that we should let in as many legal immigrants as possible. Immigrants punch above their weight in growth creation. They are more than twice as likely to start businesses as their native-born counterparts. They are responsible for over a quarter of all new business formation — and new businesses have been the only source of net job creation in this country for the past 30 years. They have founded a disproportionate number of export businesses, which tend to create more and higher-paying jobs, and they often locate their firms in economically beleaguered areas, where new jobs are needed the most.

That said, there’s a big problem with the type of immigration we’ve been getting more of in recent years in the US. Globalisation has allowed companies to move investment, profits, and jobs to where it is cheapest for them to do so. Immigration at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum has filled cheap labour gaps in many rich countries. But higher-end immigration has been declining as a proportion of overall immigration; in 2019, for example, 33 per cent of immigrants to the US had a college degree, as opposed to 48 per cent of those coming between 2014 and 2019, according to the Migration Policy Institute (from 2020 onwards, the pandemic threw a spammer in migration trends everywhere).

This was partly due to skilled immigrants being turned off by the xenophobic rhetoric of former president Donald Trump and his administration. But this is also about what Fareed Zakaria has dubbed “the rise of the rest”. As the fortunes of emerging markets have improved, there is simply more global competition for what economists call “human capital”. For all Trump’s rhetoric, there was hardly any need to “build a wall” between the US and Mexico, for example. The flow of migrants from Mexico to the US has been decreasing since the mid-2000s.

Increased border patrols and tougher US laws have clearly played a part, but a more important reason is that the economic calculus of migration has changed. The 2008 financial crisis and subsequent recession hurt prospects in the US. Meanwhile, a strong Mexican economy and better educational and job opportunities in Mexico led many Mexican immigrants (who make up 25 per cent of the foreign-born population of the US) to return.

Creating a clearer and easier path to legal immigration would put an end to immigrants being used to keep wages down. Immigration reform is something that both labour and many big businesses support, as it helps ensure a supply of needed workers.

Research shows that making legal immigration easier would shore up wages, but is unlikely to result in the offshoring of jobs. Most sectors in which those migrants work (hospitality, construction, tourism, and agriculture) simply aren’t offshorable. Meanwhile, immigration reform would bolster public finances, increasing Social Security revenue by $300bn over ten years. And the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress estimates that legalising the 11mn undocumented workers living in the US would add $1.7tn to the economy over ten years. What’s not to like?

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And now a word from our Swampians . . .

In response to ‘The cognitive dissonance of corporate life’:

“My experience, across numerous service providers, is just the opposite of what is being reported about the productivity and other benefits of work from home . . . it is consistent across the investment banks, accounting firms, law firms, private equity firms, entrepreneurs and other entities with which I work on a regular basis. All of them have said that productivity has declined and that far too many things ‘fall through the cracks’. In addition, now that people are going back to the office, all of them are excited to be back and hated being away from their teams and other colleagues. I would add one thought to this: all of these people really like to work. They are not whining about work-life balance or any of the other things that so many in the workforce bemoan currently. Perhaps therein lies at least some of the difference in view about WFH versus the office.” — Henry D Wolfe, Chicago, Illinois

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