At the inaugural Bronislaw Geremek Lecture last night, Dr. Madeleine Albright give those of us in attendance some keen insights into the complexity of foreign policy decision-making.

The former Secretary of State and UN Ambassador delivered a warm tribute to the lecture’s namesake, the Polish scholar and statesman who helped lead his country from Soviet tyranny to freedom to full membership in the Western community.  She passionately argued for democracy and the transatlantic relationship.  But on those matters, she was preaching to the choir at an Atlantic Council gathering.

What struck me, though, was her humility on three of the most difficult issues facing the West right now: the ongoing chaos in Iran, the relationship with Russia, and the future role of NATO.  For all of those, she forthrightly admitted that she didn’t have the answers.  Indeed, she repeatedly uttered three words seldom heard in Washington:  “I don’t know.”

Albright is not a woman lacking in confidence.  One doesn’t get to where she has, let alone as a woman coming up when she did, by being a wallflower.   Certainly, too, her expertise on these topics is unquestioned.  The international relations school at the University of Denver is named after her father, she has her PhD in international relations from Columbia, and she has spent decades studying, writing about, and making public policy decisions on these issues.

Regardless, they are enormously complicated and there are simply too many variables to make definitive policy prescriptions, let alone predict the outcomes, from outside.  She’s being rather too modest saying she now knows only “what she reads in the newspapers” — she’s far too active in the foreign relations community for that to be true — but she’s right that none of us have all the facts.

Albright obviously sides with those fighting for a freer society in Iran.  But she understands that President Obama is in a horribly complicated situation given the uncertainly in Teheran.  Does his caution signal that he’s effectively siding with the regime, as some have argued?  Or would a more vocal show of support for the opposition actually taint them, given the way the United States is viewed by many?  The stakes of a faulty move are high.

Similarly, the woman whose family was forced to flee Prague when she was a small child naturally sympathizes with Eastern Europe.  But balancing Russia’s legitimate interests while finding a way to persuade that great power to come into greater harmony with the international community is a challenge that we’ve been working on since the end of the Cold War nearly two decades ago.  There are no bumper sticker solutions for that one, or she would have implemented them in the 1990s.

NATO is the easiest of the three listed problems but only by comparison.  The Alliance has a strong place in the hearts of North Americans and Europeans alike because of its role in bringing permanent peace within Western Europe.  But gaining consensus among 28 sovereign, culturally diverse states on something as complicated as the use of military power isn’t easy, let alone in the absence of a unifying threat. 

The nature of punditry is such that it does not lend itself to saying “I don’t know” very often.  It’s both interesting and useful to apply past experience to helping process information as it’s coming in.  But the analysis of day-to-day events on the fly is prelimary and speculative and both the writer and his audience should bear that in mind.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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