Review by Gilbert Donahue
Fascism: A Warning. Madeleine Albright with Bill Woodward, Harper Collins, 2018, 288 pages including index, $27.99.
Former Ambassador to the United Nations, Secretary of State, and professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Madeleine Albright has written a very readable, timely book on a subject that is both distant and current. Secretary Albright draws on her extensive knowledge of 20th century history and political events, many of which involved her and her family personally, to review the forces that brought several autocratic leaders into power.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” Some people assume that fascism implies a right-wing government. However, Secretary Albright eliminates right-wing or left-wing ideology as being a requirement; both systems can foster governments with similar characteristics.
Among the factors and forces she pinpoints as often leading to the rise of fascism are economic hardship (e.g., war, economic depression) and political turmoil/social collapse. Albright reviews the aftermath of World War I and its impact on Germany and Italy, in particular. She charts the rise to power of Benito Mussolini in Italy, and his influence on the parallel and eerily similar rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany, who copied many of Mussolini’s symbols. She comments on the consequences during World War II of the personality conflicts between Hitler and Mussolini, on the one hand, and Hitler and Spain’s Francisco Franco, on the other. Other European leaders of the time who took a fascist approach to government and society were Antonio Salazar of Portugal and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union.
Albright then compares and contrasts the fascist leaders of the past with modern day fascism or leaders inclined toward it: Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, among other recent and current leaders. The “warning” in the title has to do with detecting signs within a country that policies are failing and may bring about a draconian leader to deal with them in a heavy-handed way. Most such leaders seek, and if successful, obtain popular support under the guise of nationalism, anti-foreignism, and nativism. Their collective approach toward political enemies is ruthlessness. They are anti- democrats and seek to nip all opposition in the bud. This describes Albright’s definition of fascism, which does not in her view depend on a particular ideology, i.e., it does not have to be either right-wing or left-wing, only pro-nationalist to an extreme. Thus, she describes both Stalin and North Korea’s leaders as fascist in their power seeking and governing. China’s Xi Jinping would also fit into this category.
What makes this book relevant to international relations, rather than mere political science, is the impact that fascist regimes have historically had on their neighbors. These regimes have a strong track record of fomenting war, invading neighbors, giving rise to refugees fleeing totalitarianism, and threats of an economic or social nature. Although “populist,” fascist governments often favor some groups over others. In many respects they fly in the face of the key principles of the international system we have erected since World War II in an effort to head off conflict. Therefore, one could argue that fascism is inherently opposed to the free and open international system we have historically fostered. And certainly, it is opposed to democracy.
The final section of Albright’s book deals with President Donald Trump, how he won the election of 2016, and the views and policies he espouses. She argues that many of the president’s policies fit her definition of fascism, or proto-fascism. Albright argues that fascists and proto-fascists need to be challenged and, if possible, headed off or deterred. The book’s message is that citizens of countries with democratic constitutions need to be strenuous in their efforts to support and retain all rights and freedoms in the face of looming authoritarianism.
Albright notes, “There are two kinds of Fascists: those who give orders and those who take them. A popular base gives Fascism the legs it needs to march, the lungs it uses to proclaim, and the muscle it relies on to menace—but that’s Fascism from the neck down. To create tyranny out of the fears and hopes of average people, money is required, and so too, ambition and twisted ideas. It is the combination that kills. (p. 229)” This is a veiled reference to aspects of our political system which provide little transparency of major donors, their ideologies and agendas.
The challenge to the society that desires to head off fascism is to avoid allowing economic, social and political issues go unresolved to the point that the only apparent solution requires an authoritarian approach. In the United States, growing economic disparities between the rich and the poor, declining social interaction among different social classes, and political and economic policies that overtly favor certain oligarchical/oligopolistic circles all create conditions that could lead to fascism. Albright argues democracy requires that the political interests of all social groups be factored into national policy.
Albright does an excellent job with the historical review and analysis of current regimes that could be considered fascist. However, her close association with Presidential Candidate Hilary Clinton, and Albright’s well-known Democratic Party views, cause the last part of the book to depart from a cool and studied clinical analysis. Her criticism of President Trump is, in fact, a political diatribe, albeit one for which she has provided a historical and analytical basis.
Readers with a Democratic leaning will doubtless agree with much of Albright’s arguments. Republicans, on the other hand, may too readily dismiss her warnings about the need to guard our democratic institutions. Internationally, Albright’s book may also garner criticism.
Foreign reviewers recalled Albright’s bold assertions of American primacy while serving as Secretary of State, for example, her contention that the U.S. is the only “indispensable nation.” An Indian reviewer criticized “her omission of Israel as the world’s most brutal militarist, colonial, racist and fascist occupation force, propped up by the US. Perhaps, that is the price indispensable US’s movers and shakers have to pay” (Shastri Ramachandaran in The Hindu Businessline).
Readers interested in foreign affairs and governmental systems will find much of interest, and ideas and concerns to ponder, in Secretary Albright’s book.
Gilbert Donahue, FSO retired
June 27, 2018