Friendly Advice for New Secretary of State

Dear Ms. Albright:

Hearty congratulations on your nomination as secretary of state. You will be in a better position than any other woman in modern times, except Margaret Thatcher, to exercise real power for the betterment of all humankind. I trust you will use it wisely.

Through the handful of interactions we've had in the Women's Foreign Policy Group here in Washington, I've been impressed by the degree to which you (unlike Lady Thatcher or a number of other high-placed women) went out of your way to mentor and foster the careers of other women in your field.

Foreign affairs are people affairs

I hope you will continue that tradition, and also keep in mind an important insight that has often been thought of as female: namely, that "foreign" affairs are, today more than ever before, "people" affairs. This is as true of questions of war- and peacemaking, proliferation, and international trade as it is of topics such as the environment or human rights.

Take trade. I don't know how much time you've had to do holiday shopping. But I was struck when I went to the mall last weekend to see the proportion of goods of all varieties that are well-designed, dirt-cheap - and "Made in China."

Under what conditions are these goods made? I see another side of the question when I'm volunteering at Martha's Table, a social-service center where I'm helping a group of moms on welfare develop their expertise in craft work. These women are hoping to use their skills to generate living incomes for themselves by starting small businesses or forming co-ops.

But how can such ventures ever bring in sufficient income while these mothers are competing with the pennies-per-hour that the crafts workers in China get? Our group at Martha's Table could provide an excellent breakdown of how long it takes to sew a neatly-finished sock doll or crochet a set of coasters in holiday colors. They know, and I know, that the prices found on such items in the mall mean they must have been produced under near-slave conditions.

Madame Secretary-to-Be, this is not a level playing field. We were told by outgoing Secretary of State Warren Christopher that giving China "Most Favored Nation" access to our markets was a way to strengthen civil society and the painfully slow march to democracy in China.

But it has not done that. Instead, it has kept Chinese workers earning derisory amounts for work done inside and outside the Chinese gulag - and has not increased one iota their ability to organize freely in campaigns to protect their rights. Since 1994, it has allowed the regime to launch fierce new crackdowns on dissidents and reformers. And don't underestimate the effect it has had in blocking the efforts of small-scale American producers to produce many different types of goods sustainably at home.

Real-life issues, here and abroad

Ms. Albright, if you can see issues like these as involving the lives of real people, here and abroad, then you will probably do better at resolving them than an earlier generation of statesmen who saw them as involving only large-scale organizations and abstract geopolitical theories.

War and peace issues, too, have increasingly moved off the detached battlefields of earlier days and into the lives of ordinary civilians - whether in Rwanda, Bosnia, Zaire, the West Bank, or Belgrade. An understanding of common human passions, and of basic human needs for dignity and security, will be of as much use to you in the years ahead as all the traditional theories of balance of power, deterrence, and crisis diplomacy.

Good luck. It's a complex and exciting world you'll be helping the president lead. Let's see your gift for pithy self-expression put to the service of pursuing real, people-based wisdom.

Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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