Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Former Secretary Of State On 2 Decades Of U.S.-Putin Summits


And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Geneva, site of so much diplomacy between the U.S. and Russia over the decades, including right here. This is the United Nations HQ in Geneva. The fountains have just come on around us, looking down a huge line of all the flags of all the member states. This is where in 1955, Eisenhower and Khrushchev sat down and were trying to sort out tensions after Stalin died.



ED HERLIHY: ...What was to be known as the Geneva spirit. Here, President Eisenhower electrified the world with his dramatic proposal of the open sky inspection of military installations as a barrier to unexpected attack.

KELLY: Well, this week, of course, the city hosts the current Russian and American leaders. All the history made us hungry for the long view. And so we've called Madeleine Albright, secretary of state from 1997 to 2001, who has some history of her own negotiating with the Kremlin.

Secretary Albright, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Delighted to be with you. Thank you.

KELLY: Set the stage for us a little bit. And I'm thinking of the choice of Geneva. I mentioned that 1955 summit. Reagan was here with Gorbachev; that was 1985. Is there a lesson from those summits of yore that the current presidents, Russian and American, would do well to bear in mind?


ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that they are a way of two leaders of countries to sit together, get to know each other and then try to figure out how whatever they have decided can be carried out. So it's just one of the steps in a diplomatic process.

KELLY: You're saying just that moment of getting two leaders in a room, that progress can be made that can't be made by all the groundwork in the world laid by aides in advance or following up afterward?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think it's one of the steps. I do think one has to keep in mind - be it the Soviet Union or Russia - there is a similar desire by the Russians to have a meeting where their importance is viewed, where they are on the world stage. And the United States believes in having discussions. And so I do think they're a useful tool, but only one of the tools that is needed to really make diplomacy work.

KELLY: Well, let's talk about Putin. You met him for the first time in 2000 at the Kremlin, is that right?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I actually met him earlier, when he was prime minister in 1999, and he was trying very hard to ingratiate himself with President Clinton.

KELLY: And what was your first impression?

ALBRIGHT: Well, my first impression was that he was kind of trying to figure out who he was. But my impression in the second two meetings were that he very much liked the background of being in the Kremlin with all its history, that he was smart, that he was prepared and that he had a view about how things were going to go. One really kind of crazy thing was that at the summer summit, they always said, well, summits, they like to have some kind of entertainment. And so what happened that night, President Putin was trying to be modern and please President Clinton, so they decided to have a jazz concert. President Clinton absolutely could never sit still when there was music, and Putin didn't move a nerve. You couldn't see him move at all. He was totally rigid through all of this. So he doesn't have the kind of personality of having any kind of sense of how that would work.

KELLY: (Laughter) I'm trying to imagine Vladimir Putin feeling moved by the beat of jazz and breaking out some moves. I mean, you're talking about Bill Clinton, who's, of course, the American president you were speaking on behalf of when you were negotiating with Putin as the American secretary of state. It's - you know, that was Putin's first American president. Joe Biden is his fifth. Do you think any American president has successfully managed him?

ALBRIGHT: Well, he is not easy to manage. I think he is somebody that is very competent in his capabilities generally. And he believes that he is the sole reason in many ways that Russia now is on the world stage and that he wants to make sure that Russia is always taken into consideration. But Russia is alone. And I think, in contrast, when the American president has gone in, we have partners. And it's never been clearer than it will be this time because President Biden has just come from some remarkable meetings - the G7, NATO and the EU. And we have allies, and Putin is alone.

KELLY: And I mentioned that we - we're turning to you for the long view. I know you have studied this relationship - U.S.-Russia - for a long time. I'm curious. I keep hearing this described as a particularly low moment in the relationship. Was there ever a high moment? (Laughter) Was there ever a high point?

ALBRIGHT: With Putin?

KELLY: Yeah.

ALBRIGHT: I don't think so, frankly. I think that there might have been some hope when he came on, but I think that it was very clear that he had his agenda. And I don't really remember a high moment with Putin.

KELLY: Madeleine Albright - she was secretary of state in Bill Clinton's administration.

Secretary Albright, this was a pleasure. Thanks for taking the time.

ALBRIGHT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE JAMS' "WE'VE ONLY STARTED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.